Forty Years of Genre Burnout, Part II (See Part I here.)
By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
It’s thought of as a brief, intense period of Top 40 and rock radio history. It’s usually abbreviated as “hair metal.” And it’s always characterized as one of those extreme moments that, coupled with an overabundance of dance or rap music, represented CHR going off the rails in 1989-90.
In reality, the era was more like eight years — beginning with Def Leppard’s “Pyromania” album, ending with the arrival of grunge. (Or, as Mickey Rourke puts it in The Wrestler as he and Marisa Tomei fall in love to Ratt’s “Round and Round,” until “Kurt Cobain ruined everything.”) Like Disco, a tag that ended up on multiple genres that just happened to be danceable, “hair” was lots of different things. With a few exceptions — Quiet Riot; “Bang Your Head (Metal Health)”; Motley Crue, “Dr. Feelgood” — very little of what made it through was really even metal.
The hair-band era includes the end of the “kickass” corporate rock of the early ‘80s. It includes the Desmond Child-penned late-‘80s hits that brought together Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and Joan Jett, and his power ballads that went beyond rock’s walls (only artist image separates “Wanted, Dead or Alive” from Cher’s “Just Like Jesse James”). The hair-band era includes a few moments of actual metal menace, like “Welcome to the Jungle,” but even Guns N’ Roses had its ‘70s glam-rock element.
In fact, the common denominator (at least for the uptempo half of the genre) was mostly ‘70s glam. There was wardrobe courtesy of the New York Dolls. There was macho posturing handed down from Kiss. But the most influential band of the era might have been The Sweet. Def Leppard and Poison would both do albums of power pop/glam covers, and Poison’s features a remake of “Little Willy.” Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine” and the less-known “Edge of a Broken Heart” basically channel the bellowed hook of “Fox on the Run.”
Much of the course of late-‘80s rock was steered by Top 40. Rock radio was still grappling with Classic Rock. In that era of “Adult Rock,” those currents it still played were as likely to be rock chart smashes such as “The Valley Road” by Bruce Hornsby or “American Dream” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Because CHR was doing the curation, late ‘80s/early ‘90s rock became “melodic hit rock for women” — whether by Whitesnake, Nelson, Kiss, or Warrant — because CHR PDs were curating it. And in any format where the tastes of both men and women are researched now, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and even “Sweet Child o’ Mine” will often do better with women.
And because late-‘80s rock became melodic rock for women, there are two very different versions of hair metal that test very differently now. The handful of crossovers that endure — “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me” — are among the best-testing, most enduring songs of the era. Swap in anything from the second tier, or anything that is actually metal, and the results are very different.
The hair-metal era is remembered now as yet another Top 40 mistake — another example of the overindulgence in extremes that helped tank the format in the early ‘90s. You could argue instead, however, that it’s the thing that gave Top 40 its rock/rhythm balance back. After a few years when rhythmic pop had all the excitement, Alice Cooper’s “Poison” could at least stand up to Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison” at CHR. Hair-metal pop, at the very least, ended the “(I Just) Died In Your Arms”/”Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” lethargy of the late ‘80s.
As with most other examples of genre burnout, what helped sap any excitement from late ‘80s/early ‘90s rock was an overabundance of power ballads that had less to do with glam or metal and more to do with REO Speedwagon. But the real problem for top 40 might have been when hair metal ran its course and left top 40 without much usable rock. However you might feel about grunge, there wasn’t much there that CHR could deal with for the first few years until an occasional “Plush” or “Better Man” started to emerge.
Next installment: Teen Pop and the Boltonization of the early ‘90s.