You know, this kind of thing isn't supposed to happen to me. I pride myself on being at the forefront of pop-culture. Now, I'll be the first to tell you that there are better things to pride oneself on -- curing diseases, pulling people out of burning buildings, and the categorization and cross-breeding of varieties of lettuce, to name just a few. However, as I like to say, I'm the lifeguard at the shallow end of the pool - and not the pathetic E!/Lohan/Brangelina universe but the slightly more elitist AltNation/Page/Mosherty metaverse.
(Note: When you live in this world, you get to trip over cool facts like if you can't remember how to spell Pete Doherty's last name, all you have to do is type "drug addled rock star 2006" into Google).
So I hate when I have to slap my forehead and declare that I didn't get the joke. But I'm a big man, not a tall man, but a big man, and I'm willing to pony up to my blunders.
I completely get metal now.
I still don't like it, but I get it.
And I owe it all to Brendon Small and the Cartoon Network. Or, more specifically, Nathan Explosion, Skwisgaar Skwigelf, Toki Wartooth, William Murderface, and Pickles -- the lineup of the totally metal and way awesome band Dëthkløk as featured on Adult Swim's Metalocalypse.
Flash back to the '80s and the dawn on modern metal (I'll give you the '70s, sure, but that was metal like Little Richard is rock). Unlike a lot of my musical contemporaries, I could not get into any variety of metal -- which, in my defense, at the time consisted of bad death metal (WASP), bad leftover metal (Judas Priest), bad hair metal (pick one), and Ozzy. I was too busy delving into the much cooler college radio sound, which was in no way self-important or navel-gazing.
OK. Yes. Yes it was unabashedly self-important and navel-gazing, but so was metal. Even the hair-metal acts at the time took themselves a little too seriously. C.C. Deville made a career out of playing four chords loudly, Paul Westerberg made a career out of playing four chords loudly, both were rarely sober, both would claim it was all a bad joke, but only one would claim that what they were doing was actually for the kids -- while wearing lipstick.
Years and years later, long after uttering my first "I just don't get popular music today," I read Klosterman's Fargo Rock City, easily the best book ever written about hair metal, and developed an appreciation for how ironic metal was supposed to be. At this point, I had become lost in my own musical quagmire, trying to walk that fine line between angry post-grunge and the more distinct and seemingly truer sounds of bands like Queens of the Stone Age and Probot. So yes, I was traversing metal, a little, but it could all be connected back to Dave Grohl, so it was really still rock. Maybe rawk, but NOT METAL.
Then came perhaps the biggest crack in the modern metal-space continuum. In 2005, Queens performed "Little Sister" on Saturday Night Live and halfway through the song, a cowbell-toting Will Ferrell joined them onstage. This was the first public statement that metal had successfully jumped jumping the shark, and was now completely made up of irony and black T-shirts.
And now the circle, with pentagram inscribed, is complete.
When I saw the premiere of Metalocalypse, the latest project from Brendon Small, creator of the unapologetically cute and somehow irreverently funny Home Movies, I didn't dig it. The premise of the show (and their are TONS of fan sites that get into it far better than I could, including a freakishly detailed Wikipedia entry) centers on the exploits of a metal band roughly 100 times bigger than the Beatles. Premise: great. But I didn't like the execution. It was heavy handed, artistically ugly, and to be painfully honest, I didn't completely get the joke. I knew it was a riff on metal and the music business in general, but it seemed way too over the top.
Again, in my defense, this was during the time when Adult Swim was producing show after show that turned a great premise into a must-be-stoned crapfest -- Assy McGee and Fat Guy Stuck in Internet just to name two off the top of my head.
But between the premiere and now the total irony makeover of metal has gone beyond the 18-24 male demo where Assy and Fat Guy reign supreme. I myself just finished a stint as lead guitarist in a band that was experimenting with faux-metal. This was not my thing, just as Metalocalypse was not my thing, but I'll tell you, it felt really good to just play in a band and work on my chops, not having the weight of the world on my shoulders or trying to figure out a rhyme for "rationalize." I know. Something something "eyes." Lame city.
And now, recently, like within the last few days, I am HOOKED on Metalocalypse, still ashamedly so, and just blown away by the fact that I get the same episodes I zombied through a year ago. The trick is, you have to take absolutely NONE of it seriously. There are no side jokes, only full-frontal jokes. With that perspective, it makes much more sense, and it's brilliant.
I'm not owning the DVDs, yet, but I treat it the same way I treat Hell's Kitchen, as an outrageous base guilty pleasure that I can "get" without necessarily "loving." And it hit me, if classical music is pleasure (and even the metal dudes will agree with that), then rock is guilty pleasure, and metal is base guilty pleasure. Add in a band ranking just above Belgium as the twelfth largest economy on Earth and quotes like "By the power of the holiest of evils, I command you to awaken and make me a sandwich!", and you have high art. Well, the low end of high art.
Oh, and Brendon Small alone is worth sitting through the 11 minutes. Creator of the show, many of the voices, and all of the guitar and vocals. He's quietly Marty Friedman (Eddie Van Halen for the rest of you) who also once did a cartoon about an eight-year-old boy with a single mom and a video camera.
I still won't recommend Metalocalypse to everyone. It's extremely violent, reprehensibly misogynistic, and totally crass, just like the genre it pokes fun at. My wife won't watch it, and it's in fact over the heads (or more directly, "beneath") of a lot of my contemporaries. It's not the best thing on TV, but it is the most outrageous base guilty pleasure in the books right now. And that, my friends, is very, very metal.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
8.1.08 @ 10:18a
My favorite part of Metalocalypse is the music: Small is a Berklee grad, and he really knows what he's doing. The songs are both over-the-top and at the same time actually good enough to stack up to, say, much of Iron Maiden's back catalog. The growled vocals of horrible lyrics (or a coffee jingle, as it may be), the insistent beat, and the pseudoclassical guitar solos are all perfect.
The best satire is when you exaggerate something you love to show the cheesiness underneath, and I think it's clear that Small has a great (guilty pleasure?) affection for metal, even as he's mocking it.
8.1.08 @ 10:39a
I thought the name Brandon Small looked familiar. I guess I'm not surprised.
Also, I did a Google search for "drug addled rock star 2006" and you're 100% right. Seventh link down. That's fantastic.
8.1.08 @ 4:32p
Ha. This is awesome.
However, duuuuude, WASP was so not death metal.
Brian, the record Small put out as 'Dethklok' is one of the best death metal records lately. Yes, he used one of the best drummers ever and a great metal producer, but for a guy who no one had ever heard of in the metal world, he did pretty damn good.
8.4.08 @ 7:38a
I've been listening to a lot of metal recently because of my nephew. Yesterday, I made the boy spit soda by mocking Metallica's Hetfield ordering at McDonald's:
"I'd like a Big Mac-AAWH"
"with just the small fry-AAWH"
"a vanilla shake-AAWH"
"And an apple PIE-AAAWH"
8.12.08 @ 8:58a
May I remind everybody that it started in the sixties, with Iron Butterfly and Led Zeppelin, which band names are the REASON it's called metal. Evolution doesn't just happen in the damned woods.
8.12.08 @ 11:06a
Sandra, I believe the term "heavy metal" was first used to describe music by Steppenwolf's John Kay.