Waiting in Starwood’s will-call line last week to pick up my Cinderella/Poison tickets, I overheard a woman talking to a friend a few queues over, and the conversation went something like this:
Woman: Who’s the opening band tonight?
Friend: Some band called Endeverafter.
Woman: Oh, I never heard of them. What’s their song?
Friend: I don’t know.
Woman: I guess I’m just stuck in the ’80s (laughs). I don’t even know what’s new anymore. Ever since that grunge came, I just stopped paying attention.
First, perhaps it’s not surprising that someone attending a Poison concert—without irony—isn’t an avid seeker of new music. But try replacing Endeverafter with AFI in the above conversation, subbing emo for grunge and ’80s with ’90s, and you can bet your razor-slit jeans that similar conversations are happening between late twentysomethings everywhere these days. “I still don’t get emo,” my thirtysomething sister admitted recently. “Well,” I began, “it’s emotional hardcore.”
“I read Wikipedia,” she snapped.
The truth was, she didn’t want to get it, ’cause she didn’t care—“I don’t get it” was just shorthand for “I feel out of touch.”
As I surveyed the grizzled survivors of the ’80s and their spawn littering Starwood that night, I realized that, aside from the inevitable march of time, not much had changed for these people, and that seemed just fine with them. Dudes flung wispy manes of fried hair that probably hadn’t seen conditioner since their senior photos, and wore faded, bunched-up denim stuffed into imitation-leather boots. The ladies were squeezed into tanks and minis that weren’t just modern-day reinterpretations of ’80s looks—these looked to be the same exact outfits they’d worn the first time around. Countless other women were carbon copies of the corrupted blonde in Poison’s “Fallen Angel” video, plus 20 years and as many pounds, with ill-placed tats and a blatant disregard for sunscreen. One guy in an oversized NASCAR tank top air-guitared with a cig hanging out of his mouth while pre-show Tesla played on the overhead speakers.
But it’s easy to poke fun at hair-metal fans. I used to be one of them, and I’ve got the lace-up skull-and-cross-bones pants to prove it. But it’s more difficult examining why bands like Poison or Cinderella are still relevant to the thousands of people willing to shell out 8 bucks for beers and hitch up their G-strings one last time. Both groups are hardly a musical reference point for any of today’s bands—if indeed they ever were—but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two from them.
One: “What’s their song?” asked the woman to her friend, looking for the only reference point available to place this new band she thought she was supposed to like in context with the bands she already knew. For these folks, radio or other mainstream media outlets are the gatekeepers for the latest hits, and if they don’t hear it through those channels, they just don’t hear it. Whether you’re Poison or Art Brut, if you don’t have some highly visible hallmark of your place in musical history that can be ID’d in a nanosecond—i.e., a hit—most people just don’t care.
Two: what’s my age, again? The bands you hear in your formative years are usually your favorite bands for life. As admittedly outdated in her musical tastes as in her acid-washed jeans, the lady I overheard is surely representative of a large percentage of the population—meaning she, like most people, stopped seeking out new music long ago. This starts to happen in your 20s, with rites of passage like graduation, real jobs, marriage and mortgages. This is why you undoubtedly know people who still listen to Pearl Jam’s Ten like nothing better ever came along or ever will. Unless you’re a bold forward-moving creature—the sort unlikely to romanticize freshman year’s drunken binges against the backdrop of Blink 182—you and your music collection will always bear the mark of nostalgia. I was hanging out with one of my oldest and most musically adventurous friends recently, playing her a new band I was sure she’d love, given her past love affair with punk rock. Right as I was about to play it, she cut me off to turn up Bush’s “Glycerine” on the radio—she and her boyfriend had fallen in love to it. New musical discovery almost never trumps nostalgia.
Three, and this one’s for the bands: stay grateful. I hear guitarist CC DeVille only does meet-and-greets for his fan club and absolutely no one else. He knows who’s loyal to him and therefore to whom he should be loyal back. Brett Michaels, meanwhile, didn’t feel like getting off the tour bus for WTVF-Channel 5 that night, but was more than happy to chat with fans before the show. When Poison covered Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” then vamped the blues with a harmonica solo, the crowd went nuts. When DeVille delivered soulless white boy riffage with no dynamics for five straight minutes, and Rikki Rocket banged out a drum solo that Neil Peart was already doing when he was 14, the crowd roared. Why? Because between every song, the band bowed at the altar of their fans, thanking them profusely for giving Poison 20 years of hits. In turn, the crowd permitted these musical missteps, all in the name of the at-all-costs-don’t-stop-the-party vibe.
Four (also for the bands): transport your fans to somewhere—anywhere—but their real lives. Reality still bites. People’s lives suck. They’ve got shit jobs and unfulfilled dreams. Bills to pay and bad relationships. Don’t remind them of it—unless it’s to help them transcend it. Give them a good time. (Local shoe-gazing indie bands, take heed.) Granted, it’s hard to imagine a local band at Exit/In booming, “How’s everybody doin’ tonight, NASHVILLE!” to 200 people without eliciting groans. But meet us in the middle. Put on a show, for crying out loud. We don’t need pyro, but give us some attitude and some rockin’.
Five: gimme something to believe in. Cinderella struggled and sweated through a set of songs I remembered seeming much better during fast-skate at the rink, and with Tom Keifer’s voice shot halfway through the set, songs like “Shake Me” and “Nobody’s Fool” just didn’t have the punch. But when Poison took the stage all tanned, beefy and ready to party with their trashy riffs, it all came rushin’ back. They darted around effortlessly, strutting and smiling with gleaming white teeth. To their fans, nothing was incongruous when the video screen shifted from a montage of naked girls massaging their own boobs during “I Want Action,” to the sentimental shots of war veterans during the cornball ballad “Somethin’ to Believe In.” The latter—which ran through virtually every tired cliché about war, death, love and faith—may as well have been Dylan doing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” given the crowd’s reaction. They swayed back and forth with arms—and lighters—outstretched. I wanted to laugh, but toward the end, I was like, man, people really do need something to believe in. Because every rose does have its thorn.