Friday, November 5, 2010

The Observer, November 1992

by Simon Reynolds

In 1992, Heavy Rules. All year, the US alternative scene has been dominated by bands who take their cues from the early Seventies, when groups like groups like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Mountain, etc bastardised and brutalised the blues. And this
nouveau heavy rock carries heavy themes. Soundgarden rage against the impasses of life in "Rusty Cage" and wail about low self-esteem in "Outshined". Pearl Jam mingle melancholy with political awareness: their hit singles "Alive" and "Jeremy" tackle issues like child abuse and child neglect. Members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam collaborated for the one-off project Temple Of The Dog, and broke into the US Top Ten with an album-length elegy to a friend and band mate who died of a drug OD

The most manic-depressive of the lot are Alice In Chains, also in the US Top Ten with their "Dirt" album. The band's name perfectly evokes their sound, whose ponderous riffs and toiling rhythms create an impression of struggle against insuperable obstacles. Listening, you feel like you're sinking into the slough of despond. Typical Alice In Chains songs deal with death ("Them Bones"), heroin ("Godsmack") and despair ("Down In A Hole")

If Black Sabbath are the overwhelming influence on US alternative rock today, it's because the early Nineties feel uncannily like the early Seventies, when Sabbath's doom-laden songs were the soundtrack to getting numbed-out on depressant drug (barbiturates, Quaaludes). So what ails the youth of America? The answer can be found in "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids", by journalist/sociologist Donna Gaines, which has been hailed by Rolling Stone as "the best book on contemporary youth culture"

Gaines' interest was pricked by the teen suicide craze of the late Eighties, and in particular the 1987 case where four teenagers in Bergenfield, New Jersey gassed themselves in a car. Mingling with a segment of US youth universally known as "burn-outs", she won the kids' trust and uncovered the harrowing truth about their lives.

Burn-outs "bomb out" at school, fail to make their grades because they feel they have no future. With the decline of traditional manufacturing employment, the only options for these kids are ignominious service sector jobs, devoid of union protection or prospects of advancement. Persecuted by teachers and cops and despised by their more aspirational peers, burn-outs express their alienation in their scruffy clothes and long-hair. As on real-life teenager in the book says, "no job is worth cutting your hair for". With no incentive to plan for the future, burn-outs get wasted on drink and dope; some graduate to harder drugs like heroin. They listen to the classic metal of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath or its modern successors, the thrash-metal of Metallica and Slayer. Gaines wrote her book in 1990, so she missed the punchline: the mainstreaming of the burn-out aesthetic with the explosive success of Nirvana and the rest of the Seattle grunge bands.

For these kids, the gap between the expectations fostered by the dream factory of Hollywood and MTV, and what they can reasonably expect from life, is huge. The escape routes from this dead end include the the anaesthetic/amnesiac coma of drugs, and the one-way ticket "outa here" of suicide. For some, Metallica's ballad "Fade To Black" is a nihilistic anthem. The more optimistic imagine joining the army, or forming a successful rock band: both ways of seeing the world and learning a trade. And so you get the paradox of a band like Alice In Chains, who dragged themselves out of the mire of their native Seattle, and turned their loser worldview into massive success. Even after Bill Clinton's victory, things look bleak for American youth. Paying off the deficit will depress the US economy for years. So you can expect to hear US bands singing the "born to lose" blues for a long time to come.

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