Rock of Ages is a lighthearted musical about the “fun” eighties, full of big hair, Spandex and throbbing power ballads. The mythical eighties are as far from reality as Happy Days and Grease were to the Eisenhower years, a set of visual and aural cues that have little to do with the actual historical era, but are used as an opportunity for comic/romantic fantasy.
“Eighties nostalgia,” largely influenced by VH1 specials and YouTube clips, comes with a certain amount of baggage. For the purposes of recycling, the worst of the eighties is cheaper to license and easier to resell. All of this ignores with the intelligent semi-popular eighties music of Talking Heads, Sting, R.E.M., Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, the politics of Bruce Springsteen, U2, the Clash or Public Enemy, the ascendance of rap, evolution of punk, or the growth of alternative and world music. As someone who worked as a rock journalist during the era, the current eighties nostalgia is a bit like meeting an old acquaintance who has overdone plastic surgery: Familiar, but misguided. To rephrase Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime, it’s the same as it never was. Same as it never was: familiar, yes, but through a distinctly distorting lens. As Josh Kurp argued in an essay in The Awl a couple of years ago (False Nostalgia: How VH1 Ruined the Taste of a Generation), pop-culture information shows of the nineties and early aughts helped create a commercial vogue for Reagan-era junk, including movie revivals of Clash of the Titans, The A-Team and The Karate Kid. Similarly, the karaoke approach of television shows such as American Idol and Glee repackage deliberately aggressive trash music of the past in a series of cute stylistic gestures: Look at Puck from Glee, with his fauxhawk, as he sneers and holds his guitar around his knees.
If trash is what you want, certainly you couldn’t get much trashier than the Sunset Strip scene of the mid-eighties. After Rob Reiner’s metal satire, This Is Spinal Tap was released in 1984, a metal revival should not have been possible. But Glam metal, a product of hard rock show bands that worked in the clubs along Sunset Strip in the late seventies and early eighties, was marketed as a bad boy backlash against political correctness, New Wave fashion and cleverness, the political sincerity of Bruce Sprinsteen and U2, black dance music, hippie neo-folkie sensitivity, gay rights, punk rawness, feminism, Reagan-era rectitude, you name it. It wasn’t toppled until the next wave of authenticity – grunge – shut it down in the early nineties.
The aesthetic of the mid-eighties Sunset Strip metal scene celebrated in Rock of Ages might best be described as Hollyweird. Compared to the factory-floor look of traditional metal, the style was pretty and clean and colourful, easily adaptable to the emerging MTV visual rock. Lead singers were often strutting blond men (David Lee Roth, Bret Michaels, Vince Neil), while the players favoured Clairol Blue Black hair dye and hairspray. The sartorial mix-and-match look evoked pirates, cowboys, bikers and drag queens, with leather, Spandex, chiffon and studs in various combinations. Bandanas were both pretty and useful, as hair holders, face swabbers, tourniquets and nosebleed stoppers.
The intoxicants of choice were Jack Daniels and cocaine as basics, and for the more daring, heroin. The music was Kiss or Aerosmith-derived chunky rock songs about sex and rocking it out, with hyper-busy solos on candy-coated guitars and the occasional sensitive “power ballad.” Girlfriends and wives were typically actresses (Valerie, Heather, Pam) or Penthouse, Playboy and Hustler centrefolds. Sex and drug debauchery, judging by a series of tell-all books about Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses, Ratt et al., was extreme and competitive: Drinking urine or snorting ants with Ozzy; finding out who could go the longest without washing before a grossed-out groupie said no.
There were drug and car crash deaths, AIDS, overdoses, crippling addictions.
All of this has produced for a lively flow of of sex tapes, reality shows, and cautionary memoirs from members of Motley Crue, Ratt, Guns N’ Roses and assorted hangers-on.
Unfortunately, musically, most of what these bands produced, before Guns N’ Roses 1987 breakthrough, was utter doggy-doo (I know – I reviewed Motley Crue three times). Many followed Kiss front man Gene Simmons’s personal mandate to write “fast, disposable songs about sex that will be forgotten in two or three years.”
This dearth of musical quality was not lost on the creators of the musical. Chris D’Arienzo, who grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and said he was regularly shoved into lockers by the fans of this kind of music, told The New York Times: “I totally get that people would, at first, find this to be a repellent notion. But that’s what I loved about the show.”
Reasonably, Rock of Ages is more interested in the visuals of the era than the music. Though it’s set in 1987, most of the music is a grab-bag of pop rock songs from the late seventies through the eighties. The tunes are appended to a backstage-romance formula that dates back to Babes in Arms, the 1937 musical about a couple of youngsters trying to break into showbiz.
The musical is all over the place, blending seventies’ bubble-gum pop, early eighties corporate rock and mid-eighties glam metal. There’s Kiss’s Rock and Roll All Nite (1975); Pat Benatar’s snappy Hit Me With Your Best Shot (1979) (written by Canadian Eddie Schwartz); Foreigner’s Waiting for a Girl Like You and Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ (both 1981); Twisted Sister’s I Wanna Rock REO Speedwagon’s Can’t Fight This Feeling, and Night Ranger’s Sister Christian all from 1984.
These were the songs that filled up the lower rungs of the charts in a huge pop year, dominated by Michael Jackson, Springsteen, Madonna, Tina Turner, Hall & Oates and Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis and innumerable one-hit wonders.
Columnist Steve Spears of the Tampa Bay Times recently suggested, half-facetiously, that Rock of Ages may be a “referendum on the eighties renaissance” with a box, shutting down the eighties nostalgia the way that Grease 2 (supposedly) brought an end to the fifties revival. On a couple of levels, it seems unlikely: First, stage musicals are often immune to big-screen failures (The Phantom of the Opera, Evita). And, Reagan knows, there’s still a mountain of eighties trash available to be recycled.