first round game
(8) Ozzy osbourne, "mama i'm coming home"
(9) w.a.s.p., "i wanna be somebody"
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls close @ 9am Arizona time on 3/2.
andy segedi on ozzy osbourne's "mama i'm coming home"
This song, as well as anything else from the good but mostly forgettable No More Tears album, makes me think of the salt-and-vinegar tang of soggy Subway sandwiches, my long-suffering parents waiting in their gray Dodge Caravan, and an ill-fated photo of me with the Prince of Darkness Himself.
You have to understand, I pretty much worshipped Ozzy Osbourne. I wanted to be Ozzy. I even (briefly) considered tattooing the letters “ANDY” on my knuckles, like Ozzy has “OZZY” on his. Prototype:
In the mid/late ‘80s, I was still mostly listening to Van Halen and Twisted Sister when, on a Saturday morning during WWF wrestling, “Mean” Gene Okerlund was interviewing the tag-team duo The British Bulldogs. By wrestling standards, these dudes were pretty low-key, and so was their post-match interview, even though they had just won a title.
But then this crazy guy in a silver sequined robe, bleach-blond hair spiked out in all directions, carrying what looked like a royal goblet full of something, came up behind Okerlund and started screaming, jumping up and down, and giving his bald head a noogie. “Mean” Gene was fit to be tied, based on the expression on his face. The crazy guy kept jumping up and down, bellowing “This is fantastic, man, The British Bulldogs … FOREVAAAAAHHH!!!” I don’t know what the Bulldogs’ reaction was, I just remember Okerland looking annoyed and the crazy person proceeding to make crazy faces into the camera before finally stumbling away. Whoever it was, I thought that person was the coolest.
“Ozzy Osbourne, ladies and gentlemen,” a contrite Okerlund said to the camera, before moving on to more serious matters, such as whether the tactical mind games of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan could outduel the mysterious eastern philosophies of the sinister Mr. Fuji.
I lost interest in pro wrestling not long after then, but I was just getting started as far as discovering heavy metal, and Ozzy (along with Iron Maiden) quickly became my focal points. Maybe it was because they’re British, or had been around longer than the hair metal I’d been listening to. Ozzy, in particular, just had a force of personality that members of those other bands couldn’t compete with—a sense of humor and general gregariousness, as opposed to the sulking, fame-hating irritability and standoffishness of, say, the Axl Rose types. He also wasn’t a show-off when it came to his voice, and I appreciated that. Pretty much anyone can sing along to any Ozzy song without having to strain or inhale helium. It’s blue-collar music; Ozzy, who grew up singing dirty terrace chants at Aston Villa football matches, is a man of the people.
So, a few years later, even a mostly forgettable album like No More Tears from such a rock deity immediately became a holy relic for me. Even more so when Ozzy announced an album signing at a local record store.
Somehow, I managed to convince my parents to drive me and one of my friends to this record store, and wait for us in the car while we stood in line, waiting for Ozzy. The signing was to follow a concert downtown, and we knew that if we went to the concert first, there would be a huge line by the time we got to the store, and there was no way my parents were going to wait that long, or let us stay out that late. So we had to choose between the concert and having Ozzy anoint one of his holy relics with his signature. No brainer. We were planning on seeing Ozzy in concert on his upcoming summer tour, anyway (more on that later).
The signing was at a now-defunct store called Coconut Records, in a strip mall called Golden Gate Plaza just off I-271 near Cleveland. 12 years later, the space would be owned by a Caribou Coffee franchise, outside of which I’d share an awkward hug and post-breakup exchange of personal items with a woman I wanted another chance with, but had none. Today, the space is a Men’s Wearhouse (“You’re gonna like the way you look …”) and I work right down the street. It’s a little weird when I drive by there now.
But that night, it was the Sistine Chapel of Metal. Getting there while Ozzy was still performing downtown, the line was relatively small when my friend and I left my parents in their Caravan (I complained a lot about them at the time for mostly unjustified teen-angst-related reasons, but they did us proud by sitting in that parking lot for hours, reading their library books, while we waited for Ozzy). The strip mall’s storefronts formed a large, upside-down U shape, with Coconut Records on the bottom right-hand corner. By the time the concert had ended and fans started pouring in, the line was already almost halfway around the U.
And what a crowd there was in that line. It was the first time I witnessed the multi-generational nature of heavy metal fandom (I had only been to one or two concerts at this time). There were people who seemed older than hell, but who were probably just in their late 30s, wearing faded shirts from tours that happened when we were still in kindergarten, telling us unlikely but still cool stories about, for example, meeting King Diamond after a show and helping themselves to a “sample” of his face paint on a bandanna (said bandanna was brandished, and there may have been some kind of residue on it, but I don’t buy it; cool story, though).
At one point, a car that had been new when Ozzy was still in Black Sabbath pulled up and an elderly lady in the passenger seat—her hair covered in a babushka scarf—asked in a quivering voice what we were waiting in line for.
“Slim Whitman is here,” the guy with the questionable King Diamond story deadpanned, and a few of us chuckled as the old couple drove away, 100% convinced that those damn kids were getting into yodeling, now, and what would the world come to next.
As the crowd grew, WMMS, a local rock station, showed up with a mobile unit, and they handed out Subway sandwiches to the first few hundred people in line. To this day, I still think of Ozzy in general, and the No More Tears album in particular, whenever I smell the yeasty, vinegar-tinged smell of a Cold Cut Trio, which is what they were handing out. Good thing, too, because Ozzy was super-late. I have no idea how late he stayed, or if they had to turn anyone away, but without a doubt there were people there into the early morning hours.
Luckily for us, our decision to forego the concert paid off. Because we were among the first in line, they let a small group of us inside the store and into the vast gauntlet of stanchions and belt rails before anyone else. That’s where we were when the moment arrived: Ozzy Osbourne entered from an employee-only door near the back of the store.
He was hobbling. He had sprained or broken his ankle while doing his trademark squat-jump on stage a couple weeks earlier, apparently. Still, he made the most of it—the cast and walking boot he was in were black, matching the rest of his outfit. He was also shorter and skinnier than I would have thought (Fat Ozzy was a thing of the past at this point).
“Black cast,” I muttered to my friend next to me, who nodded. There were a couple whoops from the fans behind us, but for the most part a hush descended when Ozzy entered the room. He was surrounded by a group of scurrying underlings who led him—and the rest of the band, let’s not forget them, even though I mostly have—to a chair behind a long table. He looked tired as hell; pale and gaunt, but ready and willing for whatever came next. He was 43; the same age I am now.
The line began to move, and someone explained to us we could have one item signed per person, and one photo per person. I had my parents’ portable Kodak. My friend and I devised a cunning plan: he’d go first, I’d take a picture of him and Ozzy, hand him the camera, then he’d take a picture of me and Ozzy.
And it started out so well. My friend started down the table with Randy Castillo, the drummer (who tragically died of cancer a few years later). He had brought his Ultimate Sin tape to be signed, which seemed like a pretty dumb decision at that point, since none of the other current members of Ozzy’s band played on that album. Still, Castillo and the others—bassist Mike Inez, who went on to play with Alice in Chains, and guitarist Zakk Wylde—dutifully signed the inside fold-out of the tape, anyway. While this was all going on, I was also going down the line (I had brought my No More Tears CD for them to sign, which I also realized was a dumb decision, since almost every inch of the booklet had a dark background, leaving little clear space for signatures). Ozzy, quietly signing his items and looking up occasionally for photos, was no more than 10 feet from me.
For days, I had been perfecting something to ask him when the moment arrived. Something about his time in Black Sabbath, maybe, or whether Randy Rhoads was as good a guitarist as Jimi Hendrix. I have no idea what I ultimately came up with, however, because within a mere few seconds, my friend managed to fuck up my chance to have what I was sure would be a friendly chat with The Madman.
First, it was his turn. Ozzy didn’t bat an eyelash when my friend handed him the Ultimate Sin tape cover, but I got a sense of how old, how weary he was when he spread the cover out in front of him—his hands were slowly wavering. Not like someone with Parkinson’s, but like, you know, old people. People like the woman who thought we were yodeling it up with Slim Whitman right about then.
I took a perfect photo of my friend with Ozzy. In it, you can clearly see Ozzy in the process of scrawling his name—the “O” a little wavy, like his hands—on the white tape cover, my friend looking over at him with a smug look on his face.
When it was my turn, I handed the camera over to my friend, and my No More Tears CD cover to Ozzy. I was just about to ask that question I had spent days formulating when I heard my friend mutter, “Shit.”
I looked over. Somehow, he was having trouble with the camera. The camera that had a single button on it; look through the window, line up the shot, hit the button. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ozzy signing my album. I had mere seconds.
I tried desperately to motion to my friend what to do, which only caused him to start laughing. Meanwhile, Ozzy had looked up at me, then over to my friend with the camera.
“Just … hold it up and hit the fucking button!” I yelled, or something to that effect. I don’t know exactly what I said, but I do know what I was thinking, because it’s written all over my face—the part that’s visible, anyway—in the picture my friend finally took.
In the foreground, there’s the table, probably way too much of the table, considering there wasn’t anything on it other than maybe a couple Sharpies. Behind the table, in the process of standing up and being blinded by the camera flash, is Ozzy, who must have finally gotten tired of posing for the photo while my friend giggled and fucked around with the camera. Oh, then there’s me, off in the upper corner of the frame, completely washed out by the camera flash, eyes wide, snarling at the camera.
I don’t remember anything else about that night. I’m sure I was in a foul mood on the way home, even though I had just been in the presence of a Metal God. And somehow, over the years, I lost track of both of those photos. Maybe that’s for the best; looking at them always just pissed me off. When I dug out my No More Tears CD again recently, all these memories flooded back, especially the little waver in the O of Ozzy’s signature:
How weary he looked dragging around that black cast.
Released near the end of the summer of 1991, Ozzy’s first album of the ‘90s was about as different from his prior material as you could get. It was a time where it seemed like every established metal act was attempting to change their sound and image, eschewing the flamboyance and glam influences of the ‘80s (or, in the case of Metallica, the longer, faster, more complicated songs) for the more stripped-down, back-to-basics ideals that the new crop of flannel-and-ironic-t-shirt-wearing “alternative” rockers were preaching. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point in mid-1990, almost overnight, wearing a Poison shirt in public (or an Ozzy or Priest one, for that matter) suddenly became uncool. And while bands like Poison simply faded away, and others like Motorhead and Iron Maiden settled for continuing to do their thing for diminished audiences, others tried to adjust. But No More Tears was by no means an attempt to sound like Nirvana; it was more a deliberate letting go (or at least softening) of the Crazy Ozzy image I was first introduced to by the British Bulldogs.
The No More Tears album cover alone is a stark contrast to what came before it. When I first saw it on a poster in a record store I thought it was John Lennon, not Ozzy (a friend at the time had a similar reaction, only thinking it was Jim Morrison). It still included a slightly altered version of Ozzy’s classic logo (I enjoyed its little crossbar under the Y’s fork, and I’ll also admit to adding something similar to the Y in my name on school papers), but other than that it’s indistinguishable from any of The Wizard’s prior albums. Set on a blurry, brown watercolor backdrop, Ozzy’s solemn, pale, makeup- and hairspray-free face looks off to the left. On—or possibly growing from—his shoulder, just visible in front of the murky background, is what appears to be a bird’s wing. A dove’s wing, maybe as a way of suggesting he’s letting go of his piss-drunk-24/7 past, which included that time he really did bite the head off a live dove at a press conference? Maybe. The wing is definitely meant to be noticed, since a zoomed-in version of the wing takes up the album’s entire back cover.
In any case, this rather minimalist artwork is a far cry from that of Ozzy’s five prior solo albums:
- Blizzard of Ozz, 1980: Photo of Ozzy crawling across an attic floor wearing caped religious vestments and swinging a large, wooden cross while making Crazy Ozzy Face for the camera
- Diary of a Madman, 1981: Photo of Ozzy as a Jekyll & Hyde-type character mid-transformation in some sort of occult laboratory, making Crazy Ozzy Face for the camera
- Bark at the Moon, 1983: Photo of Ozzy in full Hollywood-style werewolf makeup making Crazy Ozzy Face for the camera
- The Ultimate Sin, 1986: Conceptual painting of a nuclear wasteland with Ozzy as a fanged, winged mutant making Crazy Ozzy Face for the camera in front of a demon-eyed dominatrix with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo
- No Rest For the Wicked, 1988: Black-and-white photo of Ozzy on a skull-adorned throne, looking regally at the camera (no Crazy Ozzy Face this time), surrounded by kids in rags who look straight out of “Children of the Damned.”
Other than the consistent logo, and the fact that the mutated thing bearing Ozzy’s head on the Ultimate Sin cover also had wings, albeit demonic rather than dove-like, the No More Tears cover had nothing in common with these predecessors. It was the first sign that this new album was not going to be from the same formula that produced No Rest For the Wicked or any of his prior ‘80s fare. Ozzy kept Zakk Wylde, his guitarist, in the band, but other than during the solos, when Zakk can’t stop himself from constantly bending the strings, the sound on the two albums is about as different as their album covers. Where Wicked is a raucous, straight-up metal album, No More Tears flirts with psychedelia on the seven-minute-plus title track, which nevertheless features one of the heaviest riffs in Ozzy’s solo catalog, and the rest of its tracks could politely be called a mixed bag of heavy but not particularly memorable metal filler and campy, catchy, made-for-MTV singles.
One of the latter was “Mama, I’m Coming Home.”
“Mama” was the breakout single from the album, and by “single” I of course mean video. But the first video from the album was the title track, which launched just prior to the album’s release, and also set the tone for how different this album would be. This video at one point shows Ozzy, wearing a dark purple suit, gold cross, and those sunglasses with the John Lennon frames, sitting on a couch in the shape of a woman’s lips while her eyes blink and look about wildly from gilded frames on the wall behind him. It’s an effect which (unintentionally?) makes Ozzy on the couch become the woman’s nose; the shape fits perfectly. As crazy and different as that song (and video) was compared to the B-movie horror of his Bark at the Moon era stuff, I loved it. I wasn’t really getting into Nirvana and a lot of that other “alternative” music that was suddenly becoming popular, and it was great to see something different on MTV and rock radio. “No More Tears” is not one of his best songs, but Ozzy’s vocals are stronger than they’d been in years, and amid all the psychedelia and piano interludes, the guitar riff—the one that weighs about a million pounds and works in an almost call-response fashion with the vocal lines—keeps the song anchored in Grade A heavy metal. Plus, Zakk Wylde’s solo is probably the best on an Ozzy album since the Randy Rhoads days. I understand how alternative rock was partially born out of a burnout from the guitar-solo-crazy days of the hair metal ’80s, but when done right they can practically define a song, and this is one of those solos.
The “No More Tears” video played regularly on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball—three glorious hours of nothing but metal videos every Saturday night—and got decent airplay on pre- ClearChannel rock radio, but it was mostly appreciated by people who were already Ozzy fans. “Mama” was different. Even some of my Pearl Jam friends, who more made fun of Ozzy’s stutter than listened to his music, dug “Mama.”
Similar to “Goodbye to Romance” on the Blizzard of Ozz album, the quieter, acoustic guitars of “Mama” give the album’s listeners’ ears a break, coming after two heavy, aggressive tracks, and Ozzy’s emotional, more midrange vocals are also a nice counterbalance to his trademark “madman” style. The lyrics, too—on both “Mama” and “Goodbye to Romance”—are more introspective and emotional than your typical Ozzy song (as an aside because I’m pretty sure it’s not relevant to anyone but me, both “Mama” and “Goodbye to Romance” are the third tracks on their respective albums—make of that what you will). Musically, the opening chords have an overt southern rock, Led Zeppelin III influence not found in any prior Ozzy material, and the song as a whole—an otherwise standard power ballad—has a big, warm sound that’s more likely to bring to mind pastoral images of sunny fields than werewolves or headless doves.
Speaking of doves, the video for the song features a small flock of them flapping in slow motion onto Ozzy, who stands with his arms out, Christ-like, to receive them. It’s an unintentionally funny image, since I can only imagine him screaming “Sharon! Sharon!” as the birds scratch and defecate and peck at his hair. Who am I kidding, they surely used a stunt double. In any case, the doves are, I suppose, a reference to Ozzy’s decades of decadence on the road in general, and the incident with the headless dove in particular. That a wing from one of the birds winds up appearing to grow out of Ozzy’s shoulder on the album cover (which clearly lifted its imagery, if not its beige and brown color palette, from this video shoot) is interesting. It sure as hell doesn’t look like just one of the doves from the video—it’s just one wing, on Ozzy’s back. No other doves or dove parts. Have the doves become a part of him, to the point where he’s now sprouting wings? This is starting to sound more like his mad-doctor-in-the-laboratory days, after all … In any case, doves. Not getting their heads bitten off. And close-ups in varying degrees of focus of the gold cross around Ozzy’s neck. No halo, though, so points to the director for some restraint there.
I remember the big news at the time was that this was to be Ozzy’s farewell tour, possibly even his farewell album. So it’s no surprise that “Mama” became the centerpiece of the album and subsequent tour. As Ozzy stammered during an interview with fawning, hair metal reject Riki Rachtman on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, the song is about Sharon, his wife, known by their whole family as Mama, and his return to her after—at the time—over two decades on the road.
Sharon Osbourne became Ozzy’s business manager around the same time she became his wife—which was not long after her estranged father, a music executive who allegedly abused her, fired him from Black Sabbath. She’s largely responsible for resurrecting his career, masking his deteriorating voice behind fancy production effects and, in Randy Rhoads, a once-in-a-generation guitar virtuoso. And so as Ozzy sold out arenas in the ’80s, Sabbath suffered from a revolving door of personnel not named Tony Iommi, resulting in a tour that inspired the Spinal Tap movie both in terms of cancelled shows and Stonehenge monoliths on stages.
By the time No More Tears came out, Sharon—and Ozzy—had seen their complete and total revenge on Sabbath, who were still an awesome band live, but who could no longer bring in arena-capacity crowds, especially after Ozzy’s original replacement, Ronnie James Dio, left the band for the second time in 1992 (the reason for leaving, allegedly, involved Ozzy reuniting with Sabbath for an encore set at a one-off show co-headlined with Ozzy’s solo band, a show allegedly arranged by Sharon to have the Dio-fronted Sabbath, in effect, serve as the opening act; Dio did not approve). And with hair metal (or metal in general, at least in the mainstream) suddenly becoming uncool, maybe the Osbournes saw their chance to leave on a high note.
When, a year or so after the Autograph Incident, I finally saw Ozzy in concert, it was during this farewell tour. My friends and I got our tickets months in advance, and on a small chalkboard in my room one of them wrote, “97 days until the madness begins …” Day by day, we counted down, drowning ourselves in All Things Ozzy to the point where we had just about every song on every album memorized, and were constantly working obscure lyrics into conversations and cracking each other up.
Then, a month or so until the show—it got postponed. Sharon had cancer and was undergoing surgery, and Ozzy called off the rest of the tour. I don’t remember exactly how long it was until the rescheduled show, but I can tell you that by the time it did come around, the best performance in the history of rock ’n’ roll would have seemed flimsy by comparison.
And it wasn’t a great show, or even a good show—Ozzy’s voice was barely audible and he seemed off the beat, and the entire show lasted just over an hour, with almost half the material coming from No More Tears. I remember looking over at my friend, he of the inability to operate a simple camera, when the hall lights went on after the final song, both of us thinking, “That’s it?” Was my last image of Ozzy Osbourne, rock god, to be him scurrying behind the drum kit after what seemed like the shortest encore set ever? I don’t even remember what song it was, since on this tour his usual closer, “Paranoid,” opened the show. Maybe that contributed to our surprise when the show ended. Or, maybe we were just seeing evidence of the weariness caused by, at that time, 20 years of constant touring.
Still, two years later, Ozzy was back with another album, and another tour. By the end of the ‘90s, the unthinkable happened: he reunited with Black Sabbath. Between then and 2005 or so, I must have seen Ozzy perform at least six times, mostly with Sabbath, once or twice with his latest solo outfit at one of the early OzzFests, and on several of them he was in top form, more than making up for his dud on the “No More Tours” tour.
He’s slowed down, tour- and album-wise, since then. After the recent “The End” tour with Black Sabbath, which really does appear to be that band’s farewell, what with Tony Iommi being in cancer remission, Ozzy is apparently working on a new album. Supposedly, the accompanying tour will be his last—it's even called No More Tours 2. You can bet on “Mama, I’m Coming Home” being a centerpiece of those shows, and this time, I think The Wizard will “just keep walking” into a well-deserved retirement, for real this time.
Andy Segedi failed in his ambition to write The Next Great American Horror Novel, and is now a 'communications specialist.' He lives in Cleveland with the hungry ghosts of two former cats.
jon reinhardt on w.a.s.p.'s "i wanna be somebody"
Though I can’t speak from firsthand experience, apparently metal concerts in the 1980s were like Brueghelian carnivals—guys in mascara with huge teased-out manes, thrashing their heads, dressed in tight leather pants. The band W.A.S.P. was known for drinking blood, eating raw meat and throwing it into the crowd, and “torturing scantily clad maidens” as one press release put it. They claimed their name meant “We Are Sexual Perverts” to troll the actual WASPs like Tipper Gore.
I never listened to metal in the 80s, but I remember being vaguely threatened by it, maybe because I didn’t really understand it. To be honest, I’d never even heard of W.A.S.P. before writing this essay, which I decided to do because I saw it needed one, and I went to the YouTube page and was shocked that it had over 8 million views, and over 2500 comments. Maybe I had missed something. I’m an applied linguist, so I turned to browse the comments and get a gist of what it was about.
Most are something like “Love the music and the attitudes the bands had back in the day!! WASP forever!!!”, with 31 thumbs up, or “I would pull my bitchin Camero out of the parking lot at the end of 7th period with my buddy Kyle and we would play this tape and spark a fat joint. God I got old.” Hilarious. A lot of homophobic slurs, of course, because you have to call other fans gay before they call you gay, since you’re all cheering on guys basically in drag, wielding their guitars as phalli.
I was fascinated by comments like “Тhe first HEAVY band and the first song that I started listening to 1987 is this. Gretings (sic) from SERBIA!”, with 9 replies. Identifying their conversations as Croatian, Google Translate shows that it’s basically fans greeting each other, with one correcting the original poster for misspelling ‘greetings’. And one American (presumably) posting “Fuck Serbia!”. If the YouTube comments are any indication, apparently there are WASP fans all over the world, evidenced by comments in dozens of different languages—Serbian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Portuguese, Swedish, Russian, Czech, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, German…A lot of them are similar in content to the English comments, along the lines of “those were the days” (in Russian, this is “Эх, были времена”). Why would you post something in your language if the odds were so low that someone who knew your language would read it? Part of it is that YouTube, like much of social media communication, is phatic, as we say in linguistics, in that it “serves a social function such as small talk and social pleasantries that don't seek or offer any information of value.” In other words, it’s about just showing you are there, like “Kilroy was here” graffiti, or a dolphin signature whistle. When you post something on a YouTube discussion thread, you’re betting someone will read and interact with your thought, but you may never know them, and you don’t have to respond to them. I teach my ESL students that the proper reply to “hey, how’s it going?” is in fact “hey, how’s it going?”, because people don’t actually care how it’s going for you. It’s just phatic, recognizing that people around you exist, and that you are both human. On social media, we’re not that different from dolphins calling out “Here I am, I am me!” over and over in a vast digital ocean.
Another way to get a general idea of what all these W.A.S.P. fans are saying is to use corpus techniques to read the comments non-linearly. Corpus linguists do not study the language of the dead, but collect bodies of language use and run frequency analyses of the bodies to see what words stand out, in comparison to other bodies from the same genre. Actually, we say a ‘corpus’ of language, but really, to us, all any body is is just all the language that they use and all the language used to comprise them as a body. Linguistic coroners, if you will. Corpus analysis depends on the idea that frequency has meaning—the more you use a word or a chunk of words the more meaningful they are to understanding you. Reading a corpus means looking for patterns that go beyond the linear meaning that you comprehend when you read conventionally.
The software I used, AntConc, counted 19887 tokens from the 2678 comments, though it can’t deal with non ASCII, non-Roman alphabet characters, which it counted as separate words, so that’s probably high. It counted 5078 different types of words, for a type-token ratio of 25%, which means there wasn’t much lexical diversity in comparison to normal conversation and especially to written registers. After taking out the 500 most frequent words in English (mostly function words like ‘in’, ‘is’, or ‘the’), the top 15 most frequent content words in the comments are ‘metal’ (431), ‘wasp’ (327), ‘blackie’ (269), ‘band(s)’ (259), ‘somebody’ (126), ‘lawless’ (108), and ‘wanna’ (98)—in other words, the names of the genre, the band, the lead singer, and the song. Besides that, we get ‘fucking’ or ‘fuckin’ (200), ‘fuck’ (116), ‘awesome’ (109), ‘shit’ (108), ‘lol’ (102), ‘ass’ (87), and ‘video’ (87). Other unexpectedly frequent words in the comments worth noting were 'gay' (26), 'justin' (17), and 'bieber' (18)—make of that what you will.
Another way to look at frequency data is the ever-popular word cloud—here’s what worditout.com generates from the top 50 content words not generally frequent in most texts—all appearing at least 33 times, and weighted in size according to frequency. Reading a word cloud gives you an unconventional, non-linear sense of a text—it’s as if you’re overhearing all of the comments at once.
It can also be telling to look at collocates, or the words that appear most frequently together. For example, in English in general, the word ‘scantily’ appears unusually frequently with ‘clad’, and in fact may not really co-occur with any other word. They both probably collocate with ‘maiden’ pretty regularly. ‘Clad’ might have a few other friends, and ‘maiden’ probably does—you could check a big corpus like COCA or the BNC—but really it’s as if the two words are frozen together, stuck with each other forever, but one likes the other more than the other does. Kind of like people, or probably dolphins. In the most frequent words of the comments, it probably comes as no surprise that ‘fucking’ collocates most frequently with ‘rules’, and that ‘fuck’ collocates frequently with both ‘you’ and ‘yeah’. ‘Somebody’ collocates more frequently than expected with ‘don’t’, because there’s a YouTube thing where people wittily disparage however many people gave the video a thumbs-down with a comment like “217 people don’t want to be somebody”. The word ‘ass’, which appeared 87 times in the corpus collocates 44 times with, you guessed it, ‘kick(s)’.
A usage-based understanding of language claims that language acquisition is far more about learning, through frequency of exposure and noticing saliency, how words behave together as chunks. This is opposed to a Chomskyan view that grammar is deep in our animal brains, and that a kid knows that “gimme” or “idunno” are each made up of separate words with different grammatical purposes, and the fact that they recombine with other words of different purposes means nothing really. A usage-based approach begs to differ, and argues learning is all about noticing collocational patterns over time. Structure emerges from use, and grammar is an epiphenomenon of usage (like culture) by groups of people moving through space-time. Again, we’re basically dolphins whistling at each other, over and over, recognizing patterns.
So what does this mean the comments mean? No surprises really. Heavy metal is more international than one might think, metal fans are nostalgic, and there’s a lot of homophobia and sexism among them. “WASP is fucking awesome” might be the empirically most frequent comment, said over and over, like a virtual way of signifying identity and membership. But “I am not gay, but Justin Bieber fans are” is definitely in there, too. I think this is probably just a way of denying that in fact there are a lot more scantily-clad maidens at Justin Bieber concerts.
Jon Reinhardt is Associate Professor of English Applied Linguistics at U of Arizona. In the 1980s he studied languages and listened to New Wave, learning German with the likes of Nena and Peter Schilling. The closest he ever got to appreciating metal was some Tool in the mid 2000s.