(2) def leppard, "pour some sugar on me"
(7) heart, "alone"
and will play on in the sweet 16
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 closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/13.
BACKLIGHT: SUSAN BRIANTE ON HEART'S "ALONE"
A spotlight focuses the gaze, but a backlight softens as it demarcates, framing a screaming singer or writhing guitarist in halos of light and hair. Like the backlight, hair metal, especially its power ballads, turns our attention to a kind of softness even as it wails. With their pouting, pleading choruses, the power ballad gods and goddesses tell us: “I feel so deep I am hard in my feeling” or “I feel so hard we can both cry and rage” or “Even as I gently play these keys, my feelings will explode like a piano on stage.”
Some power ballads trade in well-worn emotions, chords as comfortable as a faded pair of leopard print leggings. Others tease out feelings bigger than we thought we had. Take Heart’s 1987 number one hit “Alone,” a stunning example of the latter in which the Wilson sisters slash into the givens of the genre like a beautiful axe (or labrys).
The first single from Heart’s ninth studio album, Bad Animals, “Alone” opens with a simple piano riff and Ann Wilson’s powerful voice. In the video, Ann sings on a theater balcony while her sister Nancy (seen from behind) plays piano on the stage below her. Nancy’s blonde waves spill down her bare back. She looks up at Ann, but she’s not serenading her or being serenaded. Ann never looks at her sister. The gazes are as tangled as the hair:
Though written by the male song writing duo Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly (also known for such femme-setto* hits as “True Colors” and “Like a Virgin”) the song when sung by Ann Wilson speaks of female desire, but not desperation.** It’s a desire born out of a lone wolf strength. Yes, the singer “hears the ticking of the clock.” Yes, the singer “hopes that (the night) won’t end …. alone.” But before we wade too far into the trope of the wanting, waiting woman, the piano explodes, Nancy kicks the air, Ann’s voice soars: “Til now I always got by on my own. I never really cared until I met you.”
In the video, we never get a glimpse of the singer’s object of desire. Certainly, it’s not the male band members. (Who are they? We could not give two fucks.) The (presumably) male producers of the video try to make Nancy the object of a (presumably) male gaze. But she isn’t there to be seen. She’s there to rock. In the language of hair metal: There’s no Tawny Kitaen dancing on the hoods of two cars, no singer lip-synching some false promise about going off “on their own” with a metal vixen dangling on their arm. Instead there’s Ann’s “epic voice” (to quote Chris Cornel) telling us: “And now it tears me to the bone.” Instead, there’s Nancy grinding, kicking and generally banging the shit out of her guitar. Instead the band plays before a frenzied audience amidst the debris of the piano (that exploded like Ann’s desire) conjuring a stringent brew of strength, passion and downright rock-n-roll intensity that Heart has been cultivating since 1972:
Sex, love, singeing vocals and white-hot guitar riffs have pulsed through Heart’s music from the start. “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” are both odes to some fine fucking. That Ann was coupled with Heart’s manager and producer, Mike Fisher, while Nancy dated lead guitarist (Mike’s brother) Roger Fisher, only fueled the sparks and flames of their first few platinum albums. But the Wilson sisters were also introducing listeners to their rage. Years before some hair metal boys had picked up their first guitar, Ann and Nancy were calling out a sexist record company rep in their hit-song “Barracuda.” By the time they recorded “Alone,” after splitting with the Fisher brothers and reconstituting the band, they had spent more than a decade rocking and raging in an industry that did woman no favors.
Which brings us to the deep growling resonance of their late-80s hit’s chorus: “How do I get you alone?” Ann’s voice fills those words with a knowledge that goes beyond the sting of romantic heartbreak. Ann knows the heartbreak of moving through a world that always wants to see you as (or ask you to be) something other than who you are. Heart split from their first record label and went into years of legal battle after the label ran an ad implying the Wilson sisters were incestuous lesbian lovers. Eventually, the hair metal version of Heart would come to an end, too, when yet another record label put pressure on Ann to lose weight. When Ann sings “How do I get you alone?” standing on a balcony, looking at us with her soulful black eyes, not showing an inch of skin, she’s not offering us the promise of sex, but the promise of being heard and seen, a promise that resonated with a kind of loneliness particular to the late 80s.
This was before the internet, before AOL, before the possibilities of avatars or late-night chat room exchanges nourished by common interests or curiosity, unbounded by geography. To be an adolescent then was to feel the acute limits of one’s body. And if you were a girl and/or nonconforming, and if your desire felt confused and staticky as the signal from a distant college radio station that was your only source for alternate possibilities, how could you not want to stand on that balcony with Ann, flashing nothing but the razor of your voice, begging your beloved to give you their attention without distraction?
In a spotlight we are seen in sharp relief, but a backlight slurs our edges. And if we turn away the crowds and turn off all these lights, aren’t the Wilson sisters giving us hope that maybe we’ll be seen, that maybe if we could get together alone, we could show each other who we really are or what we might be.
Susan Briante is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, The Market Wonders (Ahsahta Press 2016). She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arizona. Briante also produces and hosts the radio program Speedway and Swan, an hour of free-form poetry and music on KXCI 91.3 Tucson.
elena passarello on def leppard's "pour some sugar on me"
I must admit, this essay on Shredness hasn’t been easy to figure out. “Pour Some Sugar on Me” is an awesome song, of course. Listening to it now—almost exactly 30 years after its single release—is still a foam-finger-in-the-air, chest-bump-the-peanut-vendor, climb-a-stripper-pole-ass-first kind of experience. The song’s drum line remains indefatigably stirring, especially when you remember it was pounded out by a guy with twenty-five percent fewer appendages than any other drummer in this tournament (including the drummer who recorded “Rock of Ages”). And the song belongs to what was then the most expensive album in human history and what remains the best-charting Hard Rock record of all time.
But all these superlatives aside, does “Pour Some Sugar on Me” literally SHRED? To answer that, we gotta go the tape, a.k.a. the concert-footage video of the Leppards (the Def?) rocking a few thousand of Denver’s finest one February night in 1988.
Our beloved March Shredness selection committee’s official criteria for any qualifying entry is that the song “must be in the style/genre of Hair Metal [from] 1983-1992.” They go on to define said style/ genre by three features, all of them easily evaluated by watching the “Sugar” video.
It’s tough to call any coif on this band big when in league with the follicular efforts of Messrs. Snider, Rockett, Sixx, etc. I’d rate Def Leppard’s overall hair game as fair to middling. Lead singer Joe Elliot brings MacGyver realness to his layered dishwater mullet, but it doesn’t look like any mousse was ever involved. Back on the drums, Rick “The Thunder God” Allen has pulled his curly lob into a little broccoli floret at the nape of his neck. Guitarist Phil Collen’s hair is short enough to get him a job at the DMV; at one point in the video, Collen offers a little headbang and barely a strand of hair moves. Bassist Rick “Sav” Savage and guitarist Steve “C’mon, Steve!” Clark register a little closer to the Hair Metal ideal; their shaggy layers fall way past their shoulders and sport the texture of labradoodle clippings.
But the only truly big hair in this video appears whenever the camera cuts to the crowd, often lingering on select Def Heads (Leppers?) of the female persuasion. The hair on these young women is uniformly glorious, especially considering they’re not supposed to be the ones in the spotlight. Their bangs launch from their foreheads in cotton candy mushroom clouds, permed to the bejeezus belt and whipping about in these vicious little slaps as the girls shake their hoop earrings from side to side. This, for me, was the official hair of 1988’s babysitters—older, cooler girls full of secrets, with Gucci Crew tapes and gum for days and boys who they called on my cordless phone. Ten-year-old me thought of them whenever this video aired, hoping with all my flat-haired heart that one day my bangs would spike that high and my eyes—ringed in that same navy blue pencil—would find a person, or even a pet, to gaze at the way that these Aqua-netted confections gazed at this band.
In this criterion, “Sugar” falls further behind. Even those girls in the audience just wear tank tops and jeans. The single “flashy” article of clothing I was able to spot after myriad viewings is Sav’s cropped bolero with leopard (Leppard?)-print epaulets. But he pairs the jacket with unbedazzled dark pants and what look like white Reeboks. In fact, the whole band is shod in either sneakers or some nondescript, flat-heeled boot—save The Thunder God, who drums barefoot (perhaps for technical reasons). TG’s also wearing gym shorts(!) and a baggy t-shirt that appears to have his own image silkscreened on the back. Phil Collen’s got on a pair of Obama Mom jeans and a white undershirt for half the video, and for the other half, he’s kept the jeans, but is now bare-chested. He looks like a suburban Dad out mowing the lawn.
My favorite non-flashy sartorial choice belongs to Joe Elliot, who struts around the stage IN A DEF LEPPARD TANK TOP. Holy brand management! And what’s this? In the video’s black-and-white backstage footage, Elliot has on A DIFFERENT DEF LEPPARD SHIRT. Good lord, Joe, was it laundry day or something? Even Peter Cetera had enough sense to select a Bauhaus tee over some Chicago ’84 World Tour merch for the “You’re the Inspiration” video. Wearing your own shirt to your own arena show is the polar opposite of Shredding; it’s akin to putting a novel that you wrote on your syllabus. It’s like that time Mumford and Sons got kicked out of Atlanta’s Claremont Lounge strip club for Snapchatting themselves doing karaoke to their own music. Anyway. Elliot’s lower half does deserve more credit. Though not exactly “flashy,” the jeans he sports are aerated with two perfect ladders of horizontal rips, the kind of distressing that your mom would sigh over if she saw similar pants hanging, new, on a rack at the mall. If anything in this video undeniably involves shredding, it’s Joe’s dungarees.
“Shreddy, ostentatious guitar solos”
And here’s where the Shred truly hits the fan. One of my favorite Hair Metal tropes is when the video cuts to a lead guitarist pantomiming his (it’s almost always “his”) scorching—and requisite—solo. In all these clips, the rocker also sells the Shred with corporeal details, like a leg up on an amp or a wagging tongue or a head tipped heavenward in ecstasy. Bonus points if the hairy, flashy soloist is back-to-back with an equally histrionic band mate. But if you’re following along in your YouTube hymnal, you’ll note that this moment does not exist at any point of the “Pour Some Sugar” vid. That’s because there are no prominent guitar solos in this song. Come at me on this; I’ve spent the past weekend combing thru every measure like a litterbox, listening for any run of music that might qualify as a Shred-guitar solo and coming up short. And in the video, most of the guitar footage involves Phil or Steve striking a chord and then floating their pick-hands away from the strings to balance on the sides of their axes while they bop sexily through the next resting measure.
Even the general moments of discernible guitar action are never “shreddy” or “ostentatious.” The entire structure of “Sugar” is built on power chords, which seem to me the opposite of Shred solos, as they involve only the lowest strings and claw-like, close-to-the-headstock fretwork. We do hear the signature “Sugar” lick on top of those chords throughout (starting at 0:32 of the YouTube clip), but said lick only consists of three mid-range notes and a little string bend, repeated. You can find noodlier licks (and bigger hair, and flashier outfits, and actual solos) in 1988 hits by Richard Marx, Taylor Dane, and Jefferson Freaking Starship. So if one had the stomach to do so, one could argue that “Pour Some Sugar on Me” Shreds less than Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” a.k.a. the love theme from the movie Mannequin.
Sure, once the second chorus gets going (around 2:47), Steve Clark plays a lead line over the three-chord stomp we all know and love, but his contribution is a single mid-range note (an F3) repeated over and over and over again, without variation. If this is Shredding, it’s Shredding a la Philip Glass. C’mon, Steve. And perhaps one might make a Shred-case for the eight measures leading into “if you got the peaches/ I got the cream” (which I misheard as “you got the beat ‘cuz I got the feet,” until, like, yesterday). That spot in the song is a perfect launch pad for a searing solo, but instead we hear Clark volleying back and forth between one measly pair of notes using a plucky, reverbed touch. A similar guitar attack is often employed by U2’s the Edge, and I will challenge anyone on the planet who thinks that the Edge can Shred to a screwdriver fight.
In all fairness, I detect something closer to a traditional solo in the final twenty seconds of “Sugar,” but it’s so buried in the sonic lasagna that producer Mutt Lange famously built for Hysteria—exponentially tracked vocals, effects-drowned drum hits, layers of woofs and slides and feedback. You couldn’t sing or air guitar that melody if you tried. I’ve been listening to those thirty seconds with quality headphones all afternoon and I still can’t quite make it out, other than the fact that it’s slow and decidedly un-Shreddy. To fully detect the line, I’d have to be the rock dork equivalent of the princess sleeping on her pea.
This embarrassing amount of headphone time did teach me something, however. In the past three decades, I’ve listened as “Pour Some Sugar on Me” blared from the speakers of infinite Jumbotrons and titty bars. I once heard (and can never un-hear) an auto-tuned-within-an-inch-of-his-life Tom Cruise writhe through the song for the film Rock of Ages. But I’d never given the track a careful listen. Having done just that several dozen times, I now know that “Sugar” isn’t the blunt-force object I assumed it was; this song is spectacularly crafted. Crisp, pounding, and shiny, it’s like sunlight hitting the top of an ocean wave, if the wave was hot, sticky-sweet, and potentially riddled with chlamydia.
The whole album is a marvel, really. Lange’s reported vision for Hysteria was a Hard Rock take on what Quincy Jones did with Thriller: engineered within an inch of its life, jam-packed with radio singles, and full of crossover influences. Weirdly enough, Thriller’s crossover efforts include a toe-dip into metal, thanks to the thirty-second extravaganza of dive bombs and hammer-on-pull-offs that Eddie Van Halen dropped into the middle of “Beat it.” I’m pretty sure “Beat It” is the first Shred guitar track ever to go platinum, and it’s most certainly Shreddier than anything “Sugar” has to offer.
Unlike the other songs on Hysteria, which took most of Reagan’s second term to complete, “Sugar” smacks of spontaneity. This is owed, perhaps, to the fact that Joe Elliot and Mutt Lange tacked the song onto the end of their sessions. The other Defs (Leps? DefLep Schrempf’s?) weren’t even in town when the two started writing; Elliot was cutting vocals alone in the studio, farting around on an acoustic guitar during his coffee break. He’d only figured out “Sugar’s” five-word chorus when Lange walked past him and heard gold in that short line of song. The pair then worked backward, building the lead-in to the chorus (the rising chords behind “take the booooottle!”), and finally the verse structure.
For lyrics, neither had any story or idea in mind. Run-DMC’s reimagined version of “Walk this Way” had basically ruled 1987 radio, and Lange saw “Sugar” as a chance to piggyback off the resulting rap-rock fervor (note the thirsty add of the verbatim phrase “walk this way” to the album’s intro to “Sugar”). But instead of hiring actual rappers, Lange and Elliot just scat-sang through the demos, babbling in quarter notes and then in double time. Elliot says they got the final lyrics via a game of telephone, trying to interpret one another’s gibberish phonemes from the demo into actual words and phrases. The whole composition process took less than a single day. And holy shit, it worked.
I see nothing in our Shredness criteria about lyrics, but maybe this is where “Sugar” gains some ground. Like a lot of good Hair Metal content, the words stick as slogans rather than as poetry. They’re not unlike the work of the big-haired, flashy-outfitted 70’s rocker Marc Bolan—“demolition woman can I be your man” could’ve come straight off Electric Warrior. And speaking of Bolan, something about the lyrical looseness of the lyrics to “Sugar” allows for a wobbly, T-Rexy sexual double vision that’s present in quite a bit of our Shredness cohort.
I know in my bones that such lyrical inexactitude is part of the fun—both in 1988 and today. My buddy Patrick once unearthed a tape of himself singing “Sugar” at some amusement park karaoke booth back in the 80’s, long before his voice changed. Years later, he’d play the tape for me when we were running errands in his Hyundai and I’d lose my shit at the sound of his old chipmunk soprano growling through “love is like a bomb, baby” and “easy operator come a-knockin’ on my door.” The absolute glee in his pipsqueak voice! In it, you heard how Pat knew these words were fun and edgy, but still PG-13 enough to keep him from getting grounded.
I think the pull of “Sugar”—and much of Shred as a whole—is how it can be understood as sexy even if the listener’s not yet sure what sex entails. The practices and body parts alluded to in these lyrics are not exactly direct; I’m a 39-year-old woman who’s been around the block a few times and I have loads of questions for Mutt and Joe: What exact substance is Elliot covered in from his un-moussed “head” to his Keds-clad “feet”? Is this coating the titular “sugar,” or is it something else? Are we describing a physiological byproduct here? If so, whose glandular system is the source of it? Does it “pour” from the “easy operator” or from the man on whose door she knocks? Or should I just be imagining two fully consenting adults dumping champagne all over each other?
The fact that these lyrics boil down to a bunch of hot-nonsense make the song both filthy and virginal, which seems crucial to this genre. Hair Metal sex-talk often sounds like an inexperienced fifteen-year-old trying to brag about all the steamy stuff he does with his girlfriend who “lives in Canada.” Which is to say that when the catchy innuendo typical of this genre marries Lange’s downright Apollonian sonic architecture, there’s no way the product of said union is leaving our consciousness for decades, Shred solos or no.
Which leads me to my present pickle. “Sugar” might not fit our definition of Shred, but the song has lasted like a champ, and it still rocks. What’s more, I think it carries a surprising musical depth that deserves acclamation. But is that enough to advance it in this competition, especially when (and I’m biting my hand as I type this) its very first opponent is a song performed by a band with bigger hair, flashier outfits, and even a tongue-out shreddy solo…and said band is the same damn band that recorded “Pour Some Sugar on Me”?
My only hope for saving this song, I suppose, is to argue that “Sugar” still embodies Shred without checking Shred’s crucial boxes. I’m not even sure this is true, because all that I’ve covered, especially the glimmering production of the song, makes “Sugar” feel less porous and more complex than the majority of its bracket-mates, “Rock of Ages” included. But perhaps none of you care about any of this. Maybe you’ve already figured out that Shred at its very best is a feeling more than a practice. And perhaps in our collected kabillion listenings to “Sugar,” we have felt the Shred in enough intangible ways that our sticky, sweet energy cancels out the band’s uninspired clothes, their chill hair, their neglected whammy bars. Maybe this crowd-generated feeling is what elevates Def Leppard to the Penthouse of Shredness.
I’ve spent too much of my adult life desperate to never substitute feeling for substance, and this might be where I must—where we all must—make an exception. Maybe feeling the ways “Sugar” Shreds is enough to give it wings. Perhaps the white-hot sensation of a thousand guitar solos, of myriad “oooh-Alberto”-stiffened mullets, of countless pink spandex leggings has, for the past thirty years, been thriving in the abstract. You can find evidence of this Shred miracle in every babysitter bopping across her wide-eyed charge’s living room, every Florida catwalk that’s humped IN THE NAME OF LUVVV, and every tween screaming Mutt and Joe’s baby-brained dirty talk into an amusement park recording booth. You can certainly find it in the countless bros who’ve air-guitared their way through the track, pantomiming a blistering solo over the measures where one never existed.
It’s not unlike the moment in Barrie’s Peter Pan when all the children clap their hands and a flashlight turns into Tinker Bell. I can see her right now, newly alive and kicking on the sheer force of youthful belief. Watch her flit to the window, tossing her poufy bangs, shouting while the crowd lifts up its hands to her. The kids sing along as she launches up to the stars, all of them howling the lift into the final chorus, do you take Shredness? One lump or two!
The most metal thing about essayist Elena Passarello is that she and Mastodon's bassist went to the same high school. Here is a photo of what she looked like the year Hysteria was released.