(3) twisted sister, "we're not gonna take it"
(6) winger, "seventeen"
and will play in the sweet sixteen
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 3/18.
in praise of vagueness: on twisted sister's "we're not gonna take it" by Kathleen Rooney
My pen despairs of ever producing anything as divinely vague as Twisted Sister’s anthem, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Distinctively indistinct, ambiguous and therefore open to a multitude of interpretations, the song’s meaning and tone are simultaneously as nebulous yet unmistakable as the golden nimbus of Dee Snider’s mane in Twisted Sister’s glamorous heyday.
“We’re not gonna take it,” the song begins, “No, we ain’t gonna take it / We’re not gonna take it anymore,” the vagueness gaining strength for being collective, that very first “we’re” drawing any and all who care to join into a triumphant first-person plural, an open call to be a small part of something larger.
Listening to the song and imagining what “it” is that “we” are not going to take affords a pleasure akin to staring at the sky and announcing what shapes we see in the clouds, only louder, more defiant, and in the key of E Major. Spacious and welcoming, the lyrics and the video invite us to contemplate the nature of the “it”—Oppression? Authoritarianism? Being jerked around by toughs and tyrants who prey upon and exploit those they perceive as possessing less power?—without limiting the “it” to any finite thing.
My sophomore year English teacher at Downers Grove North High School in the Chicago suburbs was a supremely kind and badass man named Mr. Lester who was pretty metal himself. He commuted to and from the school by motorcycle and wore the same perfect outfit every day of the week: ripped blue jeans, a black V-neck T-shirt, and two silver POW/MIA bracelets for friends he had lost in the Vietnam War. His tresses would have provoked envy in any hair metal band member. Long and dark and steel-wool curly, streaked with a bit of melancholy gray, his locks were so bold and unruly as to seem barely contained by the series of ponytail holders he employed to keep the coils in check.
One of the best teachers I ever had, Mr. Lester taught a series of highly specific and prescriptive rules on how to be a better writer, which I still use myself and now teach to my own students. One of them was to beware of the pronoun “it”; “it,” Mr. Lester said, is vague and can therefore almost always be replaced with a more precise word or phrase. And he was right; replacing “it” whenever possible strengthens practically any argument. But Mr. Lester (rest in power) was a wise and reasonable man, and, listening to “We’re Not Gonna Take It” on repeat as I write this essay, I believe that he would fully embrace Twisted Sister’s hymn to rebellion as a classic exception that proves his rule. For the “it” and its vagueness imbue the song with its indomitable power, and to replace that pronoun with a particular noun or phrase could only make it less mighty, not more.
Released on April 27, 1984, the song—with its themes of insubordination against unjust authority and insurrection against “the powers that be” who would dare presume to “pick our destiny”—resonated immediately with listeners. Reaching number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” became Twisted Sister’s only Top 40 hit, helping its album Stay Hungry go multi-platinum, with sales of over three million copies.
It’s impossible to pin down and name what one particular thing the song is about because its aboutness is so capacious. But in the indelible and MTV-friendly slapstick video directed by Marty Callner, at least part of the irrepressible joie de vivre arises from smashing that nonpareil of a bully, the heteronormative patriarchy as repped by the douche-y, normcore dad who first appears verbally berating his son. Upstairs in his bedroom, we see the boy absorbed in practicing Twisted Sister songs on his guitar, until Mean Dad shows up. The son just wants to rock, but Mean Dad won’t let him—that is until a colossal chord blows Mean Dad out the window of the suburban house and spins the kid into a grown-up Dee Snider. The resistance begins.
Played by Mark Metcalf, known for his role as the cruel ROTC leader Douglas C. Neidermeyer in 1978’s Animal House, this nefarious father figure mugs his way through the video like a sadistic Wile E. Coyote rebooted for the eighties, winding up defeated and supine on the ground at the end. The winsome and cartoonish narrative evokes a committedly dorky vibe that calls to mind both a professional wrestling show and a piece of musical theater as staged by a troupe of insouciant high schoolers.
In other, similar songs that take up the cause of defending one’s human right to rock, the villains and authority figures are often depicted as effete and feminine; in the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right to Party,” for instance, Mom busts in and says “What’s that noise?” But here, the Metcalf character embodies the worst kind of domineering masculine jackass, whereas Dee and his glam-clad glitter crew stand in appealing contrast as the heroic and hard-to-classify gender-bending weirdos.
Another not entirely typically masculine artist, the English poet A.E. Housman, said that the task of poetry is “to transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought.” The high-flown feelings of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and the song’s deliberate avoidance of articulating any ideology beyond “nope, we refuse to accept the unacceptable” serve to render it poetic, versatile, and above all enduring. Long on emotionality but short on specifics, the lyrics are just general enough to apply to almost any team of underdogs standing up for themselves.
So too does that vagueness enable the song’s collectiveness. Metal is often constructed as the provenance of outsiders where a self-selecting type of unusual person can go to find their fellow freaky people. In his surprisingly endearing and self-aware 2012 autobiography, Shut Up and Give Me the Mic, (Chapter 17, for instance, is called “I’m Snider Than You Are”), front-man Dee Snider recounts his adolescence, hanging out with his “outcast friends” and struggling with the desire to be popular. He felt as if he “were fading away, becoming just a part of the background to the beautiful people living exciting lives.” Then “I decided I wasn’t going to take it. One day I just realized that if I didn’t resist […] I would become just another nameless, faceless person in the world. I made a conscious decision that day that I would no longer give a shit what other people thought.” In doing so, he went on to write the ultimate fight song for masses of other people who had ever felt the same.
Musically, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is not really hair metal so much as it is pub rock. The solo doesn’t contain much actual shredding; it’s simply a guitar recapitulation of the melody for the chorus. But those are not criticisms. Up-tempo and pounding, led by Snider’s gruff voice and abrasive vocal style, the song’s simplicity makes it unforgettable.
Moreover, one must note that Twisted Sister’s sensational outfits contain abundant shredding, and the made-up faces of the band members gleam, shining a ferocious light to re-enchant the disenchanted.
Pub rock is music of the working class, and so is metal. Thus, who better than Frankfurt School philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno to further illuminate the magnificence of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”? In his “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” Adorno writes that, “It is commonly said that a perfect lyric poem must possess totality or universality, must provide the whole within the bounds of the poem and the infinite within the poem’s finitude.” In that sense, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is a perfect lyric poem.
Adorno also says that “the pressures of the struggle for survival allow only a few human beings to grasp the universal through immersion in the self or to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves. The others, however, those who not only stand alienated, as though they were objects, facing the disconcerted poetic subject but who have also literally been degraded to objects of history, have the same right, or a greater right, to grope for the sounds in which sufferings and dreams are welded. This inalienable right has asserted itself again and again, in forms however impure, mutilated, fragmentary, and intermittent.”
Snider gives the alienated a shared voice for their inalienable right to resist. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” gives us the sounds for which we, as humans, are forever groping, the song’s vagueness awarding the individual lyric its collective power; not “I” but “we.”
Snider has recounted that in composing the song, he felt inspired by Slade’s “Girls Rock Your Boys” and the Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The latter suggests of whom the “we” might consist: the metal faithful who are not, as the “you” to whom the song is addressed, “so condescending” and whose “gall is never ending,” but rather are the ones who are “right’ and “free,” unafraid to fight to make the “you” see.
Regarding said “you,” it’s hard to think of a sicker burn than:
Your life is trite and jaded
Boring and confiscated
If that’s your best, your best won’t do
No stranger to doing their best, Twisted Sister labored for years to build up a following in the metal clubs and bars of New Jersey and the tri-state area before hitting it big. But maybe the best-best moment in Snider’s autobiography comes during his account of being summoned to Washington, DC to testify before the Senate in 1985 at the behest of the Parents Music Resource Center.
“I’d been asked to speak because not only was ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ on the PMRC’s notorious Filthy 15, a list of the songs they found most objectionable, but at that time, thanks to my rampant overexposure, I was the most recognizable face in heavy metal,” he writes.
The PMRC, founded and led by Senator Al Gore’s then-wife, Tipper, out of a concern over putatively alarming trends in popular music sought to provide a rating system for albums containing offensive material, eventually resulting in the notorious—and in some cases, coveted—“Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label.
Snider admits that he had to do some research to figure what exactly the moral crusaders were driving at, but once he did: “I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation. I saw it as the metaphorical equivalent of carrying the flag into battle.”
His descriptions of his preparations, both mentally and sartorially, are utterly charming. Even though his fellow testifiers, John Denver and Frank Zappa, dressed, like the Senators before whom they were speaking, in suits and business attire, Dee opted to don his usual rock apparel: “skintight jeans, tigerhead belt, snakeskin boots, sleeveless Twisted Sister T-shirt, and cut-off Twisted Sister denim vest.” Accessorizing, he says, “with my tooth earring, aviator sunglasses, and a touch of mascara, I was ready to kick some PMRC ass.”
His entire statement to the Senate defending free speech in art—which he worked conscientiously on, prepping like a debate team member—is well worth watching in its entirety for its eloquence and reason:
But for the purposes of extolling the value of artistic indistinctness, this passage (at 8:04) is unsurpassed: “The beauty of literature, poetry, and music is that they leave room for the audience to put its own imagination, experience, and dreams into the words.”
And although Snider’s words were largely lost on the PMRC committee, who went ahead with their plans for censorship regardless, one could do worse than Snider’s formula for the necessity of a certain degree of vagueness in order to achieve beauty.
According to philosopher Bertrand Russell in his 1923 lecture, “Vagueness,” “Vagueness, clearly, is a matter of degree,” whereas “Accuracy, on the contrary, is an ideal limit.” To an extent, limits and degrees do bear upon Twisted Sister’s sublimely vague song—it can be about a lot of things, but it can’t be about anything. There are limits.
In an August 2016 interview with Billboard.com, Snider explains that as gloriously indistinct and widely applicable as the anthem is, there are some causes to which he cannot let it apply, including Paul Ryan’s 2012 Vice Presidential campaign. “When I wrote the song I wanted to not be so specific about what I wasn’t taking. Over the years it’s become almost a folk song,” he says. “We’ve got politicians, like Paul Ryan, who’s as anti-choice as you can be, singing at the top of his lungs, ‘We’ve got the right to choose it.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, it’s all about choice and you’re using it as your song. You can’t use that song. You’re anti-choice; you can’t sing my song about choice’.”
And in May of 2016, he rescinded his permission to then Presidential candidate Donald Trump—whom he got to know as a member of the 2012 cast of Celebrity Apprentice—to use “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as a campaign song. “When Trump asked me,” he says “and credit to him, he asked if I was okay, I said, ‘Yeah, we’re friends, go for it.’ Cut to four months later I pick up the phone and go, ‘You gotta stop. I didn’t know what you stood for, we never talked about the wall, banning entire religions from immigrating and things like this. I can no longer appear to support this’.”
The etymology of “vague” meaning “uncertain as to specifics” comes from the Middle French vague of the 1540s, meaning “empty, vacant; wild, uncultivated,” but the best vagueness is crafted such that one can’t pour just anything into that space arbitrarily.
Even earlier, “vague” derives from the Latin vagus meaning “strolling, wandering, rambling,” or, figuratively, “vacillating,” and that vacillation helps explain not only why “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is one of the greatest songs of all time, but also an object lesson in how great art can work generally.
For we listeners get to take the vacancy Snider offers us and fill it. We can stroll ramblingly alongside him, participating in his walk through the song, supplying our own notions of the forces against which we need to rebel. And in this vacillation—by going from Snider’s ideas to the ones in our brains and back again, a million little micro-shifts across the duration of the song—we become Twisted Sister’s collaborators; by the end, all of us have become part of the “we.”
When we sing along, we are not substituitive, not pushing Snider aside to take the mic; we are joining him at center stage, singing together and sharing a moment.
Like anybody who has needed to be buoyed by this song, Snider himself has been through some struggles. He admits as much in his autobiography, describing the whiplash of going from being the host of MTV’s Heavy Metal Mania and playing sold-out arenas to being so broke that he found himself placing flyers advertising his wife Suzette’s hair and make-up business on parked cars’ windshields to keep their family afloat. One of the things, besides his family, that got him through, was poetry.
“Invictus,” Snider’s favorite poem, is admirably indistinct. If we were able to ask its dead author, “William Ernest Henley, what exactly are you invicting against?” then he might reply, “What’ve you got?”
While we’re at it, Henley’s poem is pretty metal in its own right. I mean, “Out of the night that covers me / Black as the pit from pole to pole, / I thank whatever gods may be / for my unconquerable soul”?
We could read the poem and apply the biographical knowledge that Henley wrote it while recovering from surgery to treat the tubercular arthritis which cost him a leg below the knee. But we certainly do not need that specificity to admire its speaker’s perseverance and inner strength. And that ending:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
No wonder Snider loves it so much he has it tattooed on his forearm.
With “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Snider equals or arguably surpasses Henley in his own execution of exquisitely indistinct defiance. For in the world of Twisted Sister, the “unconquerable” soul belongs not merely to one person, but to many: We are the masters, we are the captains.
In the video, at roughly 2:06, drummer A.J. Pero hits his sparkle-covered snare and sends a galaxy of gold shimmering through the air.
And that’s as lovely an illustration as any of why “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is one of the most crucial songs of the last 100 years. We can bang it like a glitter drum when we need to refuse.
A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St Martin’s Press, 2017). With Eric Plattner, she is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Married to the writer, Martin Seay, she lives in Chicago and teaches at DePaul University. Follow her @KathleenMRooney.
DANIEL M. SHAPIRO ON WINGER'S "SEVENTEEN"
I have always considered heavy metal to be the soundtrack of loneliness—even more so than James Taylor or Morrissey. I still turn to Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Metallica, Pantera, and others in part because they articulate the rage, sadness, and unexpected inspiration that can emerge from feeling isolated, from feeling that you can’t win.
To me, hair metal feels significantly different from classic metal in that it often focuses on hedonism without apparent consequences, and this subgenre’s heyday, the 1980s, seemed to be the last fertile time for such a theme. For an intensely introverted metalhead in his late teens during the latter part of this decade, metal that strived to be fun didn’t feel like metal. And occasionally, what passed for fun might’ve been questionable to some listeners.
Winger’s “Seventeen” is such a song. In blunt terms, it’s about a man—presumably in his mid-20s to mid-30s, the ages of songwriters Kip Winger, Reb Beach, and Beau Hill at the time—who has sex with a teenage girl. Some of its lyrics aim to soften the crudity (She said, “Take it easy. I need some time. Time to work it out, to make you mine,” which suggests the girl is mature enough to approach the relationship slowly), while one line in particular seems to undermine any nuances (Daddy says she’s too young, but she’s old enough for me).
Had I written about “Seventeen” when it came out, I likely would’ve analyzed its musical merits (chunky main riff, start-stop feel, effective minor-key bridge/solo, Robert Plant “Crunge”-style vocal vibe, overall stellar musicianship) and made fun of its more outlandish literary choices (She’s a magic mountain / She’s a leather glove / Oh, she’s my soul / It must be love). Today, though, more and more men are being held accountable for taking advantage of women, and one’s perception of a song such as this might have changed. Now in their 50s, the members of Winger still tour and perform “Seventeen.” My big question: Does the song hold up in our current social climate?
As a man in his 40s, I don’t consider myself to be the best person to answer a question about the treatment of women (or girls) in songs, so I called on some women friends who have listened to metal over the years. I was hoping they could compare how they felt about “Seventeen” when they were younger and how they feel about it today.
Here’s what they said:
I was never a Winger fan. I was deep into thrash and death metal by then. I’m not familiar with that song. [Pause] OMG. Just went and looked up the lyrics. Rape culture was alive and well in the pop metal scene. I was always a tomboy so I was never into glam metal or even being feminine. I did not think highly of women who wore little clothing and were not at shows for the music. Now that I’m in my 50s, I judge them less harshly because we all did different things to get love and validation. As for the musicians writing songs about rape culture, pedophilia, and misogyny, I am judging them harshly. They should be helping to smash the fucking patriarchy. Women are to be honored. We are the heart of the planet.
My husband and I literally just had this conversation about how disgusting those lyrics are! I was 13 when this song came out, and although it aligned with my hair metal taste at the time, I’m not sure I gave the song any conscious critical thought. Seventeen seemed so mature to me when I was 13. I think I would have loved to be considered the object of an older, long-haired dude’s desire (grosses me out to write that, but there it is). Women were objectified like crazy in so many genres of music at that time, and while it made me uncomfortable, I also understood it to just be part of “sex sells.” I didn’t have the language for internalized patriarchy or infantilism or understanding objectification, the male gaze, and the power hierarchy. The lyrics now still have that ickiness attached to them but maybe we (I) have a better understanding of just how icky and why.
M. Soledad Caballero:
I just listened to the song again. I have wildly different thoughts about it now than I did in my younger days. I probably didn’t think of the creepy factor at the time. I hear that now and think, Whoa, gross male fantasy much? But I imagine at the time, I was not 17 and thought of 17 as a glamorous adult-like age. I was 15, so I bet I thought of it as aspirational in terms of being an adult. I heard it now and think that’s just a total male fantasy and also radically wrong. I think the age is interesting as a number and age for this song. I think it’s maybe supposed to assuage the listener into thinking, Well that’s not so bad, right? She’s “almost” legal. Which also to me now reads as even more insidious since there seems to be intentionality in this song about the listener, if that makes sense. There’s also now for me that almost now banal knowledge of the young female body as always already ready to be receptive to male sexual needs, as if a 17-year-old would ever actually say that unless under duress or in a subject position of proposition or something like that. It reads like male fantasy now, but I can imagine at the time I just thought it was something to want, to be the object of some kind of male attention? I mean not that obvious but maybe. I also wonder about my 15-year-old self because I thought of myself as ugly and nerdy, definitely not someone anyone would write that kind of song about. So I wonder if anyone at the time had the idea that being thought of as attractive was itself attractive, if that makes sense.
My initial response is that it’s basically a culturally updated version of “I Saw Her Standing There.” Same age, more suggestive, but that’s the difference between 1964 and 1988 in terms of what would fly in a song. And there are indications that there is some restraint in the lyrics. (Come to my place, we can talk it over; She said take it easy. I need some time; and dancin’ close to the borderline seem to suggest that the girl is in control here.) I was also engaged at the age of 19 in 1981, so the fact that someone would be interested in a 17-year-old was not unheard of. Plus, I also don’t analyze everything in music in terms of a political perspective. I liked the whole album, Kip Winger was good-looking, and this song was the first one I saw on MTV. I certainly don’t find it as problematic language- or concept-wise as some of the other songs of that period. This opinion I’m sure is colored by my age a bit—I'm in my mid-50s, so I don’t overthink my entertainment as it is the norm to do now. I think younger women may go straight there with this song, but comparing it to the Beatles song for me is the most accurate. I don’t think I’d hear anyone arguing against early Beatles.
I was 12 to 13 when this song came out, and when I saw the video on MTV of Kip Winger in a sleeveless tank smirking and staring into the camera (staring at me, I felt), it totally made me hot, and he made me want to masturbate. Also, as a side story—I had Winger’s cassette tape, and against my dad and stepmom’s wishes, I would listen to my Walkman while I biked on a road outside of Ann Arbor, MI. The road did not get that much traffic, but it was very hilly, and cars, when they would come, would zip by superfast, and there was no bike lane. So I did this against their wishes (I wore a helmet), but I would blast THAT song and ride my bike, and I was like “fuck you” to them. So the song was like freedom to me, and it made me feel wild and free and sexy—or whatever I thought sexy was. NOW—skip ahead to NOW. I have a 12-year-old daughter, and when she’s 17, the thought of a man in his 30s coming onto her or trying to have sex with her or thinking sexual thoughts about her makes me want to vomit. But at the same time, I want her to have healthy amazing feelings and experiences about her own sexuality and whatnot—and I'm sure some of that will be about fantasizing about older men. So there you go. It’s a fucking slippery slope.
I keep returning to a notion that seems to sum up hair metal, a notion Bored Nord expresses in a comment on the YouTube video for “Seventeen”: “The vibe was so energetic and happy back then.” At the time, I was neither energetic nor happy and likely resented the entire subgenre for that reason. I’m often both of those things now, though, so I can appreciate Donna’s comments that touch on engaging in music more straightforwardly. But I also struggle with what Jennifer calls the “fucking slippery slope,” what songs like this could mean to young women and how they feel about their sexuality, how it might affect their loneliness. It’s simplistic to say, but my feelings about “Seventeen” remain complicated. My instinct might be to end by riffing on leather gloves or magic mountains, but that doesn’t feel right this time.
Daniel M. Shapiro is the author of several poetry books and chapbooks, including How the Potato Chip Was Invented, Heavy Metal Fairy Tales, and The Orange Menace. He is a special education teacher who lives in Pittsburgh, and he has played the opening riff of Slayer’s “Raining Blood” on a vintage Martin ukulele.