(3) whitesnake, "here i go again"
(6) stryper, "to hell with the devil"
and will play 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 3/19.
On Knowing What it Means: "here i go again" in five licks by lisa wells
That it is not a great song is perhaps the first observation. It is not a great song and yet, it seems inevitable. Could you imagine our world without it? We would be poorer. Certainly there is no shortage of material appropriate to the task of pushing the Honda’s pedal to the metal, a wounded but determined look in your eye, driving away from wherever you’ve been: the Willow Creek Apartment complex, say, on 185th and Baseline, in the year 1991, a we-will-rock-you 4x4 time pulsing you into the unknown, on your own again—but little of that material inflects so insistently in a whammied minor key, and no other provides the afterimage of Tawny Kitaen draped in a gauzy white gown, seriously splayed atop the hoods of not one, but two Jaguar XJs, before the artificial fog takes her over, (her moves born of the director’s injunction to “jazz”). Ghost woman, dream woman… the hauntress.
I don’t mean it as a put-down, for it is this selfsame not-greatness that frees the song to become something else: an anthem, a bar-and-grill jukebox rebuke to the ex who’s wandered in on another’s arm. If a great song seems to speak directly to you, an individual, to take you subtly by the hand and lead you through its controlling metaphor, then this song is one of those guys working the tarmac in a neon parka, waving his glow sticks in the dark. Clear orientation is a requisite of mass appeal, how to feel now, and now, and now? More important even than an infectious hook.
“Here I Go Again,” the singer reflects in 1998: “I’ve met so many people who’ve said to me that song came to them at the right time in their lives when they identified with it so much it gave them strength to go on.” He’s quoting himself, anointing himself; the song beseeches the Lord for such strength, a sudden burst of soul so deeply felt it seems to have been thrown into his body from afar. He is at a crossroads, a fork in the yellow wood. For ten long seconds he weighs two paths the song might take, one to soulful expression, one to profitable schlock. Lord Coverdale, waste ye no more time. The hook drops like a guillotine, severing pathos from the sheer, super-burnished wall of sound. His hair grows bigger. The hobo becomes the drifter.
Road trips in the Honda CRX with mother, ages 8 through 11. My implicit consent to any cassette she might visit upon the deck. “Roadies” Volumes I and II. “Return of the Roadies” and, let us not forget, “Revenge of the Roadies.” Compilations that favored the 10-minute ballad-medley, rock songs with “movements.” Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”; Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”; “Bohemian Rhapsody,” naturally—all consonant with her love of Broadway musicals. She’d been a thespian in adolescence; she loved Pippen and Unsinkable Molly Brown. You don’t usually hear them compared but they’re overlapping aesthetics. Ditto, I suppose, her love of Meat Loaf's “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” a high school musical review as styled by Sam Kinison. These sides could uplift as surely as they rendered wistful. Moodier drives were scored by Survivor’s “The Search is Over,” Journey’s “Faithfully.” I’m certain whole divisions of RCA have made payroll exploiting the potent nostalgia of the working class Midwesterner, a nostalgia that set in instantaneously between high school graduation and the first shitty j-o-b.
Once I reached an age of dissent we compromised to alternate selections. Because my mother liked beautiful singing voices, I gravitated toward grunge and punk. If the production value was garbage and the vocals were scorched earth, all the better. By high school, our tastes dovetailed on certain of these artists—bands like Journey and Whitesnake were novelty in my circle. She listened in earnest, I listened as an ironist. My ability to lip-sync along and air-guitar the solos for my stoned friends turned out to be a good party trick.
It happens that my father is a heavy metal drummer, but once upon a time (1980) he played in a top-40 cover band called Night Castle:
My mother was their singer. She reports that on the afternoon of her audition, she watched my father descend a stair, shirtless, in nothing but a pair of bib overalls, and it was in that moment she knew he was the one. Later, divorced and bankrupt, the ultimate meaning of this meeting was revised, was “meant to be,” so that yours truly could be born—in 1982, same year the first iteration of “Here I Go Again” was scored in vinyl. I don’t believe in coincidence.
Whitesnake might be British in origin, but theirs is a quintessentially American story. And no detail of their story is more American than the fact that there is no band. There was, once, a rag tag assembly of actual musicians, aging men with beer bellies and acne scars; a keyboardist dressed in aviators and scarves with a brushy black moustache seemingly affixed to his lip with glue. He’s going as “coke dealer” for Halloween.
Then the “band” is composed of hired actors, their long hair has body, and their bodies have no hair at all.
Then the band is fully one decade younger, in excellent cardiovascular health; backlit castrati with golden curls that leap and fornicate sweetly with their double-necked guitars.
Whoever they are, were, they’re history now. Pink-slipped.
Through these phantom configurations, one persona remains constant: David Coverdale—though even he undergoes transformation worthy of a split screen. In the before video, he is brunette, pale in mom jeans, his sluggish, uninspired slide down the mic-stand reminiscent of a bored pole-dancer. In the before, he is somber, cast in blue light, cheesy keys masquerade as a single organ, and disco harmonies issue from the mouths of his disheveled doowop boys. It’s difficult to imagine anyone getting revved by the 1982 urtext. There is a gesturing toward sex that doesn’t believe its own performance, a pantomime, playing at “rock star” in some suburban garage. Not at all the tight, streamlined little engine that is the 1987 video.
In the after he is blonde, tanned, tailored, his full mouth at maximum pout. In the after, he stares and smolders, his gestures are precise. Tawny Kitaen strokes his leg, fingers his flowing locks, and never mind the asynchronous narratives, a protagonist for whom “on his own” means in the company of a beautiful former gymnast with a smile like a toothpaste model. This is America, bummer-trips don’t pay, and Coverdale is 100% self-made American. The man drives his prized white Jag with his head tipped back, maw gaped wide as a Pez dispenser, reckless, readied for Tawny’s tonguing. He is an open throated fledgling preparing to receive the mother bird’s allotment of ground detritivore. He’s whatever he wants to be. In America, a man reinvents himself any time he pleases, goes ahead on his own. Woman, inasmuch as she exists, is left with the seven-year credit flag, the maladjusted daughter, his name.
After my father left us for Tami, the beautiful 26-year-old Mary Kay saleswoman, certain of these ballads shifted the Honda’s atmosphere in subtle but troubling ways. Their tendency to inspire wet-eyed gazing, down the lonely street of dreams—the dreams disappearing beneath the wheels of the Honda, like the hours in a life, faster than they could be comprehended. “The Search is Over” was among those most likely to inspire intense grooving. The speaker who, tired of womanizing and wandering, speaks to his long-suffering love, tells her “I took for granted the friend I have in you.”
Now the miles stretch out behind me, loves that I have lost
Broken hearts lie victims of the game
Then good luck, it finally stuck like lightning from the blue
Every highway leading me back to you
The singer voiced her transparent wish to be returned to, to be recognized for the quality person she was, the steadfast friend. This was the most a woman could hope for, to serve as the port in his storm. Or so it seemed to me when I was 13. Now it seems just as likely the friend she was returning to was herself, the girl before she was subsumed in the agenda of the other, her own anima or whatever.
But no tune elicited such meaningful staring as “Here I Go Again,” which might also provoke a tender biting of the lip, a bit of light drumming on the steering wheel, an extra saucy tug on the gear shifter. As a child in the passenger seat, these atmospheric shifts frightened me. As a teen, I was mortified. The inner life she so masterfully concealed was suddenly on display and available to all comers. And underneath that, the deeper embarrassment of watching your parent indulge the same self-mythologizing fantasy life that you do every day, your own melodrama mirrored back, your shared abandonment.
Meanwhile, certain correspondences suggested the existence of a greater meaning. Take, for instance, my father’s young mistress, Tami Cain, whose name bore a homophonic relationship to Tawny Kitaen, (Kitaen in turn, a perfect portmanteau of kitten and cocaine). Tami bore a striking physical likeness to Tawny: tall, substantial women, with big lips and teased-out auburn hair (both Geena Davis clones, slightly more terrestrial). Tawny and her kittenish tumbling, sober, relapsed, sober. Tami, “sober,” at a wedding reception in 1994 riding an inflatable corona bottle and singing along to “Space Cowboy.” Tawny, later arrested for assault and battery after kicking husband number three repeatedly in the face, and later still for possession (cocaine), had a taste for “pretty boys with long hair.” Tami too loved long hair, and instructed my father in the use of box-dye, home permanent, hairdryer, maximum hold Aquanet. A decade after their courtship began, when the recession of his hairline forced his hand, my father cut it off. She was gone within the year.
Samson was betrayed. Lord Coverdale’s hair only increased. As he told an interviewer in 2001, “I take care of this mane the same as the rest of me. I’m thrilled to be blessed with it. I’ve been working with my hairdresser so that for this tour it’s going to be the longest it’s been since Reading 1980. It just keeps growing.”
It seems quaint now, but worth noting that a certain bending of gender norms was a characteristic of so-called “hair” bands, with their tight pants and fringed crop tops and huge Permasofted manes. “It got louder and louder,” said Coverdale, “and so did I, to the point now where I have to get dressed up like a ‘girly man’ and tease one’s questionable bangs or hair and it's all becoming a bit...boring.”
In fact, anxiety of these overtones was credited for the change in lyrics between 1982 (like a hobo) and 1987 (like a drifter), his fear of being misheard as singing “homo.” I hadn’t heard the hobo version, but my child-brain converted the radio hit’s Drifter to Twister, a mishearing only lately corrected in the writing of this essay. And I don’t think it’s a half-bad substitution. Hobo was a poor choice to begin with, not on account of some homophobic paranoia, but because its sonic-value is rubber. Drifter is svelte, and this was an improvement. But what wild force traverses this world more determinedly alone than a twister? What better force of nature to metaphorize Coverdale himself, with his one slender leg touching down, keeping time, his form expanding to a flurry at the crown, then disappearing to become something else. Like a twister, born from dust and wind and opposing pressures, I shall shred this earth and to dust return.
So spake the drifter: “Mine was a modest sort of epiphany where I just thought to myself: ‘I’m too old to carry around this anger, this bitterness, and this resentment. It’s excessive emotional baggage that I don’t wanna have.’”
Yeah. Me too.
I realize now, embedded in my embarrassment was fascination. Fascination for the woman I spent most of every day with and knew next to nothing about. The eldest child of a 1950s Father Knows Best nuclear arrangement; a good girl who did as she was told without making a fuss, and strove at every turn to subtract herself from the equation. To be perfect was the goal, and the perfect require nothing, mourn nothing—she kept her wounds to herself. The central message of her life was that she did not matter very much. And in the CRX, in her moment of wounded mattering, I felt myself disappear. There she went again on her own. I could not look away.
I’d been so hungry for a glimpse of her inner life I regularly snooped in her closet while she was at work, becoming intimately familiar with the contents of the cardboard box marked memories. It was there I happened on the first poem that ever touched me, an apostrophe she’d penned herself, addressed to my absent father, ending on the rhetorical lament “Isn’t there anywhere on earth for the three of us?” I was flattered to be considered, to be included in their dyad—the three of us—and relieved to find textual evidence of the pain she refused to speak of, but which was nevertheless articulated in her every gesture. It was proof: something bad happened.
She thought she was on the road alone, but she was not. I was tuned to her every signal, observing with the vigilant intensity of a child the only road I’d ever known. This is the sad and beautiful pact of the parent-child relationship; we are inextricable, for good or ill, and few of us manage to go very far away in the end. When we go, we are never on our own. Not after we’ve moved apart, disowned each other, cut ties. Not after one or the other of us is laid in the ground. We hold on for the rest of our days.
Lisa Wells is a poet and nonfiction writer from Portland, Oregon. Her debut collection of poetry, THE FIX, was selected by Brenda Shaughnessy for the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize. A new book of nonfiction, Believers, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2019.
DAVID LEGAULT ON STRYPER'S "TO HELL WITH THE DEVIL"
(This is the second of two essays on Stryper's "To Hell With the Devil." If you didn't read it in the first round start in STAGE ONE below, then come back up to STAGE TWO.)
To Hell with the Wizard
The Lion Roars. He roars again. He roars a third and we are ready to begin.
Am I in the proverbial Lion’s Den? Is it Daniel persecuted for praying to his God, protected by the angels holding beasts’ mouths shut? No, the truth, I’m afraid is far simpler: I am trying to think about the paradoxical connection between Stryper and the alleged satanic messaging of 80’s metal. Kathleen Rooney’s Twisted Sister essay aside, we haven’t spent much time talking about Congressional hearings or Tipper Gore or Parental Advisory Warnings, yet the fear of corrupting young minds through sex and drugs was prevalent. My favorite version of this is when we get into alleged subliminal messaging and satanic worship, the idea that this music is literally in service to the devil.
What I’m trying to say is that if hidden messages might exist in this music, then why would Stryper be excluded? What I’m trying to say is that it is three in the morning and I am sitting wide awake in a Best Western hotel in a Chicago suburb—my first time in the United States in almost two years—and I am letting the insanity of insomnia creep out of the subconscious and into these ramblings. What I am trying to say is that I have just hit the play button on two separate devices: the first, a full copy of Stryper’s To Hell With the Devil album; the second, a streaming video of The Wizard of Oz.
I have chosen the lion’s roar as the meaningful benchmark previously established by fans of Dark Side of the Moon (seen here thanks to Youtube user GodKillzYou): a video/music sync that was not planned, yet it’s hard to watch it and not find meaningful connection. Likely, this is a function of the way our minds work. We are always looking for meaning, for the type of networking that occurs here. I see no reason to stop with Pink Floyd. After all, Stryper’s lead guitarist goes simply by the name, Oz.
The album begins with an instrumental section that lines up almost perfectly with opening credits, which state:
Our first song, the titular “To Hell with the Devil.” “We Speak of the Devil,” Michael Sweet tells us, and Dorothy is running, looking over her shoulder. She is running to her aunt and uncle to tell them something important. A second verse starts just as the men who will become our Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly lion appear for the first time. The guitar solo begins just as Dorothy balance beams the fence, balanced between Heaven and Hell. She falls, but to which side?
Perhaps I’m drawn to this idea and this movie at this moment because of the odd circumstances in which I find myself. I recognize that this portion of the essay is going to make me sound like the cliché college student returning from his semester of study abroad, but honestly that’s not too far off from the truth. Before moving overseas I had never been out of the country, and now returning two years later everything seems slightly off kilter. It’s three in the morning and I am eating a bag of Doritos and my mouth feels like a science fiction novel. High fructose corn syrup pumps through my veins and I don’t know what to do with that kind of electricity. The Czech Republic is by no means that far off from the United States, but my few hours home have felt more vibrant, a little too intense in these first few hours for me to articulate. Like Dorothy, I feel I have been transported into the fantastical. Like Dorothy, in this moment I don’t know which place feels more like home.
The second song of the album, “Calling on You,” syncs up nearly perfectly with “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” The first verse of Stryper’s second song:
Inside of me there is a lonely place
Sometimes I just don't know it's there
But when I'm all alone
That's when I have to face...
Like Dorothy, Stryper sings of wanting something more. Where they find fulfillment is perhaps different, but the end of the song tells us that “when I have to face the rain, you bring sunshine to my life.” At that moment, the scene of Dorothy’s song cuts to rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds.
The guitar solo begins as Miss Gulch rides her bike toward Dorothy’s home, iconic music replaced with iconic shred.
The song “Free” begins as Toto is taken away, antithetical. The lyric “You’re free!” as Toto jumps out of basket, runs home. “You’ve got the right to choose…” as Dorothy runs away.
I want to connect Dorothy’s escape to my own, the hope for something better in a job overseas. I believe in the link between place and the self, that our surroundings can shape who we are. In running away, there’s always the hope of becoming someone else entirely.
Synthesizer, for the first time on this album. Of course, it marks our transition into fantasy, into worlds of color.
“Sing along Song” as a bubble slowly floats toward her feet, guitar and scream give entrance. Dorothy tells us, “Now I know we’re not in Kansas.”
The Wicked Witch is dead and another solo kicks in. Singing starts as Dorothy talks to the Mayor of Munchkins. The witch’s death is certified. The mayor announces her dead officially, Michael Sweet tells us “I never thought it would be this good.”
I am drinking Mountain Dew from a vending machine because it turns out the thing I miss the most about this country is its shitty processed drinks. Meanwhile the Wicked Witch enters in a cloud of red smoke.
“The One that's secure, the one that has cured my broken heart with perfect love.” The type of love Stryper sings about is somewhat off putting in that it always feels unexpected. Love that is not sexual feels incorrect in the context of this music. Combined with the images of Munchkins dancing in celebration of the witch’s death feels exceptionally off-putting.
Truth be told, I am losing faith in this project, in the idea of hidden meaning. It seemed a worthwhile experiment, but I am realizing that I am really good at looking for connections where they do not exist, where I can make anything believe whatever I want. And in this way, I fear I might also be making everything meaningless. This doubt is creeping in in the way that can only happen at four in the morning alone in a chain hotel room. There is a darkness here, which juxtaposed against the message of Stryper feels particularly uncomfortable.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road! How had it not occurred to me before this moment?! Stryper shreds again as the movie shifts focus toward a yellow stripe down a field of green. From here on out, it is the yellow stripe that drives this movie forward, that brings us toward everything we desire.
The song “All of Me” starts and Michael Sweet says he’s searching, and we find Dorothy at a crossroad, four stripes of yellow. In the context of this film, of this band, I find myself thinking of the Devil at the crossroads, Robert Johnson selling his soul. Instead we find the Scarecrow, and we must wonder what he would sell for the brain he desires, what sacrifice he would make in order to get it. The line “you gave me everything” is sung as Dorothy takes the scarecrow down from the wooden post he was nailed to. I find myself once again believing in the project.
The song “More Than a Man” syncs up with start of “If I Only Had a Brain,” and I wonder what more I could be, what else I could do. “He's the One, the One who rules the land/ He is the One I choose” as Scarecrow decides to join Dorothy to see the Wizard.
They dance, Stryper shreds, I beg for sleep that will not come. The album ends on Michael Sweet’s falsetto scream as the camera pans up to see the Tin Man’s face for the very first time. I am a little less certain where this ends for me.
to hell with the devil
In the beginning there was Scripture, taken from The Book of Isaiah, verse 53:5: By His Stripes We are Healed. The stripes in question, of course, reference the lashes of a whip across Jesus’ back, the streams of blood pouring out of him, staining the dirt, the paradoxical healing that comes from taking on the sins of the world.
Actually, it begins earlier than that: though that verse is referenced on most STRYPER album covers, the verse was found as a meaningful connection to the STRYPER acronym: Salvation Through Redemption Yielding Peace, Encouragement, and Righteousness. In this case, the name came first: only later was Biblical meaning placed upon it.
Actually, it begins earlier still: the acronym was created after the name STRYPER was chosen. According to lead singer and guitarist Michael Sweet’s memoir, the name was chosen because it rhymed with the word “hyper:” because someone thought it sounded cool, connoted a certain energy and rock & roll attitude, because the name lent itself to stylistic choices: black and yellow stripes that cover nearly everything.
Perhaps that’s as good of an entry point as we’re going to find into “To Hell with The Devil,” with the entirety of the STRYPER catalog that must be addressed: Yes, you know them as the Christian Metal band. Perhaps you think of tight-striped spandex and throwing Bibles into the crowd. Perhaps you know them as two-time winners at The Dove Awards, or the guys who attempted to stylize “777” a numeric symbol that wasn’t tied to the satanic. But I love about STRYPER not for their faith, but in spite of it. STRYPER is not White Cross or Sacred Warrior or Lightforce or Holy Soldier because those guys suck: knockoff Christian bands without a sense of artistic vision, rather, they emulated it: becoming the Christian Iron Maiden, the Christian Metallica. These bands were not creating art but moderately acceptable imitations, taking music people liked and taking out the swears to appease worried parents, changing the word “Baby” to “Jesus” and acting as if that’s enough to make something meaningful. Only STRYPER comes out of this era concerned with music more than marketing, with being better than “secular” bands, with attempting to reach an audience outside of the Christian rock bubble. Perhaps this is why they were the first Christian rock band to go platinum, why they were the most requested band in the history of DIAL MTV in the prime of music video television. Perhaps this is why Christian groups and Televangelists spent more time protesting outside of concert venues than they did listening to the words being sung. What I’m trying to say is yes this is Christian metal and yesthat is crucial to our understanding and appreciation of the band, but I’m also trying to say that their biggest priority was making something that would resonate in our bodies the way only good music can. What I’m trying to say is that this music shreds.
We speak of the devil
He’s no friend of mine.
To Turn from him is what we have in mind
The Czech Republic, where I currently live, is, spiritually speaking, the darkest country in the world. Roughly 85 percent of the country identifies as atheistic or agnostic. Despite the countless churches and cathedrals that have stood here for centuries, decades of Communist occupation turned organized religion into something dangerous to practice: large gatherings of people celebrating a higher authority—one with a Gospel which was meant to be shared and spread, one that spoke of overthrowing those who held its believers in bondage—was a sure way of drawing unwanted attention. Nearly three decades after the fall of Communism and the culture is still engrained with a distrust of authority, of organized meeting spaces, with sharing anything private or personal with the outside world.
I mention this because it is at least part of the reason I live here. I mention this because the school where I teach was founded in order to serve the small Christian population in this country. I mention this because the teachers at my school are paid through fundraising and support. I mention this because—even though my job consists of teaching humanities courses to advanced-level high school students, even though it sounds absurd, even to myself—my visa for living in this country lists my occupation as Missionary.
I don’t fit into the typical Christian mold, at least not in our current politicized climate: my views on the typical hot-button issues of choice or LGBTQ rights or social justice align more closely with your typical MFA graduate than they would with the picture in your mind when I say the word “missionary.” There were plenty of reasons for moving to Prague— it made sense professionally, creatively, and has overall been great for my family in all sorts of ways—but the primary reason, working at an international Christian school, was not a path I ever would have anticipated for myself. That is to say, my biggest problem with Christianity has always been Christians themselves, perhaps never more so apparently than in the last few years. Out of all the reasons I could be here, I consider my role in this school and this country to be representing a different side of Christianity: one that can perhaps better address the countless examples of hypocrisy and cynicism that I see whenever I watch the news, one that shows students how to follow the Gospel while still finding space to form your own opinions on the world, one that acknowledges the privilege we have been granted, one that chooses love over discrimination or judgment or hatred in all its forms.
Just a liar and a thief
The word tells us so
We like to let him know
Where he can go
Within a week of arriving in Prague, I received word that my first book of essays, a book that I first started work on over ten years ago, was finally being published. But instead of the excitement and accomplishment that I assume most people feel upon hearing this news, it filled me with pangs of loneliness. Most of the people with whom I could celebrate such news now lived on an entirely different continent, and though the people in this country were going to be supportive of the news, the idea of sharing the actual book with my new coworkers or students—a book that includes, among other things, references to a “Cooking with Semen” cookbook and my various (and ongoing) practices in vandalism—was out of the question. Which is unfortunate; the book won’t be found in a Christian bookstore, I’d argue that those values are at its heart: that I’ve often tried to fix the problems of my life through stuff, how I’ve created idols out of the labels I’ve put upon myself: teacher, writer, runner, musician, husband, father. The essays of the book are basically an exercise in pulling these labels away through a chronicling of my own failures, showing the failure in these roles, how my value in this world must ultimately come from somewhere else.
At least that’s my takeaway. The book itself likely doesn’t come close to addressing these questions in a way that is meaningful to a reader. It’s likely my own cowardice when it comes to sharing my beliefs, my fears of alienating others by talking about my faith—even as I move halfway across the world to serve a church-focused mission, I often have a hard time even admitting that I am a Christian in daily conversation.
So I find myself in a crisis of my own manufacturing: working at a school where I hope my views of Christianity can go against awful stereotypes, yet I am often uncomfortable in sharing those views. I’m afraid of sharing a mostly secular book within a Christian community, yet I’m equally afraid of exploring Christian themes completely for fear of alienating a secular crowd. I’m on the other side of the planet from my writing community and have just published a book that I don’t want to tell anyone about. Even now—in writing this essay and talking so frankly about my own beliefs and doubts—I find myself anxious for the possible real-world consequences of anyone actually reading this. If there’s any good that will come of this essay outside of assumed Shredness glory, I have to say that this is an earnest and honest attempt to make a case for my faith, a space in which I can feel confident enough to share a pretty big part of myself with you, to maybe feel ok in my own skin for a while.
To Hell With the Devil!
To Hell With the Devil!
There is something about the way this song’s chorus sounds both triumphant and sad, the way the guitar’s wail screams in agony as it rejects the sin that reaches into its world.
In Michael Sweet’s memoir, he writes about the complicated issue of Christian popular culture: how the artists don’t have to be as good because of a built-in audience, how the audience ultimately wants the original version and is therefore willing to accept an imitation, however poor it may be. In his words:
Stryper stood out from the rest of the Christian rock pack, I believe, for two reasons: we had a unique sound with great songs and we didn’t preach to the choir…It’s sad. You would think someone called to play music by God would have talent and creativity far beyond that of the secular world and would excel far beyond the norm, but that just wasn’t the case, or at least it didn’t seem that way to me. I think a lot of it has to do with competition. Stryper grew up on The Sunset Strip where competition was fierce. We didn’t just have to be better than other Christian bands but we had to strive to be better than the best of the best on The Strip. The Strip had the most critical fan base in the world. So for us to sing about Jesus and appeal to the fans on The Strip was quite unusual. We had to have great songs, a great look, and really shine above and beyond the rest. Our competition wasn’t the church band from down the street. It was Motley Crue, Ratt, and Poison… So as long as these Christian bands were moderately good, and inserted “Jesus” into a lot of their songs, they didn’t really have to try as hard to be accepted by most Christian rock fans. As a result, mediocre songs became good enough for a good handful of these groups.
The Bible talks about God’s children being set apart: in the world, but not of the world. This gets complicated, obviously, when the Christian message engages with popular culture: trying to appeal to widely held cultural ideas, but in a way that must be, by definition, countercultural.
This countercultural mission can be achieved in two ways. The first is by far more common: taking a popular thing and making a Christian version: DC Talk white-rapping about how a girl should act on a date, Kirk Cameron’s film career, or the countless book series including weird Amish romance novels, the Left Behind Series, or a wide range of self-help and—weirdly—business management guides. In short, this is not so much art as it is targeted marketing: creating a safe space for Christians who are willing to accept an inferior product that does not challenge, making something that will never appeal a non-Christian except for ironic mockery. It is preaching to the choir both literally and figuratively.
The second approach is to make art so compelling that non-Christians will still be drawn to it, and in this way, you are reaching a new audience, fulfilling a call to missions that asks us to go out into an unbelieving world, spreading the word of God. It may begin as countercultural, but if good enough, it actually shapes the rest of culture toward its style. The list in this category is incredibly small: it includes writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; it includes Veggie Tales; and yes, it includes the work of STRYPER.
When things are going wrong
You know who to blame
He will always live
Up to his name
Although not immediately obvious, I believe Hair Metal and Christian Rock share common threads: both are often lame, but they celebrate that lameness, bask in it. They share an earnestness that often makes me uncomfortable because I could never be that honest about anything. They go all-in to the point of excess: either raising their hands and shouting halleluiah, or through three-minute guitar solos, spandex, and laser light shows. STRYPER combines these in a way that seems natural: think of the rotating drum set at the end of this video, think of the way Michael Sweet falsettos the word Blame!
I realize now that the song’s greatest appeal is in its complete lack of shame, its refusal to apologize for its beliefs or its message. What I wouldn’t give to feel that free!
He's never been the answer
There's a better way
We are here to rock out
And to say
Which is to say, the Bible tells us we are made in the image of God, that we should do everything we can to display that character. And what is God if not a creator? Tolkien talked about this as “sub-creation:” building worlds—creating art—as our clearest way of being like God, being in his image by doing the very things he does. I think this is one of the things we can do in art. I think is one thing religious artists have largely failed to do. I think this is what STRYPER has done to great success.
Or, to put it another way, I’ve long been afraid to create in this way because it feels so hypocritical: I am a selfish, vindictive man who often does the bare minimum that is required of me, more likely to run from my problems than deal with consequence—perhaps a bigger reason for moving to Prague than any of the reasons previously mentioned. That I crave recognition and prestige to a degree that isn’t healthy: I can tell you here that I still follow the careers of several writers who are working jobs I’ve interviewed for years ago, noting how much more I’ve published in the time since, how much jealousy burns for a career I often covet. I am the Michael Jordan of not answering emails, of never calling back. Even with two children and a wife, I put my own shit in front of others so often as to be shameful. Who am I to create worlds or share a message of redemption? How can I write something that can open more doors than it closes?
Or, to put in another way, I do not know the answers to the questions that I ask, but I know STRYPER makes me feel better about the act of questioning, about the possibility of one day getting over myself.
Or, to put it another way, I’d like to share with you now my favorite story in the Bible. It is from the Book of Acts, Chapter 17: the Temple of the Unknown God. To paraphrase, The Apostle Paul finds himself in the city of Athens, distressed at a city that he sees is full of idols. Here, he does not quote scripture at the Athenians, does not warn them of their sinful ways and the damnation of their souls, but instead, he quotes the Greek poets and philosophers. He spends time with their culture, learns from it, loves it. He references an altar he found that is inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD—a god the Athenians did not know, but still worshipped in case their gods did not cover every need, an emergency god to turn to when their own gods didn’t answer. It is this god that Paul argues is the same as his own. It is through this god that Paul finds connection and relationship outside himself. It is only through Athenian culture that he can reach the Athenians. Though most of the group still mocks Paul for his beliefs, some of them join him, as well.
Which is a roundabout way of saying I hope STRYPER has found a place in your heart: either musically or spiritually. Vote for them because they own the best color scheme in the tournament. Vote for them because Michael Sweet’s falsetto, because of Oz Fox’s guitar solos. Vote for them because God and The Devil are both here inside of me, but hopefully that struggle can reach out to you or to someone or to anyone. Vote for them because we all reach out for something misunderstood, because we all worship at the altars of unknown gods.
David LeGault's book of essays, One Million Maniacs, is now available from Outpost19 and includes more thoughts on Metal, as well as far too many of his thoughts on killer car movies. He has less hair and is significantly less Metal, but that doesn't mean he doesn't still own a synthesizer from his own rock and roll aspirations. Though he calls the Midwest home, he currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.