When grunge slaughtered hair metal in the early Nineties, all that remained in its wake on hard-rock radio were a bunch of pity parties by singers who hated themselves and the world. And that’s pretty much how it’s been for the past quarter century. The majority of mainstream heavy hits in the past year have been about bad relationships (From Ashes to New’s “Crazy”), hating haters (Five Finger Death Punch’s “Sham Pain”), macho declarations about rising above existential bullshit (everything by Godsmack) and, oddly, rats (Ghost’s “Rats”). The world of contemporary hard rock is a cold, lonely, diseased place.
A few artists, though, have bravely waded into the dangerously vulnerable waters of love — as in current relationships, not “you ruined my life” ruminations — and sex. Considering how few of these songs there are to begin with, at least since the days of Kiss yowling “Life’s such a treat and it’s time you taste it” in “Lick It Up,” it’s also worth mentioning that one positive side effect of grunge’s revolution in earnestness is the appearance, here and there, of a little bit of maturity. Not all love and sex songs need to be sung through a pout.
The most notable recent entry in this canon is Halestorm’s “Do No Disturb,” a steamy, heavy barn burner about a ménage à trois that frontwoman Lzzy Hale enjoyed one time in Holland. The single comes off the group’s recently released fourth album, Vicious, which also spawned the hit “Uncomfortable” (a tune that finds her boasting about making people uneasy by singing about sex). It’s clear on “Do Not Disturb” that Hale’s having fun, as she sings lines like “I love your accent/I wonder what it’ll sound like when you cum” with the same confidence exhibited by all of her anxiety-riddled contemporaries. That’s what makes the song sexy.
It’s also an example of a woman owning her libido, which might be the only thing rarer in the world of commercial hard rock than the presence of women at all. Hale has always embraced her sexuality, singing cheeky songs like “Love Bites (So Do I)” and lyrics like “I get off on you/Getting off on me” on her early albums, much in the same way Joan Jett owned cover songs like “I Love Rock & Roll” and “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah),” delivering them with even more swagger than the men who sang the original versions. “Sex is part of who I am, and this is one of those things where if I’m going to own it, I’m going to own it,” she recently told Rolling Stone. It’s feminism in practice, no explainer required.
Equality in the bedroom has always been a touch-and-go subject in heavy music, after all. In addition to Kiss’ one-sided love story, nearly every other noteworthy rock act from the late Sixties through the Eighties had a song demanding sex (when they weren’t singing about dragons and torture). Led Zeppelin wanted to give you every inch of their love. Judas Priest, who introduced S&M chic to the genre, sang “Eat Me Alive” (a tune too titillating for Tipper Gore). Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics sang lyrics like “You’re a sex junkie/You’ll do as I please.” AC/DC had their entire catalogue.
So it’s surprising to hear a few artists offering a 360-degree view of romance — especially one that’s not caught in a state of arrested development.
Stone Sour, a radio-friendly hard-rock group fronted by Slipknot’s grotesquely masked vocalist Corey Taylor, managed a hit last summer with “Song #3,” a song off the band’s Hydrograd album. “It doesn’t really matter what you do or say, I’m never going anywhere,” he sings after a guitar solo, “‘Cause when I’m dying for you, I’ve never felt so alive.” This from a man who used to speak regularly in interviews about vomiting in his mask, and who still sings “People = Shit” when Slipknot tour.
“There are really only two kinds of love songs these days, which are, ‘Oh, I’m aching for you, please be mine,’ or, ‘I’m gonna fuck you in a bus,'” Taylor said last year when explaining the Stone Sour song. “It’s horseshit that those are the only two kinds of love songs. So ‘Song #3’ is the third option. It’s like, ‘I love you so much, but I also want to lightly pull on your hair and do bad things to you.’ It’s a middle ground that a lot of people don’t talk about.”
It’s a grownup view of love, which is echoed somewhat in the current Three Days Grace hit “Infra-Red.” “They won’t understand us anyway,” vocalist Matt Walst sings. “You and I are on a different wave, so it doesn’t matter what they say.” It’s romantic, but loses a bit in translation because Walst can never let go of the aggression in his voice amid his band’s lumbering riffs.
On the other end of the spectrum, Texan hard rockers Nothing More currently have a radio hit with a tune that’s not just an acoustic ballad but also a song seemingly about divorce or the end of a relationship. “Tonight we’re growing closer, closer to the end,” singer Jonny Hawkins croons. “Were we fools for each other, or fools for falling in?” Never does he threaten to remove his ex-lover’s head or swear himself off to the world, and the band has no problem getting back into heavier territory a few tracks deeper into their latest LP, The Stories We Tell Ourselves.
The sincerity is refreshing, especially when the rest of hard-rock radio’s offerings are so bland. Some humor would be welcome, too, if it were done in a playful way à la Motörhead mastermind and reptile aficionado Lemmy Kilmister singing, “If you squeeze my lizard/I’ll put my snake on you” in “Killed by Death,” where the lasciviousness is so over the top that you can’t help but laugh. Halestorm come closest to this with playful lyrics like “Let’s see if blondes or brunettes are more fun” in “Do Not Disturb.” But a survey of the current hard-rock radio offerings suggests we’ll be stuck for the foreseeable future with drab, bro-y rehashings of ideas Disturbed, Godsmack and Linkin Park wrung out ages ago. Maybe these bands just need to get laid.