Some might say hair metal died in the 90s when Nirvana disrupted the rock industry. Yet, all of hair metal’s celebration of excess and sexism, musical dilution, and market oversaturation is present in today’s mainstream country scene. The factory seems to have just moved from the Sunset Strip to Nashville. It’s massive appeal to young listeners has created a divide in the country music scene not unlike the divide in the metal scene in the 80s. On one side industry titans argue that Bro Country is just the music of the times and that old people are just whining about being left behind. On the other side, more “authentic” artists are rising under the banner of “real country.” This is all quickly acessible on Wikipedia and Saving Country Music in more depth. But is Bro Country really just the second coming of Hair Metal? Or does Hair Metal deserve a little more credit?
From the opening riff of “She’s Country,” it’s clear modern country artists do owe a lot to 80’s rock giants. Both genres share a love of swaggery riffs and cheesy production. It’s poppy and catchy music fronted by well-groomed, long-haired, spray-tanned millionaires. Even Bon Jovi, the god of hair metal himself, went country for a brief stint. Lyrically, the two genres are also cut from the same cloth. Now, instead of objectifying strippers while simultaneously dressing like them, bro country is singing about what seems to be the exact same girl over and over again. Just look at these fine young men. Wouldn’t they fit in perfectly at your local Poison-tribute band?
The two genres are also marketed in a similar way. Bro Country artists sing about real working-class life. They drop brand-names and activities that their listeners instantly connect to like fishing and truck-driving. Songs like “My Girl” and “That’s My Kinda Night” are only a few steps away from “Cherry Pie” and “Nothin’ But A Good Time.” There’s also a certain paradox in both groups of artists marketing an image of excess and extravagance while still appealing to their audience’s working class lifestyle. How can Poison sing “Not a dime, I can’t pay my rent, I can barely make it through the week” to a crowd of 20,000 people in a stadium? I’m not the first to point any of this out, of course. The Guardian, Bo Burnham, and other country artists all have presented a more apt analysis of this parallel. However, there is an important political distinction between these two genres that I believe is worth noting. Bare with me for a second. I’m going to talk about Trump but I promise it’s relevant.
When Trump was elected, it seems as though America entered into Bizarro World. The Republicans are no longer the party of the conservative right. They elected a sexist, crotch-grabbing creep who talks to little boys about sex parties. In the 80’s, rock and metal was a reaction the strict conservative mindset of the older generation who was in charge. It was real rebellion against a real adversary. Yes, the bands were musically and lyrically shallow but the spirit of hair metal was always resistance. Tipper Gore took those musicians to court over their music. For every sexist song about a stripper there were songs about personal freedom, rights, perseverance, true love lost, and even space exploration. I guess what I’m trying to say is: hair metal wasn’t that bad and if Bro Country is the music of today’s aggressive (and regressive) right, then there really is no comparison.
To drive home this point, look no further than Jon Bon Jovi, one of hair metal’s biggest artists even to this day. Though the man may have tried out the waters of Bro Country with his 2007 album, Lost Highway, Bon Jovi has campaigned hard for John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. If a figurehead of hair metal can do this, modern country isn’t the hair metal of today, it just stole some of the aesthetics. Country artists like Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell and Margo Price (AKA the old lefties and the less popular authentics of today) have all made their anti-Trump status clear but the rest of the scene remains silent. Hair metal was silly music but it was there to make fun of hypocrisy and injustice when the country needed it. Where are the bros?