Friday, October 30, 2015


"Ever had the feeling you've been cheated?"Johnny Rotten

I have written about the internecine war between white youth of the 80s: “punk” vs. “metal.” That earlier article, this subject functioned as an as introduction to Duran Duran’s 2011 “neo-retro” album All You Need Is Now, summarized the differences thusly:
If you were a youth in the ‘80s—as some of us may be old enough to remember—you simply weren’t allowed to like both Metal and Punk at the same time. The sort of kids who were into Metal (who had the rest of us outnumbered, it always seemed) tended to be less thoughtful or reflective, and more swaggering and macho, while we “Punk” kids liked to style themselves as intellectual and artsy.
Naturally, the Metal kids tended to be the ones to ruthlessly administer the inevitable doses of adolescent mockery, ostracism and ass-kickings, while we Punks and New Wavers were usually the ones who got mocked and ostracized, and who got our asses kicked. Of course, some of the crazier and more fearless Punks might were able to channel their inner-Johnny Rotten and fight back occasionally, but as a general rule we were on the receiving end of the abuse.

And yet, one could argue that we Punks and wavers were the ones whose adopted values were most reflective of the philosophical fruits of Western, that is, “White” civilization. While we admittedly flirted with grandiose effeteness much of the time (hence the mockery and the ass-kickings), we were more prone to agree with seminal Western thinker Socrates in his famous assertion that the unexamined life is not worth living. The Metalheads, on the other hand, merely liked to drink, party, and screw, and thought it was plainly “gay” ever to question their debauched lifestyle choices. The Punks and Wavers (with the exception of the “straight-edge” ones, like myself and most of my friends) took their share of mind-altering substances, and most certainly had sex if they ever got the chance, but all the while were asking themselves, with gloomy, hyper-literate wordsmith Morrissey, “What difference does it make?”

Of course, we Wavers could be tiresome and pretentious, and we often were. But we were also very often quite sincere in our expressions of angst and anguish. The existential terror of adolescence, after all, is that one suddenly finds oneself neither fish nor fowl but a rather pitiful mixed breed, one which sprouts useless scales when it tries to fly, and is afflicted with ridiculous burdensome wings when it only wants to swim.
The aesthetic and philosophical differences between the 80s incarnations of metal and punk, however, are in fact representative of far more than what I enumerated in that article. They can be summarized as the difference between two very distinct attitudes towards art, and two radically divergent sets of values. It is not simply the distinction between the intellectual and the yahoo, or between the geek and the jock, as I characterized things in my 2011 piece. Rather, at its heart, it comes down to one’s perspective regarding the prospect of applause, i.e., approval.
Heavy metal, whatever its virtues as a musical form, has always struck me as in many ways a fatuous exercise in muscle-flexing on the part of the performers. The heavy metal guitarist, in particular, is invested with a proclivity towards showing off. Metal songs usually contain a bombastic guitar solo, in which the would-be practiced virtuoso in question is encouraged to let loose and “shred” to his heart’s content, while the listener is asked to sit back and generally feel awestruck by the guitar god’s prowess. The point of the solo doesn’t seem to be to enhance the aesthetic value of the song, but rather to make us think, “That guy sure can play!!!”

Here Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap portrays an only slightly satirical take on the bombasticism here spoken of:

I am not, of course, opposed to displays of talent. But the ubiquitous metal guitar solo, to me, represents a base and pathetic panting after plaudits. The guitarist wants to make people howl with delight at the exquisite virtuosity of his chops and to swoon how altogether fantastic he is. In this sense, he is a perfect representative of the sort of artist who aims to please, and in factlives for little but applause.

Though assuredly a manifestation of intense egoism, this attitude also betrays a conspicuous neediness on the performer’s part. Indeed, in the absence of an appreciative audience, he grows sulky and agitated, if this audience disappears after a given period of time, he becomes fearful lest he’s “lost it,” and feels driven to prove that he’s “still got it”; he measures his possession of this mysterious quality known as “it” by whether or not the fans are willing to clap for him. (Even then, if he is particularly sensitive, he might torment himself wondering how many are truly sincere in their adulation, and how many are applauding merely due of politeness, or worse, out of pity, out of an abashed awareness of his now sadly-lost prowess.)


On the other hand, consider the standard “punk rock” performer. Such a one is admittedly far less likely ever to be in possession of “it” in the first place.Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols was no Eddie Van Halen, nor could he ever have become such a one, nor was he ever interested in being such a one. Likewise, Mick Jones of The Clash had no ambitions of obtaining the chops of Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton. Indeed, the notion of imitating or modelling oneself after “rock idols” was anathema to the purveyors of the punk ethos. The punks disdained the very idea of trying to impress an audience through muscle-flexing displays of shock and awe; they wouldn’t ever have wanted to take part in such a degrading spectacle, even if they’d had the ability to do so. Indeed, the punks did not evince any interest in doing anything whatsoever that was timed or programmed to elicit applause. More often, they would taunt, ridicule or otherwise upbraid the crowd. Johnny Rotten-style:

The Los Angeles-based band Fear showed displayed such a defiant attitude at this San Francisco show, featured in the Penelope Spheeris documentaryThe Decline of Western Civilization, wherein they mocked the audience as a “bunch of queers” who “sucked.” When the Sex Pistols played Dallas, Sid Vicious looked the crowd over and sneered, “You cowboys are all a bunch of fucking faggots!” While certainly not kind or genteel, such self-consciously puerile gestures serve the purpose of the anti-applause aesthetic. Whatever their faults, performers that would rather antagonize than please their fans are certainly not susceptible to flattery or otherwise manipulable; as such, they are the very opposite of the revoltingly flatulent guitar soloists who fairly well scream to be loved even as they ooze faux-swagger and pseudo-cockiness.


Maybe I’m getting cranky(er) in my old age, but the sound of applause grates on me now like it never did before. It actually makes me wretch violently with rage and contempt. Contemplation of this matter makes me feel vile, mainly because I’m aware of that within myself which would hunger after applause to satisfy the lusts of my furiously hungry and pathetically needy ego.

Indeed, I’m well aware that in even discussing this topic, I’m opening myself up for censure. It may well be argued, “Yeah Nowicki, you’re just a nobody who’s jealous of those who are successful! You only hate applause because you’re not getting any of it!!!”

Such a critique is worthy of attention; indeed, I hope that, should I ever obtain any appreciable amount of would-be acclaim, my response would be more Sex Pistols-ish than Van Halen-esque, and I’ll thus be able to prove myself not to be a contemptible Polack untermensch full of Nietzschian ressentiment bought off by the illusion of fame and success, but a proud Polack ubermensch unbowed by the ravages of flattery, well aware of being as much a nobody as ever before.

Well, I suppose we’ll just have to wait until that inevitable moment arrives and then see what happens! (Cues the APPLAUSE sign to commemorate this modest witticism, turns the laugh track on full, takes bow amidst the canned, inhuman chuckles and claps, blows kiss to the non-existent crowd, pulls out gun, blows brains out. Fade to black.)

(originally published at Alternative Right, March 2015)

Andy Nowicki, co-editor of Alternative Right, is the author of eight books, including Under the NihilThe Columbine PilgrimConsidering Suicide, andBeauty and the Least. He occasionally updates his blog when the spirit moves him to do so. Visit his Soundcloud page

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