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In a Metal Mood For the Last Time?

Aerosmith
Living in the Past: Aerosmith has staked its current fortunes on an outdated sound--and on the idea that some people can't bear change of any kind.

Aerosmith, using up a few more of its 'Nine Lives' with newest album, rests on its dubious laurels as metal music slowly fades away

By Gina Arnold

LAST WEEK, Aerosmith released Nine Lives, the venerable band's first album in five years. As expected, the disc debuted at the top of the charts, but in record-industry parlance, "its numbers are low," meaning that the first week's total sales (140,000 copies) did not represent a huge mass of people rushing out to buy the album.

This anemic performance bodes badly for the band and its record company (Columbia); it also signifies a huge dip in the popularity of hard rock and metal, for which Aerosmith is a flagship act. This dip is evident elsewhere: MTV plays less hard rock and metal, radio formats are turning away from it, and Beavis & Butt-head make relentless fun of it.

Finally, in a crowning victory for the anti-metal forces, perennially clean-cut Christian rocker Pat Boone recently released In a Metal Mood, an album that covers songs by Alice Cooper and others, thus finally clarifying the genre's role as universal joke (something even This Is Spinal Tap couldn't accomplish).

Given metal's insidious 25-year grip on American pop culture, it's difficult to feel sorry for the hair-farming community's current slump in fortunes, but one can't help but ponder the implications of such a downturn. Metal has always been a bastion of fans of the white-male/blue-collar persuasion, its loud, dumb, sexist lyrics providing them with a motley haven from the frustrations of modern life. So what is now replacing metal in the hearts and minds of gearheads and rednecks nationwide?

Musical Indicators

IS THE DEATH of metal a sign that the American economy has changed to such an extent that Americans no longer need the genre's mean-yet-cathartic burst of color and noise? Have white men evolved spiritually to the point where they don't need to see women put down by men dressed as women in order to feel good? Or is its diminishment merely the inevitable result of artistic obsolescence?

Personally, I think it has to do with the Jurassic nature of the acts in question. Kids today have no interest in guitar rock. To them, U2 and R.E.M. are as old and hoary as Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith.

Moreover, Aerosmith's members are going on 50 and look like 70-year-old lizard people. The band's riffs and lyrics are almost fabulously clichéd, and its songs are now written by professional tunemeisters like Glenn Ballard (Alanis Morissette) and Desmond Child (Cher).

This choice of songwriters makes the numbers on Nine Lives quite palatable, but the ones by Child (particularly "Hole in My Soul," which also borrows from "Dream On") sound like by Mary J. Blige's songs.

Aerosmith's career has also followed the pathetic pattern of many of its generation of rock stars: huge hits in the '70s, followed by a lengthy, drug-induced blackout period and then a resuscitation of sorts that owes much of its fruitfulness to (1) technical advances like the creation of the CD, (2) nostalgia on the part of its audience, now in its 30s, and (3) canny videomaking.

"Younger" bands, such as U2, the Cure and R.E.M.--admittedly all now more than 15 years old--have remained creative over the years, mostly because they didn't ever do the drug thing. (One can't reiterate enough the folly of that route; no band with a heavy drug history has really retained its supremacy over time.)

No Smidgen of Grunge

AEROSMITH clearly doesn't hold any truck with the idea of creativity or moving with the times, and Nine Lives is a case in point. I'm hard pressed to say whether the fact that the album doesn't contain a smidgen of grunge is a credit or a demerit--few things sound stupider than grunge right now, but glossy pop metal is definitely one of them.

Nonetheless, Aerosmith has staked its current fortunes on an outdated sound--and on the idea that some people can't bear changes of any kind. The idea has worked for the band in the past.

In the '70s, Aerosmith stole its sound from the New York Dolls and its look from the Rolling Stones; in 1987, when Aerosmith made its billion-dollar comeback with the album Permanent Vacation, it had started stealing from yuckier sources: Angel, Poison, Mötley Crüe.

Nowadays, however, Aerosmith is in the unique position of only having to steal from itself. Thus, Nine Lives is essentially Get a Grip by the numbers--an absolute note-for-note retread of it, in fact. "Full Circle" is "Crazy," blues progression and all; "Fallen Angels" is "Amazing," and "Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)" is "Love in an Elevator," down to the same rhyme scheme and meter of the chorus.

There is one ringer, "Taste of India," but that is unbelievably close to Kula Shakur's "Tattva." And didn't the Stones do the Indian thing to death on Aftermath and Their Satanic Majesties Request 30 years ago?

Of course, it would merely be specious to complain about the multilayered sonic gloss of Nine Lives, since overproduction has been a hallmark of Aerosmith's post-'80s career. The problem with this kind of production, however, is that it makes all the guitar solos by Joe Perry sound indistinguishable from ones by Van Halen, Slash of Guns n' Roses and Craig Chaquico of Jefferson Starship--bands that, minus the carefully cultivated personalities of their lead singers, are now all musically interchangeable.

And that, then, is the secret of Aerosmith's success, since Steven Tyler is really more memorable than whoever is fronting the Starship and Van Halen these days.

But unbeknown to hapless fans (and probably to members of Aerosmith themselves), Aerosmith's career has always been fueled by a bit of a camp element, and camp doesn't last, because there is always something campier around the corner--in this case, Kiss.

Still, in rock & roll, more than in any other art form, what comes around goes around, and A & R people currently foresee a rebirth of metal, as evidenced by the success of bands like White Zombie, Korn and Marilyn Manson.

If that is the case, then Aerosmith--which is, after all is said and done, still probably only on its seventh or eighth life--may well rise up from th ashes of its own dead self and fly high again someday.

Meanwhile, as has been the case with every other Aerosmith record, how people feel about Nine Lives is going to depend entirely on how they feel about the band's image and persona: funny, charming and satyric, or totally old hat. Those who can stomach Aerosmith's act now will surely be able to stomach it forever and ever.

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro

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