first round game
(6) the cult, "fire woman"
(11) yngwie malmsteen, "heaven tonight"
& will play on
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 3/7.
raquel gutiérrez on the cult's "fire woman"
Growing up in Southeast Los Angeles my introduction to The Cult came through the Southern California post-punk pre-alternative radio station, K-ROQ. I heard Ian Astbury’s restrained growl and Billy Duffy’s lighter-worthy guitar solos couched between Blondie and the Buzzcocks, Devo and Depeche Mode. The Cult may have gotten airplay on K-NAC, the heavy metal station I was sure to tune out of as soon as I heard the chainsaw racket of Megadeth or AC/DC. My genealogical lifeline to The Cult comes by way of the English acid of Generation X, Crass, and Led Zeppelin.
So mining The Cult for their hair metal metal meant having to readjust my perception of good old fashioned punk rockers that knew how to play their instruments. The Cult stood as my first avatars of genre promiscuity. That punks and heshers were capable of liking the same band was not a lesson I was attuned for in my adolescence. In my middle age I have chilled the fuck out on these porous categories though. Still, whether it is punk or metal, I will always want my favorite band trivia to reveal more than what it does. I want to know about the interstices of intention; what strikes before inspiration does. How do naming ceremonies get their due? How tempestuous was a muse? And most importantly, why was Ian Astbury just watching a guy in North Dakota change his tire without offering to help? And how does that tidbit continue to persist within our informational ethers?
The lore suggests that Ian Astbury on a day off from tour, from singing his ass off for one of the most unsung bands in hair metal history opening for Metallica, happened to find himself somewhere in North Dakota. Astbury noticed a member of the local Sioux tribe change his flat tire on the side of the road. Upon being noticed by the steely-eyed singer the man invited Astbury home and offered him a home cooked meal. This just doesn’t make sense so I’m compelled to call on the rhetorical ability that a speculative non-fiction offers and adjust the narrative slightly. Astbury held the tire jack. And the pressure gauge. How else does a man get invited to a stranger’s home to engage in the intimacy that a home cooked meal affords?
Astbury meets this tire-changing gentleman months into a newfound sobriety that enables him and Duffy to lead the band in meeting its responsibilities to themselves and their fans as they white knuckle a grueling tour schedule with aplomb and grace. Astbury is also looking to an ancestral belief system not his own to ground a life framed by trauma and tragedy where sick and absent parents forced the eldest son to care for his younger siblings. Astbury’s mother died of cancer on his 17th birthday and his father tried to commit suicide shortly thereafter. On top of an already shaky homelife Astbury endured being raped by a male boss and kept on working that low wage job to continue supporting his family.
But none of this is mentioned. A fanatic will glean Astbury’s predilection for Native American cultural objects and expressions (he lists Buffy Saint Marie as an influence, his self-fashioning in leather and turquoise, animal guides subtly grounding his peacockishness). It sits, a ghostly weight tempered each time he steps out on stage, as the rolls were buttered and as the green beans passed hands between this indigenous man who was on a mid-term break from studying resource management at the local college. He told Astbury that he wanted ultimately to help purify his tribe’s source of potable water. He then asked Astbury who had been attentive to the man’s optimistic aspirations what was he doing for his community. Astbury was struck dumb at the query.
That silence was however generative as Astbury went on to dream and deliver a Gathering of the Tribes, a music festival that brought artists from diverse genres together on the same stage. From the Indigo Girls to Public Enemy to Primus Astbury’s vision was to heal the rifts that the music industry had capitalized on in keeping fans away from bands they might not have sought out because of the way radio adheres to its own bizarre business model for disseminating art. To be in service is often a tenet for those seeking solace from addictive tendencies even if Gathering of the Tribes had a limited shelf life that drained $50,000 of Astbury’s own money. It did however inspire Perry Farrell to basically rip off the idea of a cross genre audience pollination experiment and start the more lucrative Lollapalooza.
Yet who inspired Astbury to pause and take in his North Dakota surroundings with an expansive presence of mind was none other than the fire woman herself, Renee Beach. Not just a former flame but a manifestrix of lore in her own right, Beach before her role as muse was said to have received the nom de guerre in a naming ceremony that coincidentally places her in North Dakota also. But nary a word to clue in the hair metal listener of various complicated Americas except to thank the online Lakota to English dictionaries that tell us that yes Peta Win translates to “Woman of Fire.” In a time when a politic of identity was reserved for the most marginalized of women studies majors we may never know if Renee Beach—inventor of the bullet lipstick case for Mac cosmetics and art director of The Cult’s video for the sexiest song in their repertoire—holds a tribal membership to the Lakota and Teton Sioux nation.
But all we are to know of Beach is her role as muse not as a broker of cultures, a tour guide for her blue-eyed beau. We know of her through desire’s nightsong, a howling made mantra in the following refrain:
Fire woman, you're to blame
Fire woman, you're to blame
Fire woman, you're to blame
Fire woman, you're to blame
The “Fire Woman” video is an excellent portrait of a live show. A public could come to expect Astbury’s headbangs with balletic elegance, an iron-flattened black maned tomcat on a hot tin roof in tasteful black flares—or simply put, the second coming of Jim Morrison’s sex on legs. Bae can move. Bae can thrust. Bae can sneer. Bae can fuck. (You don’t believe me? Hover over the 4:30 mark on the video and see for yourself.) A rollicking vision quest but for sex. Am I right, ladies?
Where do we buy tickets?
And like a shamanic incantation (or maybe when the edibles hit) it just as semen and blood in its climactic helix release its captive from its lusty clutches, Astbury casts his object of desire out of Eden. Sex in Astbury’s soaring baritone, like Morrison before him, heralds the addict’s last frontier.
The momentum of Sonic Temple’s success dissipated noticeably despite career peaking performances at the 1989 MTV Awards. Astbury unraveled from personal issues ranging from a tempestous relationship with Beach to his father succumbing to cancer while The Cult was in the middle of its Sonic Temple tour. Drummer Matt Sorum jumped ship to join Guns N’Roses saving that band from a similar fate. The Cult of course continued making music but never eclipsing younger bands from their Sunset Strip salad days.
There’s a lot we owe to The Cult. And by we I mean us the philosophers of hair metal. And by owe the inventory of debt includes bridging the gaps between punk and metal through angst, sex, and leather; the headscarf as lead singer objet d’art; Guns N’ fuckin’ Roses. That’s right. GN’R was the opening act on The Cult’s tour in support of their third album Electric. It is a likely story that each night Axl, Slash and Duff took copious notes on performing live and living hard. Even Beach made an important intervention by tying the head scarf on Axl Rose’s ginger mane herself. The rest is hair metal history.
Raquel Gutiérrez was first introduced to the politics of space when in 8th grade got dropped off at the Music Plus in Lakewood, California to stand in line for Guns N'Roses tickets only to realize she was a browner kind of fan. A former life involved working music retail marketing for a Soundscan competitor back in the pre-MP3 days and now Gutiérrez is a poet and essayist pursuing her MFA degree in poetry at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she writes about space and institutionality and publishes chapbooks by queers of color with the tiny press Econo Textual Objects, established in 2014. Her work has found homes in FENCE, Zócalo Public Square, ASAP Journal, Huizache, The Portland Review, Los Angeles Weekly, and Entropy.
The Love Song of Yngwie J. Malmsteen: Martin Seay on “Heaven Tonight”
I have a friend—a record collector and music aficionado, particularly into early blues and early punk, very knowledgeable and very opinionated—who maintains a steady skepticism toward any display of sophistication in pop, be it harmonic opulence or structural fussiness or slick production, and who reserves particular disdain for demonstrations of look-at-me virtuosity, instances of which he condemns with a sneer and a single withering word.
That word is “Yngwie.”
It’s a helpful term, doing much of the gently pejorative duty that “muso” does in the UK, with an added hint of bad taste. To be Yngwie is to be a prodigy but not a connoisseur, a nerd rather than a geek. Yngwieness does not derive from chops alone: Muse, for instance, is Yngwie, while St. Vincent is not. Whitney Houston isn’t Yngwie, and Britney Spears isn’t either, but Christina Aguilera kind of is. Glenn Branca is intensely Yngwie; Steve Reich isn’t Yngwie at all. Rush is Yngwie; Emerson, Lake & Palmer is peak Yngwie; King Crimson is not really Yngwie; Tool needs to watch it with the Yngwie. One might plausibly assert that the National is a great band because Berninger keeps the Dessners’ Yngwie tendencies in check. McCartney? Yngwie. Lennon? Not Yngwie. And so forth.
In addition to being a handy putdown, Yngwie is, of course, a guy: Yngwie J-for-Johan Malmsteen, a Stockholm-born guitar-slinger who, like many Shredness contenders, rose to prominence by way of the sybaritic Los Angeles hard rock scene of the 1980s. He—or, more precisely, his band, the infelicitously-named Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force—is represented here by “Heaven Tonight,” his only chart hit.
“Heaven Tonight” is the most shred qua shred entry in March Shredness. By this I don’t mean that Malmsteen is the most technically dexterous musician in the tournament—although, shit, maybe he is—but rather that the song is exemplary of a specific guitar style that came to be known as “shred”: clear-toned, often modal, and employing techniques such as finger-tapping and sweep- and legato-picking to yield riffs and solos that are intricate and very, very fast.
Denizens of YouTube comment sections seem eager to credit Malmsteen with inventing shred; he didn’t. Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore, Uli Jon Roth, and sundry others had laid out the basic vocabulary by the mid-’70s, and “Eruption,” an instrumental track on Van Halen’s 1978 debut, had widely popularized it. What Malmsteen can claim is an unmatched facility within the strict parameters of the style, a style he has practiced assiduously for nearly forty years with one apparent goal: to replicate as closely as possible on the electric guitar the violin pyrotechnics of Romantic-era virtuosi like Niccolò Paganini.
In performance and in interviews Malmsteen comes off as a smug douchebag, an impression that’s helpfully confirmed by his 2013 autobiography Relentless. (Synonyms include tenacious, unforgiving, interminable.) Its discursive pages recount his flight from the stifling egalitarianism of his native Sweden—which, despite its cavalier willingness to prioritize the maintenance of a social safety net over the cultivation of open-shirted rock stars, somehow still survives—and then go on to cover his brief hired-gun tenures in forgettable LA bands, his bottle-rocket ascent to international stardom, and the challenges that ensued, while also dwelling at some length on his fondness for expensive watches, vintage Ferraris, and Miami, which he currently calls home. Score-settling is de rigueur in hard-rock memoirs, and Malmsteen does a lot of it. Very few people seem to merit his unreserved praise; prominent among those few are destroyer-class assholes like Gene Simmons and Ted Nugent, guys whose swinish sprezzatura Malmsteen seems to admire, but to know he lacks the charm to emulate.
What Relentless does not contain in any measurable quantity is introspection. Malmsteen doesn’t write with any particular enthusiasm or insight about music that inspired him, doesn’t try to articulate what made him want to play the way he plays, and doesn’t really explain how his approach has evolved over time. (To be fair, there’s not much evidence that it has evolved.) He admits to occasional weaknesses, lapses, and errors in judgment, but doesn’t consider what discords in his psyche might have brought them on. And he for damn sure doesn’t reassess his artistic decisions, or disavow any portion of his musical output—with one very conspicuous exception.
“Heaven Tonight” is that exception. It was the chosen single from Odyssey, an album that Malmsteen recorded in 1987, a time when touring and partying were taking their inevitable toll, and his relentlessness was at a low ebb:
I was sleeping all day, existing on junk food and alcohol, with no physical activity and no real life. It all escalated like that without me paying attention to how bad it had gotten. It was just what we were all doing, and that was that. I rarely saw daylight. And at night there would be one crazy thing after another, running around with my loaded Magnum, shooting it off, and jumping into the swimming pool from the roof of the house
A cluster of disasters followed: Malmsteen parted company with an unscrupulous manager, learned of his mother’s terminal illness, was badly traumatized by the Whittier Narrows earthquake, and upon returning from a beer run one night rammed his Jaguar into a tree mere yards from his driveway, injuring a passenger and putting himself in a coma for a week. From a purely technical standpoint, Malmsteen returned to shredding form with impressive speed, but his mood remained sullen. Under pressure from his label, he deferred to new collaborators and made stylistic concessions that resulted in an album he now regards as “too soft, too dreamy, too poppy, too banal, going for the easy hook—not at all the kind of album I would have made if I’d been firing on all cylinders,” which is maybe an unfortunate metaphor in light of the crashed Jaguar, but whatever.
Specifically, Malmsteen says he wrote “Heaven Tonight” as
sort of a Van Halen-style, radio-friendly rock song. Everything in the 1980s was so formulaic. One week you had to be like Bon Jovi, the next you had to be like Poison or something. “Heaven Tonight” was an attempt to make a song like that. But I wanted to do it my way. Joe’s way was not my way.
Thus does the black-garbed figure of Joe Lynn Turner enter our tale. Prior to Odyssey Malmsteen’s vocalists had all been hard-rock belters, but Turner was something else: bluesier, smoother, more charismatic and expressive. (A defining quality of Malmsteen’s sound is its near-total lack of blues inflection, which when viewed alongside his bellicose fetish for Norse themes begins to seem a little silly, then a little sinister.) Turner’s résumé situated him more as Malmsteen’s peer than his employee: a good guitarist himself, he’d fronted Fandango, a successful Eagles knockoff, and served as a singer for Rainbow, the post-Deep-Purple outfit of Malmsteen’s hero Ritchie Blackmore. Malmsteen’s malaise during the Odyssey sessions provided an occasion for Turner to step up, and step up he did, writing or rewriting the album’s lyrics and performing them in an AOR-friendly idiom. It’s safe to assume that the label didn’t share Malmsteen’s disgust with the results; Odyssey charted impressively around the world.
Along with alcohol, socialism, and various crooked managers, Turner emerges in Relentless as a principal antagonist, blamed for diluting Malmsteen’s vision through careerist pandering. (As a point of reference, Malmsteen’s undiluted vision tends to look and sound more like this.) Rancor still erupts regularly between them. What’s interesting—and perhaps telling—is that Malmsteen’s contempt for Turner seems to include an element of sexual jealousy, something he tries to mask with a priggish disapproval that doesn’t quite square with his own behavior:
When we were on the Eclipse tour, I’d tell the crew that when I got offstage, there had better be some chicks on the bus, or the bus wouldn’t take off. It pains me to say this now, because that was so much the opposite of my true nature, but it just shows you how far I’d fallen by then. The only one worse was Joe, with his smarmy lovey-dovey pickup lines.
He elaborates elsewhere on Turner’s lothario moves—“‘Oh, you’re my soul mate, I’ve never met anyone like you, you’re the only one for me’ kind of crap”—adding that “Stringing somebody along with a phony line like that really disgusted me.” Maybe I’m weird, but this strikes me as a bold statement coming from a dude who routinely issued better-be-some-chicks-on-the-bus commands to his roadies. (Synonyms include procuring, coercion, human trafficking.)
Categorizing the sexual behavior of male artists during the metal era feels a bit like flipping through a hiker’s guide to animal droppings: there are many variations, and they’re worth noting, but we are still just talking about piles of shit. It’s fun to imagine that members of Malmsteen’s retinue were inviting female fans onto the tour bus to get their thoughts on bell hooks, but my assumption is that they were all behaving abominably, as was almost every member of almost every band in the Shredness bracket. That said, Malmsteen’s characterization of Turner seems a bit unfair, or at least uncharitable; what one rock-’n’-roller derides as “smarmy lovey-dovey pickup lines” another might construe as, y’know, “getting consent.”
Because here’s the thing: if we can assume (which we cannot) that the women to whom Turner was cooing his sweet nothings were one hundred percent into having no-strings-attached sex with an impressively-maned rock singer and then getting deposited at a Greyhound station in the next town (which, no judgment) and that they therefore had pretty strong inklings that they were not in fact Turner’s “soulmates” and/or “the only ones for him,” then doesn’t it seem at least somewhat likely that they might enjoy hearing it anyway, even if they didn’t believe a word of it?
I am spending all this time on the subject of sex with groupies because it is probably what “Heaven Tonight” is about. “You want to know if love can be real,” Turner sings; “I want to take everything I can steal.” This sounds like a pretty frank disclosure of his ars amatoria—the very behavior that Malmsteen deplores as deceptive—declaimed openly from center stage at every concert. Why does this behavior bug Yngwie so much? Might it be because it points to a certain incapacity of his own, one with implications that range far beyond the scuzzy fold-down bunks of the tour bus? Might Malmsteen be maligning Turner’s skills as a seducer not because he’s repulsed by them, but because he lacks them himself—because he’s unable to master, or even fully comprehend, Turner’s approach to persuasion?
I mean, strictly speaking, it’s not Turner’s sexual behavior that Malmsteen’s criticizing. Rather, it’s how he presents himself: what he says, and how he says it. Viewed in this light, Malmsteen’s objections to both Turner’s lulling come-ons and his “soft, dreamy, poppy, banal” contributions to Odyssey actually amount to the same objection: a deep-seated discomfort with ambiguous rhetorical spaces, whether those spaces happen to be characterized by figurative language, or coy playfulness, or slack cliché, or just straight-up bullshit. As a writer of make-out music, Turner ain’t exactly fixin’ to put Sade out of business, but he does seem to have his hand in the bag of standard love-song tricks. The rote images he reels off in “Heaven Tonight”—burning souls, streets of desire, the arms of the night, etc.—don’t succeed as poetry, but when voiced in the context of the “if love can be real” / “everything I can steal” declaration (and the erotic contest it posits between the narrator and his listener), they become intelligible as devices, enticing the audience to engage with the song by outmaneuvering it, figuring out what it’s up to.
For this to work, Turner has to be clever—or unpretentious, or lazy, or cynical—enough to avoid asserting his own subjectivity too much. By hanging back and coasting on by-the-numbers love lyrics that betray little personal investment, he conjures an oddly inviting scene: a vacant nocturnal streetscape of nonspecific sexiness that his listeners are free to imaginatively inhabit. This technique of luring an audience by leaving gaps may be particularly notable in love songs, but it’s probably applicable to just about any successful piece of writing; in The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes characterizes literature in general as a seduction, and explicitly associates this seductive process with the writer’s partial surrender of control, the opening of spaces in which audiences can exercise their own agency. Literature, Barthes writes, “cruises” its reader
without knowing where he is. A site of bliss is then created. It is not the reader’s “person” that is necessary to me, it is this site: the possibility of a dialectics of desire, of an unpredictability of bliss: the bets are not placed, there can still be a game.
Malmsteen doesn’t get this at all. His pre- and post-Turner catalogue is pretty light on love songs, and these mostly express devotion or condemn betrayal; not a lot of seduction is happening. His songs on other topics—favorites include triumph over adversity, the duplicitousness of enemies, and the struggles faced by misunderstood geniuses, along with various occult and martial themes—are mostly made up of flatly declarative proclamations: long on attitude, short on atmosphere. In a pinch Malmsteen can and does summon the same sorts of clichés that Turner draws on; what he can’t seem to do is get out of the songs’ way, to allow the audience to forget for a single fleeting moment that they are hearing the words of Yngwie J. Malmsteen, who has some thoughts he’d like to share. The dude just refuses to relinquish an iota of control over his listeners, limiting their imaginative engagement with his music to beholding it in gape-mouthed wonder.
And this is kind of a big problem, one that cuts right through his weak songwriting to the very heart of his project: his vaunted guitar skills. Above all else, a Malmsteen performance is a spectacle of control; his playing is notable not only for its blazing speed, but also for the laserlike clarity of the individual notes. Heard on any given song, his musicianship can be face-melting; over the course of a whole album, the narrow scope of his approach becomes apparent, and the experience grows tiresome. As of January 2018, Malmsteen has released a total of twenty studio albums. Adjusted for variations in recording technology, the first one sounds a hell of a lot like the twentieth.
We must strongly suspect that by 1988 somebody—the record label, presumably—had taken note of the inbuilt limitations of Malmsteen’s style and started brainstorming strategies to address them; the music video for “Heaven Tonight” bears many traces of such efforts. In it, a rather drunk-seeming Malmsteen inflicts a series of Nigel-Tufnel-esque indignities on the tool of his trade—tossing it into the air, chopping its strings like a masseur, sliding it across the stage, buffing his leather-clad ass with it—while amps and screens explode and catch fire amid a maelstrom of continuity errors. (Malmsteen evidently could be bothered to neither mime his guitar solo nor wear the same goddamn jacket during consecutive shoots.) This considerable visual energy seems designed to convince us that what we’re listening to is improvisatory, insouciant, insane—PSYCHO CAM!—all of which it is very much not.
There is, to be sure, a distinguished realm of human achievement and concomitant aesthetic appreciation that emphasizes and praises feats of speed, power, and precision, and this realm is known broadly as sports. If one admires a Malmsteen guitar solo, one does so in much the same way that one admires a Simone Biles dismount, or a Steph Curry three-pointer: with the satisfaction of watching someone nail something difficult while making it look easy. That’s no small thing, of course, but no muse presides over it. If we were to lay out a graph with control on one axis and expressiveness on the other, and upon it plot a continuum ranging from, say, Usain Bolt to the Stooges, then Malmsteen would land closer to the former than the latter, in the approximate vicinity of mediocre concert pianists and exceptional figure skaters.
Over the past several months, as I have listened my way by fits and starts through the endless cascading arpeggios of Malmsteen’s oeuvre, my annoyance has gradually curdled into a dark suspicion: that his project may have been wrongheaded from the get-go, that he might actually have missed the point of the electric guitar. Recall that the lodestar of his career has always been Paganini; as he writes in Relentless, “I was extremely adamant that the execution of every note had to be crystal clear, the way it sounds on a violin.” He fills much of a late chapter by describing his collaboration with designers at DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan to develop a single-coil pickup that doesn’t amplify the sixty-cycle hum of the guitar’s power source when it’s played at high volume, which is, of course, the only way that Malmsteen plays. This hum has been an enduring bête noire, polluting his otherwise pure sound with a buzz that edges his Stratocasters out of the coveted Stradivarius zone.
This account reminded me unexpectedly of something that I read years ago by Robert Palmer—the music critic, not the “Simply Irresistible” guy—in his book Rock & Roll: An Unruly History:
[O]nce a certain volume threshold has been passed, the electric guitar becomes another instrument entirely. Its tuning flexibility can now be used to set up sympathetic resonances between the strings, so that techniques such as open tunings and barre chords can get the entire instrument humming sonorously, sustained by amplification until it becomes a representation in sound of the wonder of creation itself. […] An electric guitar […] can be made to resonate with a hall’s acoustics, or with the underlying sixty-cycle hum of the city’s electrical grid, forming massive sound textures according to harmonic relationships that already exist in nature.
Unless you believe that Washing-Machine-era Sonic Youth is the inevitable endpoint of all human culture, Palmer’s narrative can seem strained at points, but in his presentation of the incidental qualities of the electric guitar as features instead of bugs, I feel like he’s onto something important—something that Malmsteen has missed, or is intentionally disregarding.
And Palmer’s idea of the amplified guitar as a dowsing rod tuned into hidden energies reminded me in turn of something else. As I’ve grown more and more frustrated with Malmsteen’s music, I’ve been on the lookout for a critical framework to help me pin down just what about it I find bothersome, and to do so from within the sort of flame-tempered, mist-enshrouded, self-justifying Teutonic-Romantic weltanschauung that seems to be the basis of all of Malmsteen’s undertakings. Then I read about his battle with the sixty-cycle hum, and I was like: oh shit, it’s Heidegger.
Bear with me for a moment while I oversimplify. One of Martin Heidegger’s major concerns involves the ways that human beings use tools in pursuit of their projects, and the ways that their successful use of these tools gets them into trouble. Whenever we’re working on something, our equipment and materials are “used, and used up,” by which Heidegger means not (or not only) they they’re expended, but that they “disappear into usefulness”: we stop paying any mind to their intrinsic qualities, and are aware only of the desired effects that we’re getting from them. We probably only have a sense of our materials as things when they break, or they aren’t working properly. When the handle of our hammer cracks, we suddenly learn something about the nature of wood; when the concrete won’t set because the weather’s too cold, we get very interested in the composition of Portland cement; when we crank the Strat up to eleven and hear the buzz of a sixty-cycle hum … you see where I’m going with this. When we’re trying to solve a problem, we become knowledgeable in a clinical way about the attributes of our tools—but once the problem has been solved, the tools just disappear into usefulness again.
Okay, so what? Well, Heidegger says, this inevitable tendency to only regard our surroundings in terms of their potential uses and practical impacts leaves us blind to their richness and complexity; furthermore, this attitude leads us to think of ourselves as the center of a universe that exists for our benefit. As we get better and better at sorting stuff into functional categories, we’re forced to confront fewer and fewer obstacles to the success of our projects—and the fewer obstacles we encounter, the fewer occasions we have to reflect on our projects and think about why we wanted to accomplish them in the first place. As Heidegger writes in “The Question Concerning Technology,” the human being
exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth. In this way the illusion comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct. This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: it seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself. […] In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e. his essence.
Our buddy Yngwie’s whole career consists of a sustained attempt to exalt himself to the posture of lord of the earth. According to the evidence, he’s a damn champ at cultivating the skill and knowledge needed to master the tools of his chosen field. (From his two major interests as a collector—high-end watches and classic Ferraris—we also get the strong sense that his fascination with this kind of mastery isn’t limited to music, but is something he pursues as an end in itself: a desire to subjugate time through power and precision.) But Heidegger makes it clear that this kind of clinical interest in things, though impressive in a douchey way, does not rescue us from our peril, or reconnect us to what he regards as our essence: a respectful and responsive openness to the inexhaustible mysteries hidden in our mundane material surroundings. When we plug in and play, even as we struggle to get the sounds we want, it behooves us remain awake and alive to the behavior of wire and wood and electricity as they disclose textures that are more surprising and more profound than anything we could come up with on our own.
Heidegger refers to the shifting tension between the human and the nonhuman as “strife,” and places it at the center of the process of making art; he also specifies that art should embrace this strife, not seek to resolve it “in an insipid agreement.” Insipid agreement is exactly what I hear in the loud, limpid, breakneck, hum-scrubbed, surgically-precise shredding of Yngwie J. Malmsteen. The point of the electric guitar is chaos, y’all: the instrument’s defining quality is not volume, but rather susceptibility to audible accident. The thrill we get from it is the thrill of listening to somebody riding this chaos, following the guitar where it wants to go and scrambling ahead of it to wrestle it back in line. This openness to accident, we should note, is somewhat analogous to something else Malmsteen does not get: the partial ceding of control to the audience that Barthes describes as occurring in the realm of literature.
So, to return at long last to my friend’s helpful term of opprobrium, this is what it means to be Yngwie: to create with no priority higher than the certainty of your outcome, to exert control even when doing so hampers your audience’s engagement, to insist on art as the fulfillment of your vision rather than an act of communication and discovery. Thusly demarcated, Yngwieness becomes intelligible as a tendency that we can guard against, and available to us as an aide to critical distinctions. It has helped me understand, for instance, why—despite its superficial similarities to any number of ostensibly-more-impressive-yet-somehow-barely-tolerable Malmsteen performances—I have watched this somewhat shitty backstage video of Sonny Landreth something like two hundred times, and will probably do so some two hundred more.
Yngwieness stalks the March Shredness bracket, my friends, in “Heaven Tonight” and well beyond; it degrades our pop music, our films, our books, and our politics. The better to oppose it, let us look upon it with clear eyes. Let us call it by its name
Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief was published by Melville House in 2016. Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney