first round game
(7) lita ford, "kiss me deadly"
(10) stage dolls, "love cries"
and lita moves 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 3/4.
beth nguyen on lita ford's "kiss me deadly"
I never learned the difference between heavy metal and hair metal, or any other kind of musical metal, because for years they all meant the same thing: screaming, unattractive white men with unwashed hair, with mouths that formed hideous shapes in order to emit their wails, matched by equally shrieking electric guitar sounds that absolutely had to be played at top volume. Back then, in the 1980s of my youth, I didn’t like anything about these guys. But my two older sisters did, and they had total control of the radio. School mornings, they’d wake up extra early to tease their bangs as high as they could get them. Their music would wear me down until I too knew all the songs by heart.
But every once in a while there would come a song and a singer that made me want to listen. “Kiss Me Deadly” by Lita Ford thrilled immediately with its opening lines. My sisters and I were growing up in a deeply conservative town in Michigan where many of our friends weren’t allowed to go out on Sundays, much less watch MTV or listen to lyrics like
I went to a party last Saturday night
I didn’t get laid, I got in a fight, uh huh
It ain’t no big thing
The first time I heard those lines I was thirteen, old enough to know that I would never in any way resemble a woman like Lita Ford. Not that I wanted to be her, any more than I wanted to be Madonna or Cyndi Lauper. But I was fascinated by these women, who were wild or outrageous in different ways. I loved watching them because—I only understand this now—they were interesting women in worlds that didn’t want them even to be. I could admire them, and root for them, without wanting to be them.
Lita Ford was a rare hair metal women among all those hair metal men. She wasn’t going to be in the background, playing a vacant-eyed sex object in some guy’s video. When Lita Ford sang and performed, you paid attention; she didn’t even have to scream and wail. Sure, she carried the look, with hair that went big rather than shiny, big and so full of spray that I knew if she whipped her head around and her hair hit you in the face, it would hurt. She wore black leather, tight; black eyeliner and frosted lipstick. I understood this was a uniform she was required to maintain. I was more interested in how she took control of the stage, the screen; she played guitar with a bravado I could not fathom, her body hunched, simultaneously concentrating and preparing to spring forth.
Nothing to eat and no TV
Looking in the mirror don’t get it for me, uh huh
It ain’t no big thing
I see Lita Ford at a party, dancing close with some guy. He’s no one special but it’s a dance, a song, something to do. Another girl tries to push her way in, but Lita isn’t going to stand for that. She elbows the girl away. The girl elbows back, using some shoulder. And that’s it. Lita turns and swings and they’re off, pulling each other’s hair and yelling. Then Lita is out on the rain-soaked sidewalk, alone, pulling her leather jacket over her shoulders. She needs a cigarette. She walks alone, angry at first and then—fuck them. She tosses the half cigarette toward the curb. She doesn’t care where it lands.
This isn’t her music video. It’s my devised narrative, starting where I was at age thirteen; it’s how Lita Ford has stayed in my mind all these years.
This is the life she’s ended up in—so what. The hair, the leather, the nights that don’t turn out the way she thought they could. The morning is always too bright. There’s nothing to eat in the house. She has to ask her dad for money and he argues with her. It’s the same thing she’s heard for years: what is she doing with her life, when is she going to get her act together, she’s a mess. He goes right to the edge of what he means to say, what men always end up saying: you look like a whore and you act like a bitch.
It ain’t no big thing, Lita says, to her friends, to herself. She gets another cigarette, puts on that same leather jacket.
Lita Ford finds her own way.
When I google Lita Ford in 2018, I discover that she’s been out of music for years, held back by her now ex-husband; they had a rancorous divorce and she hasn’t seen her two children in years. She says her ex has been keeping them from her, has turned them against her. Before the divorce, they’d been in talks for a reality TV show for E!.
I hesitate; I want to know more and yet I don’t want to know any more. I want Lita Ford to stay in mind as she was back in 1987. I suppose, in a way, that’s what we all want, those of us who like returning to another era, to the past that gets deeper, and want to keep it as it is but also let it bend to our own shifting gaze and perspective. I want Lita Ford to be the same but I want myself, my 1987 self, to be different.
What did I know at age thirteen? Almost nothing. I was used to whiteness, sure—raised in its world (this world). But I was also a child of Vietnamese refugees, myself a refugee. Someone who had learned to be careful. My life couldn’t have been farther from Lita Ford’s. I was never going to be someone who got into a fight at a party. Yet I could see her then, as I do now. I see her in the morning hours, that time of rethinking and possible regret. Lita Ford isn’t wasting time on regret. She isn’t waiting for some guy to choose her. If she doesn’t go home with someone it’s going to be her choice. She can hold her own in a fight just as well. It’s not a big thing. It merely exists in a series of continual maneuvers having to do with the body.
I remember saying to my sisters, back in 1987, what does she mean kiss me deadly? The adverb didn’t really follow, didn’t really make sense. It still doesn’t. Sometimes I want it to have a comma as in Kiss Me, Deadly; sometimes I change it to Kiss Me Deftly. Part of the joy of the song is that, like Lita Ford herself, it doesn’t care. It prefers action over talking. Come on, pretty baby. I sing with her every time.
Beth (Bich Minh) Nguyen is the author of the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the novel Short Girls, and the novel Pioneer Girl. Her work has received an American Book Award and a PEN/Jerard Award, among other honors, and has been featured in numerous anthologies and university and community reads programs. She directs the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.
kenneth caldwell: What you think about when you think about stage dolls' “Love Cries”
You try to remember the first time you heard hair metal.
Was it a county fair? You recall some biker types gathered around a high striker, cans of Miller in hand. They were laughing and swatting each other on the back—a kind of boisterous, freewheeling cackle that sounded illicit. You were enamored with the flashing bulbs bursting up like mercury to the bell on top. “Strongman contest,” the sign read. These were apparently men willing to stake that claim and, observing their rough-and-tumble image, you could venture to believe it. God, it must have been Ratt or something. Or Poison? The two of them combined? An intoxicated blend of shrill vocal and filthy, slithering guitar. It made you want to topple the whole carny mess to the ground. Slam down on this gutter culture gurgling up to your ear.
Were you just angry that day? Threatened? Was your worldview slipping out of reach? Maybe you intuited those scrawny white guys in the band, hairy flowing to forever, kind of encroaching on your life lens. Or was it the irascible noise loosening a screw in you?
In his essay “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” you remember what John Jeremiah Sullivan said about Guns N’ Roses: “They were also grotesque and crass and stupid sometimes, even most of the time. Even almost all of the time. But you always knew you were seeing something when you saw them.”
The real you never saw them perform, but somehow you found a scapegoat in the bastard muse spewing out of Axl Rose. In a wretched corner of your mind, it’s that twisted pitch of a G N’ R ballad scraping away at the neurons. Visions of denim-clad pelvic thrusts repeatedly penetrating the emotional core you thought was sheathed.
Years later you would hear Norwegian rockers Stage Dolls crank out “Love Cries,” a song that, probably, a lot of people enjoy. The song was recorded in 1987 but released in America in 1989, when it rose to number 46 on the Billboard Singles Charts. You know that to be meaningless.
Your first response was shame—you found the song and its music video using a private browser window, sweeping your browsing history under the rug as a kind of defense mechanism. You played the video muted and at double speed, trying to suss out meaning. You felt like an alien, as you sometimes do marveling at the expressions people make. You try to play the Good Journalist and objectively catalogue what appears in the video:
An attractive young woman drives a red Jeep Wrangler through a truckstop.
A three-piece, male band is swinging their instruments around on a well-lit stage at night.
The stage is beneath what can only be described as a prison watch tower.
The vocalist’s breath is visible, so the temperature is below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
The band demonstrates a variety of specialized movements you might expect to see in a wildlife sex documentary—head bobbing, exaggerated steps, knee bends, etc.
Band members have frizzy heads and dark eyes, pointy boots and leather.
The woman is shown running from an unseen pursuer, or jogging in scanty attire.
She is also shown seated on the hood of her Jeep, gesturing to cover her exposed arms which are most assuredly chilly in the night air that is below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
A brief image reveals poor penmanship scrawled across the screen as a woman—possibly the same one from the truckstop—is pictured alone in a desert, standing over a bed with paper in her hand. This aligns literally with the lyrics you muted.
One band member’s mouth is moving and decorated with unbecoming cosmetics. Facial muscles indicate he may be communicating something he believes to be important.
He shakes his head the way you might in disbelief at the baffling sequence unfolding before you.
The band members begin to interact in inexplicable ways—the person whose mouth keeps moving soon collapses to his knees while another rushes up behind him.
They also collide at intervals and otherwise seem to deliberately interfere with each other’s instrument-playing.
In a compelling moment, the Jeep woman, still running, ascends a staircase followed by doppelgängers who match her movements exactly. You know that to be meaningless.
The drummer gets engulfed in fog, immediately followed by Jeep girl again, this time playing with her hair as her breasts are partially exposed—a shot which was selected to be the thumbnail image for the video.
Then another image of that woman in the desert, this time toppling onto the bed, which promptly explodes into flame.
Then quick cuts of the band still moving in unusual ways that raise your blood pressure.
The exploding bed seems to be the Parting Image, a sort of culmination. You fathom that it relates to “the point of no return,” an apparently central message of the song. You don’t know: It’s a bed blowing up and, happily, the music begins to fade out. So, for you, it is an elevated moment.
One thing that chaps your ass about the hair metal thing is the smoke-and-mirror theatrics. Take drums: the way every band stages two bass drums while the drummer kicks out maddeningly mundane patterns with only one. And all of those extra tom-toms wasting away. That gleaming, hand-hammered china cymbal mounted beautifully without a scratch. That infuriating drumstick twirl that ultimately indicates absent tablature. Instead of grace notes, we get smugness and tedium. You envision some greased up, lounge-lizard producer encouraging these stunts, all of which amount to masked mediocrity.
Then there are the guitarists, slipping around like they can’t hold still. They raise up their phallic instruments like weapons. A wall of tough-guy Marshall full stacks tower behind them, hollow as the target audience. Sickly vests adorn their bare chests. Gyrations and pelvic sleaze. A whole fantasy of sleaze and shredded leather. A squealing, raspy vocal. The heavy-handed everything. A knock-kneed little strut that exudes “attitude” save for the thinly-veiled insecurity.
You reflect for a moment and realize you might not care for hair metal. But then you remember that much of this applies to almost any musical genre. So, why are you stricken? Doesn’t your hair grow that way? Doesn’t your pelvis move that way? Don’t you yearn to express those primal feelings?
When you first heard “Love Cries,” the central question in your mind was, Why is this song? Not what, or when. It’s purportedly a “hard rock” ballad, one that could be mistaken for what must be thousands of others in the same key and tempo. You could even understand how it came to be—the instrumentation that made it possible, the sequencer, the mixing, and mastering. But, to quote Annie Lennox as you like to do, why?
“Hey, papa, don’t ask why,” says the pre-chorus. Not happening. You’re getting inquisitive. Don’t ask why? You hear that and you’re immediately suspect. Why is the simple question of a child and yet the probing inquiry of the philosopher king. Why is a plea for truth.
You think about all of the times you suspended disbelief. All of the falsehoods you blindly accepted. Why didn’t you ask why?
You were hungry and tired and broke.
You were afraid to question authority. You mistook authority to be final.
You weren’t privileged enough. You were too privileged to care.
You were a victim of social media algorithms.
You blamed the weather. The forecast was a wintry mix. The forecast was a Super Blue Blood Moon. The forecast was depleting ozone and bleeding glaciers. The forecast was a comet collapsing, engulfed in ancient flame.
These are reasons you didn't ask why. These are causes of your conformity.
These are means by which you were misled. These are the untruths that entombed you.
You trusted the source. Your heart wanted to believe. Fact checking was hard work. The story was plausible enough. The story seemed credible. The story sounded better than truth. Rhetoric ousted you.
You couldn’t wake up on time. You belonged in another time.
You were a monster of consumption. All you wanted was to be served. You ate just to feel sated. You abandoned constraint.
You were disengaged. You were a vacant coast. You were a wandering ghost.
You felt too old, too weak. Too physiologically inept. Impotent. Inoculated too late.
Your motivations were misaligned. Your motivations were impenetrably abstruse.
The government was shut down and schools were massacres and the economy was diving and the news was insufferable and powerful men were predators and the antidepressants weren't working. Then the clock struck 8 a.m.
Come to think of it, maybe a bit of hair metal is just what you need.
Kenneth Caldwell is eyes wide into the night, illuminated in electric blue.