first round game
(3) twisted sister, "we're not gonna take it"
(14) la guns, "ballad of jayne"
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 3/8.
in praise of vagueness: on twisted sister's "we're not gonna take it" by Kathleen Rooney
My pen despairs of ever producing anything as divinely vague as Twisted Sister’s anthem, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Distinctively indistinct, ambiguous and therefore open to a multitude of interpretations, the song’s meaning and tone are simultaneously as nebulous yet unmistakable as the golden nimbus of Dee Snider’s mane in Twisted Sister’s glamorous heyday.
“We’re not gonna take it,” the song begins, “No, we ain’t gonna take it / We’re not gonna take it anymore,” the vagueness gaining strength for being collective, that very first “we’re” drawing any and all who care to join into a triumphant first-person plural, an open call to be a small part of something larger.
Listening to the song and imagining what “it” is that “we” are not going to take affords a pleasure akin to staring at the sky and announcing what shapes we see in the clouds, only louder, more defiant, and in the key of E Major. Spacious and welcoming, the lyrics and the video invite us to contemplate the nature of the “it”—Oppression? Authoritarianism? Being jerked around by toughs and tyrants who prey upon and exploit those they perceive as possessing less power?—without limiting the “it” to any finite thing.
My sophomore year English teacher at Downers Grove North High School in the Chicago suburbs was a supremely kind and badass man named Mr. Lester who was pretty metal himself. He commuted to and from the school by motorcycle and wore the same perfect outfit every day of the week: ripped blue jeans, a black V-neck T-shirt, and two silver POW/MIA bracelets for friends he had lost in the Vietnam War. His tresses would have provoked envy in any hair metal band member. Long and dark and steel-wool curly, streaked with a bit of melancholy gray, his locks were so bold and unruly as to seem barely contained by the series of ponytail holders he employed to keep the coils in check.
One of the best teachers I ever had, Mr. Lester taught a series of highly specific and prescriptive rules on how to be a better writer, which I still use myself and now teach to my own students. One of them was to beware of the pronoun “it”; “it,” Mr. Lester said, is vague and can therefore almost always be replaced with a more precise word or phrase. And he was right; replacing “it” whenever possible strengthens practically any argument. But Mr. Lester (rest in power) was a wise and reasonable man, and, listening to “We’re Not Gonna Take It” on repeat as I write this essay, I believe that he would fully embrace Twisted Sister’s hymn to rebellion as a classic exception that proves his rule. For the “it” and its vagueness imbue the song with its indomitable power, and to replace that pronoun with a particular noun or phrase could only make it less mighty, not more.
Released on April 27, 1984, the song—with its themes of insubordination against unjust authority and insurrection against “the powers that be” who would dare presume to “pick our destiny”—resonated immediately with listeners. Reaching number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” became Twisted Sister’s only Top 40 hit, helping its album Stay Hungry go multi-platinum, with sales of over three million copies.
It’s impossible to pin down and name what one particular thing the song is about because its aboutness is so capacious. But in the indelible and MTV-friendly slapstick video directed by Marty Callner, at least part of the irrepressible joie de vivre arises from smashing that nonpareil of a bully, the heteronormative patriarchy as repped by the douche-y, normcore dad who first appears verbally berating his son. Upstairs in his bedroom, we see the boy absorbed in practicing Twisted Sister songs on his guitar, until Mean Dad shows up. The son just wants to rock, but Mean Dad won’t let him—that is until a colossal chord blows Mean Dad out the window of the suburban house and spins the kid into a grown-up Dee Snider. The resistance begins.
Played by Mark Metcalf, known for his role as the cruel ROTC leader Douglas C. Neidermeyer in 1978’s Animal House, this nefarious father figure mugs his way through the video like a sadistic Wile E. Coyote rebooted for the eighties, winding up defeated and supine on the ground at the end. The winsome and cartoonish narrative evokes a committedly dorky vibe that calls to mind both a professional wrestling show and a piece of musical theater as staged by a troupe of insouciant high schoolers.
In other, similar songs that take up the cause of defending one’s human right to rock, the villains and authority figures are often depicted as effete and feminine; in the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right to Party,” for instance, Mom busts in and says “What’s that noise?” But here, the Metcalf character embodies the worst kind of domineering masculine jackass, whereas Dee and his glam-clad glitter crew stand in appealing contrast as the heroic and hard-to-classify gender-bending weirdos.
Another not entirely typically masculine artist, the English poet A.E. Housman, said that the task of poetry is “to transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought.” The high-flown feelings of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and the song’s deliberate avoidance of articulating any ideology beyond “nope, we refuse to accept the unacceptable” serve to render it poetic, versatile, and above all enduring. Long on emotionality but short on specifics, the lyrics are just general enough to apply to almost any team of underdogs standing up for themselves.
So too does that vagueness enable the song’s collectiveness. Metal is often constructed as the provenance of outsiders where a self-selecting type of unusual person can go to find their fellow freaky people. In his surprisingly endearing and self-aware 2012 autobiography, Shut Up and Give Me the Mic, (Chapter 17, for instance, is called “I’m Snider Than You Are”), front-man Dee Snider recounts his adolescence, hanging out with his “outcast friends” and struggling with the desire to be popular. He felt as if he “were fading away, becoming just a part of the background to the beautiful people living exciting lives.” Then “I decided I wasn’t going to take it. One day I just realized that if I didn’t resist […] I would become just another nameless, faceless person in the world. I made a conscious decision that day that I would no longer give a shit what other people thought.” In doing so, he went on to write the ultimate fight song for masses of other people who had ever felt the same.
Musically, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is not really hair metal so much as it is pub rock. The solo doesn’t contain much actual shredding; it’s simply a guitar recapitulation of the melody for the chorus. But those are not criticisms. Up-tempo and pounding, led by Snider’s gruff voice and abrasive vocal style, the song’s simplicity makes it unforgettable.
Moreover, one must note that Twisted Sister’s sensational outfits contain abundant shredding, and the made-up faces of the band members gleam, shining a ferocious light to re-enchant the disenchanted.
Pub rock is music of the working class, and so is metal. Thus, who better than Frankfurt School philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno to further illuminate the magnificence of “We’re Not Gonna Take It”? In his “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” Adorno writes that, “It is commonly said that a perfect lyric poem must possess totality or universality, must provide the whole within the bounds of the poem and the infinite within the poem’s finitude.” In that sense, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is a perfect lyric poem.
Adorno also says that “the pressures of the struggle for survival allow only a few human beings to grasp the universal through immersion in the self or to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves. The others, however, those who not only stand alienated, as though they were objects, facing the disconcerted poetic subject but who have also literally been degraded to objects of history, have the same right, or a greater right, to grope for the sounds in which sufferings and dreams are welded. This inalienable right has asserted itself again and again, in forms however impure, mutilated, fragmentary, and intermittent.”
Snider gives the alienated a shared voice for their inalienable right to resist. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” gives us the sounds for which we, as humans, are forever groping, the song’s vagueness awarding the individual lyric its collective power; not “I” but “we.”
Snider has recounted that in composing the song, he felt inspired by Slade’s “Girls Rock Your Boys” and the Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The latter suggests of whom the “we” might consist: the metal faithful who are not, as the “you” to whom the song is addressed, “so condescending” and whose “gall is never ending,” but rather are the ones who are “right’ and “free,” unafraid to fight to make the “you” see.
Regarding said “you,” it’s hard to think of a sicker burn than:
Your life is trite and jaded
Boring and confiscated
If that’s your best, your best won’t do
No stranger to doing their best, Twisted Sister labored for years to build up a following in the metal clubs and bars of New Jersey and the tri-state area before hitting it big. But maybe the best-best moment in Snider’s autobiography comes during his account of being summoned to Washington, DC to testify before the Senate in 1985 at the behest of the Parents Music Resource Center.
“I’d been asked to speak because not only was ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ on the PMRC’s notorious Filthy 15, a list of the songs they found most objectionable, but at that time, thanks to my rampant overexposure, I was the most recognizable face in heavy metal,” he writes.
The PMRC, founded and led by Senator Al Gore’s then-wife, Tipper, out of a concern over putatively alarming trends in popular music sought to provide a rating system for albums containing offensive material, eventually resulting in the notorious—and in some cases, coveted—“Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label.
Snider admits that he had to do some research to figure what exactly the moral crusaders were driving at, but once he did: “I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation. I saw it as the metaphorical equivalent of carrying the flag into battle.”
His descriptions of his preparations, both mentally and sartorially, are utterly charming. Even though his fellow testifiers, John Denver and Frank Zappa, dressed, like the Senators before whom they were speaking, in suits and business attire, Dee opted to don his usual rock apparel: “skintight jeans, tigerhead belt, snakeskin boots, sleeveless Twisted Sister T-shirt, and cut-off Twisted Sister denim vest.” Accessorizing, he says, “with my tooth earring, aviator sunglasses, and a touch of mascara, I was ready to kick some PMRC ass.”
His entire statement to the Senate defending free speech in art—which he worked conscientiously on, prepping like a debate team member—is well worth watching in its entirety for its eloquence and reason:
But for the purposes of extolling the value of artistic indistinctness, this passage (at 8:04) is unsurpassed: “The beauty of literature, poetry, and music is that they leave room for the audience to put its own imagination, experience, and dreams into the words.”
And although Snider’s words were largely lost on the PMRC committee, who went ahead with their plans for censorship regardless, one could do worse than Snider’s formula for the necessity of a certain degree of vagueness in order to achieve beauty.
According to philosopher Bertrand Russell in his 1923 lecture, “Vagueness,” “Vagueness, clearly, is a matter of degree,” whereas “Accuracy, on the contrary, is an ideal limit.” To an extent, limits and degrees do bear upon Twisted Sister’s sublimely vague song—it can be about a lot of things, but it can’t be about anything. There are limits.
In an August 2016 interview with Billboard.com, Snider explains that as gloriously indistinct and widely applicable as the anthem is, there are some causes to which he cannot let it apply, including Paul Ryan’s 2012 Vice Presidential campaign. “When I wrote the song I wanted to not be so specific about what I wasn’t taking. Over the years it’s become almost a folk song,” he says. “We’ve got politicians, like Paul Ryan, who’s as anti-choice as you can be, singing at the top of his lungs, ‘We’ve got the right to choose it.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, it’s all about choice and you’re using it as your song. You can’t use that song. You’re anti-choice; you can’t sing my song about choice’.”
And in May of 2016, he rescinded his permission to then Presidential candidate Donald Trump—whom he got to know as a member of the 2012 cast of Celebrity Apprentice—to use “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as a campaign song. “When Trump asked me,” he says “and credit to him, he asked if I was okay, I said, ‘Yeah, we’re friends, go for it.’ Cut to four months later I pick up the phone and go, ‘You gotta stop. I didn’t know what you stood for, we never talked about the wall, banning entire religions from immigrating and things like this. I can no longer appear to support this’.”
The etymology of “vague” meaning “uncertain as to specifics” comes from the Middle French vague of the 1540s, meaning “empty, vacant; wild, uncultivated,” but the best vagueness is crafted such that one can’t pour just anything into that space arbitrarily.
Even earlier, “vague” derives from the Latin vagus meaning “strolling, wandering, rambling,” or, figuratively, “vacillating,” and that vacillation helps explain not only why “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is one of the greatest songs of all time, but also an object lesson in how great art can work generally.
For we listeners get to take the vacancy Snider offers us and fill it. We can stroll ramblingly alongside him, participating in his walk through the song, supplying our own notions of the forces against which we need to rebel. And in this vacillation—by going from Snider’s ideas to the ones in our brains and back again, a million little micro-shifts across the duration of the song—we become Twisted Sister’s collaborators; by the end, all of us have become part of the “we.”
When we sing along, we are not substituitive, not pushing Snider aside to take the mic; we are joining him at center stage, singing together and sharing a moment.
Like anybody who has needed to be buoyed by this song, Snider himself has been through some struggles. He admits as much in his autobiography, describing the whiplash of going from being the host of MTV’s Heavy Metal Mania and playing sold-out arenas to being so broke that he found himself placing flyers advertising his wife Suzette’s hair and make-up business on parked cars’ windshields to keep their family afloat. One of the things, besides his family, that got him through, was poetry.
“Invictus,” Snider’s favorite poem, is admirably indistinct. If we were able to ask its dead author, “William Ernest Henley, what exactly are you invicting against?” then he might reply, “What’ve you got?”
While we’re at it, Henley’s poem is pretty metal in its own right. I mean, “Out of the night that covers me / Black as the pit from pole to pole, / I thank whatever gods may be / for my unconquerable soul”?
We could read the poem and apply the biographical knowledge that Henley wrote it while recovering from surgery to treat the tubercular arthritis which cost him a leg below the knee. But we certainly do not need that specificity to admire its speaker’s perseverance and inner strength. And that ending:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
No wonder Snider loves it so much he has it tattooed on his forearm.
With “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Snider equals or arguably surpasses Henley in his own execution of exquisitely indistinct defiance. For in the world of Twisted Sister, the “unconquerable” soul belongs not merely to one person, but to many: We are the masters, we are the captains.
In the video, at roughly 2:06, drummer A.J. Pero hits his sparkle-covered snare and sends a galaxy of gold shimmering through the air.
And that’s as lovely an illustration as any of why “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is one of the most crucial songs of the last 100 years. We can bang it like a glitter drum when we need to refuse.
A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St Martin’s Press, 2017). With Eric Plattner, she is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Married to the writer, Martin Seay, she lives in Chicago and teaches at DePaul University. Follow her @KathleenMRooney.
thomas mira y lopez on la guns' "the ballad of jayne"
- I’m going to make a few unsubstantiated claims here about hard rock.
- First: hard rock is at its most ideal—at its most “hard rock”—when it hews closest to the tenets and aesthetics of Camp, as set forth by Susan Sontag in her seminal 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp.” Camp, according to Sontag, holds at its essence the “love of the unnatural,” of artifice and theatricality. It represents a mode that allows us to celebrate “the spirit of extravagance.” It’s hard not to see the overlap between these qualities and a genre of music whose amps go up to eleven.
- Second: I haven’t really listened to a lot of hard rock since I was a teenager in the late 90s and early 2000s. I mostly remember listening to Guns n’ Roses on the subway home from school and, subconsciously, if the subway was not so crowded, twisting my hips and pubic region in a sexual, or sexy, shimmy. The dancing stopped, as almost all my dancing does, when I noticed a group of teenagers laughing at me. I must have looked as if my puberty malfunctioned. Worst of all, I’d been serious.
- Within her essay, Sontag identifies two kinds of Camp: the “androgynous” and the “exaggerated.”
The androgynous, Sontag writes, understands “the mostly unacknowledged truth” that “the most refined form of sexual attractiveness …consists in going against the grain of one’s sex.” The exaggerated, meanwhile, savors the outsized display of “sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms.”
These two appear opposites but aren’t. They’re allies, Sontag argues. They exemplify how “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman’.”
- Into exaggerated Camp, Sontag places the 1950s actress and celebrity Jayne Mansfield. Mansfield was one in a legacy of American public figures who recognized that the act does not take place on the screen so much as it does in a life. She survives as a popular reference point for her activities off-stage: her marriages, divorces, scandals, even her death. She holds as much fame for spurring the style and development of the 1950s bra industry as she does for any of her films.
- In other words, Jayne Mansfield’s legacy exists in the ways she resisted or challenged containment.
- Among the popular reference points for Mansfield is the L.A. Guns’ “The Ballad of Jayne,” a single from the band’s 1989 album Cocked and Loaded, a three-chord, power ballad that charted at #33 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and so represents the band’s most popular and perhaps most enduring song.
- In theory, “Ballad of Jayne” is an elegy, maybe even a love song, for Jayne Mansfield. There’s only one problem: the song has nothing to do with her.
“It’s their worst song,” my friend Ross says. He grew up during the hair metal era and once had a Cocked and Loaded CD signed by Phil Lewis. It’s now lost. “You see them actively searching the road for fame. It’s almost as if they walked into the studio and their producer  said ‘Hey, this is a good regret ballad but what if you made it about Jayne Mansfield instead?’”
- Unlike what one expects of a traditional ballad —think “The Ballad of John Henry” or “The Ballad of Stagger Lee”—there’s no storytelling or narrative in the L.A. Guns’ song. Because there’s no narrative, there’s no Mansfield. Her name only pops up at the end of the chorus. What happened to Jayne could have happened to anyone.
- Then there’s the problem of the speaker. Here’s Ross: “Maybe this is just me being a poet, but you have the I in the song and then you have the you—for example, the line, ‘I wish I never let you go.’ But then you have a third person—‘Now she’s breaking hearts in heaven’—who seems to be Jayne Mansfield, because she’s dead, right? She can’t also be the you, can she? So who the hell is the you?”
- Mansfield, or Mansfield’s likeness, might be most present in the “woman” on the album cover: a blonde, head thrown back, spilling out of a red bikini, wearing assless chaps astride a silver revolver, pulling back its hammer with both hands. Cocked and Loaded appears inscribed to the side, as if on the bottom of a bullet. There, as Sontag wrote, is that spirit of extravagance.
- The cover recalls the women painted onto the noses of American fighter jets during and after World War II. In A History of the Breast, feminist scholar and historian Marilyn Yalom notes that during times of national crisis and war, the physical differences between men and women become emphasized and exaggerated. As we divide into camps, we fall into Camp. The bombshells painted on planes remind their pilots “of the values that war destroys: love, intimacy, nurturance,” at the same time that they promise a fulfillment of sexual fantasy upon the men’s return.
Post-war icons such as Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe—both of whose “breasts loomed over the national consciousness,” as J.G. Ballard wrote—provided reassurance that the nightmares of war were over. They became, according to Yalom, “sexual and maternal emblems geared to protonatalist policies” and “the spread of national ideologies.” 
- I made a promise to myself before writing this essay that I would not make fun of either the album’s name or cover art, so I won’t say anything else. In reading some scholarship related to early 19th century religious revivalism, I came across the idea that it’s bad faith to assess a past action or belief only in terms of a present mindset. How easy is it, for example, to chuckle at someone who believed the earth was flat? To cluck one’s tongue at the image of a woman riding a gun on a hair metal album named Cocked & Loaded? Or, for that matter, to laugh at the obviousness of the boy who, after he stopped dancing, bought a Carmen Electra poster at HMV and took it home on the subway to tape up on his wall?
- It’s also perhaps bad faith of me to assess the music of a different era based on my own present standards. “Ballad of Jayne” might be the L.A. Guns’ worst song. It also might be their best. But whether the song is good or bad is beside the point. What matters is that we’re talking about Camp.
- Third claim. If Mansfield represents exaggerated Camp, then hair metal and hard rock represent androgynous Camp.
Sontag writes that Camp poses the question of how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture. The “glam excess” of hair metal—“the outfits brocaded with sequins, calligraphic eyeliner and…halo-like blow-dried hair,” according to the music scholar David Metzer—provides the answer.
One only needs to watch Guns’ lead singer Phil Lewis pouting around the set of the music video, slim and bare-chested by the pool, wearing a Slash tophat and a leather vest, thumbing a bouquet of roses as he sings “Time can’t heal a broken gun,” to realize that, while Jayne Mansfield might make little appearance in “Ballad of Jayne,” the two are still bosom allies.
- Mansfield and the band are allied in another sense. When I was a teenager in the late 90s, I wasn’t jerking my hips around to the L.A. Guns but to Guns n’ Roses. It’s fitting then that the band chooses to eulogize Mansfield instead of her more famous counterpart, Marilyn Monroe.
“They had to be trolling Guns N’ Roses,” Ross says. “I mean Tracii Guns, the lead guitarist, helped form G N’ R and then left. Phil Lewis’s top hat, those roses he holds. They’re both from L.A.. There’s this imitation but disdain to what they’re doing. It sorta says if they can’t break through with an anthem, then this is the route they’re going to go.”
- This route is the power ballad, staple of 80s and 90s hair metal, oft maligned as the easy path to commercial success. Or, Ross again, “the song that went apeshit, that went into heavy rotation on MTV.”
The power ballad, Metzer says, achieves both intimacy and escalation. You know how it goes: The acoustic guitar, followed by the singer motioning towards a plaintive yet general sentimentality. Some lines about love and loss. Then the downbeat of the drums and bass, the easy rhythmic signature, the string orchestra kicking in around the second chorus, and the inevitable electric guitar solo, slow yet at a high enough octave to “prime us for release and transcendence.”
A ballad promises baldness, yet it dresses up and theatricalizes its sincerity. The result is a song capable of instilling what Metzer labels “the sorrow of sentimentality and the stimulation of uplift,” of creating a “miasma of emotions” and allowing listeners to “draw whatever they want from that mist, including despair, resolve, comfort, and exultation.”
- Another consequence of this intimacy is that critics—by which I mean male critics—maligned the power ballad as being soft or feminine, a manufactured appeal to “the Top 40 housewives and their daughters,” as one put it. The ballad’s sentimentality undermined whatever notions of masculinity the band was expected to adhere to based off their album cover.
- Which is all a bunch of bullshit.
- But which also leads to some interesting stuff: You have, as Metzer puts it, the performative masculinity of “strutting, screeching singers” and their phallic, guitar solos mixed with a “singing about love and loss in highly emotional ways [to] accord with perceptions of the feminine.”
That is, the power ballad achieves both Sontag’s exaggerated and androgynous forms of Camp at the same time.
- Of course, “pure Camp,” Sontag says, contains the “essential element [of] a failed seriousness.” The type of seriousness with which a fourteen-year-old boy tapes a poster of a nude, diamond-dusted Carmen Electra to his bedroom wall, or gyrates to “Paradise City” while holding onto a subway pole. Only then does one have the “proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”
It’s doubtful that Phil Lewis, Tracii Guns, and the rest of the band approached the song with such solemnity. “It’s a caricature of itself,” Ross says. “I have a hard time believing any of these guys took it seriously by 1989.” But perhaps the seriousness exists not so much in the ballad itself as it does in the attempt to prove that this second banana band can ace this type of song, that they’re tired of being outcharted, that they can perform a false and passionate sincerity better than the band they may or may not be trolling.
- Add to this the fact that the L.A. Guns dedicate the song to Mansfield, even if they do a sorry job of rendering the barest details of her life.
- And what you have isn’t a ballad, but a “ballad.” Not a gun, but a “gun.” Not hard rock, but “hard rock.”
- “Okay, maybe it’s not their worst song,” Ross says. “Because there’s some real shit.”
- What you have is “Jayne.”
 Tom Werman, who Ross tells me also produced the Twisted Sisters’ “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the song opposite, for the moment, “Ballad of Jayne”
 By traditional, I mean ballads within the scope of American blues and folklore, a huge category that I’m somewhat nonchalantly glomming together here.
 There’s slyness then in the band appropriating an emblem of exaggerated femininity such as Mansfield. If she symbolizes the desires of the virile, victorious patriarchy of the previous generation, here the band, children of those post-war protonatalist policies, thumb their noses at that generation and sexualize a woman old enough to be their father’s lover.
Thomas Mira y Lopez is the author of The Book of Resting Places (Counterpoint Press). He is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.