Hysterical Masculinity: Def Leppard ca. 1987

16 June 2010

It’s proof-positive: I’m getting old.  The fact that I re-bought Def Leppard’s 1987 album, Hysteria, shows that the best years of my life are over.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m trying to get a read on what forces made up my sense of manhood.  If Def Leppard wasn’t an influence, I don’t know what was.  It was the non-stop background for my life for at least a couple of years.  I listened to cassettes of them until they warped from use.  Or was it me that was warped?

Men in tight jeans, long hair, singing in alto ranges: none were considered particularly “manly” for the time, but they could clearly get away with it as anti-establishment.  As I discussed in a previous post, glam rock was a conscious attempt to rise above sex-specific restrictions.  The costumes, make-up and unconventional performances made Def Leppard (and many others) demigods of sexuality.

Perhaps to compensate for their more feminine mannerisms, they tended to flaunt their heterosexual promiscuity.  Def Leppard’s Hysteria “wallows in a cess pool of retarded sexuality” (to quote a quote from Marty DeBergi) with lyrics like these:

Inch by inch, mile by mile, what I do I do in style
You got your leather, la-lace, long and lean
Ballistic (a) lipstick dream machine
(Oh) (Whoa)
You got to do it!
(Oh) (Whoa)
Ah, do it, do it!
(Oh) (Whoa)
Hey, c’mon and do it!
(Oh) (Whoa)
Oh, you know I get so (Excitable)
I really get so (Excitable)
I wanna get you (Excitable)
So, c’mon, let’s go!

Surprisingly, these sophomoric gems were offset by astounding musicianship.  The key changes, solos, challenging rhythms and multivalent movements were genuine breakthroughs for rock, and far more thoughtful than any of the pop on the radio today. 

But back to masculinity.  Def Leppard upheld and even exaggerated codes of male promiscuity in order to make their otherwise unmanly antics appear permissible.  If there was any question of it being sissy, they could retort that they were just being anti-establishment (see “Gods of War,” track 7).  Besides, they could get as much tail as they wanted.  If so unmanly, why would all the girls want to sleep with them?

So thanks a lot, Def Leppard.  Thanks for teaching me that it was okay for me to move from hegemonic masculinity to a perverse, adolescent masculinity.  Thanks for teaching me that spandex and make-up could save me from my Clint Eastwood expectations.  Know that my son will never listen to your albums if I have anything to do with it.  (But I will, secretly, when I’m feeling depressed and nostalgic.  Hysteria is unquestionably one of the top 5 albums of the 80s.)



  1. What’s equally interesting is how the grunge movement that succeeded bands like DL flipped everything around. While still anti-establishment on the outside–the glammed-out accessories dismissed for a more stripped down, angry appearance which was almost universally reflected in the music–their inner children were perpetually in the fetal position.

    With one you get cocky weasels, while the other gives you wounded birds. Both strike a chord with girls intrigued by a male renovation project (or, in the case of the more successful bands, by the ones hoping for a lucrative pregnancy trap).

    I played Hysteria for a week straight when it came out and, like you, still occasionally enjoy it today. Yet there was always something missing for me until the day Nirvana cracked open the door to what I would consider the background for that time of my life, and Pearl Jam ripped it off the hinges! Grunge embraced the reality that the hairspray boys still try to ignore decades later: eventually the party ends, and everything turns to shit. Fortunately, the latter doesn’t have to be the case for those who abide in Christ.

    On a more personal note, your best years started the day you married your lovely and gracious better half. Life, like cassettes, becomes warped with continual rewind and replay. Enjoy to the fullest the Mobile Fidelity disc of manhood you get to live out and impart to your son today. In the words of Colin Hay, I’m still “waiting for my real life to begin.”

  2. Let your son listen. One step at a time. (After all, better an early step in the male renovation project that the outright repeal we’re getting now.) I knew there was something wrong, too, but it would’ve been better to solve it from within rather than the usual tear-it-all-down punk/consumerist solution. (I would very much want, and still want, a movement that goes “all the way”, so to speak–a sort of pansexual prog-metal pop that takes in everything from the acoustic delicacies of early Genesis to the neon thunder of Van Halen to the musical acrobatics of Gentle Giant to the sophisticated pop of Jellyfish.) Ever since 1975 (i.e., for most of it’s history), rock’s been mistreating its diagnoses, with the predictable results.

    Oh, BTW: Poison? Ratt? Def Leppard? Motley Crue? All still touring to large audiences. Nothing has to go to shit if you know what you’re doing. The party can go on, even if it’s just not all there is to life.

    • Jeff, thanks for your metal meditation. I actually appreciate these rock bands coming back as party novelties. In many ways that’s what they were doing in the day, providing a kind of semi-rebellious location for social catharsis.

      For some reason your final comment made me think back to a cassette tape my parents took from me, a band from the late 80s called Dangerous Toys (with mega-hits like “Teasin’ Pleasin'”). The script seems so right now: parents take sophomoric metal from boy, hide in their desk, boy feels wronged yet reaffirmed in his youthful identity, boy feels emboldened to pursue forbidden sexual themes, boy eventually steals said cassette from parents’ desk. Anything for a party.

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