When you live in Austin, you typically fall into one of two camps in the ugly, imposing face of South by Southwest. The first is comprised of those who spend all year looking forward to it, who plan ahead for the wristbands and map out what venues to hit up on what days and where to end up at night for Maximum Free Drink Benefit (MFDB). The second houses those who lock the doors, draw the blinds, and spend the week staying far, far away from downtown. My favorite thing to talk about, write about, and generally do is music, so you might think, “Eh, Brad, who’d you see at South-by? I bet it was extremely lit, ugh I’m so jealous, I’ll visit for sure next year let’s do it up.” This would be foolish of you to say—you would, in fact, be a fool. I don’t like festivals, I don’t like crowds, I don’t like drunk teens, and sometimes, tbqh, I don’t even like live music all that much. Like, what are you even supposed to do with your arms at shows? I can’t deal with it. So I stay in. I lock the doors. I draw the blinds. I fully admit I’ve missed hours—whole days—of excellent music because of this, but SXSW is a little deceitful. Shows are free for the most part, so long as you have the right badge at the right time and even with it are willing to spend like three hours in line. Life’s too short is a cliche, but it’s also a truth so…life’s too short, y’all.
THAT BEING SAID, I did a South-by thing this past weekend and here’s what it was: Hanson on the roof of the flagship Whole Foods. I got the free tickets days in advance, left from home more than an hour early, and waited in line for fucking ages, missing the first three songs of the set before even making it in. Wells Fargo reps walked the line handing out sunscreen in lime green Wells Fargo spritzer bottles, asked Hanson trivia questions with Skip the Line passes in hand for the winners, and maintained the upbeat sunniness of freshly-graduated first-job-out-the-gates millennial youths. The young woman in front of us in line had to have been one of the biggest Hanson fans I’ve met, straining to make out the songs being played based solely on the kick drum’s rhythm and Taylor’s harmonies once the music started up and we were still inching toward the entrance step by step. She very emotionally whisper-sang “Where’s the Love,” hitting all the “round and round and round”s right on cue and soothing her own late-to-Hanson anxieties in a truly admirable way. It was all very Austin; I kept thinking, “Austin is very Austin rn.” We were all sweating and trudging and nostalgic, all for the “MMMbop” kids.
And here’s the thing: I like Hanson quite a bit, was excited to hear not just Middle of Nowhere bops but Shout It Out bops or even that one bop from Anthem, an otherwise bopless record. This song—”Get the Girl Back”—they played. They also played “MMMbop,” eliciting the quickest Sea of Phones rise that I’ve ever seen at a show, Snapchat somehow already open and raring to go across the waves. I’m not sure how much fun the Hanson bros still have playing “MMMbop,” and you might have forgotten that it’s nearly five minutes long, but, much like Hanson’s entire esprit de coeur, it was undeniably, infectiously joyful. Even when they played a new song that was, to be frank, capital-B Bad, I sang and chanted along at the chorus. I fist pumped. I swayed. Etc. News of the great Chuck Berry’s death had broken while we’d been waiting in line less than an hour earlier, and before launching into their last song, Isaac Hanson told us it was their dad’s Chuck Berry records that had made him want to pick up a guitar in the first place (natch). “This might be a mistake,” he said, “because we didn’t practice this. But who cares.” And they closed out the set with “Johnny B. Goode,” and here’s the thing: it did! It b. goode! Hanson knows instinctively, like down in their bones, how to harmonize on a dime like angels, and they know instinctively how to charm the pants off an audience, and, well, they’re some talented fools. It’s Chuck’s song, I know, and it’s a song that’s a little hard to mess up, but it also kind of brought the house down.
Something casual readers might not know is that the minimum word count for this project’s pieces is typically 750—I’ve now dedicated just over that amount of real estate discussing Hanson in the Year of Our Lord 2k17, in an essay purportedly about Black Sabbath. If you’re a big fan of the Sab, or if you’re Tony Iommi (hi Tony!), you might be long gone by now. Sorry. But look: are they much different from Hanson? I first approached this particular piece from this particular angle because yes, yes they are, in fact because I figured I’d had the complete opposite experience at a Hanson show from what one must have had at a Sabbath show from their 1970-75 heyday. Sabbath’s eponymous debut album was recorded in a single day in October of 1969. The way Ozzy and Tony both tell it, they had the studio rented for two days, and the second would be for mixing, so they played everything live, did a couple takes, and were in the pub before the streetlights came on on day one. That record is now credited for inventing the entire genre of heavy metal almost single-handedly (with apologies/middle fingers to Zeppelin). It inspired decades of stoners, goths, and sludge metalheads to get stoning, gothing, and sludging, and it was also the first time I can remember finding an album with the same name as both the band that recorded it and a track on the album (“Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath, from Black Sabbath, the holy trinity hat trick, rarer than it might seem).
That last one doesn’t really mean anything, I know, but you still get my point. Ozzy sang about witches and evil and damnation and ghosty ghoulies and a “big black shape with eyes of fire” and a “chill that numbs from head to toe / icy sun with frosty glow.” More than once, he took Lucifer’s point of view on things, and never to, I don’t know, correct the cultural narrative or whatever. Listening to Black Sabbath (or more specifically “Black Sabbath,” or less specifically Black Sabbath) now does not in any way that matters feel dated or like a watered-down starting point of what the genre became: it’s got metal down to its socks, a heaviness that holds water in a way other progenitors just don’t.
Do you remember twenty years ago (almost to the day!) when “MMMbop” first came out, what a juggernaut it was, how inescapable, how fully committed to delivering joy to the world? And now that “MMMbop” is in your head, aren’t you glad it will take days for you to get it out again? When they wrote the song, the Hanson brothers were 10, 13, and 15 years old, a year or so older when it hit the Billboard charts in the remastered, Dust Brothered version we all now know and love. It’s crazy in some ways, this realization, but in more ways than one it makes total sense: even the original recording, what the brothers have called a “ballad,” before the backbeat and electro flourishes, is insanely joyful in the way only white teens in the heartland of America whose parents have always supported them can be. It’s a song about how ephemeral life is, how soon we all will die, how the friends we think we love in fact might not mean bupkis to us when it matters most—in an MMMbop they’re not there, you know? It’s a subject which on paper sounds utterly crushing but from the mouths of Hanson hopeful, promising, optimistic. Because they know how to write the hell out of a pop song, and because they sound like baby squirrels on tape and who can frown at a baby squirrel?
Is Black Sabbath joyful? Is the genre they spawned? I’ve gone through phases with metal, from Kill ‘Em All to Carcass to Arsis to Emperor to ISIS to Sabbath, etc., but I’d never consider myself a metalhead. I get it, I like it, I’m on board, but, well, it can be a lot. And the experience of bashing yourself and everyone around you at a metal show can certainly be joyful, but that’s different: that’s physical. You’re sharing in a moment with others, releasing energy and aggression and sweat, a release that’s just as much a rush as any other communal, shared activity bringing joy into people’s lives. But what about the music on its own?
I asked some folks I know who have a bigger stake in metal than I do, and there was a word that was used in response to my joy question almost every single time: catharsis. “The real joy in metal is in its catharsis.” “What I love about metal is its indulgence….To scream on top of heavy drums...and waves of noise is to throw everything you possibly can into a song. I think that can be so cathartic.” And maybe that’s the kicker. Maybe the joy in metal isn’t in the metal but in the way the metal makes you feel, even alone, even isolated in your headphones. Maybe the great irony buried deep inside the genre is that the darkness, the heaviness, the crush of Lucifer or corpses or divorce (hi Arsis!), becomes something brand new in its delivery. Becomes energy and movement and overwhelming emotion. Becomes catharsis. Becomes joy.
I thought it would be fun when I went to see Hanson, in their floppy blonde mops and rosy cheeks and expensive boots, with their good-time feels and cheerful awkward banter and three-part harmonies sent from heaven, to write all about Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath (featuring “Black Sabbath”) by writing about its utter opposite. But, well. I don’t know how wide that gap between the two actually is anymore. One makes joyful sounds, and one makes sounds that make you feel joyful. Just because the joy looks different doesn’t make it different. We all have our demons—choosing how to air them sometimes seems like the only real choice we have.