Criterion Files #12: ‘This is Spinal Tap’ Takes it to 11

By  · Published on November 9th, 2011

Tune into VH1 Classics on any given day, and this is something you’re likely to see: a rock video of a mid-80s hair band playing on a giant stage, complete with sleek cinematography, wide camera angles, and a stadium-sized audience packed to the brim. At first you might be confused, thinking that this is possibly some Whitesnake or Guns N’ Roses song that somehow escaped your memory. But then the music video ends and in the bottom left corner the band’s name comes up. You’ve never heard of them before, and you’ve definitely never heard this song before. Yet this video depicts monstrous popularity that suggests nothing less than massive cultural phenomenon. While it’s possible for a one-hit wonder to develop this degree of renown for a certain frame of time, it becomes something of a schizophrenic moment when you consider that this hit single both inaugurated the now-forgotten band’s moment of popularity and depicted it simultaneously. With so many hair bands, how is it possible that every single one of them sells out stadium-size crowds?

The answer, of course, can only be one thing: an association with mass popularity is, for hair bands, only a reality for the privileged few, but for the rest it’s a fabrication that’s all part of the musical aesthetic – it’s what makes this subgenre of rock that’s reliant on spectacle so spectacular. It’s fitting, then, that one of the landmark mockumentaries of American filmmaking chose as its subject a genre that itself relies on manufacturing carefully represented patterns of fabrication.

For years I thought Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984) was a deftly hilarious film that acts as little more than a riff on the easily mockable target that is arena-style 80s hair bands. Authenticity, after all, is an important thing for rock n’ roll, and something that hair bands wanted little to do with: their costumes, elaborate sets, and genre-defining giant hair were all the implicit results of a type of delusional hubris met only by the overblown, almost self-parodying spectacle of the music itself, a genre that communicated strictly through mandatory guitar solos and generic lyrics about love or rocking or both.

For audiences who wanted nothing to do with 80s pop, New Wave, or the emerging genre of alternative college rock could find in hair bands a safe haven for aggressively heterosexual music for audiences too young to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Hair bands also stood in direct opposition to 60s and 70s rock n’ roll bands from The Rolling Stones to the Monterey Pop-era to Led Zepplin, whose cultural currency relied so much on certain tropes of rock authenticity, whether that be devotion to musical history (the Stones and the blues), using rock as the medium for a creed or ideology (Woodstock-era), or centralizing one’s focus on the “music itself” as the primary subject (Zep’s minimal sets vs. hair rock’s maximal sets).

But Spinal Tap’s true genius is in not throwing ham-fisted darts at an admittedly easy target. If Twisted Sister is any indication, hair rock, after all, reveled in its lack of authenticity (hair rock’s love of artifice makes it, oddly enough and despite its constantly reaffirmed uber-masculinity, historically more aligned with glam/glitter rock than any other preceding historical incarnation). After all, Spinal Tap did emerge after this movie as a touring band often playing for audiences who didn’t quite get the joke (and those that did). So what good, then, is poking fun at the fakeness of a music culture that already knows it’s fake, or at least doesn’t care about the difference? Sure, some great gags come from these gestures – the fake cucumber in Derek Smalls’s (Harry Shearer) pants for instance – but I think Spinal Tap is doing a little more.

What I’ve often forgotten watching this film is, unlike many real-life hairbands at the time it was made, Spinal Tap’s musicians didn’t first emerge in the arena rock era. As mock-doc footage of the band on British television indicates more than once in the film, the three central members of Spinal Tap have been playing music together in some form or another for nearly two decades. The first clip shows the band wearing mop-tops and dressing Mod in clean suits and ties, resembling Hard Day’s Night Era-Beatles and singing music that’s just as poppy, radio-friendly, and non-threatening (in other words, a long way away from “Sex Farm”). The second clip pictures the band two years later, having changed into a Sgt. Pepper/Haight-Ashbury mode, wearing psychedelic garb and playing alongside the sound of a sitar that is heard but not seen (a nice visual gag, as if the pot-infused Summer of Love atmosphere itself automatically brings forth this cliché ). Also, when David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) discuss the first song they wrote together, out comes some strange Carl Perkins/Woody Guthrie hybrid. And then, of course, there’s the long lost Simon and Garfunkel-style hit they despondently listen to together on the radio.

The long history of the band is hinted at but never fully explained. And it doesn’t come across as a convenient history in which the musician has lived through all musical eras Forrest Gump-style à la Dewey Cox. Instead, what’s suggested here is that Spinal Tap has simply imitated whatever the latest musical trend may be throughout postwar pop music history. They’re not unsuccessful because they’re bad musicians; Nigel’s quaint D-minor piano performance of “Lick My Love Pump” proves this not to be the case. One can’t imitate such a grand variety of 20th century musical genres and still be a hack. What Spinal Tap does with remarkable nuance is not only to point out the obvious artifice of arena rock, but to make the case that all rock genres are to an extent artificial when they become so involved in the economics of what it means to sustain a life and image as a successful musician.

All music is to some degree an act of appropriation. Elvis imitated Chuck Berry; The Beatles imitated Buddy Holly at one point and The Beach Boys at another; The Rolling Stones imitated various blues artists; and Spinal Tap simply imitated everybody. Thus, the authenticating codes that so many rock genres live by are simply absurd (how “authentic” is so much late-60s rock that can only be “performed” through the studio production and never recreated live, for instance?). What arena rock does is permit space for musicians to be free from ever having to worry about authenticity.

The central irony of This is Spinal Tap, then, is that the band fails so spectacularly at mimicking what is already so inauthentic.

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