As I said, I’ve been mulling over “Devil’s music” in relation to the book. When I was growing up, it was, in my communities, taken for granted that there was indeed Satanic music and it was heavy metal. Not the hairband heavy metal. Parents hated Guns & Roses, but no one thought they were Satanic. I mean Slayer, Dio, Judas Priest, Ozzy, and, still, a little bit Led Zeppelin. Weirdly, I don’t remember anyone thinking Metallica was Satanic, but they might have been just a little too popular. Not that Zeppelin wasn’t, obviously. But Zeppelin was pagan, in that Lord of the Rings way. So, I’m actually not sure how we drew the line–I just know somehow, the line was drawn and Metallica was on one side of it, the “safe” if not noisy and obnoxious side and Zeppelin was on on the other.
Possibly Zeppelin was on the Satanic side because they were playing old blues music, along with the whole backwards-masking rumors about “Stairway to Heaven.”
Anyway, we lived in almost exclusively all white communities. Meaning, if I think of all the places I lived, I can name you the non-white families–the Herreras and the Salazars, the Kings, the Garners and possibly that kid with the wonky tooth, and the Geitners. I could be missing one or two, but you get the idea.
So, even though rap music existed, it was considered black music and, since our communities didn’t have black teenagers in them, and you couldn’t hear rap on the radio (for the most part. You heard some Run DMC after Aerosmith covered them and you heard some comedy rap, like the Fat Boys. But if people were listening to You MTV Raps and having their minds blown, they knew to keep their mouths shut about it), there wasn’t a lot of cultural anxiety about it. After all, that’s why you lived in rural Illinois, to keep your good kids safe from that.
I mean, I can remember how outraged parents were about kids listening to Michael Jackson (in his Thriller days) and Prince, because they thought it was wrong that kids admired and thought Jackson, especially, was cute, because they were black.
So, I’m sure that kids who grew up listening to their parents rail against Michael Jackson were not flaunting a love of Public Enemy later, you know? Not if you wanted to keep those tapes or records.
The Beastie Boys managed to bring this to a head, I remember. They were performing “nigger music” (excuse the epithet, but let’s be frank), but there was some heavy guitar which kind of signaled “Satanic heavy metal” to people. So, there was some concern in the town we lived in when Licensed to Ill came out about whether children should be allowed to listen to it.
My dad was a reluctant participant in these discussions. My dad is old-school Midwestern, but from the city, which means he never, ever met an ethnic or religious joke he didn’t find funny, no matter how tasteless, but he would not stand for overt racism. He didn’t care for Michael Jackson, but we were allowed to listen to him and I can remember one of my first pairs of earrings were hearts with Michael Jackson on them, which I wore every day until my ears got infected. And my dad refused to let discussions about whether it was okay for Michael Jackson to be listened to happen around him. He insisted Jackson was talented and worth kids’ attention.
But, as far as my dad was concerned, the Beastie Boys were three white kids. And, well, they might be Satanic. And while it was fine for us to listen to Satanic music over at other people’s houses, we couldn’t have it in the house. So, he and some of the other parents in the church set out to listen to Licensed to Ill.
Sadly, of course, children were not allowed to be there for the listening, so I don’t know how it went. I just know that, when he came home, he forbid us from ever owning that tape.
My next birthday, my best friend bought it for me, covertly.
And there was “Paul Revere.” I know the Beastie Boys have expressed some mixed feelings about the album in general. I know I, as an adult, have some mixed feelings about the album and this song in particular.
But holy fuck, when I heard it as a twelve or thirteen year old? It blew me away.
It still, at some level, blows me away.
We worry a lot, as feminists, about what kinds of messages this culture sends young girls. And I never heard what happened to the sheriff’s daughter as being anything other than a rape. And there are lots of reasons I should have identified with her–I, too, was the daughter of the kind of man boys like to rage against, I, too, was a girl, etc.
But I never did. I always identified with the bravado and the complete outlaw disregard for social order.
And I appreciated that you knew you were in danger with the subjects of that song. There was no guessing, no mixed signals. These were not good kids everyone in town liked who would hurt you and no one would believe you. They were actually quite terrible and everyone knew it.
I didn’t know, at that age, that you’d still get blamed, if you’re a woman who hangs out with terrible men and they do bad things to you.
At that age, I could hear men speaking like this and feel a kind of joy at their frankness.
Hell, maybe I still do feel a kind of joy at their frankness. Even if it’s obvious now that it’s mostly bravado.
So, anyway, I owned the tape and my parents knew I owned the tape and I listened to the shit out of it, but they never took it away from me.
And I felt like I was hearing messages from the wider world, a scary but awesome place I would have to be ready to join, sooner or later.
It’s funny. I didn’t mean for this post to be so thematically coherent, but I looked up Licensed to Ill on Wikipedia to see if it was “License” or “Licensed” and I see that they used a ton of samples from Led Zeppelin. Ha ha ha.