The Middle Finger Factor of Dee Snider
Twisted Sister frontman challenges stereotypes of metalheads.
Posted Jul 26, 2018
“I gave you yesterday
Tomorrow’s no concern”
– From “Tomorrow’s No Concern” by Dee Snider
For Dee Snider, heavy metal was always a form of self-protection–a way to define himself rather than succumb to how others saw him.
“I’d come home from school, wasn’t popular, didn’t fit in, was bullied. As an angry young man, I’d go into my room, lock the door, put on an album and just rock out in front of a mirror–lip syncing, working on my stage moves,” Snyder told me. “I would be sweating. And I felt better. It’s that important–everybody needs that. Somehow you need that…Metal allowed me to release all those frustrations and angers–and it changed me. It changed me in the moment."
“Would you rather have someone throw their fist in the air or punch someone in the face?”
In fact, Snider feels that being an outcast has been almost a precondition of being attracted to metal. “If I had been a popular guy–handsome and popular–would I have been drawn to it? Doubtful,” Snider described. “I walk up to heavy metal guys who are genuinely attractive…I’m talking fashion model good looks…And I say, ‘Why are you playing heavy metal?’ The good looking people weren’t standing in the mirror practicing their moves or practicing their licks."
“The good looking people were partying and getting laid.”
More, metal wasn’t just an individual connection with the music–Snider found an enduring peer group where he was embraced rather than rejected. “One thing there is also–metal has a sense of community. And for outcasts, to feel like you’re a part of something. You realize you’re not alone…It’s people sharing a common love, a common passion,” Snider explained. “Rob Halford said, ‘Being a headbanger’s like being a marine–once a marine always a marine.
“Once a headbanger, always a headbanger.”
So, it was perhaps understandable that Snider was frustrated when he found that many of the people outside of the heavy metal community not only didn’t understand metal, but also stereotyped headbangers as unintelligent and dangerous. “It always frustrates me that there’s this perception…that my music style, choice, selection, reflects the size of my brain somehow, in that you’re obviously not as smart as other people because you’ve chosen this music,” Snider told me. “And nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s no reflection on intelligence. Yeah, we’ve got some stupid fans and metal followers, and you’ve got some pretty brilliant people. So, that perception always bothered me, in that…being smart and being sober and being a Christian and being a metal fan are not mutually exclusive.
“It’s not an either-or scenario.”
Snider takes particular issue with the assumption that all heavy metal artists and fans are somehow Satanists. He explained how bands such as Black Sabbath often sang about themes of peace in songs like “War Pigs,” and yet were accused of being Satanic–just as his music was similarly misinterpreted.
“Geezer Butler was the lyricist for Black Sabbath. And Geezer was very introspective. And I once read something…some Christian magazine–went further beyond the demonic sounds and the imagery, and said, ‘These are practically sermons,’” Snider said. “The song “Black Sabbath” itself is a fear of Satan–they’re coming to get you, and burning in hell for your sins.”
Eventually, when Snider wrote and performed his own metal music with Twisted Sister, he also found that people often misinterpreted the lyrics. He discussed in particular how the songs “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Burn in Hell” were misunderstood.
“I had so many right wing politicians latch on to ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’ You do know the first line is ‘We’ve got the right to choose?’ You’re singing ‘We’ve got the right to choose’ and you’re anti-choice. Does anybody vet these things? These guys are morons. It’s amazing,” Snider described. “I mean yeah, there are some bands out there that sing very overtly about going to hell, but then there’s…my stuff–‘Burn In Hell,’” he described. “That was a fire and brimstone sermon winning against the evil of sin. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil."
“I thought, does anybody listen to the words?”
These stereotypes translated into direct discrimination at times. “Years ago, 1982 touring in Holland–Twisted Sister and Anvil. We go to a nice restaurant, we walked up to the door. And they shut off the lights in a full restaurant and put the closed sign out. They’re yelling, ‘We’re closed,’” Snider explained. “And we’re looking in the window and the place is filled with people eating in the dark. And I looked at us and I said, 'We’re in our leather cutoffs and our skulls and were sending a threatening message. And they’re afraid.' And I said, 'OK–cool.'”
Snider embraced the stereotypes to a degree. He explained how the Twisted Sister song “Sick Motherf*cker” addressed the stereotypes against metal.
“The whole ‘Sick Motherf*cker’ thing–which people didn’t understand–there were arrests for those words and fights for those words. Because it’s not a literal translation–it’s not a literal term. We were called sick mother*ckers because of how we looked,” he said. “It was a derogatory term. We would say…‘If not being like them is being a sick mother*cker–I’m a sick motherfu*ker.’ I’ll wear it as a badge of honor. You mean it as a derogatory term?"
“It’s a badge of honor.”
Snider’s “badge of honor” approach to challenging these stereotypes has never been rebellion per se. Rebellion implies fighting against something. Snider was fighting against the system to an extent, but it was more about simply making sure he cleared the way for him and other metalheads to be free to be themselves.
“A lot of the kids liked the eighties stuff, because it had an attitude. I call it the middle finger factor. It wasn’t a complaining music. It was a ‘f*ck you’ music. One of my first hits in the U.K. was ‘I Am, I’m Me’– =a personal Declaration of Independence for myself. I’ve always been a don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover guy,” Snider said. “We definitely had that against mentality–us against them. But it was more about building yourself. People would say ‘Who’s them?’ Anybody who’s against us. But it wasn’t as much lashing out as it was reinforcing yourself and your belief in your own position.”
In 1985, Snider got his chance to address his frustration on the stereotypes of metal music in front of the United States Senate. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was founded to address what it considered to be the dangers of sex and violence in music. It created a “Filthy Fifteen;” a set of songs that included Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The PMRC suggested that not only should these songs be labeled as offensive and in some cases banned from play on radio and television, but also, record companies should reconsider honoring their contract with these artists, including Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, and Black Sabbath (as well as Madonna and Prince).
Snider appeared before the Senate committee and was defiant, not by attacking the PMRC, but rather by challenging the stereotypes of heavy metal music, proclaiming himself a sober, Christian parent, whose lyrics were completely misinterpreted. More, he recited unshakeable conservative political truisms–that it is parents, not the government, who should be responsible for determining the music to which their children listen. He discussed his approach, including how he decided to appear before the Senate in the same denim jacket and jeans that he had worn for years as a heavy metal fan.
“That was one of my big things–going to Washington. People said I should put on a suit. I said 'No, I’m going to put on my uniform. This is my uniform. And they’re going to look at this book and learn that they don’t know what’s inside the pages of this book, they’ve got to read it. They’ve got to know what’s in here,'” Snider recalled. “I disarmed them by showing them I am you. I’m clean, sober, I’m married, I’ve got a kid, I’m Christian…I live by the teachings. I may look different, but I’m not different. And I’m not a moron, so don’t talk to me like one. And that was certainly by design. I didn’t think I’d get anywhere by just saying fuck you."
“It required a different approach.”
As time has gone on, the metal community still faces misunderstanding and discrimination. Bands such as Judas Priest have faced trials based on the presumption that their music caused suicides in heavy metal fans. And Marilyn Manson was falsely linked to the school shootings in Columbine, which he felt “destroyed” his career.
But despite this ongoing discrimination, Snider sees progress in how the world views heavy metal. Snider himself has turned metal into a lifelong career. Rolling Stone eventually named Stay Hungry one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time. And Snider is putting out a solo album, For the Love of Metal, and touring throughout the summer to support his album. He relayed a conversation he shared with fellow heavy metal veteran, Alice Cooper, on their newfound acceptance in the world.
“I talked to Alice Cooper about this. I said Alice–when did they start liking us? It felt like one moment people were crossing the street to get away from me, to now it’s more than just a fan thing. They like me. It’s ridiculous,” Snider recalled. “Alice said, 'Yeah, they got used to us…you stay around long enough and you just become a part of life.' I said, 'Like Norm on Cheers?’ He said, ‘Yeah, kind of like that.’”
Snider cites the book Heavy Metal Islam, which describes how heavy metal music has taken hold in Islamic communities, as evidence of the power of metal to unite people. “There’s a book Heavy Metal Islam. It came out a number of years ago. It was a book about how with all the political unrest, and all the ugliness and the wars in the Middle East–underneath it all, there’s a music scene connecting all the young people,” Snider explained. “And it’s the metal scene–heavy metal fans crossing all borders. They share their love of music. And it’s doing the work that politicians and armies cannot do. It’s connecting people. The walls come down when we find that common bond."
“If you can share the love and you can share the feeling, everyone’s welcome.”
More, research has demonstrated that stereotypes of heavy metal were largely untrue. Metalheads from the '80s have grown up as well-adjusted, or even more well-adjusted, than their non-metalhead peers. In fact, far from causing mental health problems, experimental research suggests that listening to extreme metal music can actually soothe rather than exacerbate negative emotions. More, research shows that heavy metal fans have higher levels of civic activism than fans of other styles of music.
Snider explained how he still uses metal as a cathartic form of coping. Snider’s mother passed away recently–and he explained how playing metal music helped him deal with the tragedy.
“I just went through something catastrophic that emphasizes this. I started this new record. My mom was a vibrant, healthy, 80 year old woman, art teacher. She was doing a staging for another woman’s art show, working in the community, she drove…I’d go 'Mom, I’m really hopeful for my genetics,'” Snider said. “And while we were recording the record, she got hit by a car–brain damaged–for virtually two months she was a vegetable, and then she died. So, I started the album she was healthy, I recorded the album, and I kept recording the album while she was ill. And I recorded the album after she was gone. I also kept some concert dates I had. And I said to the audience, ‘Many of you thought that I would be canceling because you heard about my mom…And I have to tell you she would have wanted me here–but she wasn’t really a fan.’ And they all laughed. And I said, ‘Metal has always been my outlet. When I’ve been upset, angry, depressed, hurt, any of these emotions–these raw emotions–I’ve always turned to music and rocked out and felt better afterwards.’ I said, ‘I’m here because I need to be here. I need to get out and leave the hospital for a couple of days and just get up and just sweat and scream and yell."
“I lose my mind so I can go back and deal with this reality.”
Despite how the world has changed around him to be more accepting of metal and metalheads, Snider recognizes that sometimes he still feels like that kid who doesn’t quite fit in. “You talk about how it (metal) ages well? Not when you’re on a plane and you’re sitting with a buddy and both listening to the same metal songs both thrashing in your seats. And you’re in your 50s and 60s. And to an outsider you’re just some crazy looking old dude. You can’t help it,” he said.
“The kid-like feelings are still there.”
And Snider feels confident that he and other metalheads will keep pushing the envelope, and continue to use metal to help define themselves and challenge stereotypes.
“Robin Quivers once said to me, ‘What’s the point of having a line if you can’t cross it?’ And I feel bad for conservatives because that line keeps moving back. That’s art. We just go over there and say, ‘Well I’m going to put my thumb over it then,’” Snider explained. “Look at how far we’ve come with what’s accepted–with what they’ve been forced to accept from where Puritanism was in the 1700s, 1800s. It’s insane how much they’ve grown to accept. And the poor bastards keep trying to draw a line, and we just keep stepping over it."
“How can you not?”