On the fourth day of July, one thousand people in Aurora, Illinois gathered to headbang together in a public park in an attempt to be recognized by the Guinness book of world records. Why July Fourth? This date is celebrated as Independence Day in the US, in commemoration of the vote by a congress of colonial governments in 1776 to declare themselves United States independent from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Many municipalities sponsor parades, fireworks displays, and other free public events to display national and civic pride. As a large suburb in the shadow of Chicago, Aurora does not get much attention outside of local news, but they do have one claim to international fame: Aurora is the setting of the internationally-popular Wayne’s World franchise, whose main characters Wayne and Garth are a pair of goofy heavy metal geeks.
This year the town of Aurora is celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the release of the film Wayne’s World (1992), which immortalized what until then had only been a popular skit on the comedy improv show Saturday Night Live. For their Independence Day celebration, the town of Aurora organized a mass of headbangers and hired an orchestra to perform “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. If you don’t know, that’s the song Wayne and Garth and their friends headbang to in their car as they drive through the streets of Aurora. It’s an iconic moment of the movie, and a moment of civic pride for Aurora, when their car-centered middle-class suburban culture was lovingly and light-heartedly memorialized in the national spotlight.
As countless newspapers and metal blogs have pointed out before me, Wayne’s World is also a rare affectionate (albeit parodic) homage to metal in mainstream pop culture. Frank Godla writing for Metalinjection.net calls the film a “hesher classic” and argues that “Wayne’s World showed headbanging to the rest of the world.” Wayne and Garth attend an Alice Cooper concert during the film, and Cooper has a cameo appearance as an unexpectedly friendly rock star. They are later tempted by a television executive to sell out and join a major network, but ultimately they reject the promise of commercial success so they can hold on to their dumb jokes and continue producing their carefree local show. It’s a celebration of the unpretentious, down-to-earth authenticity that can be one of the most endearing qualities of metal culture.
And it’s kind of ironic that Wayne’s World is the most visible representation of headbanging. The actors Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey apparently didn’t have much experience headbanging before, and according to Rolling Stone, they were uncomfortable and “found the head-banging during the big instrumental break to be physically painful.” Come on man, no pain, no gain! But seriously, though, that makes their portrayal of headbangers just a little disingenuous. And Aurora’s headbanging celebration suffered a similar problem: if you look at video footage, what most of the participants are doing doesn’t much look like the headbanging at your average metal show. Come to think of it, even the idea that 1000 people at a public park at a civic pride celebration might be official record for the largest number of people headbanging simultaneously is a bit odd. There must be dozens of metal festivals where over a thousand metalheads have wrecked their necks to Iron Maiden, or Sepultura, or Meshuggah, or even Slipknot.
I could make a point here about discrepancies between the public representations of metal and the insider values of the culture itself. After all, it intuitively seems to make sense that the most widely-known icons of a supposedly underground culture would not be “true” to the culture itself. Many metal fans relegate the bands Wayne and Garth listen to like Queen and Alice Cooper to the periphery of the genre, and a few even deny that bands like these are metal at all. And it seems likely that a number of the people headbanging on the fourth of July in Aurora were not really metal fans. Some of classical musicians onstage who I have worked with before certainly wouldn’t call themselves metalheads.
But Wayne’s World is not really at odds with “true” metal culture. Many metal fans enthusiastically embrace Wayne’s World, and plenty of metal blogs and institutions have been celebrating the film’s anniversary. Penelope Spheeris, who also made another beloved film about metal, The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years (1988), was reportedly chosen to direct Wayne’s World because she could make sure that metal and its fans were given sympathetic and accurate representation. While underground and anti-commercial values are certainly important in metal (like Wayne and Garth’s refusal to sell out to the TV corporation), they are postures, not laws of nature. Paradoxically, as much as many in metal culture may verbally reject anything associated with mainstream popularity, whether it’s glam metal or nu metal, mid-career Metallica or Wayne’s World, these supposedly peripheral versions or representations of metal tenaciously linger close to the hearts of many metalheads, and remain relevant to the continuing life of metal music.
—Stephen Hudson is a PhD student in Music Theory and Cognition at Northwestern University and lives in Chicago, USA. For more of his musicological perspective on metal, see his blog Metal In Theory.