Monday, June 23, 2014

In Defense Of: "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" by Van Halen

This In Defense Of was contributed by Reno, Nevada-based graphic designer, hair metal historian, and Atomic Punk Liz Rossi.

Radio-friendly dong-metal had its heyday around the time of my birth in the mid-80s. However, at some point circa the year 2000, I became determined to mount a one-girl revival within my own extremely limited sphere. As a military kid with poor social skills, my primary source of taste was the television; fresh off my very first break-up, I was looking for something new and cool to be. Something with edge. And who should swoop in to show me the way but good ol’ dad-rockin’ VH1.

Over the course of a month or so, my eager steps could be traced from a few well-timed episodes of Behind the Music, to reading Metal Edge magazine at the PX newsstand, to needlessly sneaking CDs past my bemused parents. The first song I learned on guitar was “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, which I warbled until everyone in earshot knew to hide if they saw me coming with a loaded six-string on my back*. Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, Stryper(!), Scorpions the immersion was total. My highest regard was reserved for the teen-girl-friendly, halfway-there arena-rock poodles of Bon Jovi, but the less said about that the better.

*Bon Jovi reference, but you probably knew that. Tsk.

Suffice it to say, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to shitty hair metal. I can’t even hear the opening notes of “Cherry Pie” at a 7-Eleven without wincing inwardly — not just out of embarrassment for my teenage self — but because the music itself is just the most disposable, bland, pseudo-toughguy bullshit, memorable not for any real distinction or merit but as a corny artifact of a dark period in American history.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here’s where I argue that Van Halen distinguish themselves. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing is, of course masterful, if extremely of its time, but it’s the camp factor David Lee Roth brings to the table that keeps a respectable proportion of their discography listenable years later (I offer the entire Sammy Hagar era as counterexample for my theory). Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love is their pinnacle achievement because it walks such a fine line — the wanky guitar and buffoonish sexism are dialed down just enough to make room for a little bit of dark urgency to creep in, without completely abandoning the indulgence that makes Van Halen appealing in the first place.

This song really scratches a sonic itch, but musicianship isn’t my area of expertise, so I’ll stick to the subject matter. “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is most interesting to me for the way preening sex peacock Roth hints that there are hidden depths to his clownish Lothario persona — there’s real anger and regret here, a modicum of authenticity that stands out in the Van Halen catalogue and in the larger hair metal milieu. Even “Runnin’ With the Devil”, a close contender for best Van Halen song, has a sheen of silliness that requires a certain mood for listening: the simplistic boasting, the theatrical howls, the improbable implication that Roth aligns himself with any entity but the god of ass and cocaine.

“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” sounds personal. Enhanced by the tension in the driving tempo, the lyrics are vague in a pointed way that implies a specific history, rather than some more universal sentiment. If love’s off the table, what ARE they talkin’ ‘bout? Something with more emotional heft than casual sex, if the references to lost friends and being “rotten to the core” are any indication. A sketchy picture emerges of a sordid public drama, with just a whiff of S&M as the cherry on top. It’s a good break-up song, and a good falling-in-lust song, and a good falling-in-lust-all-over-again song. I’ll even be so bold as to suggest there’s a certain timelessness to it; I’d like to hear a decent straightfaced cover sometime (Hot Snakes? White Stripes? Bueller?). Your honor, my musical crimes are many, but I won’t be pleading guilty today: this song totally justifies its existence. *WAILING GUITAR SOLO*

— Liz Rossi

Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Jon Mann, In Defense Of: Hair Metal

Derek Hawkins, In Defense Of: Standing in the Spotlight, Dee Dee King


  1. I'm all about it :) and here's your cover...