“Butt rock” is definitely A Thing, right?
But what does it mean?
In a recent episode of the TFT Podcast, Sheely and Stokes had a long discussion on what defines butt rock and whether or not the band Quiet Riot fit that label. They offered up a number of defining characteristics of butt rock, but they also discovered that A) there is actually no commonly agreed-upon definition of butt rock and B) it’s not easy at all to define butt rock in a way that feels complete and satisfactory.
Online research points to no authoritative definition of butt rock. Instead, it appears that two competing definitions have emerged: glam rock of the 80’s versus post-grunge of the 90’s and beyond:
- The Wikipedia entry for butt rock redirects to glam rock, but the two discussion entries on the page both suggest that butt rock is more in line with post-grunge.
- The first page of entries for butt rock on Urban Dictionary includes several definitions that mostly refer to post-grunge, but some definitions that come down in the glam-rock camp.
- The earliest unambiguous reference to butt rock in a Google Books search comes from Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron in 1994 in the context of a 1991 tour: “Butt-rock is just the stupidest, basic, three-chord rock that you can possibly play, and it works with big crowds like this who don’t know you as a band.” This problematizes the notion of “butt rock” as a post-grunge phenomenon; 1991 was the dawn of grunge itself, to say nothing of post-grunge.
Further online research reveals more opposing voices on both sides of this
crack divide, with the majority seeming to fall on the post-grunge side of the debate.
Nothing this lack of consensus on such an important topic, Overthinking It is more than willing to fill step into this gaping chasm of authority. Ladies and Gentlemen, we are proud to present a Grand Unified (Anatomically-Based) Theory of Butt Rock:
Butt rock is not a single unified genre of music, nor does it have a static definition. Butt rock is always defined in opposition to the head rock of its time.
This definition of butt rock hinges on this notion of “head rock,” which, unlike butt rock, is definitely not A Thing, but rather a term that I just made up for the purpose of this argument.
Why head rock? Because butt rock almost certainly comes from the phrase “butthead.”
First, for the historical record, it’s worth noting that butthead only came into the common parlance in the 1980‘s. It’s a relatively new term, but it is old enough to encompass both 80’s glam-rock and 90’s post-grunge.
Butthead makes intuitive sense as derogatory term for a stupid person. A butthead has a butt for a head. The two parts of the body stand in stark contrast with each other. The head houses the brain and important sensory inputs: the eyes, nose, ears, and tongue. The head thinks, leads, creates, and consumes nourishment that enable all other functions of the body.
The butt houses the anus, lots of padding for sitting, and is in close proximity to reproductive organs. The butt follows, sits underneath, and excretes waste. Its neighboring reproductive organs act on base instincts without any regard for careful thought or reflection. Someone with a butt for a head reflects all of these qualities in their thinking. Hence, “butthead.”
Now, let’s extend these basic human anatomy concepts to build a scaffold for definitions of head rock and butt rock.
Head rock leads. It is pathbreaking and innovative. Head rock engages the intellect. Its lyrics address themes in an interesting way, or have interesting turns of phrases. Its musicality expresses virtuosity and atypical harmonies, melodies, and rhythms. Head rock is capable of quickness in tempo, by virtue of its access to higher order intellectual functionality, though it is not always fast.
By contrast, butt rock follows. It is more derivative than innovative. It is mostly an excretion of what the head had previously consumed and processed. Butt rock engages base instincts. Its lyrics lack cleverness in content or in structure. They often have an immature preoccupation with sex and women. Its musicality may attempt virtuosity, but typically fails to fully achieve it. At best, it overlays virtuosic elements (usually in the guitar solo) over entirely pedestrian rhythms and harmonies. Butt rock is usually plodding in tempo. It is pushed towards speed by the head, but pulled towards slowness by the butt, leaving most songs in a turgid, uninteresting middle ground of around 100-120 beats per minute.
This framework depends on a lot of subjective determinations of qualities of music: what’s pathbreaking and innovative to one person may be derivative and unoriginal to another person. This is unavoidable, but let’s use this as a starting point to identify a series of examples of head rock in various time periods that show how butt rock followed, and changed, over time.
PHASE 1: Head Rock and Butt Rock of the 70’s and 80’s
Although rock music had been around for decades prior to the 70’s, it wasn’t until that decade that butt rock truly began. Perhaps rock needed those intervening years to digest and travel through the digestive system before it could be excreted through the butt.
Black Sabbath – “Iron Man.” Sabbath was a pioneer in hard rock/heavy metal sounds and occult themes that would eventually become partially co-opted by butt rock, but they were among the first to do it. Oh, and have you noticed that the lyrics to “Iron Man” tell a tragic sci-fi time traveling horror story?
Metallica – “Master of Puppets.” Note the alternating measures of 7/8 in the verses and of course the virtuosity of the guitar solos, which are as melodically interesting as they are blisteringly fast.
Mötley Crüe – “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Think of it as a dumber, slower, sexed-up version of “Master of Puppets.” For added butt-ness, the guitars in this song are tuned down to achieve a lower note (D) than what’s possible with standard tuning (E).
KISS – “Love Gun.” Paul Stanley’s screeching, sloppy vocals are par for the course for most KISS songs, and butt rock writ large, but what takes this one really over the top is the double–nay, 1.5–entendres and vague references to sexual assault in the lyrics:
No place for hidin’ baby, no place to run
You pull the trigger of my
Phase 2: Head Rock and Butt Rock of the 90’s and 00’s
Head rock led with grunge and alternative. Butt rock followed with post-grunge, the genre everyone loves to hate.
Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Similar to Black Sabbath, Nirvana pioneered sonic (grunge) and thematic (angsty) palates that would later be co-opted by pale butt rock imitators that followed, but it’s definitely head rock for taking the lead.
Radiohead – “Paranoid Android.” Coming from an album that Rolling Stone called a “stunning art rock tour de force” it’s about as head rock as they come.
Creed – “Higher.” The lyrics may not have a preoccupation with sex, but here’s the thing: they contain no rhymes whatsoever. Musically, the song takes the listener anywhere but higher: its harmonies spend nearly the entire song resting on a down-tuned D major chord, and its melody descends precisely during the part where Scott Stapp sings the word “higher.” It is perfect in its its ineptitude.
Puddle of Mudd – “She (F***ing) Hates Me.” The angst of Nirvana morphs into the not-so-thinly veiled misogyny in this song.
This is where the internet’s collective musicology typically ends the story. But(t) why stop with all of this regrettable post-grunge? Perhaps it’s because the harder rock sounds (post-metal, -grunge, and -punk) have largely ceded commercial appeal to rock with softer sounds (alternative, indie, an folk rock) in this decade. This may be true, but here’s the thing about the Grand Unified Theory of Butt Rock: Butt rock survives. As long as there’s something that can be called head rock, the butt will follow.
Phase 3: Head Rock and Butt Rock of the 2010’s and beyond
Pussy Riot – “Punk Prayer.” Is Pussy Riot a music act, to say nothing of being a rock band? First and foremost, Pussy Riot is a high concept protest act. They’re far more likely to make headlines for being jailed by the Putin regime than they are to show up on the Billboard charts or your Spotify playlist. But to the extent that they are a “punk” “band,” they’re head rock through and through. The fact that they ironically use a body part in their name is an added bonus.
LMFAO – “Party Rock Anthem.”
I know, I know. It’s not really a rock song. But here’s the thing: in a a post-apocalyptic, post-rock world, in which music genres have lost practically all meaning and anything can be rock, LMFAO is thematically, 100% butt rock. They’re following in the wake of Lady Gaga’s electropop dominance of the pop culture zeitgeist. Their lyric writing peaks with “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle yeah.” Musically, their four-on-the-floor dance beat shares much in common with the relentless steady rock beats of butt rock of yesteryear.
They’re intentionally ridiculous, but not so self aware that they cease being a butt rock band and descend into novelty act territory. Self-awareness, after all, is a higher order function, and that belongs to the head, not the butt.
Oh, and in case you hadn’t realized, the “A” in LMFAO stands for “ass.”
(Party) Butt rock all the way.
Looking at this list, it’s important to not conflate the head/butt rock divide as simply another way of thinking of what’s good versus bad, versus what’s enjoyable versus detestable. With the exception of the post-grunge songs, I actually enjoy, or at least appreciate unironically, every butt rock example that I posted on this list. Butt rock isn’t bad rock, though it often is. Butt rock is just rock that isn’t head rock.
Conversely, head rock isn’t always good rock. Rush has legions of detractors who find their brand of prog rock to be pretentious. I’ve never listened to an entire Radiohead album all the way through. And Pussy Riot is…musically challenging to say the least.
When weighing the relative merits of head rock versus butt rock, it’s useful to think of this in terms of anatomy and how parts of the body work together to complement each other. A body with a head but no butt would be pure intellect…but with no way to excrete its waste. A body with a butt but no head would have a comfortable seat and close proximity to base desires…but no intake of new nourishment and no capacity for cleverness.
If rock is a body, then let us celebrate all of its parts: the head and the butt.
(Maybe the cock as well. But that’s another article for another time.)
So where do we go from here? I would love it if we could give this Grand Unified Theory the legitimacy it deserves on the internet: a proper Wikipedia page. Before we get there, though, let’s hash out and refine the theory in the comments of this article. In particular, let’s validate this notion that butt rock has a valid place in this post-rock, post-post-grunge decade.
Lastly, in case you thought I’d write an entire article on butt rock without once referencing Nickelback, well, here’s something for you to listen to while you prepare your contribution to this discussion.
Butt rock on.
[Huge thanks to Stokes and Sheely for inspiring this article and contributing tons of key ideas to this framework.]