One Way Ticket to Hell…and Back
he antipathy directed towards the Darkness since their wildly unexpected 2003 breakthrough has been well-documented. Hipsters of a certain stripe will always loathe anything that reeks of arena-sized excess and mass-produced fun, but what’s more interesting is the suspicious contempt of those who still carry a torch for the very same stadium rock and epic pop-metal the band seems so slavishly set on replicating.
To figure out why metalheads are so leery of the Darkness, we first have to consider who it is the band is attracting. By and large, I think the fan base for the Darkness is probably primarily composed of twenty-somethings who either mocked pop-metal back in its heyday or else loved it and left it when grunge, mall-punk or nu-metal came along. That would explain why even the band’s most ardent fandom takes on at least a somewhat ironic tinge, that self-conscious show of “hey man, look at me rockin’ out!” Thanks to the combined effects of nostalgia and VH1, everything you dimly remember despising or spurning as a child is suddenly the most awesome thing ever, and so the Darkness becomes a vehicle for tons of non-metal fans to vicariously enjoy all the hysterical flash and decadence of the genre without having to really commit to its often insular and (especially in this day and age) alienating principles.
The end result of this collective game of dress-up is you get critical eviscerations from devoted metalheads like our man Dave Queen’s scathing indictment of the band’s first album in Stylus back in '03, as well as the general distrust and enmity of genre lifers who regard even the cheeziest pop metal as no laughing matter indeed (and certainly the overwhelming maleness of metal goes a long way towards explaining why even its fluff is so fiercely protected, while few disco holdovers get up in arms about, say, the Scissor Sisters).
But how much of this can we really pin on the Darkness themselves anyway? If the band was lyrically aping the tropes of hard partying, groupie sex and teenaged rebellion with the rigorous faithfulness of their sonic simulacrums, maybe then we could charge the boys with strictly parodic intent. After all, this is a band without metal pedigree that likewise doesn’t belong to any discernible community or scene.
For the most part, however, the Darkness are hardly concerned with debauchery at all. The opening title track to their second album, One Way Ticket to Hell…and Back, takes a healthily broad swipe at the band’s reputation for letter-perfect copycatting, chronicling the inevitable post-celebrity decline into coke-fueled madness and depravity with such ridiculous melodrama (pan flute, sitar) it has to be at least partly intended as a jab at those who accuse the band of thoroughly uncreative verisimilitude.
Once those expectations have been suitably fulfilled and skewered, the Darkness slips back into what they know best—catchy, quick-witted, occasionally affecting pop songs about love (“Hazel Eyes,” “Girlfriend”), longing (“Dinner Lady Arms”) and losing your edge (“Bald”). Perhaps it’s the winking cleverness of the band’s lyrics that partially provokes the ire of metallers—even at its most glam, commercial metal has always been a thoroughly blue-collar, face-value, meat-and-potatoes-pleasing genre, while the Darkness is clearly no stranger to cheekiness, irony or self-deprecation, readily apparent in lines like “I may not always have quite so much hair,” “there’s absolutely no affection, hardly any sex” and “they say you’re pushing 30 / Well, pushing thirty stone.” Remember, even the band’s most high-concept influence, Queen, was responsible for “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” mass-appeal anthems the Darkness could never hope to duplicate.
So Dave Queen is absolutely aesthetically dead-on when he (hilariously) opines that the Darkness “don’t even have orgies on the road” and “probably have girlfriends at home named Kate or Zoe,” but I have a pretty simple rebuff to that flawless rationale—so what? So what if the Darkness are nothing but a bunch of playacting nancy boys. They have an outstanding penchant for hooks, write witty and possibly sometimes moving lyrics, and I guess they just decided the most enjoyable way they could convey these words and melodies was through the glorious pomp and power of pop-metal. Would you rather they sounded like the New Pornographers?