It’s Time to Let Meat Loaf Into Your Embarrassing Little Heart
You think you're too cool for "Bat Out of Hell"? You're not.
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Within ten minutes of opening his 1977 album Bat Out of Hell, here are the feelings that performer Meat Loaf has already felt to completion:
- Perfect, adolescent faith in the attachments of the flesh
- Motorcycle—not classically a feeling, no, but what else can be said about the lyric “I’m gonna hit the highway like a battering ram/ on a silver-black phantom bike” except that it encapsulates the feeling of Motorcycle—that is to say, motorcycle-qua-motorcycle, the Springsteenian motorcycle, the emblem of masculine longing to get out?
That’s five feelings, more than I allow myself to feel on a good day, and he cranks them out one after another in the span of a single song! And as if that weren’t a severe enough display of emotional generosity, he’s still got six songs to go! This is the way Meat Loaf drives me to speak: in exclamations, in exhortations, with my hands full of my interlocutor’s shoulders because nothing on the planet is more important or destructive than human sentiment. Walk with me now, please. No, rather than walk, straddle me on my chopper. Take a chance on the silver-black phantom world of Meat Loaf, Jim Steinman, Todd Rundgren, and the chaos orchestra that is 1977’s Bat Out of Hell.
Once, I was languishing on a fellow writer’s lap, his hand high on my thigh, the two of us nearing the end of the mating dance that introduces sex. I’d spent the day noticing his petty meannesses. When he showed me snatches of poems he’d written for me, they were brutal verses, meaner and shallower than any other words I’d ever read about love. He always spoke as if through a smirk, and when he told me I was gorgeous or that he liked me, I couldn’t quite believe it: everything he said felt as if he were cueing a laugh track.
This was a brush with an “irony guy,” though I didn’t know it then. We weren’t calling them that yet, but the signs were there. For example, all his tattoos were jokes (I vividly recall a Garfield stick-and-poke). He dressed, as a joke, like a kid on his first day of school, all oversized sweaters and threadbare corduroy pants. He once texted me a video of him mocking his weed dealer to his face, expecting that I’d respond with mockery of my own, and deflating when I asked instead what the weed dealer had done that was so mockable. “He’s never heard of Merzbow,” my proto-irony guy explained. “Merzbow.”
“What do you want to do?” said my irony guy into my neck now.
High off his coke, I wanted to do a thousand things, only one of which was the thing I’d come here for. I said brightly, “I want to listen to Meat Loaf!”
We’d been listening either to one sixteen-minute chillwave song, or several identical chillwave songs. But I was hungering now, as I always do in the presence of irony, for something sincere. And so I was determined to mainline Meat Loaf’s human agony into my veins, cherishing him as the father of all feeling.
Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell still sells approximately 200,000 copies every year, 42 years after its release. He’s retained the popularity that every creator dreams of, with one hitch: no creator wants to be popular in the exact way that Meat Loaf is popular. When we think of Meat Loaf, we imagine Broadway-loving aunties and dads who don’t have time to “get into” “real music,” and other people we fancifully imagine to have worse taste than ours. These are not the people that we want to appeal to, inasmuch as we’re conscious of the people whose opinions matter. Upon its release, Bat Out of Hell received iffy reviews, most of which pointed to its overwrought arrangements and sprawling song lengths and, frankly, its silliness. This was an album whose lyrics were about macking in backseats, yet its arrangements all spoke to apocalyptic self-importance.
When reading reviews and retrospectives about Bat Out of Hell, you’ll often see the word “uncool.” Chief songwriter Jim Steinman’s lyrics were uncool, as were producer Todd Rundgren’s neo-wall-of-sound arrangements, as were Meat Loaf’s operatic vocals, as was that inimitable album cover. The whole thing reeked of squirming, slimy sincerity. The album spoke to passions that were simultaneously too deep and too shallow; too deep, because the entire record was about capital-L Love; too shallow, because it was a love that groped over a girl’s bra and left hickeys on her neck, a kid’s love. Meat Loaf offered his slobbering heart on a silver tray, and so did we all before we knew better, and thus did he violate one of the cardinal covenants of artistic maturity: as adult creators, we are never again to partake of the gasping desperation of those teenage years once they pass us by. If we only wrote what we felt, we’d be teen idols forever, enslaved and enfeebled by our emotions. If we said what we felt as soon as we felt it, what havoc we would wreak!
People are generally uneasy around their own emotions, and writers in particular cope with this by introducing a level of intellectual distance that actually makes feelings uneasier—squirmier, crueler, never allowed to just exist but always analyzed and turned into content. Does it infect us? Do we open a wound when we write about each other, forever injecting poison into it, until the inherent self-consciousness in the act of mining our human feelings for creative material becomes all we are? I don’t know for sure, but what I know is that literary Twitter is an insecure and insulting place where we blast each other’s innocuous behaviors for our little audiences all day long in a poisonous, mocking drawl. The tone is singular: aggressively modern, to the point that I can hear people’s vocal fry in their tweets, and yet timelessly bitter. Editors roast writers’ flakiness. Writers rail against their icy, remote editors. Publishers demand that both parties shut the fuck up and admit how easy they’ve got it. Agents, presumably, watch.
I’m as guilty of the poisonous, mocking drawl as anyone else, lest this sound preachy (or worse, lest it enter into the Twitter discourse as its own stance to be mocked). I’ve dunked on strangers when I could just as easily ignore them—as an active Twitter user, my days are consumed with little else. I want to be cool, too. I want to sit on the irony guy’s lap without wishing we were listening to Meat Loaf. When I lash out in cruelty, what I’m really doing—what we’re all really doing—is trying to stay ahead of the cruelty. As long as I’m in charge of it, aiming it at somebody else, it isn’t being aimed at me.
As Jim Steinman once said, Bat Out of Hell is timeless precisely because it’s so uncool. It was not ahead of or indeed behind its time; it would have been equally uncool no matter what cultural epoch it landed in.
In an oral history of Bat Out of Hell that appeared in Classic Rock Magazine, Meat Loaf has claimed that two Ivy League professors performed a “psychological test” in the “US Medical Journal” (all quotations sic) to determine the subjects’ state of mind, using the album as a litmus test. Per Meat Loaf’s interpretation of this test, any listener who doesn’t like Bat Out of Hell is psychologically unsound. This sounds exceptionally incorrect, but as a lover of this album, I agree that its emotional highs and lows feel informative. I trust people more when they admit that they love this album as I love it; I trust them less when they offer the same old critiques of it, the predictable way my proto-irony guy did. “Meat Loaf?” he said doubtfully when I made my suggestion. “I can’t have that in my Spotify history.”
Regardless of whether this psychological test ever happened in the way that Meat Loaf believes it happened, its existence is true to the spirit of Bat Out of Hell. A team of scientists heard this album and believed it was not only worthy, but declarative: that an hour of Meat Loaf’s music has legitimate claims to make about a listener’s brain. Sure!
I agree, for the record. A person who believes this album is too cheesy must also believe that all-consuming eros is too cheesy. And if you can’t love the poetics of loving, failure, itching, abjection, yearning, beating your chest, kissing your girlfriend, starving, fleeing, bawling, Motorcycle—if you can’t love every open wound on the skin of humanity, then, my God, what do you love?
I don’t mean to be the sort of wet blanket who gets classified as a “scold” on Twitter, but when we write into one another’s cruelest tendencies, when we roast each other on social media and publish thinly veiled prose about each other written in a perfect flat affect, we resist the hostile invasion of feeling that Meat Loaf represents. We hold honesty at arm’s length so that none of us has to face the humiliation of weeping on another’s shoulder, dying in another’s arms. Fuck that, I say. We have limited time to explore the glittering fascinations that live within other humans; before long, we’ll all be dead, and the flat affect will have done us little good.
No other experience is like listening to Bat Out of Hell. Every comparison of Meat Loaf to other artists is lacking. Nobody does what he does. The closest comparison is probably to a Broadway musical (and indeed, there is now a musical based on this album), but that doesn’t do justice to Meat Loaf’s earnestness; actors in a musical are acting, and Meat Loaf is proselytizing. Listening to Bat Out of Hell means sitting in the front pew and absorbing the spirit with every inhalation.
For all that he tried to pass himself off as a different kind of man, in his little boy’s outfit and his arty haircut, my proto-irony guy was as conventional as they come. Born, probably, with the same willingness to bleed as the rest of us, but self-cauterized; he was now roundly, wholly unavailable. Meanwhile, Meat Loaf has been riding flying motorcycles and wailing in multiple octaves. How have we forsaken him so? Why don’t we creators want him on our team? Depressingly easy to say: we still think we’re too good for him.
Well, I’m not too good for Meat Loaf, any more than I’m too good for the truly elemental experiences of the earth, the orgasm or the slashing of an artery or the blissful thrill of Motorcycle. No writer is, no artist should be. The more willing we are to inhabit agony and ecstasy and the rest of it, the more popular we become! How magical is that? All we have to do to appeal to humans is feel the feelings of humans. It’s simple, and yet if the writer’s goal is not to get hurt, it’s the most impossible thing in the world. Already too susceptible to feelings, we believe we avoid them with good reason.
It’s a reasonable strategy, but I don’t approve of it. Surely we all remember when “baby you’re the only thing in this whole world/ that’s pure and good and right” was a way we were willing to feel about someone. I think that we should all aim to hit the highway like a battering ram on a silver-black phantom bike; to tell our loved ones that they’re the only thing in the whole world that’s pure and good and right; to occupy the human spirit utterly, with all the messiness that entails, and all the pain.
Like Meat Loaf, I don’t like anybody or anything unkind, even unkind as a joke, and so my yearning for irony is an act of profound self-sabotage designed to leave me unhappy. Because an ironic writer is, above all else, an armed writer. Free from the expectation that his work passes any emotional smell test, he is shielded from too much feeling, any kind of feeling, even love. Even Motorcycle.
When people call Meat Loaf uncool, they’re saying that he is irony-proof. And they’re right. The sheer scale of his songs leaves no room for tittering. When you listen to the self-titled opening track on Bat Out of Hell, with Todd Rundgren’s ululating guitars and Max Weinberg’s deafening drums, a gauntlet is immediately thrown down: you can either hang, or you can’t. And Meat Loaf has no time for you if you can’t hang, or if you need to pretend you’re spending time in his universe as a joke. There’s work to be done. Throw open the doors to the castle instead, and walk through his towering hallways with him, and allow yourself to feel every feeling in its highest degree.