Excellent success The triumph of the low achievers

April 20, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Their hair is long, their music loud, and their attitude lackadaisical. They still live at home, and work -- when they can find it -- generally involves a name tag and a hair net. At school, they would have been voted "Least Likely to Succeed," had anyone bothered to notice them; instead, they were more likely lumped in with the rest of the stoners, metalheads and burnouts.

Not exactly the stuff of heroes, is it?

So how is it that a group of losers like Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar of "Wayne's World" or Bill S. Preston, Esq. and "Ted" Theodore Logan of "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" have become such pop culture icons? Were we to see real-life kids like these shuffling stoop-shouldered through the mall -- and Lord knows, we all have -- we'd barely give them a second glance.

Yet Wayne & Garth & Bill & Ted are not merely recognized, but celebrated. Although their initial success was on the screen (both big and small), their impact has spread well beyond the realm of movies and TV. Both duos have spun off big-selling albums -- the "Wayne's World" soundtrack recently spent two weeks atop the Billboard albums chart -- as well as ancillary products ranging from clothing to comic books to cereal (yes, Bill & Ted are also a breakfast food).

Even more telling is the way Wayne-isms like "schwing!" and "Not!" have slipped easily into the popular vernacular, while the phrase "Party on!" -- which all four use -- may end up as the '90s equivalent to "Have a nice day." Obviously, these refugees from detention hall have touched on something that resonates within the American psyche.

But what?

Certainly some of it has to do with the fact that the actors involved -- Mike Myers and Dana Carvey of "Wayne's World," or Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves of the "Bill & Ted" series -- are first-rate entertainers. As Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker puts it, Myers and Carvey are "like a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby for the Nirvana generation. They're a good show-biz couple."

But the appeal of these characters goes beyond mere entertainment value. A big part of the reason Wayne, Garth, Bill and Ted hit home for a lot of viewers is that these guys come from the same place much of their audience does: The suburbs.

Just ask Christopher Ward. Although he makes his living as a songwriter and producer now -- he penned "Black Velvet" for singer Alannah Myles -- Ward used to be a VJ on Canada's MuchMusic, and from time to time would let his buddy Mike do bits on the air.

"He was a regular, appearing as my cousin Wayne," says Ward, "and he would come in and disrupt the show and just be Wayne. And people loved it.

"Mike comes from an area of Toronto called Scarborough, which is a classic suburban area," he adds. "I think he made a composite of what he went to high school with, but really, everyone was like that to some extent. I knew, because when I was working on the video network, they were the same guys that would come up to you and go, 'Hey, all right, how are you, Christopher Ward? Excellent. Hey, play more Motley Crue, OK?' "

In this case, of course, the 'burbs are less a place than a state of mind. "There's an adolescent culture that exists in the suburbs, and it's a culture of not having to be hip in the same way as an underclass adolescent culture is," says Deena Weinstein, a professor of sociology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of "Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology." Part of the reason Wayne et al.are so popular, she says, is they don't try to be hip or superior.

To that end, it helps that these characters are all devoted metalheads. Heavy metal doesn't cater to hip; if anything, its perspective is pure populism. Moreover, metal is one of the few strains of youth pop willing not only to laugh at itself, but to let others in on the joke. That's why even those viewers who have never head-banged have no trouble relating to the music-related humor in "Wayne's World" or the Bill and Ted movies.

It wasn't always that way, though. "It used to be that there were these 'Metal Gods' who stood up there in all their finery for the kids to worship," says Ms. Weinstein. "There was no humor in heavy metal at all."

As she sees it, the new wave of metal bands that emerged in the '80s changed a lot of that, but it was the music parody film "Spinal Tap" which finally broke the laugh barrier. "This was making fun of people who thought that they were better than the fans," she says.

"What we have now is what [the philosopher Jose] Ortega y Gasset spoke about in 'The Revolt of the Masses' years ago," she concludes. "It's the hyper-leveling of society, in which being an elitist -- knowing anything or doing anything that takes any courage or talent or expertise -- is looked down upon. And that's sort of a suburban attitude also."

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