One need not be especially fluent in the byways of psychoanalysis to know that desire is profoundly, indelibly weird. Desire, after all, tugs in contrary directions, causing us to lurch after and hold close the strangest of objects.
Love may well tear us apart, but it’s desire that got me hooked on a bad object. Maybe an example will help.
Picture me in the before-times – February 2020, to be precise – riding a stationary bike in the dead of one of upstate New York’s unforgiving winters, watching a cheap, made-for-TV documentary about Meat Loaf’s 1977 masterwork, Bat Out of Hell. If you aren’t yet familiar with this record, and don’t have the inclination or the time to bear witness (though, truly, you should), here is a brief tour: it has all the musical restraint of a Broadway score and features Meat Loaf – our hero and front man – as a grotesque, barrel-chested libertine, drenched in sweat and gifted with a voice of considerable power. The record frames out a neon fantasy world where women desire Meat Loaf and Meat Loaf alone, while Meat Loaf desires a freedom from such shackled domesticity, a freedom represented at turns by a motorcycle, by Meat’s boastful emotional unavailability, or, most rewardingly, by Todd Rundgren’s guitar solos. It’s really better to experience this rather than read about it.
And indeed, as an interview faded into a live performance, showing in limelight that glistening poet of the one-night stand, I had what can only be described as a moment of sheer epiphanic release. I saw Meat Loaf opposite Ellen Foley, both wild-eyed and frantic, absolutely howling at one another: And now our bodies are oh so close and tight/It never felt so good, it never felt so right/And we're glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife.” Bodies recast as hot metal; the searing pain-as-pleasure of lust consolidated at the edge of a knife. It was all a little too much.
I stopped pedaling – sweaty as Meat,panting – and texted one of my dearest friends: “Annie,” I wrote, “Meat Loaf is hot…I mean, I think I just want him to run me over like a truck.”
It’s true, I was horny for Meat Loaf.
I finished the documentary, I let it pass; what was I meant to do with this realization, anyway? Mere weeks later, the world fractured, sending us all into delirious states of siloed anxiety and social abandon. Overabundant anthems to motorcycle drive by one-night stands were hardly the consolation anyone was looking for.
Depending on how your life was then assembled, lockdown took its toll differently. The relationship I’d been in for the year prior had ended in December, and so when the world closed its doors, I found myself holed up alone, in a small house in upstate New York. Friends of mine in longer arrangements – marriages, relationships, cohabitations of various stripes – found themselves together. An eerily similar affect bled into these modes of life: whether or not you had anyone to hold on to, the walls closed in all the same. Those alone complained of being alone, those who were coupled complained of seeing only their counterpart. Everyone suddenly hated their kids. Social life had attenuated to a needle’s point and the otherwise celebrated nucleo-familial arrangements offered considerably less ballast than one would have hoped.
And so here I sit, over a year later, facing down another wave of isolation, prepared to offer you what no one needs: a full-throated argument for Bat Out of Hell as one of our most prescient, compact, and urgent statements on desire, one made more and not less urgent by the recent turns of our world. The pitch goes like this: somehow outside of historical time, Meat saw it all coming. Bat Out of Hell is nothing less than a blistering tour through the foundational rift at the core of human sociality, where being together is impossible, and the only thing worse is being apart. Meat Loaf gathers up our faltering, impossible arrangements, and holds them in the glow of a streetlight. He whispers lecherous nothings in our ears. He gives libidinal voice to all we cannot say. The term-of-art we shall give this is horniness.
As Frederic Jameson never said (but surely knew), horniness is the most ample and expansive form of sociality available under late-capitalism. Horniness is desire backlit with neon. It’s tawdry and fun, frivolous and cheap. It’s positively endless. Sometimes it has an object, but it’s always more interesting when it doesn’t. Horniness is a creep, hanging out in the seedy corners of your mind as it wanders. You can glimpse it in the professor of contemporary literature on Instagram who follows all those OnlyFans accounts, you can hear it as much in Sean Paul as you can in Tom Jones. You can even see it in your own reflection at odd hours of the day.
I might say I was horny for Meat Loaf because Meat Loaf is horny. That is his thing. Leaning in leather at the intersection of E-Street and Broadway, Meat builds up monuments to lust with a craftsman’s care, showing us a particular inconvenience of embodiment: that bodies want bodies, and when bodies get together, things get twisted. But it’s more complicated than that, because, as we’ve all had occasion to feel this past year, when bodies don’t get together, things get worse.
At the start of lockdown, nobody was particularly horny. And being a paradigmatically horny genre, pop music suffered. What I mean is that you couldn’t quite hear pop music correctly amidst all the terror and despair. The joy of the pop song had turned sour, the implied dance floor vacant and sad. I found myself moving fleetingly between newborn obsessions and the frightful density of silence. I went through my Phoebe Bridgers’ “Garden Song” phase, my minimalist organ drone phase, my nostalgic Grateful Dead phase. I went through phases of virtually nothing at all. And the nothing was loud.
But then I emerged, as if from a cocoon, slathered in night sweat and glazed motorcycle grease. All of a sudden, I was thoroughly, comprehensively, in my Meat Loaf phase. I don’t know why I elected to put it back on, how it even came up, but it did — this time driving along the backroads outside my town – and as I allowed that pervy swagger to wash over me, there materialized one of the most sense-making turns of language I’d heard in months: Every Saturday night/I feel the fever grow/You know what it’s like/All revved up and no place to go.
This is the fourth single from Bat out of Hell, “All Revved up with No Place to Go.” A love letter to six-string virility and the erotic force of a saxophone, it details all the manic energy of young, unrequited lust. It felt strangely close for someone in the midst of total isolation.
Conceptually speaking, Saturday night had been cancelled for some time. Still, Saturdays maintained a sort of vestigial energy that abounded by sheer force of social habit. Indeed, as the chorus rung out, I heard something fundamental. First there was the fever that terrorized us all lurking in grocery store aisles and on our mail. But then, the turn. Ellen Foley doubles Meat’s vocals only on the third line, lending fleeting, torturous companionship to that declaration of shared experience: You know what it’s like.
What it’s like, we are made to understand, is spinning your wheels. The song will later catch traction but only with a vague gesture to violence when Meat declares “someone’s got to draw first blood.” The record is littered with references to this impossibility. As his lover poses that eternal rock’n’roll question – “do you love me?” – his response is a crude and deflating “let me sleep on it.”
We need only turn to that album’s title track – an anthem to all the bloated bombast of the rock idiom – to understand the productively and wonderfully complicating statements of desire Meat trades in. After some True American™ scene setting – sirens screaming, fires howling, mysterious violent men lurking in the shadows – we meet our hero: “a young boy down in the gutter…starting to foam in the heat.” Then, through the magic of verse, we become that boy, boasting declarations out amidst the clamor of an overhot night:
Oh, baby you’re the only thing in this whole world
That's pure and good and right
And wherever you are and wherever you go
There’s always gonna be some light,
But I gotta get out, I gotta break out now
Before the final crack of dawn
So we gotta make the most of our one night together
When it's over, you know,
We’ll both be so alone
What is this strange desire? Meat Loaf is narrating, in a careful series of reversals, the overpowering ebullience of loving another right at the moment this joy glimpses the headlong claustrophobia of the domestic couple. In no more than ten lines, our narrator flees from this world’s only source of goodness and light, knowing that even in their communion, they’ll remain forever alone, cleaved from each other.
And so, the chorus: like a bat out of hell, I’ll be gone before the morning comes. Over and again. It’s understandable that this is the line of the title, the one people remember. But Jim Steinman – Meat Loaf’s constant writing partner, the auteur behind it all – is more careful than that. Folding the metaphor over itself, the chorus ends in reversal: “like a sinner before the gates of Heaven, I’ll come crawling on back to you.” In the theology of Meat, heaven and hell are overlaid, clinging to each other in a sort of death pact. And this is again the licensing contradiction of the album. To flee from heaven is to flee from hell too, and to stay with one is to be tortured by both.
Even generous readers will be forgiven for being wary of this account. After all, the record is so fucking juiced up, too easily enlisted in service of a sort of toxic dudeliness. Consider:
I'm gonna hit the highway like a battering ram
On a silver-black phantom bike
When the metal is hot, and the engine is hungry
And we're all about to see the light
A silver-black phantom phallus, hot metal (again), insatiable, seeing that flash of light: Not since Lord Rochester have we had a poet of cumming quite like this.
But, and again, Meat Loaf’s horniness casts into relief the strange admixture of relation that has become our fate. This is a problem wrought in lurid color, but it remains strikingly familiar. To be together is to be frustrated and apart; but to be apart is intolerable. Steinman returns to his double-bound theology for the song’s vamp:
Well I know that I'm damned if I never get out,
And maybe I'm damned if I do,
But with every other beat I've got left in my heart,
You know I want to be damned with you
If I gotta be damned, you know I want to be damned
Dancing through the night with you
The problem of intimate life spins itself only into more entanglement, somehow making new the ever-trite damned if you do/damned if you don’t.
Meat Loaf’s solution is ingenious in its way and only possible in song: embodiment itself becomes the problem, and you have to take flight: I’m breaking out of my body and flying away. Total and utter transformation from the wreckage of human intimacy. What pop music allows, of course, are precisely these visceral imaginings; and what Meat Loaf demands is that we feel, in ever more articulate modes, the ways our bodies betray us, and what such betrayals tell us.
This is not much in the way of comfort. But if there is something in the key of redemption here, it might be in the recognition that we all have bodies, and that bodies are strange machines. As we’ve learned to hold each other at odd angles – first across six feet of space and through masks of cotton, then in recalibrated positions in a world gone sideways – we’ve had to wade through a new affective shading of collective life. To call upon horniness may seem a touch too frivolous, a wink and a nod to something juvenile. But horniness as Meat Loaf renders it is complicated, compacted by its own internal conflicts, its yearning and turning away all at once. It’s a reminder of our ramshackle fates, of the ways we have cobbled together a social life built on fickle little shelters, of all the ways we have to continue to learn to be alone. It’s worth it to hear him out, if only for a moment, and imagine together how it might be otherwise.