Hell just doesn't get the kind of traction these days that it once did in the rock world.
In the '70s and '80s, the surest, fastest way to prove your rebellious bona fides was to sing a song about the netherworld and/or it's infernal denizens. AC/DC blared out "Hell's Bells" and "Highway to Hell." Mötley Crüe brazenly titled both a song and an album Shout at the Devil. Iron Maiden pondered "The Number of the Beast." Van Halen went "Running With the Devil." Push back a bit further to 1968, and The Rolling Stones argued that we should have "Sympathy for the Devil."
In fact, so pervasive was this thematic focus on fire and brimstone that even Christian acts felt compelled to explore it—albeit by steadfastly rejecting Satan. Stryper sang "To Hell With the Devil," while DeGarmo & Key urged, "Boycott Hell." Larry Norman, of course, famously asked, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?"
Push through to the '90s and then on into the new millennium, however, and you just don't hear much about hell in mainstream rock 'n' roll anymore. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. It's just that today's moody, sensitive and introspective indie rockers are far more interested in talking about their metaphorical inner demons than shouting about real ones.
Except, that is, for Taylor Momsen and her band, The Pretty Reckless. Momsen's latest effort bears the rather unambiguous title Going to Hell. And the band's No. 1 rock single "Heaven Knows" is actually mostly about hell … and the kind of people Momsen suggests belong there.
Sounding a whole lot like a latter-day Joan Jett, the 20-year-old former star of Gossip Girl (who recently announced she's permanently traded in acting for singing) wastes no time getting to the point in this growling mid-tempo rocker. "Jimmy's in the back with a pocket of high/If you listen close/You can hear him cry/Oh, Lord, heaven knows/We belong way down below/Sing it/Oh, Lord, heaven knows/We belong way down below/Way down below, way down below."
The next verse isn't precisely specific, but it's not a huge leap to assume that the woman Momsen's describing here is a prostitute: "Judy's in the front seat picking up trash/Living on the dole/Gotta make that cash/Won't be pretty/Won't be sweet/She's just sittin' here on her feet."
Then that hellish chorus again.
Momsen doesn't seem to be glorifying whatever's happening with these two people; they just want to make it clear that their situations are desperate. And she seems equally adamant that such struggling outsiders have a place they can call home—and that that place is "way down below."
The song's suggestion of desperation is reinforced when she later adds, "I've had better days, man/I've seen better days/I've had better ways, man/I know better ways." In these lyrics there's a kind of weary—or world-weary—self-awareness. These people know that life should be better, that they should be better, somehow. But it's not. And they're not. Whatever hope they may once have had is drained away: "Caught in the eye of a dead man's lie/Start your life with your head held high/Now you're on your knees/With your head hung low."
Not so surprising given such a grim and nihilistic outlook, about the best they can apparently hope for (on the long descent to "down below") is sticking it to those who are oppressing them. "One, two, three and four/The devil's knocking at your door/ … Big man tells you where to go/Tell 'em it's good/Tell 'em OK/Don't do a g‑‑d‑‑n thing they say."
The video starkly amplifies the song's heaven-and-hell dichotomy by picturing Momsen in the dark robe of some sort of dour religious acolyte. She's attended to by a group of young children, who also sit and blankly stare at a stack of televisions flickering with images of violence and sexuality. Those scenes are intercut with vignettes from what looks to be a very poor urban high school where a teacher shouts and students snarl. (One defiantly pulls out a cigarette and starts smoking.)
Through it all, Taylor stalks the camera like the patron saint of angry adolescent disaffection, at one point ditching the robe completely to reveal that she's completely naked underneath, "wearing" only body paint formed in the shape of a cross-like symbol, which doesn't do much to hide her breasts or groin.
Momsen truly seems a bit desperate herself here, pulling out all the stops (including barely "censored" full-frontal nudity) in her over-the-top attempt to chronicle just how angry she and her generation really are. How angry are they? Answer: really angry. And it's the kind of anger she repeatedly suggests will earn her and her compatriots a place in hell.