The two most common terms for the style of the pop-inflected metal that proliferated in the '80s are "hair metal" and "glam metal." It's significant that those terms specifically refer to the genre's image, whereas labels for other genres described (go figure) the actual sound of the music — such as "thrash metal," "speed metal," and even "grunge." The average hair-metal band's popularity was frequently defined by how much Aqua Net, spandex, and mascara they employed, as opposed to the music they produced.
Few bands epitomize hair metal's reliance on style over substance as thoroughly as Poison. From the moment they broke onto the national scene in 1986, Poison was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with heavy metal in the 1980s: simplistic, derivative song structures, inane lyrics, lipstick, eyeliner, and, of course, ridiculous hair. While the androgynous cover photos from Poison's debut album, Look What the Cat Dragged In, might have inadvertently caused countless adolescent boys to confront uncomfortable questions about their own sexuality, the band's music posed no such deep, philosophical quandaries. Songs like "Talk Dirty to Me," "Nothin' but a Good Time," and "Unskinny Bop" set the bar so low that a host of similarly hackneyed, second-generation hair-metal bands inevitably followed in Poison's footsteps.
Def Leppard, on the other hand, were really never a hair-metal band at all. Aside from a penchant for sleeveless T-shirts and short shorts emblazoned with the Union Jack, Def Leppard never appeared to put much thought into their image. Instead, the band's primary focus, at least for the first decade or so of its career, was solely on its music.
It may come as a shock to some younger fans who associate the band with the strip club staple "Pour Some Sugar on Me," but Def Leppard was once at the forefront (along with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest) of the "new wave of British heavy metal" during the late '70s and early '80s. Def Leppard's 1980 debut, On Through the Night, fit nicely into the NWOBHM mold, but it was a partnership with producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange that produced a pair of bona fide masterpieces in 1981's High 'n' Dry and 1983's Pyromania. The combination of Def Leppard's songwriting chops and Lange's layered, meticulous production spawned such classic hard-rock staples as "Photograph," "Foolin'," and "Bringin' On The Heartbreak."
That's not to say that Def Leppard haven't had their musical missteps. Some fans were put off but the pop sheen of 1987's Hysteria, even as it went on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide. "Let's Get Rocked," the first single from the band's 1992 album Adrenalize, featured lyrics as trite as the worst Poison song and marked the beginning of Def Leppard's decline. The band's recent collaborations with Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift are simply inexcusable.
Fortunately, set lists from recent shows have stuck mostly to the band's early catalog, which should come as welcome news for longtime Def Leppard fans. Unfortunately, they'll still have to sit through Poison to get to it.