Welcome to another installment of the ongoing blog series called “My Boss is Making Me Write This” where, as the title says, my boss gives me music to react to, and I must do it because I’ve got to keep this job 😅 Let me explain a bit further. Basically, my boss and I come from different generations and because of this, he likes to get my reactions to things. He (a man on the millennial-Gen X cusp) wants to see how I, (an on-the-cusp millennial-gen Zer), reacts to things from a time when he was a teenager, and I wasn’t even born yet. While he was getting his first chunky cell phone; I was watching Barney. I’m not sure why he wants to be reminded of his age, but here we are. And today, we’re getting my reaction to...
The Aerosmith song and music video of “Livin’ on the Edge.”
Watch the song and music video below first to get the most out of this blog post 😊
Given that in the first of this series (read my first one here, where I compare Van Halen's "Right Now" and Jesus Jones' "Right Here Right Now"), he showed me songs that were optimistic about the state of the world in 1991, this time around, he wanted to show me one that’s much more pessimistic about the world. How does this song hold up? What was happening at the time of the release? Let’s get into it.
My Initial Thoughts
One of the “rules” of this series is that I go into these songs/music videos with little to no context or information so that my initial reactions are genuine and not skewed by anything. So, I’m going to list out some of my thoughts from watching “Livin’ on the Edge.”
These visuals are so cool. I especially love the opening visual with Tyler half painted and the alien/green guy popping out. A very WTF am I watching moment.
“If you can judge a wise man by the color of his skin, then mister you're a better man than I” is a striking line and a nice callout.
“Would you come back if the world was ending?” Very good thought. There’d be so many people refusing to leave or believe it.
That train track visual was stunning. It took me until the third or fourth time Tyler crooned “livin’ on the edge” after the train part before it clicked that the guitarist was literally living on the edge. Genius visual metaphor.
I miss when this much effort and artistry were put into music videos.
The person at the end. Are they supposed to represent a young Steven Tyler? Is this supposed to be some representation of his own youth?
Beyond these general observations, one big question flooded my mind. What was happening when this came out for Aerosmith to write this? Was it the same year as “Right Now” or was it later? Looking up their inspiration, I understood why this was written.
Music video still | Image Source
“Livin’ on the Edge” was written by Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and Mark Hudson and was released in 1993. It was the band’s first single off their album Get a Grip. The album was very commercially successful with “Livin’ on the Edge” reaching number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal that same year. The “Livin’ on the Edge” music video received its own string of awards including “Best Video” by Metal Edge readers for the 1993 Readers' Choice Awards, and the Viewer's Choice award at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. "Livin' on the Edge" was performed at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, the 36th Grammy Awards, and at Woodstock '94.
Directed by Marty Callner, the video featured actor Edward Furlong, and had a variety of interesting visuals including a naked Steven Tyler holding a zipper by his crotch with half his body painted black. This visual was meant to give the effect that he pulled down a zipper, unzipping his body. There’s also a heart-stopping moment where the lead guitarist Joe Perry is playing a solo on train tracks while a freight train is headed his way. He steps off the tracks at the absolute last second. This moment featured a McCloud River Railroad freight train and was filmed at Lake Britton Bridge in Shasta County, California. Fun fact: This is the same bridge where Stand by Me filmed their famous train scene. Both scenes use Introvision technology which is a front-projection process that combines foreground performance with pre-filmed background footage to give the effect of them happening together.
Train scene | Image source IMDb
Beyond these standout moments, the music video also depicts vandalism, particularly grand theft auto, along with joyriding, unprotected sex, and violence in the youth of the day. We also see a detail about a cross-dressing teacher (which we will get my thoughts about in the “post thoughts” section).
The song’s lyrics have a pessimistic, melancholy undertone that describe the world as a crazy place where people stay stagnant in because they fear or refuse to change. It calls out what is making the world wrong including racism and violence. The lyric, "If you can judge a wise man by the color of his skin then mister, you're a better man than I" originally comes from the song "You're a Better Man Than I" by The Yardbirds. This song is considered one of Aerosmith’s most successful attempts at tackling social issues. “Livin’ on the Edge” reflects on the sorry state of the world while in the next breath insisting that the world is still worth living in.
“Livin’ on the Edge” received a lot of positive attention from fans while critics swayed negatively. One critic named Mark Coleman wrote a review for Rolling Stone where he cited "Livin' on the Edge" as an example of the album "playing it safe according to strict late-Eighties directives", and added that it "ascends into a soaring, Bon Jovi-esque power chorale; only the gritty guitars on the bridge keep the damn thing grounded." Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine described the song's lyrics as “a halfhearted, ineffectual attempt at social commentary” (Source). Despite the critics, looking at the comments of the music video, it seems that to this many fans cite “Livin’ on the Edge” as one of their favorite Aerosmith songs.
Years later, shortly after 9/11, Aerosmith performed “Livin’ on the Edge” as part of their set at the United We Stand benefit concert, held in Washington, D.C. More recently, this song was used in a 2018 commercial for the Google Pixel 3 trumpeting its Group Selfie Cam feature, which keeps the subject in the frame of the photo, not "on the edge." In recent years, the song has been in headlines after “Livin’ on the Edge” was played at a Donald Trump rally in West Virginia on August 21, 2018. Aerosmith sent a cease and desist letter to the former President, on the grounds that it implied their endorsement. And this wasn’t the first time they had had to do it. Aerosmith took legal action in 2015 too after a Trump campaign used "Dream On" at their rallies.
As time has passed and people have returned to the song in recent years, it seems to have a reverence and massive respect given to it by fans new and old.
What Was Going On?
Just from looking at the song’s Wikipedia page, one can find the inspiration “Livin’ on the Edge.” According to the band's autobiography Walk This Way, the song was inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots which took place after the white police officers accused of beating the black motorist Rodney King were acquitted.
For those unfamiliar with what happened with the riots, let me add a little more context. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers during his arrest, after a high-speed chase, for driving while intoxicated on the I-210. A nearby citizen filmed the incident from his balcony and sent the footage to his local news station. The video showed an unarmed King on the ground being beaten after evading arrest. The incident was covered by news media around the world and caused public uproar for its brutality. At this time, many black people, especially in Los Angeles were harboring resentment for being mistreated especially by police officers, and this case was the tipping point. They’d had enough, and they were going to send a message that this would not be tolerated.
The aftermath of the LA Riots | Image source Wikipedia
The Los Angeles Race Riots which took place in April and May 1992 saw thousands of people rioting, looting, and committing arson over six days following the verdict's announcement. The National Guard and military were brought in to bring the riots to an end after the local police failed to contain the rioting. 63 people had been killed, 2,383 had been injured, more than 12,000 had been arrested, and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion (Source). Looking at those numbers is alarming, and it seems most of the blame for that much violence was because of LAPD Chief of Police Daryl Gates, who had already announced his resignation by the time of the riots, for failure to de-escalate the situation and overall mismanagement. That lack of leadership on top of a number of things led to the chaos.
But this is all just the context of one event. This song came in 1993. The United States was just coming off of the high of the Cold War ending. Just one year before these riots, the country was feeling positive about the world and what was to come. So, for such a brutal and racist act to taint that image of a “great” America, it was jarring. It took the wind out of American sails. It was like a punch back into reality. That one thing might have been “solved” but there was a lot more work to do, especially when it came to race relations. So, Aerosmith’s song was inspired by this event, and based on the mournful lyrics, it led to discussing the state of the world overall and all that was “wrong.”
My Post Thoughts
To start, let’s talk about some parts of the music video. I still think the visuals and the messaging are as relevant today as they were in 1993. My boss pointed out that the idea of kids going through scanners in school was met with outrage back then, so including it in the video was likely to exemplify that outrage. It hadn’t even phased me because those types of scanners are the norm these days, but I’m glad he brought it up. This is another instance of our generational reactions differing.
There’s one big detail in the music video that isn’t sitting right with me that I need to address before going further. After researching, I discovered that my initial thought that the person at the end of the music video was supposed to represent Steven Tyler was incorrect. The person at the end was also the teacher near the middle of the video. This is a female-presenting person who is revealed near the end to be “cross-dressing” (as all the websites describe it as). I don’t understand the point of including this and looking at it through the lens of today, it ages poorly. Not even poorly. It’s kind of disgusting.
First, I don’t believe “crossing-dressing teachers” was a growing problem, and I don’t like the implication that it was, or ever would be an issue. Nothing seems to happen in the video that would insinuate that this person is using their identity to do something nefarious, and contrary to what some believe, many transgender or gender non-conforming people do not “change genders” to harm people. They are just being their authentic selves. It’s not about society. It’s a very personal journey. Steven Tyler and many hair metal bands at the time were adopting androgynous looks or wearing makeup, tight pants, etc. I don’t think Aerosmith has any room to judge a person that way and lump them into a video about what’s wrong with the world.
It’s ironic that the issue being presented is a “cross-dressing teacher” and not the main issue which is a teacher flirting with a student. This is an issue that’s still brushed under the rug and fetishized today, but it was even more so the case back then. If it’s a female teacher pursuing a male student, it’s considered “hot”, and Aerosmith is not the only band to have perpetuated this stereotype. One that comes to mind for me is Escape the Fate’s “Situations” which is a whole other insane topic we won’t dive into today. I’d like to see my boss react to that music video, actually. Not for historical reasons, but just because of what in the world is that video?And why did I watch it so young?
Back to “Livin’ on the Edge.” It’s interesting to hear thoughts from my boss on this video because he views the video much more negatively than my own experience with it. This is a music video that my boss grew up with. He loved at the time, but looking back now, all he does is cringe (especially at the Edward Furlong scenes). He feels that it tries so hard to be edgy and decry the state of kids today while being tone-deaf about how things got to that point. I definitely can see where he’s coming from. Some privileged musicians moaning about something being wrong with the world comes off a little after-school-special. What differs for me is that, usually in those kinds of specials, there’s a moment where the "bad” kids see consequences or the error of their ways. This video actually just shows kids enjoying themselves doing reckless things. So that’s kind of odd if they’re going for that angle.
I know that a lot of the examples of the youth doing reckless things were supposed to show how the state of the world is declining and that’s what led to such constant violence, but it doesn’t feel like it ever fully follows through. If they cut out all the vague messaging and just kept in the really cool visuals in the music video, my boss likely wouldn’t be looking back on this video and cringing. For someone like me, I don’t have as much of a visceral response. I think it was misguided, but I liked it. It still had some interestingly relevant ideas it was trying to convey.
In talks with my boss, I also realized that it’s supposed to be about the sad state of the world and how people of color are mistreated and yet the messaging they put in this video has barely anything to do with that. They don’t even feature a single black person in the video. I saw in my research that some reviewers thought of the song as “playing it safe”, and I have to say I agree. If you’re going to write a song about the LA Riots, go all the way in. Lift up the voices of those who are constantly snuffed out.
Looking at the song, lyrically, and at the current state of things, especially looking back to 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protests, it’s pretty clear that time has passed but little has changed. And that’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to know that this song came in 1993, and so much is still relevant today, whether you look at the lyrics or just the music video. To think that the country was dealing with such intense police brutality before I was even born is upsetting, to put it mildly. It should not be considered controversial or political to want a world where people of color don’t have to worry that they’re going to be treated differently by a police officer. It shouldn’t be considered political to want the country to do something about gun violence. It shouldn’t be considered political to want a world where corruption isn’t lurking around every corner.
“Livin’ on the Edge” is a song decrying the state of the world in 1993, and little did they know that things would continue to escalate from there. That a little less than 30 years later, protests would begin after the police murder of George Floyd, another unarmed black man.
It’s always a little unsettling when a song that came out decades ago is still relevant. It puts things into perspective. Yes, as a society we have come a long way, but there’s still so much to do. We still have a long way to go. We can always get better.
Much like “Livin’ on the Edge” says, “Something's wrong with our eyes/ We're seeing things in a different way.” In the United States, we’re more divided than ever, and I think while that division is still an overwhelming problem, this Aerosmith song will continue to be relevant. We are “living on the edge” just as much in 2022 as we were in 1993, maybe even more.
Aerosmith live at Wembley Arena (1993) | Image source Mick Hutson/Redferns
Thanks for checking out the second installment of this blog series. Perhaps next time the music my boss chooses for me won’t hold so many parallels to the modern day and make me realize how much further we must grow as a society. Or more like, how little has remained unchanged in the last 30 years. It gets depressing to think about it after a while, you know?
We hope you’ve enjoyed revisiting or discovering the song. Did my perspective surprise you at all? What do you think of the song? You haven’t heard the last Aerosmith reaction out of me, so fear not! I’ll be reacting to some more Aerosmith music videos soon. Until then, lowly subordinate out!
Written by Kristen Petronio
Special thanks to the following sources that helped me gather information for this post: