Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Mercy Side: Gimmick and Shock Value in Music

I want to talk about something different today. I want to talk about shock value in music, and gimmicks. The most prominent term used in this field music wise is shock rock. Shock Rock is a bit of an ambiguity, some people use it as a genre label. It’s not. It’s using controversial elements, or visuals, in rock music. It’s not just used in rock music, it has, on a much rarer occasion, been used in pop music. There isn’t a coined term for it being used in pop music however.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering where I’m going with this. Well, I’m not going to tell you outright. I want you to just read on, if what I’ve been saying still interests you. I want to just talk about the history of this odd, well, label. I say label because as I said, it’s not a genre. It’s just a group of odds and sods thrown in from different genres.

Cue 1956. No, not Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”. But another singer also made a song. His name was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. His song, “I Put a Spell on You”. It’s now considered one of the most important rock and roll songs in our history. Unfortunately for poor Jay, Nina Simone took the song and throttled it into the charts and made it her own. Many artists have also covered it, but no one more emphatically than good ol’ Nina.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was a complete badass. He did things no one had ever done before. He wore flashy outfits, leopard skin suits, leather, hats, he came out of coffins onstage, and he brought skulls and other voodoo related stuff on stage with him. He was a true pioneer of what is now considered “shock rock”. He was also a very good baby maker; some estimations say he has been responsible of around 55 children being born. Naughty bastard.

But how many of you know of him? I’ve known of him for a while, however I didn’t know a great deal. I knew, vaguely, he was responsible for such a cracker of a tune. I didn’t know anything else really, until recently. I want to get more from this artist, because, he just isn’t that popular. He deserves more recognition, he’s no where near as popular as someone else who is just as influential, namely Elvis Presley. Screamin’ Jay set the tone for so many artists, in his musical style, in his onstage persona. He was one fucked up dude, and unfortunately died around 10 years ago, and was a major drug user, but so are so many artists today, and in yesteryear. I’m not saying I condone that behaviour by the way.


So after “I Put a Spell on You”, he declined in popularity, in what wasn’t an extreme popularity in the first place. It’s not that his songs weren’t good, but that his act wasn’t getting any more attention. People were just more interested in Elvis Presley, and the boom of rock ‘n’ roll rather than some weird dude wearing weird stuff with smoke coming out of his pet skull. But some people did take note, and were influenced by this estranged man.

Cue 1964. A very young 16 year old man named Vincent Damon Furnier started a band. He couldn’t play any instruments. Neither could they. But they dressed themselves up as The Beatles and won a competition, regardless of their talentless and mimed display. This inspired Master Furnier to start a proper band. The called themselves The Spiders and played with a huge spiders web in the background. They changed their name to The Nazz afterwards, but there was already a band called Nazz. Four years after debuting as The Spiders, in 1968, they decided that they needed to work on their gimmick a bit more, come up with a better name and be more outrageous. They decided to name the band Alice Cooper, which would also be the name of the lead singer.

They toured with another band, a girlband, named GTO’s who dressed them up in makeup. They had the image, but they didn’t have the controversy. In September 1969, a chicken appeared on stage out of nowhere. Poor Alice , thinking chickens had wings and therefore could fly, threw it above the crowd. It plummeted into the first few rows and the crowd decided to tear the chicken to shreds. This made national press, across front pages. This publicity, and the moving to Detroit where people liked the sound of their music more, got them more popular.

In the early seventies their music got more popular, and their stage antics stood out more, around this time a lot of the bands were post rock ‘n’ roll/pre glam rock hippy bands, so, along with Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper was a unique gig. In ’72, out came School’s Out, which hit the UK charts at #1 and the album of the same name did fantastically well too. Alice Cooper was finally towards the top of the world, they released a few albums in succession which were commercial successes.

On stage in these years, the gimmick and shock rock shows were really starting to be full of fuel. Electric chairs, snakes, axes, toy babies with blood, and execution, dentists are all common themes that have been associated during this time. But the real cracker, was the decapitation of Alice Cooper, live on stage. Nothing had ever been done like that before, and none more successful since.

The tours and problems within the band took its toll in ’74 and they decided to take a hiatus. Alice Cooper performed as a solo act from this time onwards, but he has never really found any consistent success since then. He had a good re-emergence in ’89 with his hit “Poison”, but he has largely been seen has a cult act from the seventies, rather than a music legend, which is a shame, because, like Screamin’ Jay, Alice hasn’t received the consistent reception as a musician and a “shock rocker” as he should have been.

Cue 1971, a few years before Alice Cooper’s band was put on hiatus. A band was formed named Wicked Lester, who weren’t very popular. They released one album that was shelved, and two of it’s members decided it was a good idea to maybe start afresh with a new approach. They got a new drummer and a new guitarist, and decided to take a hard rock approach to their music. They decided to gimmick their band after comics, and gave all the band members names. They started wearing makeup and outfits, inspired by the surge of Alice Cooper. The makeup they used would be in relation to each character they pretended to be. Two years after Wicked Lester was originally formed, they changed their name to Kiss.

The stunts Kiss would do on stage was firebreathing, vomiting blood, playing a guitar on fire, emitted sparks on the drum kits, and many pyrotechnics. Kiss weren’t getting anywhere fast with their albums, but their live shows were eye catching and memorable. It was only until they released a double live album, two years after, in ’75,  that they got a lot of attention.

After the double album release they had a fantastic period between ’75 and ’78 where they released many platinum albums. Unfortunately in ’78, they went overboard, released four “solo” albums on the same day, and released an awful film where they were superheroes. Since then, they haven’t really been the same. They had a decent hit with the follow up album in ’79, but their album sales declined. Kiss’ live shows started off and still is the biggest attraction, as well as their image. Kiss’ cult following in it’s three year peak was unstoppable. But never were Kiss consistent, and never did they get another boom.

Cue 1989. Some young journalist in Florida had a respectable break when he started to interview bands of decent standing, the biggest being Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. This bloke ended up meeting another bloke started writing poems and lyrics, and decided, hey, let’s make a band!

So they did. Using Kiss’ approach to band making, they decided to have names for each member as well, only this time instead of names based on comic book characters, they mixed together good and evil, by having murderers names attached to famous females.

We had Olivia Newton Bundy, named after Olivia Newton John and Ted Bundy, the singer and serial killer, respectively. We also had Daisy Berkowitz, named after Daisy Duke, the character from Dukes of Hazard, and David Berkowitz, another serial killer. We had Madonna Wayne Gacy, named after pop singer Madonna, and again, serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Finally, two years later, we had Sara Lee Lucas, named after the food company Sara Lee, and Henry Lee Lucas, another serial killer.

The above formed The Spooky Kids, but that journalist we were talking about in the start? Well, he was the lead singer, he also had a name, one you’re more familiar with. He decided to call himself after Marilyn Monroe, and Charles Manson. Yes, he is Marilyn Manson.

Marilyn Manson went right off the bat and played gigs in their local area and got a quick cult following for their controversial shows. They had naked women on crosses on stage, a kid in a cage, animal parts, they wore women’s clothing, to go with their female names. They didn’t have money so instead of pyros they just set things on fire. Then in ’93, the man that Manson interviewed four years ago, Trent Reznor, picked up this band and gave them a record deal. Reznor helped their sound as a band, because without him, Manson was just a live gig, similar to Kiss, just on a smaller scale. He helped them release three albums between ’94 and ’98, with each getting more and more popular. Around this time Manson started experimenting with outfits, using more gothic style make up, also donning corsets rather than long white dresses. This change in image and improvement in music ability came to a major climax in ’96, when the release of metal anthem “The Beautiful People” got them worldwide fame.

The album that this metal anthem was released on, “Antichrist Superstar”, was full of anti-God related lyrics. Bands had used anti-religion in the past, but none anywhere near as successfully and controversially as Manson. Many church goers and churches would petition for their cities to ban Manson from gigging. The more anti-Manson Christianity became, the more anti-God Manson became, and the more publicity he got, the more popular he was.

After the release of his fourth album in 2000, Manson really dropped in popularity. His shows became stale; his music was becoming less popular. Falling out with Trent Reznor didn’t help, as he was the pioneer behind the music of the band. Manson had followed a similar road that his idols Kiss and Alice Cooper found, a boom period, then it blowing up in his face.

Which brings me to the main point in this article – Lady Gaga. What, you don’t understand why I’m mentioning her? Well look at the small profiles I mentioned above. Lady Gaga is in the same category, just singing a different genre. She is shock value, she’s not shock rock, she’s not a rock musician, but she is shock value. From Screamin’ Jay, to Alice Cooper, to Kiss, to Marilyn Manson, she is paving the way, using shock value and imagery to captivate millions of fans. She doesn’t mention any of these artists as her main inspiration, not one. But she is definitely inspired by ALL of these artists.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. He wore flashy outfits; he was one of the establishers of the flashy outfit stage persona. Alice Cooper, the pioneer of major stage stunts. Lady Gaga recently pretended to be shot on stage in a white dress, which slowly turned blood red where the “shot wound” was. Kiss was the epitome of pyrotechnics and flashy stage props. Marilyn Manson used controversy to get where he is today, Manson wore corsets and cut his chest open on stage, Lady Gaga decides she wants to wear raw meat. Also like Manson, she chose her name based on a famous song, Manson did the same just with people.

Lady Gaga mentions David Bowie, Queen, Michael Jackson and Madonna as her main inspirations. Fine. But unlike those four, these people have had boom periods, and then failed. These four, were consistent, were global icons, and will be remembered in history. The four I talk about in good detail  are merely going to become footnotes in comparison.

Now I want to set the record straight. I don’t like Lady Gaga’s music. It’s not my thing. But I do respect her. I think she has something that not many artists have today. She’s actually a very intelligent woman. She’s wrote lyrics for many artists in her genre, before people knew who the heck she was. Then she thought, “fuck it, I’m good enough to do this myself”. She can sing, she can play instruments, she is talented. What separates her from everyone, and I do mean everyone, in her genre is that she is using shock value in her music. She is creating shock pop, basically. No one since Madonna has been able to do it, and you know something, she could surpass Madonna, if she uses her talents well enough.

And that’s a big if. The likelihood is that she will actually follow the same route as the others, she is having a boom period, but then she will depend on shock value, and lose popularity. There’s shock value, then there’s consistency. You can only shock someone by doing something once, you do it over and over again people aren’t going to be shocked. The artists above did just that. They tried the same trick two or three times, they all had different amounts of success doing it, and then declined into mediocrity.

Gaga is playing her trick on a much larger scale also. The artists I mentioned weren’t playing to a pop audience, but to a rock audience. Especially since the seventies, the divide between a rock and pop audience is more than apparent. More people like pop music, it’s a simple divide as that. If she fucks up, she will fall down from grace much harder than everyone else. Madonna, and in some ways, Kylie Minogue, are the only artists that have really had good consistency, in some ways you may include Britney Spears in that list, maybe. So yes she could be the next Madonna.

The could be the next Madonna, or, she could be the next Darkness. Yes I said it, The Darkness. Remember those? They had a similar vein of form, yes they were a rock band, but they were playing pop tunes with rock instruments. They had a brilliant time touring and selling their first album, with their Kiss and Queen inspired sets. They were shot up to the stars, and thought they would do the same with their second album. Remember that? Not many people do, actually. What was the third single of that album? I don’t know, let me check Wikipedia… hang on… there it is! It was Girlfriend! What a track!

To conclude, I wanted to get this off my chest because it’s an intriguing situation. If you use a gimmick, or shock value in music, there’s only so much you can do with it. This is after all, music. Imagery, stunts, pyrotechnics, imagination, can only get you so far, if you’re not talented or diverse enough in the music business, you can get put down quickly. Madonna has shown she is diverse enough, she used controversy, she used sex, and she is now using her “MILF” status. But she is diverse enough as a musician, and talented enough to span a career across four decades. David Bowie changed his persona many times, but he also backed it up with the music, he is one of the most important musicians in history. But Manson, Hawkins and Cooper haven’t been anywhere near as successful because they weren’t diverse enough and depended on their shock rock personas.

Lady Gaga is releasing her second album next year. Will she be able to use her talents, as well as her shock value, to continue on? Will she follow The Darkness, or Madonna? We shall find out, won’t we!
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  1. Very good!

    By Rapdog/LFC Forums

  2. To say Marilyn Manson isn't diverse is quite ridiculous.

    His albums have touched on many parts on human nature, society and history, and his look has ranged from the early Willy Wonka / twisted childhood stories look, to dark corsets, a glam rock look, and a Burlesque 1930's look, etc.

    Your writing isn't bad, but I don't think you should write him off so quickly, as he is one of the most intelligent artists in recent history.

  3. Mailyn Manson is diverse in his outfits yes, but that's about it. His music isn't diverse, his stage antics were getting stale around Golden Age of Grotesque era.

    And it's his lack of diversity in these departments that lead to his downfall in popularity. His act is just so old now. And I'm quite a big Manson fan.

  4. So Portrait, SLC, Antichrist, Mechanical Animals, Holywood, GOAG, Eat Me Drink Me, and High End of Low alllllllllllllll sound the same?

    Nope, they really don't.

  5. Portrait is a raw album, slightly more punky sounding album. Apart from that edge yes it's the same.
    SLC is a remix and covers album, does that count?
    AC is the base Manson has worked from, music wise. MA is his most diverse album, mixing glam rock into his industrial sound. HW is a substandard sounding album to AC. GAoG, EMDM and HEoL got worse and worse, his sound barely changing, the quality diluting each time. Manson's last good album was GAoG. Manson's last great album was MA. I'm a big Manson fan, but man, he let himself go the last few albums.

    Either way, it's my opinion, if you feel differently I can respect that. One thing you can't dispute is that he was not any more broadly popular after HW/GAoG. Apart from his cult set of fans no one really likes Manson's new stuff.

  6. I have to agree with anonymous that every Manson album sounds quite different. Individual songs on every album have similar sounds, you can certainly tell it's the same artist, but overall I'd say Manson has demonstrated varied genres throughout his musical career. I'm not saying he was successful with each new sound, just that they were definitely present.
    Again I quite like this article Johnnymo, keep it up! :)