In 1998 I wore thick black eyeliner and a Marilyn Manson t-shirt in my school photograph. My mother has never forgiven me. Despite my abrasive appearance I was a happy teenager, just overflowing with creative energy and terrified of being lumped into the same breath as the majority of my seemingly brainless, superficial counterparts. I was trying express my individuality before I had fully defined it (thanks to the feverish impatience of adolescence) and the only way I thought this was possible was to completely rebel away from anything deemed normal or safe. Look at me, pay attention to me, don’t ignore me – I AM SPECIAL AND DIFFERENT, YOU GUYS.
(Watch this episode of Metal Evolution HERE if you missed it.)
This is just one of the ways shock rock unified hundreds of thousands of misfits in the 90s. It created a world that made outcasts feel safe and everyone else uncomfortable while sparking a cycle of negative publicity that turned the genre into a sinfully sweet forbidden fruit. Every other genre that has been examined during Metal Evolution so far has been differentiated from its peers based on its sound. Shock rock is the only one that stands alone because of its visuals; images of the Devil, death and destruction. What deep part of the human psyche is resonating with the dark, horrific imagery of shock rock? And perhaps the more important question: why?
Long before Alice Cooper was scaring the living sh*t out of parents and politicians, people were relishing in the dark and twisted imagery of traveling circus sideshows featuring freakish human oddities and animal anomalies. In the 1880s, PT Barnum was the biggest name in the sideshow scene, drawing massive crowds to his traveling freakshows. He was a master of self-promotion, capitalizing on the belief that any press was good press; the same philosophy that would help fuel the fire under shock rock’s ass over 100 years later. People flocked to see these twisted sights, reveling in the exhilaration they felt when seeing something so abnormal. “I just think people want a thrill, they just want a f*cking thrill in life,” says Rob Zombie.
Shocking imagery began to find its way out of the big top and into music as far back as the 1950s. Early rock-n-roll artists used what would now be considered a very small amount of shock to grab audience attention. Any remnant of gay culture and men dressing up to look like women were two taboos so offensive they were relegated to only being deep underground movements, until Little Richard and his unquestionable knack for songwriting brought them up above surface level for the first time. In Georgia, no less.
Another habitual envelope-pusher who brought an essence of the macabre into the American music scene was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Despite the conservative nature of the 1950s he was singing about cannibalism and voodoo, truly creating the bridge between rock-n-roll and horror. And then there was the flamboyant Arthur Brown, whose dark theatrical style was a major influence on future shock rockers including Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, who says that watching Arthur Brown was like taking acid without actually needing to ingest it. High praise.
Credited as the forefather of modern shock rock, Alice Cooper’s gruesome stage show had the media and concerned conservatives everywhere in an uproar. At the time, he says, there were only rock heroes. Where were the villains? Using everything and anything he could get his hands on, Cooper developed a notorious spectacle of a stage show that became a self-perpetuating hype machine.
The height of this spectacle came during a show the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival. Alice Cooper is busy covering everyone and everything in feathers as he maniacally rips apart a pillow when suddenly a chicken is thrown on stage. He figured it fit so nicely into the feathery theme he had no other choice but to pick it up and throw it back into the crowd, hoping it would fly. You know, because chickens are REALLY good at flying. Anyways – spoiler alert – the poor thing was torn to pieces by the first five rows of the audience. And this is why it’s so great to hear this story told by Alice Cooper himself, because apparently: everyone in the first five rows were people in wheelchairs. The tabloids the next day were claiming that Cooper had actually torn the head off the chicken and drank its blood. The band began getting death threats and was met with heavy protests at every show but this only added to the mystique and allure, serving as incentive for anyone with even the slightest hint of rebellion in them to go out and see it for themselves.
Feeding this cycle of negative publicity also worked wonders for the face-painted entertainers known as KISS. Taking a cue from the Ringling Brothers, magicians and famous entertainment acts, they created a phenomenon that struck the perfect balance between art and commerce. But as their on-stage antics escalated, the band was somehow linked to Satanism – and they never denied it. People began protesting their every show and burning their records in public. But to the guys in KISS, this only meant that they had bought their record in the first place. And that meant they had won. They used the controversy to their benefit and the protests ultimately backfired. But why was the behavior of KISS so pervasive and offensive to the greater part of America anyways? This can be summed up emphatically in one beautiful quote from the band’s producer/manager Kim Fowley:
“Let’s say you’re the hottest guy in your little town, and you meet the hottest girl in your little town and you work at the Dairy Queen and you decide to get married and you have a beautiful little girl… you don’t want her to have sex with Gene Simmons.”
As the commerce side of KISS grew out of control, it began to overshadow the art and the music. The band that was once considered devilish and sinful was now headed to school with children on their lunchboxes and the demographic of the band’s audience began to change. Alice Cooper began to amass more fans in Middle America as well, and the two former powerhouses opened the doors for a new, even more controversial generation of shock rockers.
In the 1980s, shock rock began really exploiting the character most famously linked to the genre – Satan! Yay. Bands like Venom integrated references to Satanism in their music, pushing it in the public’s face with the goal of pushing boundaries as far as possible. Sam Dunn also speaks to the legendary King Diamond from Mercyful Fate who was notorious for not just including it in the music, but fully living what most would call a “Satanic” lifestyle including residence in a castle that was lit with nothing but candles. Because the Devil hates electricity. Obviously. He tells us of course, that these urban legends only served to fuel him further.
The shock rock genre began to encounter even more systematic opposition, most notably from the Parents Music Resource Centre (or Rich Wives of Prominent Politicians, more aptly) who created a list of what they deemed to be the MOST offensive and deplorable songs called “The Filthy 15.” The group was also responsible for influencing the government to introduce explicit labeling on any album that contained controversial material. So basically, they just clearly labeled the “worst” music and made it more easily identifiable than ever before. Now if you were a kid going into a record shop to find the latest tunes, that black and white “explicit” sticker is EXACTLY what you’re headed for first. Job well done, parents.
This panic subsided at the end of the 90s, until Marilyn Manson emerged with something even scarier than a headless chicken: he had a brain. He was a conceptual, theatrical artist who was putting out songs and music videos so disturbing they even scared Alice Cooper himself. But the most powerful thing about Marilyn Manson was that unlike KISS, he wasn’t just after kids for their money. As author Gavin Baddeley notes, he didn’t want them to just buy his records – he wanted them to think.
He was mocking shock rock at the same time as he was creating it and was far more vocal against his critics off stage than any of his shock rock predecessors. So it was no surprise that when the Columbine school shooting shook the entire world in April 1999, the polarizing Marilyn Manson was being referenced by almost every major network and being used as a scapegoat for media pundits who were left scrambling to make sense of the unthinkable. They referred to his music as “gruesome” but as Manson points out in an interview clip seen in this episode, it was the media coverage of this terrible event deserved that title; showing grieving family and friends, weeping at the loss of their loved ones while indicting entertainers in the same clip. The entire event shook Marilyn Manson to his core, and as a result the band stopped making music for the time being and fell out of the public eye.
The most interesting part of this segment, however, is during the interview with the band’s former lead guitarist, Daisy (although it should be noted he didn’t leave the band on the best of terms). Marilyn Manson wanted to be the villain, he says, and if the media was using him as a scapegoat it was almost his duty to accept that and welcome it. Easier said than done though, Daisy.
In the early 2000s, shock rock continued to resonate with the darkest corners of the human condition. Sam Dunn admits that he was actually terrified when he first saw Slipknot on stage, in large part (I’m assuming) to the incredible freaky masks that the band wears. Struggling with their own inner demons, anger and pain, Slipknot used their live show as an outlet; wreaking havoc and leaving it all on the stage. From Germany, Rammstein brought the circus sideshow back and introduced shock rock to its most industrial sound yet, motivated simply by inciting a reaction of any sort.
But in this day and age, when the media, movies, video games and the Internet have made desensitizing yourself easier than writing an email, what would it take to truly SHOCK audiences today? Alice Cooper doesn’t even expect the public to be shocked anymore, calling even the most wildest of antics “family entertainment” at this point. Arthur Brown feels as though everything is already out there. Even the most sick and twisted thing you could think of – one quick Internet search later it will be at your fingertips. But Rammstein frontman Till Lindemann is asked this question and with just the slightest smirk, gives a reply that sent shivers down my spin: “A public suicide on stage.”
Ultimately, this episode is summed up nicely at the end by Donny Vomit (gotta be his legal name, right?), a sideshow performer at the Coney Island Circus. “As long as there are young people, there will always be people who are willing to scare the old to entertain the young.”