Thursday, October 13, 2016

Welcome to my nightmare

It's not every day that you get to cross an item off your bucket list and see a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer live in concert, but I did just that yesterday when I saw Alice Cooper live for the first time. My dad has been a huge fan of Cooper's for longer than I have been alive, and it has long been a goal of ours to finally see the Godfather of Shock Rock together, so when it was announced in April that Alice would be coming through my hometown, it was a no-brainer that we would be in attendance.

The show itself was an incredible spectacle, as would be expected of the famously theatrical Cooper. Even though he is 68 years old and has been touring and making music for fifty years, Cooper still retains much of the theatrical sense that has characterized his career since the late 1960s. He made several costume changes - including a ringmaster, mad scientist, insane asylum patient, and 80s power rocker - and he included the classic beheading by guillotine as part of his routine.

But all of the theatrics of the show would mean nothing without the music. Cooper has a long list of massive hits, and he did not disappoint in delivering them. Cooper started off with classic rock staples"No More Mr. Nice Guy" and "Under My Wheels", later played mid-career hits "Poison" and "Feed My Frankenstein", and finished off with "I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out", during which he interspersed snippets of the thematically (and apparently musically) similar "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" by Pink Floyd.

With that much music in his back catalog, Cooper also has a lot of deep cuts and concert favourites, and he did not disappoint on that front, either. "Cold Ethyl", Halo of Flies", and "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" all made the cut, among others, and my dad, who had seen Alice thrice previously, proclaimed that it was his favourite Alice show - in part due to the fact that the latter two of those songs rank among his favourites and he had seen neither live before. The show's encore was another Cooper deep cut classic, "Elected", which he opts to perform every election cycle, and which took on some extra significance in this current electoral climate (more on that later).

One of my favourite parts of this particular show came directly before the two final songs of the set, after Vincent Price's disembodied voice asks Alice if he wants to raise the dead. A large black sheetdropped from the back of the stage, revealing a 20-foot high banner resembling a tombstone with the name and birth and death dates of The Who's Keith Moon as the band played the opening chords of "Pinball Wizard". After the closing chords, another black sheet dropped to reveal David Bowie's name as the band started his classic tune "Suffragette City"; after that song finished, the final banner was revealed with Lemmy Kilmister's name as the guitarists ripped into Motorhead's "Ace of Spades".

As a fan, I was entirely satisfied with the show, and I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. I finally saw Alice Cooper, and I got to experience it with my dad. But even as I was enjoying the show for what it was - an entertaining rock show by a living legend - I could not help but consider some of the external factors raised by the show, particularly the current state of rock music, misogyny and rape culture, and the American election. After all, Alice is himself known for his erudite perspectives on issues, so it did not seem out of character to have some significant thoughts even as I rocked out.

The current state of rock music

One thing that struck me as interesting was the way in which rock has become commodified and cultural rather than counter-cultural as it was when Alice started. It is interesting to see the embodiment of the transition in rock music through the filter of Cooper, who was one of the leading anti-authority voices in rock music - as well as one of the most vilified figures in pop culture by morality advocates - for most of the 70s. Now, he performs many of those same songs in front of families, and his particular brand of theatrical rock is considered to be tame.

It has long been lamented that rock has been supplanted by rap as the counter-cultural force, and it's hard not to see it as true in many ways: creatively, sociologically, even politically. It does not seem as though there is much of a force in rock to work against the culture, and the fact that even someone like Alice Cooper has become part of the accepted establishment indicates that rock has lost almost any claim to being counter-culture.

It's not really as though this is anything new, as the narrative of rock becoming the soccer dad of the music world has been advanced since the 1980s - perhaps save for the exception of Nirvana and to some extent grunge in the early 1990s and Marilyn Manson, the heir apparent to Cooper, in the late 1990s. Cooper himself has commented on the sterilization of rock over the years - most recently in Paste magazine - but he still, of course, seems to believe in some fundamental level that rock can and does somehow make a difference.

His current rebellion - and arguably that of many of his peers who are still performing - is not against the machine, but against age and irrelevance; to his credit, he seems to be winning, unlike rock music in general. Sure, there are pockets within rock who are maintaining some form of defiance to the norm - Jack White comes to mind as an example in terms of form - but rock just ain't what it used to be. It does not mean that it does not have the same level of enjoyment; it's just not the sociological phenomenon it once was.

On misogyny and rape culture

Another fascinating facet of Cooper's career that I considered as I was watching him play last night was the commentary on misogyny and rape culture that Cooper has cultivated since his early days. Songs like "Only Women Bleed" - a commentary on abusive marriages - seem on the surface to perhaps be endorsing misogynistic behaviour, but Alice has always maintained that, like much of the rest of his show, his songs have much deeper meanings that often contrast with their superficial interpretation. Even songs like "Feed My Frankenstein", which was made famous by Wayne's World and contains the chorus "feed my libido; he's a psycho", actually serves as a satire of rape culture by lampooning the ridiculous claim that it is impossible for men to control their urges.

Of course, the challenge is that Alice presents these songs in his show as rock hits, and it seems that a lot of the intended nuance and social criticism is not (and arguably cannot be) correctly interpreted in the midst of the spectacle of this kind of rock concert. "Feed My Frankenstein" loses its meaning when paired with guitar solos, a mad scientist table, pyrotechnics, a smoke machine, and a 10-foot-tall manifestation of Shelley's monster emerging at the end of the song.

This begs the question of whether art should be criticized for how it is received, regardless of how it is intended, and whether it is actually Cooper's fault if people misinterpret his songs. Behind the scenes and even onstage, Cooper is known for his empowerment of women, and he has been married to his wife Sheryl for forty years, with the only turbulent time in their marriage when Alice struggled (again) with alcoholism in the early 1980s. Alice features women in meaningful ways in his show, including his current incredibly talented guitarist Nita Strauss and his daughter, Calico, who portrays several female characters, including a fascinating modern dance piece during "Only Women Bleed".

I tend to find myself troubled in the midst of the juxtaposition between the show and the substance. On the one hand, these songs are legitimate criticisms of male dominance and rape culture; on the other hand, I don't think most of the people there either recognize that fact or care about it if they did. Rock music can - and I would argue should - serve as social commentary, but it can also be the perpetuator of stereotypes - sometimes even simultaneously. Rock is neither "just music" or "just a show" or entirely something deeper; it's somewhere in the middle, and it's awkward and unsettling either way if you're willing (and able) to think about it.

It is, of course, fascinating to think about this issue of Cooper's commentary on women and rape culture in the midst of all of the fallout from the scandal of Donald Trump's sexist video with Billy Bush, particularly in the wake of the non-ironic and abhorrent "repealthe19th" hashtag that circulated yesterday among Trump supporters responding to the revelation from that Trump would be dominating the election if women were not allowed to vote.

It's hard not to see that many of Trump's supporters are the same people who think that "Feed My Frankenstein" is a justification for how they treat women, and it's also difficult not to blame Cooper (and many others) for their part in perpetuating that culture, regardless of their intentions. I tend to remain conflicted and aware of the problems herein, and I am certainly committed to continuing to explore the dialogue that Cooper has begun with his songwriting, as he also seems to be, which seems to be more than can be said for Trump.

On the election

The mention of Trump's misogyny brings me, perhaps inevitably, to the third consideration I had during the show - the one that seems to colour most of my waking life nowadays - the American election, which is thankfully fewer than four weeks away. Cooper, who has remained mostly apolitical over the years, commented recently on this election in Rolling Stone, calling it "demented" and "funny in a Kurt Vonnegut kind of way", which might be one of the better descriptors I have heard about the election.

Cooper has capitalized on the nature of this particular election not only by performing his song "Elected", which was originally written in 1972 during Nixon's re-election campaign, but also by announcing his own tongue-in-cheek candidacy for the Oval Office and using the branding on his merchandise.

But beyond the direct ties to the election, I was also thinking about the bigger picture - particularly how Cooper does not pretend to be something he's not. He's a rock star and an avid golfer, not a politician or a pundit, and he does not pretend to be anything other than an entertainer. In that RS article, he comments on the ridiculousness of how fans consult him about their vote, as if he had any more insight than they did; he responds that he probably has less insight as a rock star than they do.

In that light, I was thinking about Trump, who is just under two years older than Cooper. Trump has spent the last year of his life attempting to convince people that he is something he's not - a statesman, a politician, civilized, respectful of women, etc. - while using the tactics of theatrics and spectacle in a field that is (in retrospect clearly) ill-equipped to accommodate an outsider. The fact that Trump has been able to hijack the process and to get this far remains testament to how much the political arena - particularly the Republican Party - was primed for this kind of hostile takeover.

Trump has continued emphasize the fact that he is not a Washington insider or experienced in politics in any way as an appeal to his candidacy; Cooper (rightfully) asserts that his own inexperience and choice of profession would clearly disqualify him from holding any sort of public office. I would argue that their respective life experiences make them both equally unqualified to hold office, yet here we are in the midst of the most ridiculous presidential election imaginable with a spectacularly unprepared candidate lurking over the proceedings, much as he lurked over his opponent's shoulder in the Town Hall Debate.

The difference between Cooper and Trump - other than the fact that Cooper generally seems to be a decent person who plays a character onstage to choose to examine some of the depravity of humanity, as opposed to Trump, who is a seemingly indecent person who attempts to manufacture a positive portrayal of his character in spite of his depravity - is that Cooper is an entertainer, and he is leaving his work where it belongs, which is onstage. It is amazing to see him still rocking out after all this time, and I did not feel shortchanged at all by what I saw; he put on an incredible show, and it satisfied everything I wanted to see in an Alice Cooper concert.

Alice Cooper's first solo album in 1975 was entitled Welcome To My Nightmare, which in many ways could also be a subtitle for this election. It has been a waking nightmare, and the levels of depravity and ineffectiveness of the political system that have been exposed in the past year are mind-boggling at best and fundamentally deeply disturbing. I just know that I, along with the rest of North America and the world, will be happy when "our long national nightmare is over".

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