Archive for December, 2012

And here is the grand finale, the final paper I wrote for the aforementioned “Glam Rock” course.

Alice Cooper, his band and KISS

Alice Cooper, his band and KISS

 

At minimum, a standard rock and roll band requires guitar, bass, drums and vocals, a particularly basic concoction that can be created with little effort.  Thus, the genre of Rock music, a constantly evolving, progressive entity, stands as an accessible form of expression that can effortlessly bring issues and opinions to the masses.  Glam, one of society’s most active subcategories, developed in the 1960s from New York-based pop-artist Andy Warhol’s desire for fame through disorder and eccentricity. David Bowie, an English singer-songwriter known for widely popular hits including “Space Oddity” and “Changes,” is often referred to as a founding father of Glam Rock, the social movement’s complimentary musical genre.  Though not always cheery and lighthearted, Bowie’s music rarely approached gothic or demonic levels.  With the arrival of metal pioneer Alice Cooper, however, Glam rock began to stray from its poppy, campy roots and began to become dark, morose and morbid.  Following Cooper’s lead, Kiss, a New York quartet dressed in elaborate, demonic costumes complimented by makeup, wings, capes and other monstrous accessories, pushing boundaries of more standard Glam performance techniques.

In 1986, Alice Cooper performed one of his earliest and most successful solo hits, “Welcome To My Nightmare” during his “The Nightmare Returns” tour.  This rendition demonstrates both musically and visually typical Alice Cooper presentation techniques, while a more recent performance of Kiss’ massive single “Love Gun, at a 2000 concert at East Rutherford, New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena displayed the major difference between the two artist’s integration of visuals into their music.  Though both Cooper and Kiss’ fame is somewhat derived from their tremendously theatrical performances, thematically, Cooper’s dark “Welcome To My Nightmare” actually connects to his demonically dramatic performance, whereas Kiss’ poppy and sexual “Love Gun” is almost completely detached from their ghoulish costumes and wild stage personas.

Alice Cooper who Van Cagle, an influential media theorist and entertainment sociologist, refers to as “the original ‘glitter rocker” reached for originality much more than Kiss.  Cooper, as Cagle writes, focused on “advance the surreal aspects of his act” by investigating:

…Methods that would allow him to replicate the ‘disorderly structure’ of dreams…Cooper decided to incorporate a number of odd items into his stage show: dolls, sheets, pillows, a live boa constrictor, mannequins, and an electric chair.  The intention was to juxtapose these objects so as to construct a “dream-like montage,” thereby providing audiences with a bombarding series of images void of continuity and logical meaning.  In Cooper’s view, this approach was intriguing because it would force audiences to make their own decisions regarding the “theme” of his performance.  (Cagle, 120)

Cooper’s style of performance has often been labeled as “shock rock” because of its deliberately and often times forcefully bizarre and unsettling nature that elicits a wide range of emotions.  Cooper says,

I love the idea of confusion.  I think a valid point of art is chaos…For instance, if you pull a snake out, it’s going to mean 15 things to 15 different people. (Swift, 36)

Though other glam rock artists, namely David Bowie, use similar techniques, Cooper was the first glam artist to touch on the wicked, death related visuals.

Cooper sets a clear goal when he steps on a stage.  He wishes to inspire audiences through the overall aural, visual, physical, emotional and mental experience of his performance.  On Halloween 1986, Cooper commenced his massive “The Nightmare Returns” tour in support of his sober comeback album, Constructor, with a striking version of the title track of his 1975 debut solo album, Welcome To My Nightmare.  “Nightmare,” which acts as an introduction for the concept album about a child’s odyssey through a series of terrifying dreams, draws listeners into a world of horror.  “I think you’re gonna’ like it/I think you’re gonna’ feel/Like you belong,” Cooper groans before continuing to discuss the “unnecessary sedation” of his “breakdown” in which, “we sweat, laugh and scream here.” (Cooper)  These blatant references to a theme, particularly one of such unprecedented gloom, come as a shock to the unaccustomed music-listening world used to songs about love, sexual encounters, revelry and leisurely substance intake.

More shocking than the song alone, Cooper’s 1986 performance embodies both the mood of “Welcome To My Nightmare” as well as the subjects upon which the album’s overall concept explores.  The singer essentially introduces the concert as more of a theatrical performance than a show.  By singing before even appearing on the smoky stage, Cooper gives the show a sense of eerie mystery that one would not typically find at a concert.  After the sinister, almost ghostly introduction to “Nightmare,” guitarists Kane Roberts and Devlin 7 increase the tempo and intensity from that of the song’s original studio incarnation.  The music’s ferocity peaks, and Cooper, arms beckoning menacingly, smashes out of barred, glass double doors, decked out in a spike-studded leather jacket, black makeup around his eyes, and a whip in his hand.  Darting across the stage, Cooper gives the song added power through his heavier, growling vocals and ferocious facial expression and gestures.

It is rare to see Cooper onstage without an outrageous outfit and some sort of demonic prop, most commonly a whip.

It is rare to see Cooper onstage without an outrageous outfit and some sort of demonic prop, most commonly a whip.

Perhaps the most notable section of the entire performance comes about hallway through, introduced by a harmony of ominous synthesizers and guitars.  Cooper, standing in the middle of the stage opens and closes his arms menacingly as if to further welcome the audience to his nightmare, is surrounded by various monsters, demons, ghouls and goblins, that most likely signify the fear Cooper sees in his dreams.  In some instances, artists try to force fantastic performances upon songs, neglecting to even remotely attempt to connect visuals with lyrical and musical themes, however, such is not the case with Cooper’s dramatic rendition of “Nightmare.”  The song’s dark and villainous mood is balanced perfectly with the images of aggression and evil.

Unlike the studio recording of Welcome To My Nightmare’s title track, which relies on a funkier groove than other Alice Cooper songs, ultimately blasting into a jazz-funk interlude driven by a large horn section, the 1986 live performance lies further down on the metal spectrum, abandoning the horns and focusing less on the funk bass-line.   In 1975, when Welcome To My Nightmare was initially released, classic rock, funk and soul were dominating the radio waves, but by the 1980s, hard rock and metal, specifically hair metal, had commandeered the rock world.

Thus, in the spirit of the progressive and never-motionless world of Glam, Cooper indeed rearranged the song to adapt to new musical trends.  In an interview with Rolling Stone, the demonic, death-obsessed musician admits, “I’m not trying to kill myself…I have a lust for life; I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t really like seeing new places and doing new things.” (Swift, 40) Though in the article, Cooper discusses his outlook on off-stage life, such a statement can be applied to his performance persona.  His focus on “new places” and “new things” conspicuously displays Cooper’s embodiment of the Glam lifestyle.  However, David Hiltbrand, an entertainment analyst who has written for various magazines ignores the change in musical direction between 1975 and 1986, in his review of the concert in People Magazine, focusing only on Alice’s stage persona.   Arguing that though Alice always strives to change and evolve, he fails to reach his goal, Hiltbrand writes,

During the first song ghosts, goblins and creepy-crawly creatures stalk the cluttered, skull-strewn stage. On the second song Cooper skewers a baby doll with a sword. Ah, same old adorable Alice, with the same props that made him infamous… Maybe it just shows how little rock has progressed in the last 15 years. (Hiltbrand)

The famous "Welcome To My Nightmare" album artwork caused conspiracy upon its unveiling.

The famous “Welcome To My Nightmare” album artwork caused conspiracy upon its unveiling.

Critics have always openly abhorred Glam rock artists claiming to be confused and rather turned off by their desperate attempts to dominate the spotlight, never realizing that Glam’s intentions push further than impressing the press.  Says Cagle on the matter,

…I propose that the marketing of the New York/London/Detroit factions via this mass-produced rock and roll genre was not a simple case of ideological or commodity incorporation…a wide range of possibilities opened for fans…Thus their predominant subcultural experience in the early 1970s occurred through the application of subcultural precepts that were transmitted by way of a mass-mediated and highly commercial format.  (Cagle, 97-98)

Alice Cooper certainly was a textbook example of a Glam rocker who embraced the window of opportunity created by a media-dominated culture.  In terms of the modern industry, almost every current artist creating music in the twenty-first century utilizes similar techniques, though Kiss was one of the earliest groups to revolutionize a marketing approach that directly integrated the world’s growing obsession with the concept of easily absorbable and accessible products.  Kiss embraced the consumer-culture by putting on a melodramatic stage show that simply held audience attention through visual spectacle rather than via insightful artistry the likes of Cooper.

On March 9th, 1972, bassist and vocalist Gene Simmons, rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist Paul Stanley, lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss of Kiss first donned the outfits that would ultimately become four of the most recognizable stage personas of all time.   Heavily influenced by Alice Cooper’s visual techniques, Kiss’ live shows are famous for their melodramatic features including explosions, fireworks, elaborate light shows, fake blood, moveable stages and zip-lines (see 2000 performance of Love Gun), but most notably, the band members’ costumes.  Though Cooper before them certainly utilized makeup and creative attire, Kiss pushed the bar.  Each member wore a personalized makeup mask that would become their individual on-stage persona: for Simmons, the Demon, for Stanley, the Starman, which perhaps points to Bowie’s 1972 hit, “Starman,” for Criss, the Catman and for Frehley, the Spaceman.  However, unlike Cooper, whose visual and aural components cohere perfectly, Kiss’ poppy, party-focused music rock and roll tunes had little to nothing in common with their raunchy, showy live performances.

Kiss were one of the first bands to truly deck themselves out in full costume at EVERY live show.

Kiss were one of the first bands to truly deck themselves out in full costume at EVERY live show.

In their 2000 rendition of their single and live staple “Love Gun” from their 1977 album of the same name, Kiss display both aspects of its style, the performance and the music.   As the guitar, bass and drums gallop through “Love Gun’s” explosive introduction, Stanley grasps onto a wire attached to a large metal circle and, as fireworks erupt across the stage, the singer is lifted above the audience, landing on a small stage in the middle of the arena.

Though the performance is visually thrilling, as exemplified by flying singers, fire and costumed musicians, lyrically “Let’s get together, we can/Get hot…You pull the trigger of my/Love gun…” sound more like those by a pop artist rather than a manly hard rock band that publically don flashy suits of armor, stadium bots, fantastic makeup masks, gloves, wings, and other flamboyant accessories.   A band that emulates the artistry of previous glam performers like Alice Cooper and Bowie should be singing about more complex topics then, essentially, the composer, Simmons’s male sex organ.   Cagle quotes Polhemus and Procter’s analytical book, Pop Styles, which agrees, declaring,

Groups such as Kiss don’t really shake up the status quo because it’s all clearly just for the stage.  This sort of tongue-in-cheek makeup is safe because it’s just theater… (Cagle, 143)

However, Kiss personally does not claim to try to create an overall concept-driven performance the likes of Cooper’s The Nightmare Returns.  The band is more concerned with providing its fans and audience with an enjoyable and memorable experience. In an interview, Stanley states, “This [makeup] is how we perform. This is Kiss… At a certain point, you lose shock value.  At this point we’re out there kicking butt, and that’s what we do best.” (Stanley, from Youtube video: “Early KISS Interviews Compilation”)  As Simmons demonstrates, Kiss strays from Cooper’s lead, not feeling the need for new strategies that bring a “shock value” to the show.  Simmons admits in an early interview that,

The only reason we ever decided to wear makeup or costumes…was to try to make Kiss a special kind of band.  I didn’t want to look like anyone else.  (Simmons, from YouTube video: “Early KISS Interviews Compilation”)

The members of Kiss feel that their overall performance is unique, and totally recognizable, thus deeming change completely unique.

It is clear, however, that Kiss does not share the same integrity and respect for the subgenre of Glam rock that artists like Cooper and Bowie harness to spread their causes to the masses.  The main issue with Kiss’ overall motives is that the band has become more about the performance and the visual attraction of these wild rock and rollers with makeup all over their face and bodies.  In the 1980s, when Kiss tried to act as musicians as opposed to performers, in an “unmasked” era, the band’s record sales plummeted, concerts failed to sell out and the general novelty that had been “Kiss” in the 1970s ceased to exist.  Thus, it is fair to say that Kiss emulates Cooper’s tremendously elaborate performance style as a sort of gimmick to attract attention to their other rather uninteresting music.  Simmons even admits that,

We put on a show.  We put on a spectacle.  We are performers.  If all you want is the music, then you can buy our albums but if you come see the show, you really see something.  (Simmons, from YouTube video: “Early KISS Interviews Compilation”)

The band considers itself a group of entertainers rather than musicians, thus the overall experience is based on more than simply the sound of a rock band.  Nonetheless, although many outside the industry refuse to respect Kiss, many musical artists wish they could emulate part of the tremendous power that represents Kiss.  Geddy Lee bassist, keyboardist and lead singer for hard rock and progressive rock band Rush that began a long career opening for Kiss declares powerfully,

Regardless of what you want to say about kiss, musically or otherwise, there was no harder working band than Kiss, and there was no band more determined to put on a spectacular show and give people their money’s worth than Kiss…Those guys liked to have a good time. (Lee, from Living on the Lighted Stage)

The real question is, does that lack of purpose that other established Glam artists advertise as part of their persona as musicians, activists and people make Kiss a pop band rather than a group of Glam rockers?  Charles M. Young delves deeply into the root of the question in his featured article on Kiss, just as the band was rising to superstardom.

Allowing for a few aberrational songs, they, too, do not promise to reveal the meaning of life, make the whole world sing, or any of that.  They scream elemental need, placing as much emphasis on words like “I wanna” as the Ramones, only with no condescending satire to sink them in Middle America. (Young, 47)

Young actually discusses the point with Simmons.

“We’re not a great band,’ he [Simmons] says, turning his attention back to me.  ‘The musicianship is average, maybe even below, but in a year we’re going to be the biggest band in the world.  Two hundred million Americans out there don’t appreciate subtleties.  They want to be sledgehammered over the head with clear issues and no pussyfooting.  (Young, 48)

Kiss, unlike more artistically focused Glam performers, focus on personal reputation, success and fun rather than true musical integrity.  They utilize aspects of the genre not necessarily to hide their Pop artist status but rather for overall creative support.

Aside from the integrity of their use of glam, Kiss and Alice Cooper differ tremendously with regard to their musical styles.  While Cooper heavily utilizes aspects of metal, classic rock, funk and blues, Kiss structure their songs in a manner that will appeal to fans of every type of music, rather than aiming to target a specific audience, like their Glam predecessors.  Kiss’ “verse-chorus-verse” song structures are dominated by a catchy and melodic chorus-hook.  Thus, the band’s music is evidently less a form of true rock and more a mixture of pop music and hard rock.  The prime reason for such a difference is that, as discussed earlier, Kiss is a group of theatrical performers whereas Cooper considers himself a musician, an artist and a performer.

KISS' 1977 album, "Love Gun," which features the hit single of the same name and was the final KISS record to include every founding member

KISS’ 1977 album, “Love Gun,” which features the hit single of the same name and was the final KISS record to include every founding member

Therefore, many music fans, critics, reviewers, and other outsiders to the industry make the mistake of drawing similarities between Alice Cooper, a prime example of a Glam artist, and Kiss, a group of performers who hardly consider themselves true musicians.  There lies a fine line between the overall Alice and Kiss experiences, one that separates dark, gothic craft from seemingly aggressive pop that exists solely for the purpose of leisurely fun.  The crime that the press often commits is not neglecting to take Kiss seriously, something the band does not even consider a legitimate opinion, but rather grouping Cooper with Kiss in a list of musical artists that abuse the subgenre.  Cooper is as acceptable an example of an embodiment of the Glam lifestyle as Bowie, critics’ favorite artist of the subgenre.

The Glam genre exists for many purposes, though most definitively, its function is to encourage the artistic display of one’s true opinions and one’s true personality. Glam gives a sense of identity to individuals who fail to fit into any other social groups, groups that place limit on expression, both personal and creative.  While Kiss avoided the level of outward intensity and inventive passion that Cooper achieved, the band created a feeling of originality that surrounded their band and all for which it stands.  Simmons, Stanley, Criss and Frehley grasped onto aspects of Cooper’s Glam and used it to their advantage.  Nonetheless, Glam yearns to spread emotions and deliver messages.  Therefore, it is clear that Kiss wish to utilize Glam strategies for selfish reasons rather than Cooper, Bowie and Warhol’s causes of integrity.  To say that only Cooper, however, is an honest artist of the genre is not a slight directed at Kiss.  Warhol created Glam, in order to give everyone the opportunity to obtain as much fame and as much spotlight as desired and Kiss certainly identify with such a deeply personal motive.  Thus, although only some artists can be considered true glitter giants, all artists can benefit from the study of Glam Rock and the surrounding society.

Works Cited

 

1. AliceCooperColdEthyl. “Alice Cooper – Welcome To My Nightmare.” YouTube. YouTube, 26 Apr. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLBjmRJkrek&gt;.

2. Cagle, Van M.  Reconstructing Pop/subculture: Art, Rock, and Andy Warhol. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995. Print.

3. Hiltbrand, David. “Picks and Pans Review: The Nightmare Returns: The Alice Cooper Tour.” Picks and Pans Review: The Nightmare Returns: The Alice Cooper Tour: People.com. People Magazine, 14 Sept. 1987. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. <http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20097085,00.html>.

4. Lokar92. “Kiss – Love Gun (live 2000).” YouTube. YouTube, 29 Apr. 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z4f34Fhd_0&gt;.

5. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. Dir. Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen. Perf. Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart. Banger Films, Inc, 2010. Film.

6. Swift, Harry. “Inside Alice.” Rolling Stone Magazine, 10 May 1973. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://archive.rollingstone.com/Desktop?s=197601294&gt;.

7. Tk848. “Early KISS Interviews Compilation.” YouTube. YouTube, 12 July 2009. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlmVyWfwvGM&gt;.

8. Young, Charles M. “Redirecting…” Redirecting… Rolling Stone, 7 Apr. 1977. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://archive.rollingstone.com/Desktop?s=1977040734&gt;.

Below is the second essay I composed for my “Glam Rock” class mentioned in the previous post:

Lou Reed circa the release of 'Transformer,' his most successful record.

Lou Reed circa the release of ‘Transformer,’ his most successful record.

“Culture is a notoriously ambiguous concept,” Richard Hebdige, British media and cultural theorist, writes in his Subculture and Style, laying down a general rule for the entire “Glam” subculture of the late 1960s and 1970s. (Cagle, 2) Every individual and social group can interpret the “ambiguity” of culture and style differently.  Thus, the existence of a group like the Glams, who stray from social norms and restraints and call attention to eccentricity and theatricality, becomes possible.  Throughout his essay, Hebdige constantly returns to the idea that subcultures evolve from one another, via individual interpretation.  David Bowie, a British singer-songwriter known for an extensive catalog of hits that includes “Space Oddity” and “Changes,” is often considered the godfather of Glam rock.  His “glam world,” however, circulated around dominating the spotlight as opposed to progressing and rallying the masses for a specific cause.  Van Cagle, a well-known pop music scholar discusses the evolution of glam statements, highlighting the success of Lou Reed, a New York-based musician and protégé of Bowie and Andy Warhol, in his Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock and Andy Warhol. Lou Reed, takes a different approach to the genre than his predecessors, revolutionizing the glam motives and ultimately publically rejecting conformity and the accepted social system. With the release of his enormously popular “Walk on the Wild Side” from his 1972 album Transformer, Reed not only avoids socially accepted behavior, but also encourages his listeners to reject the upper-class, civilized life and embrace the “wild side.”

Reed’s main goal in releasing “Walk on the Wild Side” seems to be to introduce a wider audience into the glam mindset by way of example.  The New York musician specifies that to “take a walk on the wild side” (Reed, stanza 2) one must emulate the characters he discusses in the song.  Van Cagle, delves even more deeply into the world of “Walk on the Wild Side,” which he names as “the definitive glitter rock anthem.”  He claims that song’s characters, who are indeed actual historical figures, more specifically, high-end male prostitutes, from Reed, Bowie and Warhol’s community,

…simply engage in practices that are to them quite natural–therefore, these characters find that “walking on the wild side” is just another way of describing everyday life (Cagle, 152.)

 

Because Reed is telling these stories of adventuring and perusing the “wild side” in such a passive way, he not only shows that these characters always live on the “wild side” but that living on the “wild side” should be socially acceptable.  Through his narration, Reed digests the glam lifestyle, explaining it concisely over the course of four minutes and thirteen seconds.  Ultimately, the singer forced these ideas upon the masses through a best selling hit single that almost every music-listener heard around the time of release.

Contrary to Bowie Reed is much more direct about forcing glam onto others. When we compare Reed to Bowie, we find that Bowie’s activities and image inspired an enormous portion of the youthful population to embrace glam. Hebdige writes,

He [Bowie] attracted a mass youth audience and set up a number of visual precedents in terms of personal appearance, (make-up, dyed hair, etc.) which created a new sexually ambiguous image for those youngsters willing and brave enough to challenge the notoriously pedestrian stereotypes…(Hebdige, 60)

Bowie influenced through example, whereas Reed affected the youth by example and by motivation.  “Rebel Rebel” from Bowie’s 1974 album Diamond Dogs, is the most “forceful” of Bowie’s work, though in the simplest terms, the song merely encourages partying, enjoying and rule breaking.  Reed, on “Walk on the Wild Side,” which was also released two years prior to “Rebel Rebel,” is much more specific and direct telling clear stories of living “wild-side walkers.”

Unlike many of 1972’s most successful mainstream hits such as “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” by T. Rex, “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles, or “Nights In White Satin” by the Moody Blues, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” discusses extremely controversial topics with unblemished clarity and little to no subtlety.  Lou Reed makes no effort to ease into the discussion new manners regarding sexual orientation, professional decisions and leisurely behavior..  The song’s first character, Holly, an excellent role model for wild-side walking, “plucked her eyebrows on the way/shaved her leg and then he was she.”  (Reed, stanza 1.)  A major aspect of the glam movement was a rejection and perhaps an inversion of standard, accepted and respected sexual orientation, which Reed displays here in full glory.  Many bands, regardless of their sexual orientation, that wore long hair, glitter-emblazoned, skin-tight outfits, makeup and jewelry, break the boundaries of the social-norm, publicly embracing the sexual nature of rock and roll music.  Rock and Roll, at every stage in its progression, has signified some sort of form of musical rejection.  By the 70s, rock musicians had taken to revolting against “decency” and “privacy” glorifying sexuality in their performances and music.  Even non-glam artists such as Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd and The Who performed in revealing pants, open shirts, and on the occasion, in costume.

In response to Reed’s mannerisms, Van Cagle states, “glitter was particularly significant because it did not attempt to deal explicitly with class issues, but instead, it attempted to subvert sexuality and gender typing.” (Cagle, 206)  Cagle’s statement is somewhat inaccurate, especially when considering Lou Reed as a person and his “Walk on the Wild Side.”  Although Reed does in fact call to attention the superficiality and superfluity of gender typing, encouraging both mild trans-sexuality and fully-fledged homosexuality.  When he discusses “gender typing” in reference to glam artists,  Cagle specifically focuses on Reed. In his discussion, the media-commentater’s use of the phrase  “subvert sexuality” is a poor choice of words.  The stereotypical high, civilized, upper-class society of the 1960s and ‘70s was private and modest about sexuality: man and woman meet, fall in love, settle down and establish a family; the man provides resources through his professional activities and the woman runs the household.  Perhaps it is fair to say that the Glams subvert that combination of society and sexualit.   However, to argue that the entire movement, one that embraces open immodesty, one that discusses sexual activity, orientation and behavior in every sense of its being, subverts sexuality without specifying further, is incorrect.

The single version of 1972's "Walk on the Wild Side"

The single version of 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side”

Reed continues with his subversion of modest sexuality and encouragement of wild, unfiltered, eroticism through the second stanza of “Walk on the Wild Side,” though he progresses from the homosexuality of the first stanza to embracing extreme, constant and indecorous heterosexuality.  He sings, “In the backroom she was everybody’s darlin’/But she never lost her head/Even while she was giving head…” (Reed, stanza 2)  Now, with the arrival of the second stanza, Reed is still discussing sexual activity, further defying Cagle’s previously mentioned word choice, though he is merely encouraging to feel no shame in excessive lovemaking as long as one enjoy oneself and “keeps their head.”  However, Reed, being the mysterious and ambiguous man he is, adds loosely the line “He said” at the end of the stanza, making it unclear as to whether this character is in fact a man or a woman.  Perhaps Reed is being even more metaphorical, applying the same rules to every gender and every orientation.

By the third stanza, Reed’s focus jumps from merely depicting sex to discussing accepting payment for illegal activities, most likely sexual, though the song does not explicitly specify.  Reed sings, “Little Joe never once gave it away/Everybody had to pay and pay/A hustle here and a hustle there.” (Reed, stanza 3)  Ultimately, “Walk on the Wild Side” appears as almost a list of unconventional behavior and lifestyle choices, which only further exemplified by the reference of drugs, particularly “valium” (Reed, stanza 4) in the fourth verse.  Hebdige remarks that, “The “subversive implications of style” are “the status and meaning of revolt [and] the idea of style as a form of Refusal” (Hebdige, 2) and with regard to Lou Reed and his most successful single to date, the theorist is absolutely correct.  Reed’s style, his culture, his lyrics, his mannerisms and his ideas, all embody the revolt and refusal that Hebdige references that leads Van Cagle to claim that,

Walk on the Wild Side’ was considered alongside Reed’s visual style of black nail polish, black attire, and makeup…another defining feature of glitter rock.”  (Cagle, 152)

Though Cagle is not only suggesting that Reed establishes the unconventionality of glitter through one aspect of his character, he does so with his entire personality and throughout his entire career.  Thus, it would be unjust to examine merely one aspect “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Lou Reed’s ability to write shocking yet poetic lyrics attract many modern, popular artists such as Metallica on their album Lulu, and Gorillaz on the track “Some Kind of Nature,”to collaborate with him, combining their music with his songwriting abilities.  Nonetheless, “Walk on the Wild Side” is a musical statement as much as it is one of lyrical significance.   As discussed above, “Wild Side” tells less-than-pleasant tales that cause many listeners to cringe, sharing opinions of revolt, anarchy and the rejection of “the system” with the louder, angrier punk-rock groups the likes of The Stooges, The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

Though, Hebdige differentiates between Reed’s “glam” subgenre and punk, declaring,

The punk aesthetic, formulated in the widening gap between artist and audience, can be read as an attempt to expose glam rock’s implicit contradictions.  For example, the ‘working classness,’ the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance and verbosity of the glam rock superstars.  (Hebdige, 63)

Lou Reed and his masterful, “Walk on the Wild Side” only resembles punk in its goals, rather than its angry style and persona.   Instead of delivering the highly controversial and provocative tales of “Wild Side-walking” with vocal and musical intensity, as one might imagine suitable, Reed sings, in almost a whisper over a quiet, echoing C-to-F chord progression.  The song  is musically very sparse for the most part, only including a soft drum , an acoustic guitar,  and two bass tracks.  Though the magnitude of the instrumentation and production does increase somewhat, Reed in essence hides the explicit content of his song from the untrained listener, perhaps an outsider unfamiliar with the glam lifestyle, while forcing his message into the subconscious.  In fact, part of the reason that “Wild Side” became a “million-selling single” (Cagle, 152) was because many administrative executives did not understand the meaning of a large portion of the lyrics, especially the phrase “to give head” and allowed the extremely explicit and inappropriate song to air uncensored on countless radio frequencies across the globe.

A modern-day Reed, shown here performing in 2004, has worked with many contemporary artists including Metallica and Gorillaz

A modern-day Reed, shown here performing in 2004, has worked with many contemporary artists including Metallica and Gorillaz

This “deception,” so to speak, progresses throughout the entire song, specifically during the saxophone solo.  The brass portion of the song on the one hand adds a jazzy feeling to “Wild Side,” a technique a lot of artists utilized all across the history of rock music.  Thus, it seems as though Reed was merely trying to sound poppy.  However, a recurring hook that indeed also adds to the overall “poppiness” of the track reads “And all the colored girls go/Doo do doo doo do doo doo do doo.” (Reed) The appearance of the saxophone, an instrument often grouped with African-American genres such as jazz, blues, soul and funk is paired with the blatant racism of the “color girls going ‘doo do doo.”   Hebdige actually delves quite deeply into the point of race boundaries in his essay arguing that reggae and punk both evolved from rock and roll music, they separated quite dramatically.  The writer continues, nonetheless with the concept that despite the fact that “Reggae and punk were audibly opposed,” (68), “Rasta rhetoric began to work its way into the repertoires of some punk groups.”  (67).  The contrary also occurred significantly, as exemplified by the Washington D.C.-based reggae-punk band Bad Brains, an all-black punk band rooted in Reggae.  Reed opened the door for such opportunities by rejecting not only sexual and musical norms, but also all societal norms. He does so openly, publically and proudly, blaring his “implications of style,” as Hebdige writes, across the FM waves for all to hear.

Reed, like Bowie and Warhol before him, perfectly embodies the glam attitude of revolution.  “Walk on the Wild Side” is everything that pop music is not, yet it still dominated the pop charts and is considered a timeless, classic hit.  Reed stresses the ambiguity that Hebdige references as an integral aspect of the development of musical and societal subgenres, and in an unprecedented and unmatched manner, urges his listeners to embrace the very same lifestyle.  Instruction on walking on the wild side could not have been made more simple and accessible than Reed made it on 1972’s Transformer.  His work inspired a sexual, moral, and overall societal revolutionary mindset in less than five minutes.

 

Bowie has captured the attention of journalists and the press throughout his entire career

Bowie has captured the attention of journalists and the press throughout his entire career

Recently, I took a course entitled “We Are The Champions: The Impact of Glam Rock on Culture,” which required me to write several papers on various topics regarding Glam musicians.  Below is the first of three “editorials,” per se.

Sit down for a moment and think about the word “glamour.”  What ideas, words, pictures and concepts come to mind?  Most people would conjure images of fame, fancy, popularity, beauty, luxury and other similar visions of grandeur.  Andy Warhol, an eccentric New York based artist usually credited with coining the genre of “pop-art,” brought hope of achievable fame to the masses.  Warhol preached that as long as you went about your life feeling famous, feeling fantastic, feeling fancy, then you were all that you dreamed of being.  This concept of self-proclaimed fame, however, seems to jive with the cliché, “Easier said than done,” which is where the Glam lifestyle, one of rejecting widely accepted social conduct, comes into play.  Glams prided themselves on experimenting with exuberance, abnormality, and the unknown in their theatricality, sexuality and overall behavior.   Though their performances often had deeper meaning, the main purpose of their art was to attract attention and elicit a reaction.  Most importantly, everything a Glam released had to be new.  That was how they gained the most attention: by glorifying the bizarre and the unprecedented.

In 1969, just as he was gaining some popularity, the British singer-songwriter David Bowie released a music video of his song, “Space Oddity,” which touches on science fiction and abandoning society.  In 1972, after achieving superstardom, Bowie released a new interpretation of “Space Oddity.”  The dynamic differences between David Bowie’s 1969 and 1972 versions of his “Space Oddity” music video display Bowie’s embodiment of the Glam way of life, one that glorifies personal evolution in order to consistently remain in the spotlight.

The videos, though released only three years apart, differ in two major categories, the first being the audio component, and the second being the visual aspects.  The fact that Bowie rearranged not only the “Space Oddity” music video but also the song itself exemplifies Bowie’s complete destruction and creation of his former and new personas respectively, as he, in the practice of the glam community, would continue to do over and over again throughout his career.  Interestingly enough, the original 1969 combination of the song and video was a major hit for Bowie, one that actually gained him significant popularity and began his career.  Taking apart that chart-topping song and completely turning it on his side only further proves his obsession with drastic, attention-attracting change.

Musical differences are already noticeable from the very first second of both versions of “Space Oddity.”  The two songs virtually completely contrast with respect to instrumentation and musical organization, save for the “E-minor” and “C-major” chord progression, which Bowie in fact maintains throughout both versions.   The 1969 version, which is clearly a poppy, campier and overall less gloomily morose tune, begins with a moderately paced bass-line.  Rumbling drum fills that resemble percussion sounds used heavily by psychedelic bands of the 1960s quickly accompany the steady progression.   The first line of vocals establish the melody, but the second vocal line includes melody and harmony tracks that already give the song a happy-go-lucky feel that recalls the Beach Boys, the Beatles and other early stadium rock groups.  When working in the music business, one must recall that consumers are familiar with a specific sound, a specific musical feel, and regardless of quality, are more comfortable listening and thus purchasing recognizable music.  Bowie’s strategy is to hone in on that concept of the “familiar sound,” while simultaneously incorporating his more eccentric lyrical content.

The 1969 Space Oddity video focuses on a narrative more so than its 1972 sucessor

The 1969 Space Oddity video focuses on a narrative more so than its 1972 sucessor

Once Ground Control establishes that they are “commencing liftoff,” in the first version, the song changes direction: it becomes faster and more dramatic, accompanied by a constant drum beat as opposed to the spacey drum fills of the earlier section of the song.  Now the tune really gets moving and maintains that uplifting mood for the remainder of its duration, despite the rather depressing lyrical content.  The background rock organs, just loud enough to be audible over the guitar and vocal tracks, only heighten this exaggerated theatrical style, though nothing tops the flute solo that stomps over those happy keyboards in a major key that just makes listeners want to skip through the park throwing daisies as they go.  Sarcasm aside, however, the most important point to take away from the 1969 version of “Space Oddity” is that the song tries to attract attention to the heavily produced plethora of instrumental and vocal tracks organized in composition that is easily accessible to the entire music-listening world, rather than circulate the music around the less conventional lyrical themes and moods.

In one broad, overarching statement, one can say that the 1972 version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” makes more sense: the music matches the sad tale of Major Tom, a space explorer who seemingly commits suicide in an attempt to leave society, or so music interpreters say.  As if to completely oppose what he previously released, Bowie’s 1972 musical model of “Space Oddity” is in fact written to more closely reflect upon and represent the struggle between Major Tom and Ground Control as he finds himself “stepping from the door” and “floating in the most peculiar way.”  From the first second of the newer version of “Space Oddity,” listeners know that David Bowie is no longer trying to breach the pop-charts.  By 1972, Bowie had been well established into the rock world as a performer of tremendous and shameless stage presence; he could now release creative, outlandish music without worrying about successful record sales.  People would buy “Space Oddity” because it was a David Bowie song.

1972’s “Space Oddity” opens with soft, sad, almost gloomy and depressing acoustic guitar strumming, on top of a militaristic drumbeat accompanied by a consistent, alarm-like tone.   Like the 1969 version, the new “Space Oddity” does indeed have vocal harmonies, however, these harmonies are much grimmer thanks to Bowie’s brilliant technique of recording extremely high and local vocal tracks, unlike the two, similar, happy vocal tracks of the earlier recording.  This vocal style as well as the frequent robotic-sounding twangs, give the newer version a less human and more science-fiction-y feel, which works well with both the story of Major Tom as well as the Glam idea of always moving forward artistically.  “Space Oddity” was one of the first (if not the first) song to discuss something not completely of this Earth—Pink Floyd started experimenting with this concept on Dark Side of The Moon in 1972, three years after Bowie first released “Space Oddity,” and the Flaming Lips would not release their album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots for several decades, so this concept of incorporating science, machinery and outer space into a pop song was truly fresh.

The visual components of both videos show, even more clearly, the complete turn-around Bowie to which subjects himself between 1969 and 1972.  The earlier video, like it’s aural component, tries to grab the attention of viewers through an easily accessible, familiar visual concept.  Pulling sceneries and set designs from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Stanley Kubrick released in 1968. This movie was widely popular, thus Bowie, aiming for the spotlight, utilized the film’s concepts in order to appeal to a mass audience.

In the music video, which follows the actual storyline of “Space Oddity,” Bowie actually portrays both Major Tom and Ground Control himself.  Staging Tom, decked out in a full spacesuit, in the control-chair of elaborate spacecraft decorated with mirrors and silver paper and futuristic white, shining walls and transparent tables, Bowie played off the “shock-and-awe” techniques Kubrick used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that captivated the world over.  On the other hand, Ground Control, portrayed by one person wearing a T-Shirt and baseball cap, stands in a completely white, featureless room.  The major contrast between the Major Tom and Ground Control characters displays Bowie’s attempts at mimicking the metaphorical staging and designs of cinematic masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Bowie seems to be forcing the contrasts and images much more than Kubrick.  The video is almost melodramatic, as exemplified by the images of Ground Control throwing his hands into the air exclaiming that Major time has “really made the grade” in the beginning of the song and screaming with a panic stricken look on his face that Major Tom’s  “circuit said there’s something wrong” towards the end of the video.  Obviously, Bowie was trying to make the entire release of the song extremely easy for his audience to grasp and digest while also creating an impact, two goals Bowie achieved, receiving great fame and recognition for “Space Oddity.”

Nonetheless, as is the case with the audio, the 1972 video is much more suited to tell the tale of an estranged space explorer.  By 1972, campy, story-telling videos were the norm and the glam in Bowie needed to stray from that which was common.  Overall, the 1972 video is much less complex and packed as its 1969 predecessor, only referencing the song’s extra-terrestrial theme in dark, red-tinted images of a space ship that are frequently interrupted by computer screens displaying wavelengths.   These images, however, are not what shock the viewers.  Bowie sits in this gloom spacecraft that emits an almost evil aura, strumming an acoustic guitar.  Bowie’s face, unlike in the 1969 video, is a ghostly white, and his hair a bright mane, making the male singer greatly resemble a woman.  It was this sexual shock that allowed Bowie to make the step from star to superstar.  Three years earlier, Bowie grabbed fame by mixing the known with the unknown but in 1972, with the release of the second “Space Oddity” video, Bowie’s abandonment of anything remotely recognizable or accessible brought him a massive wave of new fans.  Teenage girls, socially awkward boys and even much older women were attracted to Bowie’s rather sexual performances.  This man did something unprecedented: in a perfect embodiment of glam culture, Bowie rewrote his mediocre pop hit into a stunning art rocker and then dressed in drag, sat on a spaceship and performed the new version.  No one had ever done that before this performer, and few would be able to pull off such a feat again.

The second visual incarnation of Space Oddity draws on more abstract artistic influences

The second visual incarnation of Space Oddity draws on more abstract artistic influences

The two versions of “Space Oddity” display a musical transformation but also a cultural and social transformation.  Bowie changed everything about himself: he changed his musicianship, his sexuality, his dress and his persona in order to, in the words of 1980s glam singer Billy Idol, bring a “shock to the system.”  With “Space Oddity,” David Bowie exemplifies that glams maintain the attention of the entertainment world by constantly changing with culture.  Bowie was often called a chameleon, and in some ways, this is not an unjust statement, though it would be unjust to say that Bowie’s frequent metamorphoses were bad for business.  Bowie adapted to the society of the late-sixties with his first “Space Oddity” and landed a hit, and then rearranged the song to appeal to the society of the early-seventies and landed an even bigger hit.  Thus, it is safe to say that Bowie is the perfect example of a glam who achieved greatness by doing nothing more than embodying the glam way of life to the absolute fullest.

aerosmith-music-from-another-dimension-1350682128

Here’s my review in the Brandeis newspaper, The Justice, of Aerosmith’s newest album Music From Another Dimension!

http://www.thejustice.org/aerosmith-loses-skill-on-latest-release-1.2957330#.UMI-FmB1G34

Sorry I’m publishing this a bit late.

Enjoy, regardless!