Alice Cooper vs. Kiss: The Fine Line Between Art and Success

Posted: December 25, 2012 in Editorials

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;.

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