Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Searching For Mr. Scary*
* Yes, I used the name of a Dokken song (and the name of lead guitarists' guitar) as a basis for one of my entries. I wish that it didn't have to come to this, but here we are. I'll never reference Dokken again. I promise.
When I was younger there were legion of pop culture boogey men (mostly musicians) that freaked parents out. This wasn't a product of the 80s, if you look back far enough, you'll see that just the idea of rock n' roll music was enough for parents to lock their children in their homes. You've seen the B-roll footage in scores of TV shows and movies: the small (usually) Southern town, the bonfires, the broken records, the town preacher yelling fire and brimstone. It's a complete cliché now, but it really happened.
As the late 50s/early 60s progressed into the Age of Aquarius and the mid 70s, the “pillars of the community” came to the realization that rock n' roll wasn't going anywhere and began to turn their attention to specific artists. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison of the Doors, among others were all public enemy number one when it came time to protect the fragile minds and squash the budding libido of America's youth. When the 70s bled into the 80s, parents were afraid of bands like KISS*, Alice Cooper and heavy metal before setting their sites on Madonna.
* As a junior high school student, I was an altar boy. During this time I was given a job which required me to be at the church for the mass on Saturday and three masses on Sunday, one of which I served. The other three masses required me unlocking the doors before services started, closing them after it ended and getting the altar ready for the day. Since I wasn't scheduled to work all the time, I'd hang out in the sacristy and listen to my Walkman. BTW, the sacristy is the room behind the altar—it's quite a boring place to hang out. Nothing to read except the Bible.
One day a priest walked by, saw me rocking out (as the kids say) and asked me what I was listening to. Stupidly, I told him that I was listening to KISS (and not classic KISS like “Destroyer” or “Love Gun”, but their piece-of-shit, we-don't-give-a-damn, we're-only-in-it-because-we-have-a-record-contract, 45-minute-harmonizing-group-vomit of an album “Crazy Nights”). He looked at me, got real quiet and said seriously, “You know that KISS means Kids In Satan's Service, right?”
Say what you want about Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley or Peter Criss or Ace Frehley or Eric Carr or Bruce Kulick or any of the other musicians that wore grease paint or spandex, but these guys were not Satan worshipers. They may be sex fiends, drug abusers, attention whores and money grubbers, but worshiping Lucifer was not on the bill.
As a kid, I was pretty naïve about a lot of things, but even I knew what the priest said was in no way true. It was then that I pretty much stopped taking the advice of adults about popular culture.
The thing about Madonna is that she really worked hard to get people all riled up. From her boring-ass book about sex (what a shock!) to her sexual overtones with religious icons in her videos, she was trying to get people to notice—and most importantly hate—her. And it did work. Pepsi dropped her as a spokesperson when the video for “Like A Prayer” came out and there were anti-Madonna protests in certain cities. But like most things Madonna, it never seemed genuine or visceral. It felt as if the right-wingers HAD to protest Madonna because she was working so hard to push their buttons.
The real anger of parents at that time settled on hip-hop. Man, did older people absolutely HATE hip hop. That's the main reason why I was so drawn to it when I was in high school. I felt that by buying an Ice Cube or an Ice-T tape it was like giving the finger to society. And as a white, middle-class kid living in a town where the only hassles were the police occasionally breaking up an outdoor party, you need an outlet for any type of antisocial behavior. Hip hop was that conduit.
And apparently there were a lot of disillusioned (about what, I don't know) white boys because hip hop pretty much dominated the angst and anger of middle America for a long, long time. From NWA to the Geto Boys to Public Enemy*, if there was an angry black man on an album cover, chances are someone was protesting it.
* When I was a senior in high school I worked at Friendly's Ice Cream with my mother. I became pretty good friends with a bunch of people in their early 20s, especially this girl Shelly. Shelly knew how much I loved Public Enemy (I'd draw that B-boy in a scope logo on so many things, I'm surprised I wasn't pegged as a future serial killer) and told me that her favorite band (Gang of Four) were playing in Boston with PE and wondered if I wanted to go. Of course, I wanted to go.
However, since my mom worked at the same place I did, she got wind of this idea and before I could put any spin to it, she said no. “Those concerts are just too dangerous!” So, I didn't go.
The postscript on this story is two-fold:
1. Now that I'm a 35-year-old man, I am going to see Public Enemy in concert, in Boston and I don't have to ask my mother's permission. Take that, mom!
2. A scant two years later, this same woman who was scared of a Public Enemy concert, let my brother (a sophomore in high school) travel to see a Grateful Dead show. I didn't get the logic then and I still don't.
After people realized that much of this black anger was an act, the hip hop anger cooled, rock took center stage again with Marilyn Manson doing his damnedest to scare America. The dude did everything he could to rile up the right-wingers: sexual ambiguity, drinking absinthe, bestiality, claiming to worship Satan, fake mutilations, the works. He took all of Alice Coopers' theatrics (BTW, Cooper's quote on Manson is pretty awesome, “He (Marilyn Manson) has a woman's name and wears makeup. How original.”), turned them to ten and repackaged them for the 90s. It drove a lot of people crazy, sold a ton of records and ended up flaming out.
In fact, the Onion did an awesome parody on Manson back in 2001: .
The last real Mr. Scary was Eminem. Here was the ultimate nightmare: a poor, white-trash kid from bombed-out Detroit who rapped (this wasn't Vanilla Ice) about killing his girlfriend, taking a ton of drugs, homophobia and just being a gigantic pain in the ass. And, to top it off, he had major street (read black) cred which means this wasn't some white asshole pretending to be black. Marshall Mathers was the real thing.
And Eminem held the crown for a few years until the throne was abdicated. There aren't any music Mr. Scarys any more. Sure, for a little while, we got angry at Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera for their sexy ways. But we weren't actually angry at them, we were angry at ourselves because we found those young women so good looking and it ultimately confused. We weren't supposed to be looking at girls that young, we weren't supposed to be sexualizing teenagers, but here we were. And since we couldn't get angry at ourselves, we got pissed at the people who were giving us exactly what we asked for. The American public is a Mobius Strip of stupidity.
Aside from that brief jail-bait, pop-tart hiccup, there isn't anyone who the older generation warns their children about and tries to shield them away. And here's the thing, I am in that older generation, I'm supposed to be the one gnashing my teeth, beating my breast and wondering why our country is going to hell in a hand basket. Only I don't know who to direct my anger to.
I'm not big on the music scene any more, but pretty much anything I've heard on the radio is both bland and inoffensive. I'm not going to get worked up over the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus or Bon Jovi or any of the other bands that sound like watered-down versions of Matchbox 20, excuse me, I mean Matchbox Twenty. Even hip hop isn't shocking anymore. The last time we were outraged by a hip hop artist is because Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at the MTV Music Awards.
Oooh that Kanye! How I hate him!
And while it sounds like this would be a good thing (the elimination of popular music as a way to get parents angry), it's not. Pop music and rock and hip hop are genres that are made for young ears. It's supposed to angry up the blood of the old. As Pearl Jam once put it, “this (meaning their music) is not for you (meaning old timers).” It's supposed to be a language foreign to anyone outside the 18-34 year-old demographic.
And Lady Gaga, bless her little heart, is trying so hard to be confrontational. She walks around half-naked, she flips off the camera at CitiField (in Jerry Seinfeld's private box, no less!), she got banned from the new Yankee Stadium, she sings about something that sounds sorta angry. But it's not the same. She comes from the Madonna school of shock; it's all too canned, too planned, too ... boring. I've seen how this show ends. Wake me when she gets to the pointy bras, making fun of Kevin Costner stage of her career.
The age-old dance of a parent banging on their child's door to “turn down that damn electric twanger” is supposed to elicit a teen's eye roll followed by a bellowing sigh and maybe an argument of misunderstanding. Now, my two-year-old daughter annoys me by playing that stupid Black Eyed Peas song over and over and over again.
A few things that I realize about my daughter:
1. She's two-years-old. In 15-years I pray that her taste in music gets better. Hopefully she finds something that will get my blood riled up because of something “shocking” and not because her music choices are so shockingly lame.
2. I would much rather listen to the last band she was obsessed with, The Wiggles, than the Black Eyed Peas. They are less packaged, can sing better, their songs have better lyrics and make more sense. “Fruit salad, yummy, yummy” is a far more interesting lyric than anything that Fergie yelps, while trying not to publicly urinate on herself.
Why don't we have any musical bad guys any more? My thought is that the real world is in such a quagmire, that we have bigger fish to fry. How can one care about Marilyn Manson when there is 9% unemployment rate in this country? Why is Eminem such a big deal when the Gulf of Mexico is essentially destroyed? Does MC Ren or Gene Simmons really provoke any sort of serious thought than that of the recent financial crisis or the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the death of the automobile industry?
The gist of this entry is this, the next generation needs bad guys that the previous generation can focus on because that means we're living in worry-free times. We can worry about some rich Midwestern guy claiming that he owed his entire existence to Satan and the effect that it would have on our children. We can worry that an angry black man could rile up a nation full of apathetic white kids to some sort of revolution.
But right now, we can't because there are only so many tears you can cry.*
* God damn it, I did it again. Another Dokken reference. Crap.