Shock Rock! The Attack of Alice Cooper, Kiss, Slipknot and the 10,000-Foot Radioactive Teenager
Earlier this year, I was asked by the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame to write about Alice Cooper and the Shock Rock genre for a booklet that was distributed among the small group of people who were asked to attend the 28th annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York City.
I really liked the piece, and since only a handful of people saw it, I decided to share it with you now. Enjoy.
Imagine, if you will, waking up on the morning of your junior high school dance and discovering an unruly constellation of pimples has erupted on your forehead. This wouldn’t be such a catastrophe if it weren’t for the chrome in your mouth and the seemingly uncontrollable hard-on in your pants, caused by the evil thoughts in your brain. As you stare in abject horror at the spotty monster in the mirror, panic ensues … the room begins to spin.
Your mom cheerily wishes you a “Good morning!” to which you growl, “Fuck off!” The next thing you know, you’re in military school, surrounded by a pack of snarling, malevolent boys snapping your ass with a wet towel …
In the early '70s, performers like the Alice Cooper Band, Kiss and Lou Reed posed the musical question: “Is there really anything more grotesque, outrageous and demented than being a teenager?” With that simple query — and a whole lotta makeup — the surprisingly durable genre of Shock Rock was born.
For several generations, music fans have thrilled and delighted to the subtle menace, offensive humor and Grand Guignol theatricality of Shock Rock performers like Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, Slipknot and GWAR. Those who would dismiss these artists as purveyors of cheap gimmickry and cynical marketing miss the point: The props, masks and gallows humor aren’t hiding a lack of talent; quite the opposite.
They are used to shine a spotlight the dark side of the teen experience in ways both deeply sympathetic and entertaining. If most young people feel like scary monsters and super creeps, what could be better than a rock star that actually looks, acts and dresses like one?
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Shock Rock is the extent to which the bands understand the day-to-day nightmares of typical adolescents. Among Shock Rock’s practitioners, the original Alice Cooper Band were perhaps the most perceptive exponents. Not only did they pioneer the movement during their rather brief recording career, from 1969 to 1974, but they were its funniest, sharpest and most musically gifted interpreters.
In their 1971 breakthrough single, “I’m Eighteen,” the Alice Cooper Band summed up the teen dilemma as elegantly as anyone ever has or perhaps ever will. Over an appropriately bluesy, psychedelic groove, Cooper sings, “Eighteen, I get confused every day / Eighteen, I just don’t know what to say / Eighteen, I gotta get away!” The protagonist of the song is a hormonally frustrated mess who frets, “I’m a boy and I’m a man / I’m eighteen, and I don’t know what I want.”