In the tumultuous period of the early 70’s, historically-conservative western culture was beginning to lose its largely unrestrained dominance. Throughout the prior decade, it had been challenged by the free-loving peace doves known as the hippies, and now, a new branch of counterculture was ready to emerge: one which would not only defy the norms of the Puritan-type conservatives, but also the prominent hippy movement. Alice Cooper, a band fronted by Vincent Furnier, who would legally change his name to that of the band and become a solo act in 1975, was ready to rise to prominence. They would go on to become internationally famous for their shocking, horror-themed music and concerts, and, in their wake, leave behind a legacy of outrage, delight, and rock n’ roll that would create an entire musical genre and inspire generations of musicians for decades to come. By investigating this band’s, and man’s, legacy, in conjunction with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Seven Theses” for the analysis of cultures through the monsters they create, it can be determined how the monstrous character of Alice Cooper was a product of the society from whence it came, and, by extension, an exploitation of the fears, desires, and values of that society. Critically, Alice Cooper efficaciously demonstrates Cohen’s theories of how monsters defy easy categorization, exhibit fundamental difference, portray repressed desires, and can never be eliminated.
Cohen’s third thesis on the cultural significance of monsters declares that “the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions” (6). If this idea should be true, then Alice Cooper is a terror to behold. The very name suggests an innocuous little girl, which bears stark contrast to the large, oft-mascaraed man who claims the appellation. This blurring of gender lines can further be seen in Alice’s stage appearance. While the man himself is a very masculine figure, he often dons very tight leather attire and would seemingly be better suited to the character of The Black Widow than a constantly-aging male rock star. Even more shocking were the outfits the band wore during their 1971 tour, which were designed by Cindy Dunaway, a fashion designer famous for her work in glam rock costumery. These outfits, particularly those of Cooper himself (still named Vincent Furnier at the time) were highly androgynous and featured bright, contrasting colors. This androgyny played into the villainous role Furnier occupied, in that his sexually ambiguous and amalgamous character threatened the status quo of binary gender. Cohen states “the monster…demand[s] a ‘system’ allowing polyphony, mixed response…” (7), meaning that monsters refuse to fit into pre-established categories, and insist upon unique identification. Cooper, exhibiting traits of both male and female stereotypes and nomenclature, rejects being simply packaged into one behavioral group. Besides gender, Alice also fails to easily fall into categories in other ways. One of these is music; the music of Alice Cooper is difficult to simply label as one particular genre. Most critics today would label him as the “Godfather of Shock Rock,” thus suggesting, too, that that be the genre into which he should fall. However, the band Alice Cooper was, originally, before commercial success or respect, a psychedelic rock outfit, and throughout the band and man’s history, many genres have been explored. For example, in 1977, Cooper decided to cover the rockabilly standard Ubangi Stomp, which has a sound highly reminiscent of the 1950’s rock and roll that many of his detractors likely listened to when they were younger. This song being within the catalog of the same artist that would later produce the heavy metal track Brutal Planet and pop-punk flavored Ghouls Gone Wild creates a very odd disparity; one evocative of the same sort of “rebuke to traditional methods of organizing knowledge and human experience” (Cohen 7) that Cohen discusses in his essay. In some theoretical space between pop and metal, though nowhere identifiable on any graph, lies the musical catalog of Alice Cooper.
While Alice Cooper’s stage shows are today seen by most, including himself, as simply a type of vaudeville, in the seventies, they were very confusing and scary to many people. Alice Cooper shows were radically different from anything else at the time; no other show featured live boa constrictors and staged fights, torture, decapitation, electrocution, and hangings. Other bands did not wear gothic-style clothing covered in stage blood, or wear the mascara of an evil Victorian clown. All these differences, which have made Alice Cooper so famous today, were created by the band specifically to shock and awe; to be drastically divergent to both conservative society and laid-back hippy society, and to highlight these differences. Cohen states “any kind of alterity can be inscribed across (constructed through) the monstrous body, but for the most part the monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual” (Cohen 7). By this statement, he means that although all forms of difference can be seen in monsters, the most common forms are those which he lists. And among those listed, Alice Cooper meets nearly every item. Their outlandish cultural image has been described above, as has Cooper’s sexual ambiguity, but two others from the list may also be seen and addressed. If one was to capture a political image of the 1970s, it would include stodgy, authoritarian figures such as Richard Nixon, far-left near-anarchists like the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, and many other polarizing components of political turmoil. Many bands and musicians at this time felt the need to add their political ideology into the public sphere. So, what stance did Alice Cooper take? None. Cooper said in an interview in 2010:
Such a complete lack of political identification not only is hugely different from most bands of the period, but also alludes again to the inability to fit into categories: political parties, in this case. As for economic difference, again, Cooper said it best when he stated:
While most bands claimed to be noncommercial in nature, Alice Cooper was unabashedly a capitalistic enterprise. To further illustrate this point is the fact that Alice Cooper was the first musician to appear on the cover of Forbes Magazine. This strange figure who wears women’s clothing and makeup, dies in shows, sings about the bombing of schools, and simultaneously is a materialistic and profitable venture, embodies a polarity that exaggerates differences between not only himself and others, but also between other groups and each other.
In his sixth thesis, Cohen states “The monster also attracts. The same creatures who terrify and interdict can evoke potent escapist fantasies; the linking of monstrosity with the forbidden makes the monster all the more appealing as a temporary egress from constraint” (Cohen 17). Despite the horrors it represents, the monster is representative of a type of fantasy that people enjoy being a part of. Oftentimes that which is most appealing is that which is disallowed, and a sort of rush can be derived from disobeying cultural and societal norms. So long as the escape into a monstrous realm is temporary, it is an interesting and desirable place. This principle is essentially the notion on which Alice Cooper operates, both as an act and himself. In conservative middle-America and the UK, Alice Cooper was seen by parents as a terrible influence, one whom would corrupt their children and, if they were to be believed, basically bring about the end of the world. However, the more outlandish and horrific he became, and the more the puritanical machine reacted to him, the more young people reveled in the culture he embodied. He represented a freedom from the norms and rules of society; here was a man who wore whatever he wanted, sang about whatever he wanted, and celebrated death and horror. Being involved with Cooper and his works let people, particularly teens and young adults, experience a sort of asylum from the serious, prudish society they lived in. What some people may not know is that the fantastic world of Alice Cooper is as much an escape for, well, Alice Cooper as it is for anyone else. As was mentioned earlier, Alice was born Vincent Furnier, and was and is a very normal person in reality. He was raised of the cloth, was involved in his school, and today, is an avid golfer, reborn Christian, and a substitute teacher for Bible studies. He sees his show as vaudeville, and just thoroughly enjoys playing the character of Alice Cooper. This use of “Alice” as an avatar matches perfectly with Cohen’s statement “When constrained by geographic, generic, or epistemic marginalization, the monster can function as an alter ego, as an alluring projection of (an Other) self” (Cohen 17). Cohen suggests here that, so long as it is checked, a monster can be beneficially used as a second identity or alias. For Cooper, his monster is most certainly a second identity, even if it shares a name with him. He said in an interview “I’ve told them that there’s me, and then there’s Alice, and I’m nothing like Alice” (Cooper, interviewed by Allison Stewart). Even at nearly 67 years old, Cooper continues to tour, and clearly enjoys playing the role of rock’s monstrous villain.
Finally, the legacy of Alice Cooper must be appreciated. Cohen’s second thesis refers to the undying nature of monsters, and how they evolve and return over time. Though Alice Cooper himself has never gone away at all, the species he created, of a gender-bending musical character that exists to shock and awe, has been taken, and reshaped, by many musicians since. In Cohen’s essay, he says “We see the damage the monster wreaks, the material remains…but the monster itself turns immaterial and vanishes, to reappear somewhere else” (Cohen 4). This passage explains that though the things the monster leaves behind can be seen and felt, the monster itself returns to the conceptual form it really is, and later reemerges anew. Though still active, Alice Cooper largely fell out of the public eye after the 1970s. However, the concept he represents went on to evolve time and time again, and influenced countless bands and acts. The horror imagery went on to be used by metal rocker Rob Zombie, the makeup by the band Kiss, the androgyny by David Bowie through his own pseudonym Ziggy Stardust, and certain elements (such as posing with snakes) even by the currently-beloved pop diva Lady Gaga. Musically, Alice Cooper would inspire the entire genres of hard rock and heavy metal, many of whom would carry on the tradition of narrative albums, elaborate show design, and mystery that he and his band helped pioneer. Furthermore, in the same thesis, Cohen comments “monstrous interpretation is as much process as epiphany, a work that must content itself with fragments (footprints, bones, talismans, shadows, obscured glimpses…)” (Cohen 6). Cohen indicated here that the study of monsters is one fundamentally attached to myth and uncertainty. Alice Cooper has no lack of mystery and myth about him. Three of the most common are that his name came from a Ouija board session, that he bit the head off a live chicken during a show, and that he is the adult version of the actor who played Eddie Haskell on the 1950s sitcom Leave it to Beaver. Whilre none of these claims have any truth to them, they all contribute to the legendary, monstrous figure that is Alice Cooper.
Between terrifying parents, entertaining and empowering youth, and completely changing music, Alice Cooper has had a great cultural impact on the world. He exposed the fears of conservative western society, and played to the new generation’s desires, by creating the persona of Alice, an atrocious, androgynous villain. As an artifact, he displays how Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” rings true and how its relevance can be seen in real, living people. At the least, Alice Cooper demonstrates several of Cohen’s theses by refusing compartmentalization, exhibiting and emphasizing difference, using his monstrous alias to create and serve desire, and leaving behind a conceptual being that will, like his music, never die.
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