The Evolution Of Shock Rock
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Politics and Activism

The Evolution Of Shock Rock

The inception and progression of one of music's most controversial subgenres

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The Evolution Of Shock Rock
Jessica Hoops

Shock value (noun): the potential for an action, image, text, or other form of communication to provoke a sharp reaction of surprise, anger, fear, disgust, or similar emotions.

Art isn't always pretty, gratifying, or designed to please. It is, however, almost always intended to produce a reaction. The following musicians epitomize the turning points of a genre that truly shocked the world and brought about a new age of music entertainment, whether it was for the purpose of creativity, self-expression, imparting a message, or shock for shock's sake.


The Innovator: Screamin' Jay Hawkins

"I put a spell on you because you're mine."

It seems entirely fitting that the birth of rock and roll's "twisted sister" was the result of an ironic series of events involving an unsuccessful opera singer, a recording session gone wrong, $300, and a coffin.

Jalacy Hawkins, known by his stage name "Screamin' Jay," was a blues singer whose initial career in opera had failed to take off. During a recording session for his first solo album, Hawkins and his entire band became severely intoxicated, and the resulting track was far from the tasteful ballad they had intended it to be. "I Put a Spell on You" was a raw, unrestrained mixture of drunken abandon and soulful vocals that Hawkins had to re-learn from the recording because he was unable to recall the events of the session.

The single was banned from radio in some areas due to its "sexuality," but it nevertheless became a huge commercial success and was eventually selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll."

During one of Hawkins's first live shows, DJ Alan Freed offered him $300 to emerge from a coffin onstage. Hawkins accepted, and thus began the performance aspect of shock rock. From then on, Screamin' Jay Hawkins developed an outrageous stage persona involving garish leopard print outfits and macabre props, the most famous of which was a skull he called Henry. Hawkins's unusual career revolutionized the meaning of live performance and served as an inspiration for future generations of shock rockers. On the topic of his seemingly overnight success, the entertainer said, "Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place."

The Godfather: Alice Cooper

"No more Mister Nice Guy, they say he's sick, he's obscene."

When you think of shock rock, the images that come to mind are most likely trademarks of Alice Cooper, the band known as the definer of the genre. This classic group had its humble beginning in a local talent show, where Vincent Damon Furnier and his cross-country teammates decided to mime a performance of songs by The Beatles. After discovering the exhilarating feeling of being on stage, the boys proceeded to learn to play instruments and create their own band. They called themselves The Spiders, which was later changed to The Nazz, and finally to Alice Cooper, a name supposedly chosen for its ironically "wholesome" feel. Furnier also adopted it as his stage name and created an intentionally controversial woman murderer persona to characterize it.

The band's widespread shock rock reputation apparently stemmed from an accident in which a live chicken ended up on stage during a performance, and a newspaper falsely reported that Cooper drank its blood. The band's producer encouraged them not to deny the rumors in order to gain publicity.

Despite much attention from "the chicken incident," Alice Cooper's first two albums met with very little success. The third, "Love it to Death," proved to be a breakthrough work that rose to popularity through the single "I'm Eighteen," a song inspired by the Vietnam War and how 18-year-old men could be drafted, yet were unable to vote. The song was selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll."

The group's first tour featured the band sporting glam rock-style costumes and participating in mock fights and gothic torture, including a staged execution by electric chair. After the release of "Killer," Cooper's props frequently included a live boa constrictor, which is depicted in the album's cover art. Although the macabre performances drew their fair share of criticism, it was Cooper's so-called "sexual ambiguity" that was the primary focus of those opposed to the band.

Although Alice Cooper typically avoided expressing religious and political opinions as a group, the frontman himself affirms that he is a born-again Christian. He was quoted as saying, "Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that's a tough call. That's rebellion."

The Icon: Marilyn Manson

"We don't rebel to sell, it just suits us well."

"As a performer, I wanted to be the loudest, most persistent alarm clock I could be, because there didn't seem like any other way to snap society out of its Christianity and media-induced coma."

These are the words of Marilyn Manson, frontman of perhaps the most loved and hated shock rock band in history. Pointedly offensive, politically charged, and armed with an arsenal of provocative lyrics, Brian Hugh Warner entered the rock scene under a stage name that combined Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson into a paradoxical identity that quickly became the paradigm of America's most censured genre.

The band first received attention for several immensely popular cover songs, as well as two singles from their debut album "Portrait of an American Family." “Get Your Gunn” was inspired by what Manson referred to as "the ultimate hypocrisy" of the murder of Dr. David Gunn (an OB/GYN and abortionist) in the name of pro-life. "Lunchbox" was written in response to Florida legislation that illegalized metal lunchboxes.

The mainstream was introduced to Marilyn Manson with the release of "Antichrist Superstar," an album created for controversy; and "Mechanical Animals," a work centered on the theme of becoming a product of society. Performances that included acts such as burning an American flag furthered Manson's negative reputation, to the point where his widespread influence became a popular scapegoat for the Columbine High School massacre. The accusations subsided somewhat after Manson offered some insightful commentary in the gun control documentary "Bowling for Columbine." The final interview question posed to Manson was what he would say to the shooters if they were there, to which he famously replied "I wouldn't say anything. I'd listen, which is what no one else did."

The Unforeseen: Lordi

"Demons and angels all in one have arrived."

Lordi is probably the only rock group who can claim to have shocked a continent with a single performance. As Finland's entry in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest, little was expected of them. Their native country had never placed in the top five, and it failed to qualify for the final in 2005. Year after year, the contest was typically dominated by pop artists hailing from "traditional" European countries, so the idea of Finns winning was absolutely laughable to the general public.

This was the context into which Lordi, a monster-themed hard rock band with only a handful of singles to their name, entered Europe's most acclaimed music event. Led by an ax-wielding frontman and proclaiming "You will see the jokers soon will be the new kings," Lordi delivered their submission "Hard Rock Hallelujah" and made Eurovision history.

The supernatural shockers were an immediate favorite and proceeded to the final with ease. When asked how their performance would differ from the semifinal, singer Mr. Lordi responded, "We'll scream louder. And turn the amps up." Combined with their signature costumes and pyrotechnic displays, this tactic seemed to work just fine for Lordi, who set a record for most points earned and became the first winner for both Finland and the hard rock genre in Eurovision history.

This victory propelled Lordi into commercial success in Europe and beyond, and "Hard Rock Hallelujah" is still one of the most popular Eurovision entries to date. Despite the publicity, the band strives to maintain their monster image and refuses to be photographed or interviewed without their costumes.

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