Monday, April 14, 2014

Fitz Beats Alice, or, Who's Today's Real Hard Rocker?

Shock rocker Alice Cooper, whose biggest chart hit, “School’s Out,” hit #7 clear back in 1972, staged a doddering, narcissistic attack on various folk-rock groups last summer, calling them “an offense” and “not real rock’n’roll.” Granted, the acts he named, including Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, don’t have Cooper’s face-melting headbanger bravado. But why should they? Must every upstart band strive to emulate that paragon of hard-rocking authenticity, Alice Cooper?

Fitz and the Tantrums’ 2013 single “The Walker” barely creased the pop charts, but currently sits at #2 on the US Alternative charts. Released five months after Cooper’s egomaniacal conniption, its relationship to Cooper isn’t obvious; perhaps the responsive quality is purely coincidental. But the Los Angeles sextet’s foot-stomping video makes an interesting, uncompromising response to Cooper’s dad-like insistence on his generation’s supposed authenticity, providing the needed counter-narrative Cooper overlooks.

Alice Cooper without his makeup. No kidding.
The attitude underlying Cooper’s high-profile, but frustratingly low-key, diatribe, is that aggression, violence, and theatrics remain somehow normative in rock. Cooper’s stage set has remained remarkably constant over decades, including snakes, guillotines, and fake blood. His hypermasculine swagger has also extended to previous pop culture denunciations; his 2001 Brutal Planet tour included beheading Britney Spears in effigy onstage. Seems highly theatrical hatred defines Cooper’s artistic world.

“The Walker” seems to channel similar displays of outrage. When Our Hero steps out of line at the DMV, the veritable emblem of depersonalized technological society, and begins his highly choreographed line dance of outrage, we’re aware of his performance as highly staged: he remains firmly centered on-screen, and frequently acknowledges the camera. Anyone ever trapped in line understands his wrath, but we understand we’re watching something artificially designed.

Our Hero’s anger dance quickly crisscrosses a hot Los Angeles summer day. Importantly, this ain’t no City of Angels. Against a tableau of sizzling white pavement, nameless buildings, and interchangeable cars, this city has no identity. Most of L.A. was designed by architects from elsewhere. Skilled directors for years have used camera angles to turn Los Angeles into Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington DC. Our Hero could literally be anywhere.

While Our Hero gets other outraged citizens to join his dance, none stick around very long. Time after time, he finds himself challenging authority: punching a building, scattering a cop’s pad, kicking the Denver boot off an SUV. But he always does it alone. Ultimately he finds himself trapped in a box alley, raging impotently, screaming, punching, desperate, but trapped. Then we discover this entire explosion happened inside his head.

This forces us to ask: what did he get angry for? We might ask Alice Cooper something similar. When you urge audiences to everlasting teenage rebellion, what does it achieve? Cooper himself votes Republican, identifies as a born-again Christian, and plays golf, the epitome of nondescript prosperity. He acts every bit the murderous insurgent onstage, then returns home to complete banality. What, sir, does your putative defiance accomplish?

Fitz’s Hero represents contemporary urban humanity, trapped between authentic experience and social decorum. We need driver’s licenses, current tags, and other DMV-ish appurtenances to survive; but getting them leaves us feeling dehumanized, herded, and small. Individual expressions of wrath prove ultimately useless, because when one mutineer steps out of line, everyone else just moves forward. The system continues unabated, deaf to our outrage, blind to individual souls.

When Alice Cooper debuted in 1968, America’s imagination reeled from the accomplishments that organized protests had hastened: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the largest organized anti-war demonstrations ever. One can hardly blame Cooper’s generation for thinking their macho outrage caused these outcomes. Sure, Operation Homecoming ended the Vietnam War in 1973, one year after Cooper’s peak, without changing the world. Don’t get technical.

But two generations have passed. 2014 does not essentially resemble 1972, which Fitz and the Tantrums recognize, but Alice Cooper does not. Requiring today’s stars to occupy the same black hole that holds Cooper captive is worse than ignorant. Our Hero remains trapped in line because cocky manfulness doesn’t butter your toast anymore. Outside our heads, the dreams of 1972 have died.

Again, it’s impossible to say this video deliberately rebuts Cooper’s “kids these days” outburst, though rewatch it; notice the shirtless, long-haired headbanger Our Hero jaywalks with. Notice the Doc Martens and guyliner—his resemblance to Alice Cooper is palpable. While Cooper lingers in Nixon-era egomania, Our Hero faces the uselessness of such displays in real life. Evidently Fitz and the Tantrums occupy Earth, while Cooper lives in his head.

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