first round game
(15) sex gang children, “dieche”
(2) marilyn Manson, “the beautiful people”
AND PLAYS ON IN THE SECOND ROUND
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 3.
john melillo on “the beautiful people”
Nowadays, some post-millennials look back at the 90s with a twisted sense of nostalgia for the seeming conflict-less banality of the shopping mall. If “mallwave” can be taken as evidence, “The 90s” (now) stands for a period when, in the time after the Cold War and before the Forever War, we lived free of the anxieties that pervade contemporary life. We went to the mall and grooved on capitalist depersonalization. Maybe we tried to recover a personality here and there: we went to Hot Topic and bought some Marilyn Manson gear. But mostly we just hung out on the escalator and watched the palm trees go by.
“The Beautiful People” puts a lie to all that. Though “goth” may be reducible to a mere “lifestyle” choice, the song still manages to manifest a deep hatred at the core of the present-day capitalist enterprise:
There's no time to discriminate
Hate every motherfucker
That's in your way
This is how “The Beautiful People” swerves from generic goth-i-ness. The song reverses the kind of navel-gazing contemplation of death a la Poe (and countless other goths in his wake). It negates the passivity of the typical goth character who is the victim of—and audience for—a ghost or some uncanny happening. “The Beautiful People” is not about pining for death or the lost other. It is about aggression and conflict. The song picks a fight.
This recovery of an outwardly-directed, theatrically-enhanced hatred of any-old-motherfucker-who-gets-in-your-way reshaped the mid-late 90s. It rejected the implicit (if complicated) “authenticity” of grunge, in which an anti-theatrical plaidness exposes the raw, fragile self to an abyssal self-hatred (literally: "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die”).
Even more, “The Beautiful People” reminds us that there never was “the 90s.” Not in the nostalgic sense of present-day mallwave; and not in the self-congratulating sense of an “end of history” with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Capitalism won! On to the Information Superhighway! No. “The Beautiful People,” at a key point in the history of American ennui, made hate visible. Hate is not an aberration from the norm that has to be drummed up out of nowhere. It’s built directly into the fragile functioning of everyday life in America. Spawned from fear, inequality, and manufactured emergency, the agonistic release of hatred works beneath the endless spectacle of politics in America. And we can name its varieties: white supremacy, Christian fundamentalism, patriarchy, imperialism, xenophobia: walls, walls, and more walls.
So: “The Beautiful People” calls American youths to perform an ecstatic three minutes of hate that mirrors the hatred that already permeates their existences. This is less a catchy song than an affect-complex that one slips into. It’s a ritual chant. It’s a manifesto. It’s a rallying cry. It’s a harangue/prayer addressed to that powerful other, that “you:”
Hey, you, what do you see?
Something beautiful or something free?
Who is that “you”? The beautiful people, god, the system…but also: the listener. The listener must choose: are you the “you” addressed? Or are you the one singing the song? Are you the beautiful people or are you free? Of course, in the midst of the song, it’s pretty easy to know the answer. Freedom from the fucked up world of beauty and normality becomes a valuable possibility—even if it is only while the music plays. Those words produce the rush of escape. This is a moment of release from the oppressive desires of others: their demands, their habits, their familiarity, their striving…all of it. The Marilyn Mansonian goth says “fuck off” through the impenetrability of ugliness.
Ugliness: to rub out the face and eyes, to go as a hybrid human-corpse-industrial machine body. The whole image-complex of the song and its video amplifies the desperation of beauty—all the fear of decay built into its lithe and carefree surface. You become that which is feared. There is an old proverb: “Word is weird.” If you say something, you make it happen. (You can cancel this fate with the action of knocking on wood.) Weirdness implies a design that is not our own, a world of ghostly intentionalities that float beyond our individual lives. There are just things that remain in excess of our powers of explanation and description. If you act weird, then, you resist—by imitating—those unnamable forces that otherwise would capture you. In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry says “Beauty brings copies of itself into being.” But so does the weird, and, in the case of this song, the ugly. A mimetic urge to copy the beautiful is, through the filter of “The Beautiful People,” a desperate act of futile reproduction in the face of power.
But one also has to ask about the status of the song’s antithesis to beauty’s reproduction. On the one hand, it absolutely rejects the performances—of gender, of conformity, of image—that serve to reproduce the institutions Americans (may) call “home.” Let’s get the fuck free! But on the other hand, it manifests its own mimetic evils. And I am not talking about the controversies relating to the music as a cause or backdrop to school shootings and teenage violence. I am talking about the current crisis in which US Americans find themselves. As the song says:
Capitalism has made it this way
Old-fashioned fascism will take it away
The prophecy rings true. Americans live within a nascent but on-the-surface fascism, aided by an unholy alliance of capitalism, celebrity culture, and fundamentalist Christianity.
What we have to ask, then, is: how much is the current political disaster in line with a surface aesthetics of “anti-normativity”? The figure of the clown-as-president is just as clearly a satirical version of fascism as that presented in “The Beautiful People.” Fascist asymmetrical power runs rampant. The distance between the “criminals” and the “police” has completely collapsed. The border is everywhere. The current regime uses the “theatrical” as precisely a way out of things like basic “morality” and democratic “norms.” It directly argues for a cynical reduction of morality to power. The stakes of this theatricality and cynicism continue to get bigger and bigger: the wall, the separation of families at the border, the courting of white supremacists…the list, as we all know, is long and horrifying.
What does this parallel mean? I wonder if the pure affect of hatred and the positionality of antagonism are enough. Why collect around a ritual hatred? In the name of collective and ecstatic release from power’s effects, Americans are willing to go to all sorts of strange depths in our religion and in our music. Casting out the devil and worshipping the devil look a lot alike, and Marilyn Manson’s music thrives on that ambivalence. What happens if we imagine freedom outside of these rituals of negation and contestation?
A few years ago I saw Marilyn Manson in real life. He was at a museum performance by the Los Angeles band No Age. No Age are punk organizers turned art world music heroes. I couldn’t help but think of the strange disconnect between Manson’s music and the abstract, DIY aesthetic of a band like No Age. Where they project a kind of idiosyncratic and perhaps naïve utopianism, he makes mainstream pop art out of abjection and failure. It’s the difference between constructivism and dark Saturday Night Live. But his mere presence there makes me want to hear “The Beautiful People” differently. There are all sorts of ways to be collective. What small pockets of possibility come into being because of this song? What worlds may emerge from its hatred, from the ashes of a broken society?
John Melillo is a writer, teacher, and musician who was born in Benkelman, Nebraska. He teaches at the University of Arizona, and he makes music under the name Algae & Tentacles.
brian oliu on “dieche”
I could never pull off goth.
I tried. I painted my fingernails black. I created a Vampire: The Masquerade character. I stood in line and waited for The Fragile to be released on double CD. My friend Amy made me a Type O Negative mixtape compilation.
Anyone who knows me now finds this all hilarious. I wear exceptionally bright clothing. I look like a giant panda bear stuffed animal that has somehow become human. I am annoyingly optimistic. Nine times out of ten I am listening to the newest diva starlet to grace the top of the Spotify United States 100. I smile, like, always.
And yet I was young once—so overly important in my existence and my dismay of the world. So, I did what any good-natured teenager would do and has done since the beginning of time: I rejected everything that I considered to be “part of the mainstream” in order to find my way into some semblance of counter-culture, despite finding that none of the niches fit me enough. A large general obliteration of all things popular seemed to do the trick where other things did not—instead of gravitating toward things that I loved, I found joy in scowling at things that other people loved. There is no larger pariah in the world than a sixteen-year-old white kid from the suburbs of New Jersey who decides that the world is not enough. Baggy cargo pants were something that my mother could buy me off the rack at Macy’s. Chuck Taylors were in abundance at a strip mall across the Delaware River. It did not matter that Chucks are cut extremely thin and made my extra wide feet hurt. It didn’t matter that the screeching of hardcore bands sounded incredibly derivative to me and were absent of melody. It didn’t matter that, in fact, I really loved the taste of cheeseburgers and General Tso’s chicken, but being a vegetarian was what was expected of me to fulfill my persona non grata status. The majority of my time was upholding a beautiful illusion of pretending not to care, yet it was so perfectly cultivated because suffering was part of the whole endeavor to begin with—I was supposed to be in pain. I was supposed to be making uncomfortable choices because this is what society has forced me to conform to: this life of non-conformity.
I’ve never been that person, however. I found myself gravitating to the most basic melodies. My favorite Minor Threat song is their cover of the Monkees “Stepping Stone”. But hating one’s self is part of the game when you are younger—to defy exactly who you are in hopes of finding out who you truly are. There is no joy in being basic—when we attempt to find ourselves, there’s always this belief that who we are currently is not who we actually are deep down inside. That there must be something more to liking Chinese takeout and comfortable clothing that gets you compliments. My punk friends who rejected all corporations allowed for Coca-Cola because they had an endless supply of it at the Dischord House. Another one of my vegetarian friends ate pepperoni because he thought it was mostly made up of spices anyway. We make exceptions to our badassery: it’s why we find joy in pictures of spiked necklaces eating frozen yogurt. The basicness is always lurking, no matter how much we wish to snuff it out.
“Dieche” was recorded in December of 1983 at the Danceteria Club in New York City. The Danceteria is most famous for being a massive part of Madonna’s origin story—of how she performed her debut single “Everybody” at the club—with the DJ spinning her early demos before she ever had a record deal. The Danceteria was a hodgepodge of a place, with multiple levels, each housing different DJs, live bands, and video art and musical performances. Madonna herself famously performed on the rooftop.
It is in my nature to turn everything into pop. I search for familiar patterns in things that I find difficult to process, or things that I find unfamiliar. I try to find the grandiose in everything—in the same way I constantly search for the “most basic” in the complex. It is a strange dichotomy to pine for, and yet I pine for it nonetheless.
It is no surprise that I love the song “Dieche” because it is very poppy. It is a bop. It slaps. It could find its way onto any dance floor and people would vibe with it—the driving bass line pressing us forward with every circuit. A goddamn xylophone! A band could waltz into any Irish pub at 11pm on a Friday night and play a cover of this sandwiched in between terrible renditions of “Wagon Wheel” and extended jam interpolations of “Come Together”. Andi Sex Gang, the lead singer of Sex Gang Children, I’d imagine, absolutely hates this idea—frat brothers in ill-fitting polos bobbing their head as the drums continue to escalate. I’d hate that scene too: despite my complete high school 180 and love of all things pop and popular, I find comfort in compartmentalization—while I don’t deny that music is for everybody, there is something about goth and post-punk music that makes me wish for it to stay in its secret places: converted warehouse spaces, back room banquet halls, dance clubs with two flights of stairs and no elevator.
“Dieche” is a great song in the way that many people would hate the fact that it is a great song.
Perhaps this is why I love this song so much: it reminds me of days where I couldn’t help myself from being myself, despite all of my best interests and intuitions telling everything to just stay underneath the surface. There are loud moments of abrasion in “Dieche,” with cackling vocals and Andi Sex Gang announcing over and over “My body begins to burn.”
In that sense, it seems to be a personification of my past self in an odd way: a song that presents itself as intimidating and difficult—the title is in German! That is spooky! The band’s name “Sex Gang Children” illustrates something beautiful and taboo—something mysterious; one can imagine parents becoming quite concerned when seeing this album cover, or seeing the band’s name on a Christmas list. The vocals sound as if they are being screamed in a wet catacomb, with the words echoing off of walls of stone. But at its heart, it is weirdly baroque—there is excess. There is repetition in its driving force—there is room to dance! It brings real joy!
Perhaps this is me refusing to conform: you might listen to this song & notice the post-punk influence of the drums. You might resonate with the lyrics: the demand to cut up your bones.
The Danceteria Club was meant to be an anti-Studio 54; it was a place where you could ignore the glamor of disco in hopes of finding something a bit more grimy; a small bit more real. LL Cool J was an elevator attendant. The Beastie Boys worked as busboys. But what inevitably happened is that it became so cutting edge that it inevitably became the norm; the iconic place where partiers of all types came together in hopes of chasing something real, or at the very least, something that spoke to them on its most earnest level. There is something in “Dieche” that speaks to me in the same way that the newest Ariana Grande album hits me in my heart in the weirdest ways. While a place like the Danceteria seemed like a spot where you would be amazed that it birthed the seemingly varying styles of Madonna, Nick Cave, and Rob Zombie, it is a place where we all make exceptions to our own rules: where we expand the lists of what hits home.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o, and Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping, a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long distance running to professional wrestling appear in The Collagist, Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner's World, Unruly Bodies, and elsewhere.