Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Alice Cooper Ain't So Bad

It is a mark of Alice Cooper's enduring artistic achievement that after all this time there are still a lot of people who hate his guts. Alice's impact clearly peaked with the Billion Dollar Babies tour of two years ago, and by now most of his foes have cultivated an indifference in which Alice is reduced to a handy but unobtrusive symbol of whatever repulses them. He is called to mind only when a vivid image seems appropriate. But Alice has always known vivid images are often appropriate, and as with a rack of Hallmark Cards, there seems to be an Alice suitable for any occasion. He is a macho creep born from the image of a faggot creep. His musical crudities are deplored by connoisseurs of good rock and roll; anti rock and rollers take the same crudities as proof of the worthlessness of the whole form. And because he mocks, exploits, and revels in mass culture, simultaneously, media mavens from pious Macdonaldities to pie-eyed McLuhanities all have the opportunity to resent him, if they're so inclined.

This virtually Elvisoid omni-functionality is something of an accomplishment for a supposed has-been. It exemplifies the way Alice has traded intensity for breadth. Although his staple is still kid stuff--and although both his solo tour and his solo album are selling better than music-biz wiseguys predicted--it's pretty obvious that Alice no longer epitomizes instant rebellion for America's teenagers. Instead, he has spread out. Television has been his medium ever since he climaxed the first "In Concert" by throwing a can of garbage at the camera, and in the great tradition of Dagmar and Truman Capote he has become a TV star without wasting an iota of his personality. He is an every man--or even, if you're as dumb as whoever wrote his 1974 Grammy skit with Helen Reddy, a something woman.

I once caught Alice on "Hollywood Squares." He was sitting placidly in a crucial side square that would have given the housewife who was up a virtual sure shot. The housewife avoided him like, yes, the plague, and lost. Alice has also had a great privilege of appearing on the "Phil Donahue Show," where he fielded questions from an audience of housewives who were charmed by all his fine-arts-major palaver about "the Alice Cooper character." But that doesn't mean the first housewife would trust Alice Cooper or the Alice Cooper character. She understands that kid stuff is still what the real Alice Cooper is all about, and she hates his guts for what that kid stuff is like. This is as it should be. Alice needs that woman.

When Alice brought the "Welcome to My Nightmare" show to Madison Square Garden May 5 very few housewives were visible. The modal age of the crowd was around 16, I thought; my companion Lori, who is 13, put it higher. Lori had a good time, although she couldn't follow the "plot" and remarked that Alice's crotch was less enticing than Jim Dandy Mangrum's, and in general the evening struck me as a surprising success. The only comparable spectacle I've witnessed, Bowie at the Garden last summer, simply didn't generate such good-times vibes. True, the apple-cheeked youngster who poached the seat next to us did seem disappointed at the high proportion of new material; "Alice, you cocksucker, do 'Under My Wheels,'" he yelled more than once. But I suspect that this was just his way of having a good time.

The proof that the show is not only successful kid stuff, but exclusively so, may be that I myself was bored. With the partial exception of the Billion Dollar Babies show, which benefited from the superhype of Alice's moment at the top, all of his theatre has bored me. His imagery is hackneyed, his burlesque an easy way out of subtlety, his surrealism a cheap way out of coherence, not that there aren't good bits in Alice's all-new solo extravaganza--I liked a balloon phallus, although I was sorry no one was carrying a pin. But the "plot"--really a rough sequence--vents the usual fears and aggressions with the usual appeals to teen power. The props are slicker but still elementary. And Alice performs his hijinks, which included some Burt Reynolds-style hoofing, not with his new band (not situated on a rear platform) but rather with a troupe of four dancers. So what else is new?

I'm sure these aesthetic reservations won't bother Alice, who tells me he's interested not in art but in entertainment, defined (more or less) as any show you feel compelled to talk about the next day. By that standard "Welcome to My Nightmare" succeeded even for me. I'd been listening to the LP for several months, but not until the morning after the show did the theme riffs of "Department of Youth," Alice's catchiest teen power song to date, and "Cold Ethyl," Alice's catchiest necrophilia song to date, begin to haunt me.

For my interest in Alice has obviously never been theatrical. I love his music, and for the most hostile reasons: nasties like "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and "Elected" scare out phony rock and rollers in this decade as effectively as the all-American sweetness of "Fun Fun Fun" and "Help Me Rhonda" did in the last. "I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out," on the other hand, are anthems that rank with "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Get Off Of My Cloud," although there are phony rock and rollers, lots of them, who'll deny even that. The last (and probably final) album Alice made with his group, Muscle of Love, was so flaccid that it seemed to threaten an end to such music. But now it appears that Alice can write three or four indomitable rock and roll songs a year for as long as people are willing to buy them. Hello, Alice. And hooray.

Oddly, the semi-hit from the new album, "Only Women Bleed," does not qualify as rock and roll, indomitable or otherwise. But it does qualify as the most explicitly feminist song to hit the AM since "I Am Woman." This is encouraging because Alice's nose for what kids want to hear is as discriminating as it is impervious to ethics; apparently, the more obvious feminist truisms have become conventional wisdom among at least half our adolescents. At the same time, it exemplifies the cynicism, not to say nihilism, with which Alice's most credible critics believe he manipulates his position; in the show, the song follows some business in which "the Alice character" hacks at a life-sized straw doll.

This is the stuff that makes housewives hate Alice's guts, and a lot of it isn't very nice. The evidence suggests that Alice has not always been as kind to chickens as he now insists he's been--although he certainly never slaughtered any--and one kid did hang himself with a note paying homage to Alice. Even Bob Greene, author of a sympathetic (and highly recommended) full-length profile of Alice, "Billion Dollar Baby," was moved by the violence at one concert in Toledo to call Alice's whole method into question. I too would prefer a more humane teen hero, but I'd rather have my kid's exemplar err on the side of cynicism than on the side of gullibility and sentimentality. There are quite a few rock and roll riots in Toledo--it's that kind of city--and when a contemporary of mine committed suicide at age 15 to beat the "inevitable" atomic holocaust, I didn't hear anybody blame the ban-the-bomb movement. Most important, Alice plays it for laughs. By now, even adults are catching on to the joke, which gets more obvious all the time; the vast majority of kids have understood it for years. I wish I could say the same of David Bowie.

I brought Lori with me when I interviewed Alice the day after the show. She was astonished to find him watching cartoon shows that she had outgrown years ago. But Alice loves cartoons; in 20 years, he says, maybe he'll have a cartoon show of his own. A modest enough prognosis. I think it's possible that he'll make it onto the sitcoms, myself. I believe Alice when he tells me how excited he was when Rhoda told her sister that you know you've put on too much make-up when you start looking like Alice Cooper. A recognition factor worthy of prime time! Alice Cooper must be almost as famous as Hubert Humphrey.

Village Voice, May 19, 1975