Today, we’re gonna talk shock rock. The performing philosophy of trying to offend your audience to gain new listeners and increase your sales. I’m a huge fan of shock rock. From Screaming Jay Hawkins to Alice Cooper all the way to the modern day of Rob Zombie and South African something-to-talk-about Die Antwoord. Not only does shock rock make for much more interesting performances, it also makes for much greater headlines the day after.
Recently, Lady Gaga has been making headlines for her extravagant costumes and flamboyant fashion affairs. I’m going to say now that Lady Gaga is a steaming pile and if you can’t recognize that, you should re-examine your tastes in music. Not only is she simply trafficking in the “shocking” antics of two artists who’ve already paved her way entirely, she’s escalating in a manner calculated to gain the most audience members per move. This isn’t music. This isn’t art. This most closely resembles internet politics. I prove this by asking one simple question: when was the last time she did something that has not been done before?
Let’s start with the most recent: the meat dress. That’s 23 years old. Gaga, your daring stuns me. The original piece was a meditation on gender, power, consumerism in the market place. By co-opting it for a runway, Gaga does not mean to say that she is being consumed, a mere commodity in the world of music. How could she say that, when she’s the one insisting she be in control at all times? The woman wearing the dress was not important in 1987. What was important was that it existed. Today, Gaga is telling us that she is important for having worn it. I don’t buy it.
And indeed, as I was discussing with Ailish two days ago, when you trace Gaga’s career backwards, you see a spiraling regression into a bland, inoffensive party chick singing the same songs as Katy Perry and Ke$ha. So tell me, now, why Gaga is anything more than that. What else has she done? She’s fused the performing philosophies of two successful artists–Madonna and Marilyn Manson–into a weird demented whole. Well, it would be weird, were both philosophies not founded on shock.
To illustrate my point, go to YouTube right now. Watch the video for Just Dance. What part of that video have you not seen a thousand times, done everywhere else by everyone else? Even the song is calculated to be as inoffensive as humanly possible. And indeed, in every song since, has she said anything that would really offend everyone? Even her song about struggling with her bisexuality (come on, Lady Gaga has as much sex-drive as a rock) was done through bad lyrics and occasionally switching pronouns. RISQUÉ, LADY GAGA
So how does Gaga measure up on the shock spectrum? She… doesn’t. Nothing she has done has been legitimately, earth-shatteringly shocking. It’s all been a carefully calculated escalation from A to Z, being careful not to step on the ideal amount of toes to still sell albums like the attention-craving wannabe she is. You ask me why I find her music and aesthetic to be entirely devoid and invalid? That’s why.
Now to get to the meat of this article: why South African horrorcore rap group Die Antwoord are–if not better–at least greater than Lady Gaga, despite having only made an EP and one album twice. If you were to watch Lady Gaga’s videos, end to end, you would not find a unifying aesthetic between them. They are bouncing around on all walls, trying to find whatever will offend the least people and interest the most.
Die Antwoord on the other hand, from Wat Pomp to Enter the Ninja through to their new video, Evil Boy, have maintained and escalated a visual aesthetic that grows with the band. Ninja’s visual sense is present in the scribbled-on walls of Wat Pomp. $o$ dons the background, the ying-yang he finds so fascinating is there. When we see his zef crew return in Enter the Ninja, all of these things are now clearer, cleaner. The fascination with dirt and grime is still present, several scenes taking place in dank, wet sewers. This even grows in Evil Boy. Recurring doodles in the background are now ten foot tall wooden sculptures.
This sense of improvised escalation even suffuses their songs. Wat Pomp is a wacky party jam about nothing in particular, stating who the band are and where they came from (rap themes all the way). Enter the Ninja is the same thing, de-stressing the wacky elements of their music–accents and such–and bringing out the more serious elements. The boasts are bigger, the lyrics are more violent, the emphasis has shifted from partying to partying with pride while poor. The philosophy of zef is coming through.
Evil Boy, it’s time to say, is a song about dicks. The second verse is entirely about Manwa’s escape from his village when he found out they were going to circumcise him at eighteen after he’d spent a week in the forest in his underwear. Yo-landi’s verse is about mugging a man she’s about to have sex with–after tying him up, blindfolded and getting him up, no less. Ninja spends almost all of his time bragging about his size and how real his gangster skills on the mic are. The video, appropriately enough, is filled to the brim with dicks. There are dicks everywhere. There is even a twenty-five foot wood statue in the background of a boy holding his gigantic erect penis with pride.
Die Antwoord don’t calculate their videos or their songs. They come from a sense of truth and reality, where even if the MCs are characters, the music still feels genuine. Sure, it may be constructed, but it’s not built around stepping on the least toes. When you write a song that’s about dicks, you put dicks in the video. Can’t fault the logic. When Gaga writes a song about denying Spanish lovers, the video is Nazis, Cardinals and unsexy nudity. That isn’t logical. That’s a calculation to gain attention and acclaim.
When Die Antwoord do what they do, they do it for themselves and to feel proud of and fascinated by what they’ve produced. They aren’t doing it for your acclaim or your attention. They’re doing it to have videos that are unairable because of the amount of dicks. Hence, Die Antwoord > Lady Gaga.