The Passion of Rob Zombie
EDIT NOTICE – Sunday, June 25th:
If you read this piece on Friday the 23rd or Saturday the 24th, please be aware I've just gone and made significant revisions to the final five paragraphs. As if the thing needed to be any longer. . . .
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WARNING: Brace yourself for a very looooong post, the longest by far that I’ve yet had the temerity to post here at The Teeming Brain. What’s more, it’s also scattered, rambling, digressive, and self-indulgent. (Am I encouraging you to read it yet?) If you stick with it, I hope you'll be rewarded with a few thoughts and speculations that have been worthy of your time.
I’m assuming you’ve heard of Rob Zombie. I mean, after all, who hasn’t? The man is more deserving of the title “King of all Media” than his friend Howard Stern. From being a graphic artist and struggling musician in the 1980s, Zombie has gone one to become one of the masters of the entertainment world. He’s a heavy metal god, a movie and video director, a comic book designer, and master of a merchandising empire. The man is a bona fide pop cultural phenomenon. I mention him here at The Teeming Brain because he occupies a special place in my affections. Let me explain.
I chose the title of my former blog, Confessions of a Conflicted Cultural Skeptic, to highlight a longstanding contradiction in my affections, which is simply this: that although I feel a deep disgust for what I perceive as the pervasive evidence of contemporary cultural degeneration in America, at the same time I still enjoy and even revel in some of what this culture has to offer. Hence, I feel conflicted about it. And ranking high on my list of pop cultural memes and themes that inflame this feeling is Rob Zombie. On the one hand, I feel serious reservations about his influence on America, but on the other hand, I absolutely love his music and movies, and I find him philosophically fascinating and even inspiring because of the daemonic or daimonic nature of his artistic and commercial ascent.
Regarding my reservations, they stem from the combined fact of, first, my agreement with a lot of contemporary cultural criticisms along the lines of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and second, what I’ve encountered in my frequent contact with adolescents through my teaching job. Postman, for his part, loathed modern American pop culture, including rock music, so very deeply that he hated it when his work inspired Roger Waters to title an album Amused to Death. That sort of elitism may be damnable in some people’s eyes, but in some cases I think it may be justified. I’ll let Postman himself argue the point with his all-purpose "graduation lecture" about the difference between the archetypal casts of mind and ways of life exemplified by the Athenians and the Visigoths, if you’re inclined to follow the link.
As for what I’ve seen in my teaching job, I’ll first ask you a question: Have you observed American youth culture lately? If so, have you thought about what it portends? I’m talking about the in-your-face variety that occupies center stage in contemporary mass entertainment a la MTV, hip hop, (un)reality television, and so on. Have you thought about the two-pronged question of what this crap culture reveals about the collective mindset of America’s youth even as it simultaneously shapes that mindset? I ask you to pay attention to the nihilism that’s evident in this culture’s pervasive casual attitude toward extreme violence and kinky sex. Also pay attention to the obsessive focus on scatology, gross-out humor, and “stupid” humor of the type heralded by the likes of Tom Green (who is surely one of the Four Jackasses of the Apocalypse). Also note the frantic idolization of “celebrities”—musicians and singers, movie stars, (un)reality television stars, people who perform stupid and dangerous stunts —that has reached positively stupefying heights of fake importance. Then consider that this same youth culture also seems to be equally obsessed with grim moods of hopelessness, despair, inner emptiness, ennui, and so on, as evidenced by innumerable popular songs. Remember Woodstock? Have you heard about the revival of this venerable event, which was originally all about hippies who preached peace and love, smoked dope, and grooved to peace-oriented songs, but which in its 1999 incarnation became a spectacle of Dionysian chaos? I ask that you mull this over and get a good feel for the overall picture it paints. Then ask yourself: What does this say about the worldview, the sub-zeitgeist, and the sense of self that these kids are growing up with?
For me this isn’t just a matter of purely academic concern, because I teach high school nine months out of the year and thus live and move among contemporary teens. And after four years of this, I can tell you that the primary fact I notice about them—and bear in mind that these aren’t big-city kids but rural Midwestern ones—is their combined character of general affability, cultural ignorance, low-grade hopelessness, and in-your-face apathy. None of these qualities dominates the other. They all seem equally mixed. The kids are nice and often eager to please. And they’re also being taught by their culture, and especially by the entertainment culture that’s marketed to them with almost miraculous precision, that their real lives are meaningless, and that life as a whole is all about coarse and debased things. And so on.
So that’s one prong of my two-pronged response to Rob Zombie. Anybody who’s familiar with him knows that he’s the crap-culture king. In fact, he’s made a career out of glorifying and feeding off the gaudy luster of the Z-grade movies, television shows, comic books, and other cultural detritus that populated his youth. As such, he’s part of the problem that’s working to create a generation of Americans who—and I mean this in all seriousness—very well may help to usher in a new dark age of savage ignorance and civilizational collapse (in tandem with the advent of peak oil, of course).
But then again, maybe not. Because Rob Zombie is so passionately obsessed with his beloved Z-grade crap culture that he appears to be motivated by an authentic daemonic drive, and when we enter the territory of the daemonic, all bets are off with regards to making highbrow-lowbrow distinctions and moral judgments about subject matter. So here’s where my feeling of conflictedness comes in.
Consider: Rob Zombie was born Robert Cummings. He grew up in Massachusetts during the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, where by his own account he was so bored with his world that he spent all of his time immersed in movies, music, and comic books. Later he moved to New York and started his music career while supporting himself by working various other jobs, including a stint as the art director for a porn magazine. He also worked for a while as a production assistant on Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
And now, of course, a short couple of decades later, he’s become like unto a force of nature in American mass entertainment. He directs movies, records and produces music albums, writes and sometimes draws comic books, directs music videos, runs a merchandising empire, and for a time headed up a Halloween-themed Rob Zombie funhouse/horror maze at the Universal Studios theme park in California. One can of course attribute all this to business savvy, a massive ego, a good measure of talent, a pathological ambition, and more. Probably some or all of these are involved. But it seems apparent to me that at a deeper level, the guy is driven by something more significant.
To cut to the chase: In my view Rob Zombie seems to be driven by a fierce desire to assimilate the various elements of everything that has been most important to him in his life—all those things that he always loved to immerse himself in as a boy—and to filter these through his own sensibility in order to produce artistic works that express a worldview, or that at least convey a certain cast of mood. If I’m right about this, then Zombie counts as a true artist, since that’s a description of what all artists do. It seems he’s possessed of an authentic daemon, an inner drive that amounts to a calling, a life mission, a direction given to him by fate.
I have also toyed with the pet idea that sometimes in the rather oblique lyrics to his songs—so oblique that they often seem like verbal Rorschach tests—Zombie all but comes out and announces this drive by directly describing his particular daemon. In many of his songs he borrows an idea from rap music by speaking or singing in the first person and repeatedly identifying or announcing himself. For example, back when he was heading up the band White Zombie he wrote “More Human than Human,” which begins with:
I am the astro-creep
A demolition style, hell, America’s freak
Later in the song he calls himself “the crawling dead,” “a phantom in a box,” “a shadow in your head,” “the ripper man,” and “the nexus one.” And of course, he is “more human than human.”
The “nexus one” identification seems to be key here. Maybe there’s a college professor somewhere who has already written about this, but if so I’m not aware of him, so it’s my own pet theory when I speculate that Zombie has tried to position and describe himself as the nexus of America’s collective insanity, much in the manner of Charles Manson. Zombie’s fellow shock artist Marilyn Manson has done the same thing but has catered to a more segmented and isolated audience, whereas Zombie has exploded all over the scene in his bid to be seen as the nexus of America’s pathology. And he always links it to Z-grade gaudy horror.
In his song “The Great American Nightmare” he says,
Call me the American nightmare
Call me the American dream
Call me your soul corrupted
Call me everything you need
Soon after this on his solo breakout album Hellbilly Deluxe, he began the first track by singing,
Hey, yeah, I’m the one that you wanted
Hey, yeah, I’m your superbeast
as if to say, “Okay, America, this is what you wanted me to be,” referring to the over-the-top "hellbilly" zombie persona that he adopted for that particular album, and that proved so massively popular that it almost tripped him up by disappointing some of his fans when he tried to abandon or move beyond it on subsequent albums.
On both Hellbilly Deluxe and his next album, The Sinister Urge, Zombie identified himself as the “demonoid phenomenon” (see the song “Iron Head” where he says explicitly, What is my name? Demonoid phenomenon). Earlier, in “The One” (from his White Zombie days), which appeared on the soundtrack for Escape from L.A., he had said,
Yeah, I am the One, destroying you and every mother’s son
Yeah, I am the one, the king of the world and the devil’s son
So what does it all add up to? “The One,” “Demonoid phenomenon,” “The nexus one,” “Superbeast,” “The astro-creep,” “The American Nightmare,” and more, much more strewn throughout all of his music—what does it mean? The simple answer is, I don’t know. But I’m fascinated by it because I’ve gained the inescapable impression that Rob Zombie is hinting at something, some core truth about himself, whether he even knows it or not. And I suspect that he does know it. He seems to have hit upon a central driving idea for the image he wants to create and project to America, and he exploits every metaphor he can hit upon from the world of Z-grade horror in order to illustrate that image. And what, exactly, is the heart of it all? I suspect it’s found in his personal daimon, which would indeed seem to be bound up with all of the things hinted at by those metaphors.
Now, I may be making a mountain out of a molehill by devoting so much space to the question of Rob Zombie. But like I said, it’s a personal fascination, and it’s not as though I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort to think it all through. Rather, it has thought about itself. I’ve chewed on it in the back of my mind for years. The man has gotten under my skin and into my head. I’m sure he wouldn’t be disappointed to hear this.
Finally, as for the issue of whether things daemonic or daimonic really do transcend or elude categories of moral and qualitative judgment, well, that’s largely what James Hillman says in The Soul’s Code when he points out that legions of artistic and other types of geniuses throughout history have been weaned not on high culture, but on the type of crap that I like to hate in contemporary America. It seems to be the daimon and not the conscious ego that makes these decisions about what “meat” will serve as its proper nutrition. “We need to remember,” Hillman writes, “that just as the bodies of sports giants have often been raised on junk food, the imagination may be fed by cheap, popular, and ‘unhealthy’ equivalents. What matters is passion, which may be more predictive of capacity and productive of motivation than other usual benchmarks. There is no right food and no wrong food; the food must only meet the appetite, the appetite find its kind of food” (my emphasis).
So, Rob Zombie as a child — or rather, Robert Cummings — was drawn to low-grade horror. This has proved to be his life’s obsession. I myself am drawn to Rob Zombie, as well as to various other leading lights that populate the world of horror entertainment in its literary, cinematic, and musical aspects. In fact, I've long been helplessly fascinated by the very things that Zombie himself loves. People who have read my published writings know me as a literary and scholarly type, but I'm also a sucker for Italian horror movies. Throughout my youth I devoured comic books of all types like they were candy bars. I could happily live alone with a stack of EC horror comics and a small supply of food and drink. I've spent many ecstatic hours reveling in low-budget American horror movies from the likes of Roger Corman and William Castle. Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer is one of my favorite films.
Along with all this, I’m also drawn to the type of concentrated reflection that I’m engaging in right now, regardless of the subject matter. I’m sure that you yourself have always found yourself drawn toward and repelled by certain things. The daimonic theory holds that your conscious purpose should be to find ways to nurture and release this sense of being drawn or led, since it represents your personal psychological/spiritual lodestone. It provides the direction that you are "meant" to go. And it makes itself known precisely through your involuntary obsessions. Hillman says obsessiveness is one of the daimon's primary defining and revealing qualities, which brings us again to the subject of Rob Zombie, and which exonerates and even elevates him as an object not of disapproval, but of inspiration.
I would love to leave it at that, and to end this extemporaneous and well-nigh directionless essay right here on a note of encouragement for each person to divine and develop his or her daimonic calling. But it's not that simple, because once again my inner conflict rears its head in the form of a voice that says, “How the hell can it be commendable for millions of teens to grow up absorbing through their very pores the atmosphere of pornographic violence and sex that Rob Zombie glorifies and exemplifies?” If you’ve seen either of the movies he has directed to date, House of a Thousand Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects, then you know what that nagging little voice is talking about. Ditto if you’ve leafed through one of his CD booklets and looked at the semi-pornographic and sometimes fully pornographic imagery. I read an interview not too long ago in which Zombie revealed that even Bill Moseley, the actor who played Otis in both movies, was so bothered by some of what he had to do in the notoriously sadistic motel room scenes in The Devil's Rejects that he hesitated to do it. So this is very extreme stuff we're talking about.
I hasten to add that I certainly don’t condemn such things wholesale, as should already be abundantly clear from my list of personal loves listed above. To paraphrase a line from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, which is really a book about creativity and inspiration in all its aspects, the artistic sensibility rejects nothing because it realizes that everything, no matter how dark or seemingly vile, is worthy if it’s approached with passion. (And boy, is that ever a loose paraphrase. I wonder whether Ray would even recognize its source in his own words.) But does this resorting to artistic and daimonic justifications really exonerate Rob Zombie and crap culture in general? Does it mean we ought to just accept the possible maiming of the souls and weltanshauungs of an entire generation of young people, many of whom don’t consciously feel that similar sense of being passionately guided by a driving obsession that will help them find their way safely through the dark thickets and tunnels of a pathological culture? Or does it mean this very view of things, including the phrasing of the question itself, is marred by an unwarranted moralistic ideological slant?
Obviously, I have no answers to offer. It's the mere pursuing of the questions that grips me. I hope it has done or may do the same for you, if you’ve come with me this far.