Today is the birthday of Alice Cooper (b. 1948). My ten year old self would have been appalled to learn that I would one day come to appreciate him. In point of fact, being several decades too young for vaudeville, any actual nostalgia I ever feel is for performers from my own childhood, which includes artists likes Alice Cooper. That’s pretty twisted!
I used to be nonplussed when characters like him talked about “vaudeville” in their work. After all, their music is the farthest thing from Tin Pan Alley, and they don’t go around in derbies and straw boaters. But then the obvious hit me. Their showmanship is indeed very much like a certain vaudeville sub-category: magicians, particularly Grand-Guignol inspired ones who used Halloween hokum to gussy up their act. There were vaudeville magicians who used guillotines in their acts, just as Alice Cooper would use in his.
Just to upset things, though, my favorite Alice Cooper song, “Only Women Bleed” is not a good example of his showmanship in that way. I love the sentiment of the song, I love the tune, and I really love the production. The lyrics, while I like where their heart is, are a bit too embarrassing to sing along with however. (“Pleasin’ up her man”, for example, makes me want to take a shower, and I mean that in a bad way). Still it’s one of the best feminist songs ever, and probably did a lot more to make men think about how they treat women than did John Lennon’s atrocious “Woman is the Nigger of the World”, which would have set the cause of feminism back several decades if anyone ever listened to it).
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.