Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Invade. Destroy. Repeat.


During the early days of this blog, I talked about music a lot. However, that was a long time ago. My tastes have changed a lot in the 5 years since we started this whole thing. What I listen to in my day to day life say, driving to work, is also very different than the music that works with writing, and both of those things are different than what goes along with the aesthetic of the novels. I made a post about a kind of soundtrack for Stealing Ganymede a while back. That wasn’t the music that I listened to while writing, mind, but music that might go along with the novel (if you’re one who likes to listen to music while reading).
One of the constants in my life, though, has been the band Powerman 5000

I know it’s not cool to like hard rock or metal bands. I’m supposed to convince you that I listen to music that is filled with loneliness, ukuleles, and xylophones. I’m supposed to name check at least one group that is working to re-interpret 80s synths in order to be cool and artsy. I’m supposed to debate the value of Kanye West.
Thing is, though? I fucking hate those bands. Xylophones are the fastest way to make me shut off a record and never listen to it again. And if I want great synths, I’ll go back and listen to the original artists. Why would I want Duran Duran knock-offs when I have an extensive Duran Duran playlist? And I cannot stand what Hip Hop has become. Anyone who thinks of Kanye West in the same way they think about Grandmaster Flash should be locked away.
To return to my point, though: I have made no secret of the fact that David Bowie is, to me, the greatest musical artist who has ever lived. The reasons aren’t just contained in the music, though. With the invention of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, Adler, and whatever the current character might come to be called, Bowie created an idea that is really powerful to me—the idea that the singer/songwriter does not necessarily have to present simply him- or herself. Other bands took this idea and ran with it: Gene Simmons creates “The Demon,” Alice Cooper creates “Alice Cooper” who is a rock and roll villain. Marilyn Manson pushes that idea even further, not just playing the villain, but actively trying to draw ire and criticism to point out hypocrisy.
Michael David Cummings, better known to the world as Spider One, creates something very interesting with the band Powerman 5000: the idea of an alien from an invading force that revels in destruction and chaos. Indeed, as we'll discuss in a moment, not only revels, but seems to be in a continuous state of arousal from the carnage. Admittedly, the concept wasn’t fully formed on early albums, and has fluctuated some (Cummings and the band tried to ditch the concept entirely during the early 2000s but have since returned to it), but overall the idea is the same: Bowie’s benevolent, Stranger in a Strange Land-esque alien has become malevolent, here. And there’s something to be said for that.
Why is this important enough to be a blog entry? One of the most important jobs of science fiction is to use metaphor to reflect our own lives back to us. Try to tell a story about slavery or sexism and people turn away without listening. Dress those issues up as robots seeking their rights, or aliens who discriminate against members of their own race that have no gender and viola! People who would normally turn off are listening, and thinking through issues of difference. Bands have used this aesthetic/discourse before. Remember that the music of the 70s was filled with afrofuturism.
In order to understand what PM5K, as most fans call them, are doing, we have to understand something about Spider One’s vocal approach.
Spider pushes the boundaries of what his brother (Cummings is Rob Zombie’s younger brother) was doing with the band White Zombie. Both bands embrace the pastiche of postmodernism—the inclusion of samples of dialogue from horror movies, for instance. Spider pushes the idea further, though, by not only ejecting hoarse vocals in much the same way Zombie does, but also using what could be called an almost sensual moan-with-a-growl to it. A friend of mine once said, “imagine if a black panther escaped from the zoo and decided to sing in future-themed metal band.” Take a second and go listen to “Megatronic” from the album, “Anyone For Doomsday?” Hear it? Go back even further and try “"Mega!! Kung Fu Radio” from the album of the same name. That combination of sex and violence drips with danger, and therein lies the seduction. Therein lies the reason that I think the band is so important.
American culture of the late 20th/early 21st century is horribly confused in regards to its violence and sexuality. We’ve spent so long glorifying both that we wind up here: TV shows where people are routinely raped, shot, or both, during prime time, but people march in the streets to keep loving couples from marrying. See the problem? So, on one level, we might “read” Powerman 5000s music as mindlessly reproducing that culture…and trust me, many people do. But I think those people haven’t asked “why the theatrics?” If Spider and company just wanted a hard rock band that glorified violence, why bother with the costumes and space helmets? Apparently there is plenty of room for violent, misogynist, homophobic metal bands out there. Why bother dressing it up?
The dressing it up is the answer. We’re not supposed to “read” them on that surface level. We’re supposed to find ourselves drawn in by the sexy drawling purr that speaks of destroying the world, and then find ourselves horrified that we agreed so readily. We’re supposed to find ourselves chanting along with the epic, titanic choruses of songs like “Invade, Destroy, Repeat” and then find ourselves horrified that we were so happy to join in the destruction. The science fiction elements are a wink, much like Bowie’s, much like Alice Cooper’s, much like “The Demon.” The art points to something more important—Spider isn’t bearing his soul for us; any idiot with a laptop can do that from their bedroom these days. Instead, this is art meant to make us react. PM5K isn’t selling themselves, they are selling an idea. A way to take the medicine.
After reading this, go back and listen to their cover of “Let the Good Times Roll” on the album, “Tonight the Stars Revolt.” Go on, I’ll wait.
See what I mean?
After 5 years away, Powerman 5000 just released a new album, “Builders of the Future”.
(Or on iTunes if that's who you use)
And it’s good. In an era where far too many people are making music in their bedroom that winds up so soporific one shouldn’t operate heavy machinery while listening, and while that sort of thing is selling VERY well, Spider One and company are still engaged with their project of straight down hard rock combined with the character concept.
Give them a try and see what you think.

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