That's My Jam: The Criss Quandary

There's a fairly memorable moment from Woodstock '94 where the Red Hot Chili Peppers came out on stage wearing silver-colored bodysuits with huge lightbulbs attached to their heads. The Chili Peppers were fairly well-known for wearing crazy outfits over the years (a big part of their early touring notoriety came from the fact that they would play shows wearing nothing but gym socks on their crotches), but this lightbulb suit show just also happened to be guitarist Dave Navarro's first public performance with the group. Navarro was noticeably annoyed by the outfits to the point where singer Anthony Kiedis actually began sort of taunt him by telling the crowd how much Navarro hated the suit.
Less than a year later, Navarro left the band.
The irony is that a huge part of Navarro's appeal is his image. He's a talented player -- but his larger fame has been built mostly around his looks. His whole shirtless/tattooed/white guitar thing is certainly nothing original, but it's become kind of his calling card over the years.

In other words, it's hard not to wonder if Navarro's main objection to wearing the lightbulb suits at Woodstock was more about him not being able to wear his own "costume" than any sort of specific discomfort or difficulty that the suit added to playing his instrument.
And yet, I'm not sure had I been in his place I wouldn't have reacted much differently.
As much as I love bands like Kiss and Slipknot and Parliament Funkadelic -- and as much fun as it is to step out of yourself and put on costumes, masks, and makeup (whether it be Halloween, a theater stage, or as part of a band's image), I don't really think I could last all that long in a costume band.
It looks fun and it certainly draws attention -- but in the end what does it really get you?
Shouldn't the music be able to speak for itself?
It's one of the weird things about music. If you're going to survive in the industry for any length of time you really can't take yourself too seriously -- but when you go the complete other way and make your look part of the joke, a part that has to be repeated over and over and over again you kinda open yourself up to being little more than a novelty act.
Everybody loves the Humpty Dance, but nobody really remembers Shock G.
Groups get away with it, especially when the music speaks louder than the antics. Kiss was always about the image, but they wouldn't have been anything more than a footnote in wacky musical history if people hadn't loved all those albums in the 70's.

The challenge then is to use the outlandish look to get peoples attention, but then rise above the novelty by giving them songs worth remembering, regardless if your costume is greasepaint and platform shoes or a giant clock hanging off a chain on your chest.
In other words, Slash doesn't really have to wear that top hat anymore.
He still does it from time to time -- but I'm actually more happy to see him without it, because the guy is a hell of a player and I think sometimes that gets lost because of the way that image has gotten co-opted.
All that being said -- how can you not love this?
Whether it be Alice Cooper's eye makeup, Devo's pyramid hats, Elton John's Donald Duck suit, or the way Lady Gaga continues to blatantly rip off Dale Bozzio -- it's always in some way been a part of the show.
So the question is to you -- who are some of your favorite/least
favorite costumed acts, and what is it that you like about them?

[Listening to:  Corrosion of Conformity - "Clean My Wounds" ]


Satorical said…
I love Devo's music, but the band's costume/concept is also brilliant and hilarious: a satire of progress. How audacious is that?

On the other hand, I never clicked with Gwar. The self-satire seemed to loop around funny and come back to merely stupid.

And glad you're back.
Monster said…
Also glad you're back. And I love that you repurposed the Stonehenge tag from HRTotM.

It's not really a costume per se, but there were several fantastic black bands/performers in the early 90's that got on board with the Mandela-inspired bright colors and Africa iconography. Living Colour comes to mind, as does Arrested Development. I loved the music, and appreciated the cause, but as a virtue of my own genetics I was unable to really relate to the pageantry.

And that's sort-of the dark side of the costumed act, right? I'll still rock some GNR, but I'm okay if I never see another photo of what the guys looked like when they were rocking the good stuff. There's a part of me that really loves A Tribe Called Quest, but my style is decidedly not (nor could it ever genuinely be) the off-kilter baseball cap and brand new high-tops. When the costume becomes a MUST... when it's suggested that the music isn't the music without the look... that's when you've turned what I will now and forever call "the Gwar corner".
wigsf said…
Well, it's a secret to nobody that I'm a huge Bowie fan... And a big Genesis fan...
Never have I liked those two because Bowie wore a dress or Gabriel's lumpy-bumpy thing costume (part of the suit was connected to a compressed air tank for inflation purposes). It was always the music for me. The costumes just made for some interesting visuals on stage.

Weird Al has found ways to translate his music videos to the stage and he goes full out with the costumes. He wears the fat suit on stage, right? That's just part of the entertainment value. His parodies are just as much about visuals as they are about the song. But if he wasn't able to so delicately spoof Michael Jackson or Coolio or whatever, he'd never really get the opportunity to be chugging along after 25 years. Visuals made the Weird Al experience viable, but the experience still requires the audio.

Meanwhile, there are bands like Sloan and the Flaming Lips who take to the stage dressed up as animals (later I've realized they're just a bunch of sick furries in which, YUCK!) in order to distract their audiences from their complete lack of talent. Having heard them before seeing them, I have no interest in seeing them. The music ain't there.

I guess what I'm saying is the visuals are fun/interesting, but the music has to be there first and foremost. Otherwise Gwar would be the greatest band, EVER!
Werdna said…
The lady gaga track is a solid pop tune- but a little on the novelty act side.

Glad you are back...

The continuum is entertainer vs. musician. I'm over here ---> on the musician side. But sometimes you gotta be over there:
<----- on the entertainer side.

Because entertainers get paid, and musicians usually don't.
Heff said…
Damn, dude. Where you been ?

"No, we're not gonna f-ing do stonehenge", LOL !
Maria said…
Prince from his Purple Rain days. The Edwardian lace collars and velvet frock coats mixed with some new wave-y hair. Can't explain why I like it so much, but I do.

I think the problem with having an image/costume all the time is that artists either get stagnant, or they get scary, like Madonna.
Hex said…
Satorical -- The thing about Devo that's awesome is that (imho) you have to pay attention to get it. A lot of people saw "Whip It" and moved on. But there's more than that there. It's a package that you have to open.

I love me some Gwar, and will tell anyone who's never seen them live to get there anyway they can -- because it's a bucketful of awesome, but the simple fact is that Gwar's music kinda doesn't exist. It's pretty much pushed under the rug by the spectacle -- and has trouble standing on it's own feet when the guys in the costumes aren't there right in front of you.

Monster -- I think we're drawn to colors, and the vibrance that they project. It's that natural response, like colored feathers or animal mating dances. It draws us in to the mood that the colors convey. The danger with all the categories and classifications in the music industry is that it becomes some sort of uniform, some dress code that marks you as authentic within a label, instead of being an expression of the creative spirit inside.

I think about Marylin Manson trying so hard not to be everyone else, only to get caught in the Gwar corner to where he now has to struggle to make sure he still looks like himself.

WIGSF -- Great point about the Flaming Lips. I don't care what anyone says, their music couldn't be any more boring. Sitting through all that crap just so I can get pelted with silly string and confetti just so I can say I was there?

No thank you.

Werdna -- Martin Gore from Depeche Mode once said something like, "I can't believe anyone would ever want to watch us -- it's just a bunch of guys behind keyboards with a singer."

And yet, when something's that good -- it's entertaining all in itself.

Heff -- Had to see a man about a horse. You know how it goes.

Maria -- But like we're all sorta saying, Prince could back it up. He gets nuts sometimes, but the guy can flat out write a song, play guitar, and put the whammy on Sheena Easton.

Love me some Prince. And didn't we all want a purple trench coat for a hot minute there?

PS -- Got some offline comments mentioning the Gorillaz as a fave costumed band, which I can concur with. The odd thing about it though is that I hate Blur, which given my Gorillaz love makes no sense to me.
unMuse said…
I have to throw The Little Green Men that play locally into the group. Hex, seeing as we live in the same city, I'm sure your as aware of their antics as I am. The green wigs, the very b-rated sci fi movie-esque way they go about dressing themselves just adds to the fun. One thing I've always enjoyed about them is that they always seem to be enjoying themselves just as much if they are playing for 5 people or 200. They are a fantastic bar band.
Hex said…
UnMuse -- Oh yeah. I used to have a pretty regular Monday night Lynch's habit that revolved around seeing them play. Those guys always find a way to make the same 10 songs seem like the best time you ever had.