(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)
What is a monster?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to break out the Merriam-Webster’s on you. It’s just that Halloween’s a-comin’, and for Tor.com’s Monster Mash I wanted to offer something other than a covers collection for the Bobby Pickett hit. And while thinking about “monster music,” I realized that two of the most controversial, fascinating performers in the current pop music landscape Kanye West and Lady Gaga both released tracks with that one-word title, “Monster,” in the past couple years.
These are three of the most innovative musical performers ever (I mean, maybe I’m being premature about Kanye and Gaga, but I’ll go ahead and put it in writing anyway), and the coincidence seemed too fruitful to ignore. There’s something about the designation of “monster” that resonates today, for both audiences and artists.
But while we science fiction fans generally know what we mean when we’re talking monsters (and in most Planet of Sound features, it’s obvious, too werewolves, giant spiders, and zombies, let’s say), it’s a more flexible word from the mouths of million-selling celebrities.
Kanye’s “Monster” appeared on his 2010 opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s a stadium horrorshow anthem with a full lineup of guest stars Rick Ross, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj all of whom, along with Kanye, offer somewhere in their verse a variation on the expression “everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster.” (The song’s extremely not safe for work.)
This is self-as-monster. For Jay, it was monster as titan-of-industry, a power beyond his peers, rap’s best-ever by near-acclamation (and self-proclamation). He’s surrounded by pretenders and parasites, none of whom he insists can touch the real thing. “I smell a massacre seems to be the only way to back you bastards up.”
For Nicki, it was monster as outsize-talent. She wraps up her breathtakingly tongue-twisting, tone-shifting verse with the unequivocal boast “Now look at what you just saw, this is what you live for ahhhh, I’m a motherfucking monster.”
But for Kanye, there’s a tension to the term it’s still clearly self-as-monster, but less clear that this is a good thing. This album came after his poorly-received outburst at the VMA awards, in a pop-cultural environment where just about everyone (including President Obama) knew he was a jerk or, if you have Kanye’s seesawing blend of narcissism and insecurity, a monster. He starts his verse “the best living or dead, hands down, huh,” and immediately follows it with a sentiment guaranteed to be received as ugly: “less talk, more head right now, huh.” Later on, it gets even uglier, but in an almost cartoonish way. It’s never quite clear how seriously to take Kanye he’s a provocateur but listening to him dramatize his emotional struggles on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy made for an immensely compelling listening experience.
Speaking of provocateurs, next we come to Lady Gaga, who has spent a large portion of her public career courting attention with acts and costumes that put most of our Halloween efforts to shame. She has a history with this word: she’s dubbed her fans “little monsters,” and released an album that positioned herself (or her career? or the audience’s gaze?) as The Fame Monster.
And yet, on the track with that title, she’s not the monster the romantic other is. It’s a take on the appeal-of-the-bad-boy theme:
“Look at him, look at me
That boy is bad, and honestly
He’s a wolf in disguise
But I can’t stop staring in those evil eyes”
We’re dealing with the simultaneous attraction/repulsion of the danger inherent in the “monster” here, and not subtly: “He licked his lips, said to me, girl you look good enough to eat.”
The song itself is pretty standard for Lady Gaga, robotic danceable disco-pastiche, catchy but nowhere near as memorable as her hits. But I do find it interesting that she manages to keep a straight face for the whole thing and disappointing that the song doesn’t end on some sort of reversal. After all, does anyone really believe there’s a boy out there with teeth sharper than Gaga’s?
And finally, there’s Michael, the blueprint for the pop-royalty/artiste/tabloid-fodder fusion that both Gaga and Kanye eventually became (and the man who gave us perpetual Halloween mainstay “Thriller”). In his song, the “monster” is both self and other. There’s the sea of bloodthirsty faces he felt around him, most particularly the media who chewed him up and spat him out.
“Everywhere you seem to turn there’s a monster
When you look up in the air there’s a monster
Paparazzi got you scared like a monster, monster, monster”
But, of course, our/their fascination made him feel less than human, too, as the chorus goes: “Monster, he’s a monster… he’s an animal.”
I’m rarely well-disposed towards posthumous releases, and obviously nothing Michael Jackson released in the 2000s had a chance of touching his classics, but I was surprised to still be caught by Jackson’s voice. Even thin and faded, it made 50 Cent’s guest spot on this song completely forgettable.
And there’s some poignancy to hearing Michael Jackson, whose self-transformations were under constant public scrutiny, speak of himself with that term particularly given the sense that we, the gossip-hungry public, may have collectively been the mob outside Frankenstein’s castle that hounded him into an early grave.
So: self-as-monster, other-as-monster, everyone-as monster. What’s the final answer to that question up top?
A monster is some sort of big scary thing with, you know, fangs and horns and claws and stuff. Not quite sure what Kanye, Gaga, and Michael were all going on about.
Joshua Starr is going to check inside his closet and under the bed for pop superstars tonight, just in case.