Like most punters heading to Soundwave at Brisbane’s RNA Showgrounds this weekend, I made some effort to dress the part. With my carefully-groomed beard and thick-rimmed glasses, I’m neither a metalhead nor a punk, but the combination of a black Refused T-shirt, contact lenses and a relatively unkempt beard served as concession to the hard rock demands of the festival. Of course, I wasn’t alone. There was posturing evident amongst every attendee, whether it was black T-shirts, mohawks or tattoos (ranging from subtle ankle tattoos through to extravagant, fuck-getting-a-real-job face tattoos). Plenty took it a step further, donning jump suits or masks (there was even a group of gentlemen getting around in dashing ensemble of black morph suit and banana costume).
This is all entirely unexceptional – all the cosmetic choices we make are to some extent cultural positioning – but the phenomenon is particularly pronounced at Soundwave. It’s not hard to see why: just look to the stage. Costumes are de rigeur amongst most artists, but it’s embellished and exaggerated in the metal and metal-adjacent subcultures that dominated this festival. Whether its Marilyn Manson’s gothic affectations, Slipknot’s grotesque masks or Steel Panther’s parodic cock-rock accoutrements, Soundwave is all about live music as performance: personas rather than persons.
If the social media reaction was anything to go by, Marilyn Manson – king of the assumed persona – did not impress his audience at Brisbane’s Soundwave. I found his set was entirely decent. Nothing mindblowing, but despite my relative unfamiliarity with his back catalogue (I can name less than a half-dozen Manson songs), it kept my interest throughout. (The Eurythmics/Depeche Mode covers helped.) I suspect the disappointed reaction I saw online was less about the quality of the music – which was full-bodied and well-mixed, as was thankfully the case for the majority of the festival – but rather related to Manson’s presence on stage.
Simply put: he seemed like an old dude. He is an old dude, though he looked about a decade older than his forty-six years. Manson’s regular disappearances into a black-draped cage in the middle of the stage were apparently justified by minor costume changes –a bit of face paint there, a new black jacket here – but given his obvious weariness, it might have just been an excuse for a bit of a sit down; a sort of rock star pit-stop. But while this tiredness might have been disappointing – disillusioning, even – to avid fans, I found it absolutely fascinating.
Perhaps this is because I’ve always felt that the fragility of Manson’s assumed façade – the cracks in the white face paint that separates Marilyn Manson from Brian Hugh Warner – is absolutely integral to his aura. Whenever you look at Manson, you see a little bit of the nerdy, bullied kid who made himself something new. He’s never tried to hide it entirely, especially with the Eurythmics and Depeche Mode covers. The fact that he looks like Nicolas Cage now and the fact that he draws attention to his costuming with his frequent disappearances are part and parcel of a performer whose identity has always been deliberately counterfeit.
Slipknot, on the other hand, require a total obliteration of underlying identity. They closed the main stage on Saturday night with a volcanic performance, delivered from an elaborate stage that looked like what you’d get if the gates of hell ran through Rocky Horror Picture Show. With immense gouts of flame, drum kits staged on revolving cherry pickers and diverse, horrific costumes, it’s nigh impossible to watch a Slipknot show and contemplate the band members having a bowl of cereal for breakfast on Sunday morning.
Not that you’d be thinking about breakfast watching them perform. Ignoring a short-lived heavy metal infatuation in my late teens, Slipknot aren’t my kind of music. Yet I found myself transfixed by them, to the point that I spent more time watching them than the Smashing Pumpkins (the band I’d most been looking forward to seeing at Soundwave!). Their unbridled, incoherent intensity reminded me of why I’d loved metal as a teenager, that sense of tapping into something subterranean and hellish, a lava flow of pure noise. The performance – the masks, the fire, the everything – is crucial to this effect; while I have no interest in listening to a Slipknot album on Spotify, I’m definitely going to make the effort to see them live again.
The first band I saw on Sunday didn’t wear masks or make-up. That band, Le Butcherettes are a Mexican post-hardcore band described by the Soundwave program as the offspring of Luis Buñuel and PJ Harvey. They earned that description with a vital performance impelled by feminism and old-fashioned punk aggression (with an edge of uninhibited insanity). Apparently the band are known for confronting shows featuring blood and animal parts to drive their political message home, but no props were necessary for their show to resonate. Lead singer Teri Gender Bender transfixed her audience with a commanding masculine posture that worked pretty much entirely because it didn’t feel like acting – it felt utterly inhabited, utterly real, and was the clear highlight of the festival for me.
The contrast between Le Butcherettes and the next band I saw, Steel Panther, couldn’t be greater. Steel Panther don’t wear masks either, but there is a fair share of make-up involved in their pitch-perfect burlesquing of 1980s cock rock. Glammed up in spandex, torn shirts and hair that threatens the ozone layer, they’re responsible for songs with titles like “Asian Hooker”, “Glory Hole” and “Party All Day (Fuck All Night)”. Each member of the four piece has their own stage name and an exaggerated persona to go with it. Much like Marilyn Manson or Slipknot, when you’re watching Steel Panther you’re not there to see Ralph Saenz, Darren Leader, Travis Haley or Russ Parrish – married middled-aged guys with wives and kids – you’re there to see “Michael Starr”, “Stix Zadinia”, “Lexxi Foxx” and “Satchel” – guys who brag about sleeping with countless groupies.
Well, to be honest, there’s a reasonable chance you’re just there to see boobs. Steel Panther’s hyper-masculinity comes with a side dish of overt misogyny (and occasional racism). A verbatim quote from the show: “Show us your boobies, you fucking whore!” But the ladies seem to lap it up – Brisbane’s show featured dozens of girls clambering up on their boyfriends’ shoulders to flash the band, and a mid-set performance of “17 Girls in a Row” featured about that many women on stage, most of whom either periodically bared their breasts to the crowd or simply abandoned their tops for the duration of the song.
So, Steel Panther are a joke. But what sort of joke? Should we celebrate their hyperbolic take on hair metal as an on-point parody, or should we condemn their predatory misogyny? Or should we just relax and enjoy the show? I’ll admit, for the duration of their set, I was definitely in the latter camp. The combination of self-deprecating dad-jokes and copious female nudity made it easy to switch off my critical faculties and just enjoy the show. But with the benefit of hindsight, I’m in two minds.
For starters, ‘80s hard rock is a pretty soft target for satire; Steel Panther’s jokes are often funny, but they’re very lowest denominator – yeah, dudes wearing spandex, yeah, groupies, yeah, venereal disease. No-one takes that music seriously anymore anyway (if anyone ever did). But they still kind of function as a primary school version of drag, ridiculing the patently silly masculinity driving a lot of rock music by turning the dial to eleven. You could argue that their parody fails because of fans that take it seriously but I’m (a) not convinced that’s true of many of their fans and (b) every satire ever fails that test.
The misogyny issue is trickier. It’s not like ladies getting their kit off at rock concerts is a new thing – it’s a time-honoured way of showing appreciation to the band and earning attention in return. It’s not like it’s forced upon them – it was amusing to watch one mousy, bespectacled girl spend the majority of the set trying to get Starr’s attention so she could doff her top to him. The girls who chose to jump on stage and derobe certainly knew what they were doing, and honestly I think someone having the confidence to get up and make that choice in front of a few thousand people is as sexy as a pair of bared breasts. It’s assuming a persona – the groupie, the stripper – that might not suit their everyday lives. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come across as decidedly creepy to have these aging dudes crack wise about a girl’s chest reminding him of “pancakes”, or singling out one girl to flash the crowd.
As in any performance – whether at a music festival or simply in a social encounter – the line between the actual person and the image isn’t so easily drawn. Are Steel Panther effective satire or misogynist? Is Marilyn Manson an aging weirdo or a gothic rock star? Are Slipknot a bunch of dudes wearing silly masks or emissaries of hell? They’re both, they’re neither: I don’t have a satisfactory answer. But at least its something to think about in between headbanging.