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The cartoon world of Rob Zombie

By Carly Carioli

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  "I'm kind of like Mickey Mouse, a cartoon," Dolly Parton told the New York Times Magazine a couple weeks ago. "Little kids and older people kind of think I'm a toy, a plaything they can be close to." She was talking about her appeal to her fans, and then she talked about her roots in Appalachia. "We had big hearts and big mouths and I had big dreams and I just kind of put it all together and made a big career out of it. It's not a fake. If I have some kind of magic with people, I think it's the fact that I look totally artificial but I'm totally real, and somewhere in between that is the thing that people respond to."

Somewhere in between. As a performer in the ersatz global village of popular music, Dolly Parton understands the distinctions between the actual and the simulated better than most. Even though authenticity is still regarded as a crucial currency in pop, a pop star is, at base, already a simulacrum of a person: a virtual self offered up for commodification, consumption, rejection, criticism, adoration. This was roughly the notion the Village Voice's James Hunter was advancing a couple of weeks ago when he described Will Smith as "his own stress-free theme park": the pop star as a familiar but flimsy façade, blandly iconic, all spectacle but no soul. Which is partly why it's so refreshing to see Parton -- who owns and maintains her own stress-free theme park called Dollywood -- comfortably comparing herself to Mickey Mouse. She may have been making a thinly veiled allusion to her impossible figure, but she was also alluding to what any performer must eventually come to grips with -- the inevitability of becoming a product -- as well as one of the metaphors we employ in order to describe the paradox of pop commodification: the authentic cartoon, and its cousin, the synthetic fake.

This is more or less the story told in the music, art, and various other extracurricular activities of Rob Zombie. Perhaps no performer in pop music today has gone farther out of his way to resemble a cartoon; and in making a virtue out of being fake, he reveals, almost by accident, the essence of pop stardom in America. A quasi-fictional character created and played by a man named Robert Cummings and envisioned as an ambassador from the halcyon days of the '60s monster craze that subsumed cinema, television, toy manufacturing, comic books, fanzines, and record albums, Rob Zombie is neither wholly real nor entirely imagined, hovering in the gray area between the self-negation of punk and the self-invention of, say, P.T. Barnum. Zombie is also an actual entertainment mogul who has lent his name and image to an increasingly diversified set of entrepreneurial endeavors: besides creating and overseeing the music, artwork, and marketing of his musical endeavors, he runs his own novelty record label, Zombie-A-Go-Go, hosts horror-film marathons and extreme-sports events on television, has been linked to several film projects, and was recently given the keys to the vaults of Universal Studios' monster-movie holdings to produce a series of soundtrack reissues. He also has his own action figure. And this past October, Universal hired Rob to create a Zombie-themed mini-park at its Universal Studios Hollywood attraction -- a theme park based on a character who has been, from almost the very beginning, his own sort of theme park.

Zombie was introduced to the world at large in the video for White Zombie's 1991 breakthrough hit "Thunder Kiss '65" as a greasy denim Frankenstein covered head to toe in emblems and insignias: racing flags, skulls-and-crossbones, the ace of spades, road signs, band logos, zebra stripes. He was speaking the language of stock cars and heavy-metal kids and gutter punks and advertising agencies -- identity as a product endorsements, wearing one's self literally on one's sleeve. "Thunder Kiss '65" was a great song, but as much as it made you want to know more about the band, you wanted to find out who his sponsors were.

The look and sound of "Thunder Kiss '65," and of the album that accompanied it, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 (Geffen), were something like heavy metal being burned in effigy. The song titles were annotated with their own movie-poster-like hype blurb ("Black Sunshine: Hot Lead, Hot Cars, Hot Damn!"). There were painstakingly detailed, tongue-wagging illustrations inspired by the Big Daddy Roth school of technicolor psychedelia, and the songs were peppered with tantalizing snippets from Russ Meyer and George Romero flicks. It all seemed to announce Zombie as a romantic visionary curator of a mythical weird America that was maybe still hiding out there somewhere, a frontierland of Pentecostalism and Mexican border radio and seedy grindhouse movie theaters. But Zombie also announced himself, up front, as a representational creation; though his stage shows are now built by the same set designers who work on Hollywood movies, in the early '90s White Zombie traveled with lifesize cardboard cutout cartoon monsters, the denizens of a two-dimensional flatness.

Even though La Sexorcisto worked on its own musical terms, at the time I thought it entirely possible that the band was simply an excuse for the packaging. In the intervening years, I've come to regard Zombie's music as being about packaging, about being a product, about the entire idea of pop as artifice and theme park. This is what, in my mind, separates him from his idols, Kiss and Alice Cooper, who understood that rock and roll could be theatrical and commercially enterprising but lacked the vocabulary to communicate their artifice as anything other than pure show biz. Zombie, like that other famous Kiss fan Garth Brooks, grew up with nostalgic feelings for pop as an extroverted, duplicitous apparatus -- with a consumer's-eye view of this thing that lived in magazines and merchandising, in spectacle and novelty. And perhaps it's no coincidence that both Zombie and Brooks have built a kind of transparency into their work, a wink of collusion with the audience that lets everyone in on the joke and the fiction of stardom. Which is to say it's perhaps no coincidence that Brooks conceived the idea of portraying Chris Gaines as a professional diversion. Brooks-as-Gaines has been one of those wonderful moments when pop tips its hand and spills its secrets -- an actual pop star portraying a fictional one of his own creation, it has allowed Brooks to act out in public the tragicomedy of the pop star as invented virtual self.

Rob Zombie often seems like a full-time Chris Gaines, a caricature who knows he's one and who can occasionally hint at what it might be like to be a cartoon. The über-Zombie song, if you will, is White Zombie's "More Human Than Human." It's the only real attempt Zombie's ever made at self-definition, and beyond his declaring himself "a demolition-style hell American freak" and "the jigsaw man," there isn't much to draw on. Except, that is, for the title, a phrase nicked (via Ridley Scott's film) from Philip K. Dick's cautionary allegory about hyperrealism, Blade Runner -- the motto of the cyborg-manufacturing company, it becomes a droning, repetitive signifier for the nature of this clockwork pop star (and by extension all others), a slogan not so much to be lived up to as to be lived down.

But mostly, Zombie songs aren't about anything. His lyrics are mostly Zodiac Mindwarp-style stream-of-consciousness action syllables ("I ain't never seen a demon warp dealin' a ring-a-ding rhythm or jukebox racket") whose only purpose, when there is one, is to assert a claim over some piece of trash-culture scrap by including it in the song. In other words, Zombie songs extend the Zombie franchise -- to Herman Munster's Dragula, or the robot from the Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps. And they promote the consumption of more Zombie ("Hey, yeah, I'm the one that you wanted," goes part of the chorus on Hellbilly Deluxe's "Superbeast").

Universal must have understood this at some level when it commissioned Rob Zombie Presents the Words and the Music of Frankenstein (Hip-O), which is a nice souvenir but almost entirely useless as a recording. When would you have cause to listen to soundbites from the first three Frankenstein movies unless you're a junk-culture sampling fiend? But this is what Zombie has been doing all along: finding a way to sell and celebrate all these amorphous, fragmentary artifacts by reducing them to commodifiable trinket-sized soundbites and attaching his name to them.

The music of Zombie songs is put together this way as well. They're assemblages of iconic spare parts, death-disco drum machines and processed guitar riffs and horror-movie samples. His biggest contribution to the lexicon of hard rock has been the absorption of an old dance-music trick, the remix album. He's issued three in this decade, one for each album of new material he's recorded. And this is classic, textbook American brand marketing, the equivalent of slapping a sticker ("New! Improved!") on the box and heralding the result a new product. By handing over the parts to new architects -- on his latest, American Made Music To Strip By, to members of Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein, and Limp Bizkit -- he encourages an understanding of his songs as just so many toy parts that you can take apart and put back together again in endless variations, like Leggos. The songs are all about frills and accouterments, about customizing the sideboards, souping up the engine, slapping on the bumper stickers. Which makes the remix albums the purest Zombie products -- they go hand in hand with the notion that Zombie songs are, essentially, all packaging.

The thing is, Zombie has an instinctive feel for the details of pop commerce -- designing his solo album, Hellbilly Deluxe, to look like a '50s EC Comic, complete with faux advertisements; modeling the releases on Zombie-A-Go-Go to look and sound like the novelty Halloween party albums he owned as a kid; cross-marketing all of these under the fictional rubric of a fly-by-night multinational corporation called Spookshow International. In a decade when pop stars have struggled to transmit a veneer of authenticity (and at least a few have died trying), he exhibits a remarkable faith in unadulterated artifice. It amounts to an almost religious devotion to pop's rich pageantry and pomp and ritual, to packaging and image and novelty. At the same time, he's not so seduced by the romance of packaging as to do it with a completely straight face. He's constantly tipping his hand, overplaying the cartoon, and he's too devoted to the authenticity of the details to muck it up. Which makes the thrilling, chilling world of Zombie something short of a pure celebration of consumption and yet not quite a critique of it, either. And that's a very '90s place to be.


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