Perhaps surprisingly for a man who performs under a female stage name and layers of mascara, Alice Cooper has never dealt much with the subject of gender fluidity in his songs. That changed this year with the release of “Genuine American Girl”, from Cooper’s new album “Paranormal.” Cooper can sometimes be hit or miss, but in this song he hits the mark perfectly, singing about being a “vision of pure femininity” and an “immodest little goddess” in his trademark snarly, sneery, and very masculine voice. Another artist might have tried to draw humour from the obvious contrast between form and content, but not Cooper. Instead, he belts out this song without a trace of irony, as if daring anyone to point out the incongruity of what he’s singing. Cooper’s real rebellion against restrictive gender binaries however, comes in lyrics, not his delivery.
First, a brief aside for those unacquainted with the so called “Godfather of Shock Rock.” If Alice Cooper’s entire output could be summed up in one word, it would be “transgressive.” His work is dominated by songs about the occult, the dispossessed and the forces of evil both natural and supernatural, and he performs on stage with props like guillotines, fake blood, electric chairs, and lots and lots of sharp pointy things. Oh, and he pretends to hang himself. A lot. You would expect, then, that if this devotee of the macarbe were to create a female character to perform as, it would be a Lady MacBeth type, a bloodsucking succubus or vampiric witch. Instead, however, the girl Cooper embodies is the polar opposite of this, singing: “When I hit the floor tonight/ I’m gonna look and feel alright/ Cause my momma says the world’s an oyster and I’m the pearl.” Coming at the end of an album which has featured songs about car-crashes with Satan, the apocalypse (twice) and general social decay, this is fairly vanilla stuff. And that’s what makes it so transgressive.
Cooper’s celebration of gender-bending is so powerful, so rebellious, because he presents it as something natural. The subtext of the entire song is not “stick it to the man” but “come on guys, what’s all the fuss about?”
That’s not to say, however, that Cooper’s lyrics lack depth. Even seemingly simple lines have layered hidden meanings. Take, for example, the chorus line: “I’m a genuine American girl/ A rock and roll queen in a hip-hop world.” This might simply be read as part of a misfit’s manifesto-In the eyes of Cooper and 70s rockers like him, rock is seen as representations of the authentic, while the genres that replaced it- from disco, to hip-hop to EDM are viewed as artificial, manufactured. In one line, Cooper subverts all the audiences’ assumptions about the gender debate, saying that it’s those that try and deny the concept of gender fluidity who are trying to impose fake, modern strictures on life, not the other way around.
Cooper’s best lines, however, are saved for the end:
“You think it’s vanity/ Or some insanity/ But this is no man’s land and I live here every day/ So come and dance with me/ Come take a chance with me/ I’m only thirty out of fifty shades of grey/ Whaddaya say?”
I could write a whole essay on these few lyrics (still trying to figure out what the penultimate line means), but I want to draw your attention to one aspect. There’s a number of ways of reading the reference to no-mans land, but I like to think of it as a metaphor for human existence (possibly the most pretentious sentence I’ve ever typed.) No-mans land is the space that we all inhabit, the space between impossibly idealised gender binaries that nobody can live up to. The only difference between Cooper and the “there are only two genders” brigade are that he accepts this reality, and enjoys living it. His final words can be seen as a total rejection of the power of these individuals- he’s not calling them bullies or even bigots, just dweebs who’d have a lot more fun if they got on his level. You don’t have to agree with everything Cooper says (god knows I don’t) to enjoy the mischievousness of his argument.
And if nothing else, I guarantee you that this song is the most fun you’ll ever have being flirted with by a man pushing sixty.