The Modern Freak Show in Music Videos

In the 19th century freaks were a common attraction. They lived separated from the bourgeoisie because they were different. Sources (see reader) tell us they had their own communities, in which they were equal and seen as ‘normal’.
Today we have a similar phenomenon in a different context. Subcultures differentiate themselves from the ‘norm’ by wearing different clothes or by showing off body art like tattoos or body piercings. They even call themselves freaks to show their otherness. Such movements are always inspired and led by famous people or idols. Especially young people can relate to heavy metal and rock music entertainers like Marilyn Manson (to name a famous one). I don’t want to talk about these people’s music or what messages there could be involved in their lyrics. I simply want to talk about the way they present themselves to the world – because there you can find similarities to 19th century freak shows.

First example: Dope – Everything sucks

In the video you can see several requisites and figures taken from a classic freak show – there’s the showman that presents the freaks, you have the strong man, the tall guy and a dwarf lady. All of these figures seem pretty sinister and rather uninviting. The band is also featured in a big cage in the middle of a crowd. By blending in the cage and the freaks frequently in turns the viewer can relate the two scenes pretty quick – the band is equated to the freak show. Everybody comes to watch them. The band presents itself in this manner – look we’re freaks. Come to our show! Of course there’s always the negative connotation of being a freak, being exposed for examination and so on, which surely could be one of their messages, but in this case the band is not presented as victims, but rather as being open about what they stand for.

Second example: Motionless in White – Immaculate Misconception

In this video there’s a quite different presentation given. Again the band members resemble the freaks, but unlike in the first example they are presented in a way more negative light. They are shown as the victims of society. They are protested against and signs are shown that basically say ‘freaks go to hell’.  The video shows a lot of religious connotations. The singer is ‘attacked’ by a protester and he defends himself. Next you see him in the role of Jesus being captured and tortured. Interesting is that the same guy also plays the role of Pontius Pilate – the guy that sentences him to death. The guys in this video are shown as treated badly and having no rights in society.

Another example would be: Marilyn Manson – mOBSCENE

Here we have all the obvious freak show requisites and figures, like conjoined twins – Manson himself plays the show man. In this case it’s different again; it’s obviously staged freakishness. You can see the makeup, the twins are held together by a suit. The hints to 19th century freak shows are very obvious in this case. The artificiality and the deceit are shown clearly and intentionally.

I won’t interpret the different meanings of these videos – that’s a different topic. I want to look at them from a more general point of view.

Notable about these ‘modern freaks’ is first: the commercial point of view – of course, it’s a show that gets people’s interest. That’s for two kinds of people: people who can relate because they feel different, or not fitting into modern society, and people who can’t relate and find shows like these disgusting or frightening, but isn’t this exactly the same effect as it was in 19th century? Bands like the ones I named and many others know how to provoke by their looks and their performances. I don’t want to presume they do it just for commercial reasons, but nobody can deny the fame they get by doing so.

The other thing to mention is: those are made freaks – of course you don’t choose a certain look and behaviour without any kind of personal reason, but if society was so unbearable and mean to you, you could simply go change your clothes and wash the makeup off – perfectly blending in. It’s an intentional choice to be a freak in these cases (the reasons can be of great variety: from protest to craving attention).  Nevertheless, it’s interesting how the freak show is knowingly and willingly used in modern society to get people’s attention. You could always argue that these bands stage themselves as freaks to show the rest of society how ignorant they are, and I don’t deny that they do so, but no matter what their intentions are – otherness, disgust, fear, interest, sympathy, relation to others, always mixed with a varying amount of sex, are used to ensure the audience gets satisfied with whatever they were looking to find. Here the freak show still exists, just in different social practices.

(I know it’s kind of shallow to leave out the songs/ lyrics at all, but this would simply go beyond the scope of this blog. Besides in a really general overview one could say the lyrics resemble the different kinds of freakishness shown in the videos.)

5 Responses to The Modern Freak Show in Music Videos

  1. deadanddone says:

    I really agree on what you have just posted! It is both surprising and impressive how the idea of Freak Shows is taken over in latest music videos. The most important difference is of course that the freakishness in these videos is intentional and meant to catch the attention of the audience. I think that people will never really get used to freakishness since there will always be new and more absurd types of it.
    What I also consider interesting is your final statement that the lyrics relate to the freakishness shown in the videos. I mean, just look at the title of Manson’s song. Great pun.

  2. nicolahaiss says:

    Also interesting is your comment about the people who watch these kinds of “freak”-videos. Especially the quote about people who are “not fitting into modern society”. We should ask ourselves….who decides what and who fits into this “modern society??? Moreover, who has the right to decide that??? Concerning questions about how our society works right?!

    • annavoigtlaender says:

      Yes, you’re definitely right. My personal opinion is that nobody can decide what and who fits in society. The exception would be the indviduals who decide that they don’t fit for themselves. In my post I referred to those people who think of themselves they don’t fit because they feel the need to distinguish themselves from society (Now one could ask: how does society make them feel that need?). But often, by doing so members of society really say those people don’t fit in anymore. It’s like a vicious circle. The important thing is there’s always two parts that interact – the ones that think people behaving/ dressing/ feeling… different from the average society member (I know that’s always hard to define) don’t fit in and the ones that practice these actions that distinguish them from the others. They wouldn’t feel the urge to do so if they were perfectly fine with the society they live in. Maybe in this example society is a too broad concept. It’s more about behaviour/ dress codes etc. that need to be approved of by members of society (of course it’s still about society, but rather about it’s working mechanisms, just do define it a little more clearly).
      The question who fits in is a tough one. Nobody can say what the norm is, because everybody’s different. However you can limit it down to a certain type of person. Let’s imagine a guy wearing only black, having lot’s of tattoos on his body, piercings all over the face, and who is also wearing a lot of black makeup. The opposite of that guy would be one that could be seen as the average member of society. Isn’t it interesting how you can easily describe what’s not normal, but describing the norm turns out to be really difficult? (Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to say people with tattoos or with black clothes don’t fit into society, I just wanted to show a certain construct of thoughts, using the first stereotypes that came to my mind.) I guess there’s always a broad mass that shows still variety in itself, but in a general overview it’s a consistent mass following the same patterns concerning clothing, behaviour, rules of conduct… and everything that goes into the extreme, no matter in which direction, is seen as a deviation from the norm. To be recognized as not normal you have to stand out. I think this is a very complex subject, that can’t be answered easily, but those are the thoughts on it that came to my mind while reading your comment.

      • nicolahaiss says:

        I just noticed that the subject of this post perfectly fits to my post about the zombie boy. He also appears in a music video ( in one of Lady Gaga’s newest songs). It is pretty interesting how he presents himself in this video because he obvousily makes himself to a freak show on purpose. He chose to be a freak, or what nowadays society calls abnormal and freakish. People like the zombie boy are considered as abnormal and still they live a pretty normal live. For example the zombie boy got a career as a model…through his “freakish” look. So much to the common idea that freaks like him can’t have interact in a quite normal way in society.

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