Dr. Xan Nowakowski is research faculty at the Florida State University College of Medicine, and adjunct faculty in Sociology. Their research and teaching focus on the experience and management of chronic health conditions, their causes, and their consequences. In this guest post, Dr. Nowakowski reflects on the music of Alice Cooper in relation to processes of identity work throughout the life course.
What is more central to symbolic interactionism than the concept of wearing masks? Erving Goffman, who pioneered a dramaturgical approach to interactionist scholarship, described masks and their importance in some of his earliest works. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life illustrates how and why we wear masks, and deconstructs misconceptions about the relationships of our masks to our identities. In the process, Goffman offers a great paradigm for exploring the dramaturgical work done by professional performers, who may wear masks not only figuratively (“Remarkably Insincere”) but also literally (“Zorro’s Ascent”) when appearing onstage.
Last week on the Write Where It Hurts blog, I shared a detailed reflection on how the music of Alice Cooper has helped me to understand and negotiate my own experiences with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), both during and after my time with active DID. Since my reintegration in August of 2014, I have often turned to Alice’s music for comfort and inspiration. Staying integrated has not always been easy, but it has become much more so with time and progress. Alice’s music has been instrumental in my journey, both as assurance that one need not present only one face to the world (“He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask)”), and as proof positive that one can be multiple people inside of an integrated whole (“Triggerman”).
As a sociologist, I had already been exposed to this idea, starting with Dr. Priscilla Ferguson’s Sociology of Everyday Life course during my senior year at Columbia. If you are doing interactionist analysis on my post itself, you might consider the use of my university’s name to be a form of sign equipment, signifying the identity I wish to communicate in this context. This would be a correct interpretation—I never left academia, and my identity as a university professor is quite fundamental to my overall self-concept. However, it would also be an incomplete one. My primary goal in mentioning Columbia here is to conjure up visions of New York City, a wonderful stage with diverse players who invite detailed interactionist critique. It would not be a stretch to describe New York City as a carnival of masks.
Alice frequently uses circus and carnival metaphors in his music, describing the performance aspects of life and selfhood as well as the chaos and excitement of performance-oriented social spaces (“Sideshow”). He also cites New York City as an inspiration for both his music and his identity work, dating back to the earliest days of his career (“Big Apple Dreaming (Hippo)”). Indeed, Alice often uses the tangible hustle and bustle of Manhattan as a metaphor for the intangible pandemonium of negotiating the competing expectations of others and resolving cognitive dissonance. He reflects on how people have simultaneously cheered for the villainous identity he presents on stage, but shunned that same persona in his life offstage (“From the Inside”).
This role conflict quickly led to engulfment as Alice felt more and more pressured to adopt his stage persona as the sum total of his identity (“Hard Hearted Alice”). This played a role in his decision to change his name legally, becoming Alice Cooper in a more comprehensive way that made him increasingly bound to his onstage self. The dissolution of the original Alice Cooper group, the five-member band with which Alice’s performance career began and continued through the release of 1974’s Muscle of Love, also contributed to this shift in Alice’s presentation of self. Whereas he had previously felt a degree of role entrapment as a band leader (“Teenage Lament ’74″), Alice now felt increasingly isolated within an identity framework that had begun to consume him (“Crazy Little Child”).
He sought respite in the escapist fantasies of his music (“Escape”) and specifically in the world of dreams (“Welcome to My Nightmare”) in which he could take on literally any identity and transition seamlessly between different states of being (“Devil’s Food”). He describes this process as an empowering one (“Department of Youth”), but also one that traps him in a perpetual adolescence (“Steven”) that both he and his character would later outgrow.
Alice’s own reflections on this growth are evident in his interviews about writing and recording Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the long-awaited follow-up to his debut solo effort from 1975. The sequel to Welcome to My Nightmare reflects an older, wiser Alice who relates differently to his own pain (“Caffeine”) and feels more confident in his ability to overcome challenges (“What Baby Wants”). This represents a dramatic shift from his mid-1970s feelings of just wanting a break from himself, even if getting one requires measures as extreme as temporarily visiting hell (“Give the Kid a Break”). Whereas the younger Alice internalized pressures to restrict his entire being to the increasingly suffocating confines of his stage persona (“Serious”), the older Alice handles the challenge of reconciling his two selves with wry humor (“Ghouls Gone Wild”) and even expresses the desire to be remembered as an integrated person capable of love and empathy (“Something to Remember Me By”).
As his struggles with alcohol abuse intensified, Alice began to experience significant stigma in his broader social world. His own acute awareness of these shifts—and more specifically, of the consequences of his drinking for his loved ones—is painfully apparent in his music from this time period (“Only Women Bleed”). The agony Alice felt over not being able to connect fully with his partner, and later his children, appears with increasing pathos in his music in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His cycling into and out of rehabilitation brings exploration of his most disparate masks—at once triumphant conqueror and fragile victim (“Roses on White Lace”), always hopeful but ultimately brought to his knees by forces he still sees as beyond his control (“Life and Death of the Party”).
In his work from the mid 1980s and his later reflections on that time period, Alice clearly struggles with competing expectations that he either exit the sick role and its associated deviance or embrace the identity of an insane, addicted person and behave accordingly. His inchoate feelings never fully resolve (“Hurricane Years”), leaving him stuck in a limbo where his choices are always constrained and never really feel like his own (“Steal That Car”). His vacillation between masculine (“The World Needs Guts”) and feminine (“Gail”) means of presenting himself through his music and stagecraft illustrates this tension, sometimes within the space of a single song (“Prettiest Cop on the Block”). A perpetual war rages within him, making him feel completely alienated from all possible incarnations of himself as well as everyone he loves.
Even Alice’s early work reflects a pervasive frustration with others’ lack of understanding of his multifaceted identity (“Be My Lover”) and this pattern continues in his 1980s albums. It is thus unsurprising that as he and his career have matured, Alice increasingly sings about the preciousness of those people in his life who have been able to embrace him as a complete person, with flaws and strengths in equal measure (“How You Gonna See Me Now”). His albums from the late 1980s onward—the time period for which he has remained actively in recovery from alcoholism—reflects active affirmation of an integrated self. Sometimes Alice uses humor to negotiate the stark contrasts between his onstage and offstage selves (“Feed My Frankenstein”) and sometimes explores the darkness of this contrast and his lingering awareness of how easy it can be to get sucked in (“Fantasy Man”).
Listening to Alice’s most recent albums reflects his robust awareness that it is possible to wear many masks, both literally and figuratively, and be an integrated person all at once (“Perfect”). He has become a living, breathing embodiment of Goffman’s assertion that each of the masks we wear represents an equally real identity, to the extent that we may actually feel as if we become completely different people as our definition of the situation changes. Both within and outside of his art, Alice explores the diversity of self-presentation that is possible within the context of integrated selfhood. He also reflects on the tragedy of people who occupy marginalized social locations not being affirmed in their pursuit of an integrated public identity (“The Saga of Jesse Jane”).
Indeed, Alice calls for a more empowering approach to selfhood (“Run Down the Devil”) that embraces the multiple facets of people’s identities, favoring creativity and exploration over labeling and stigmatization. He articulates contemporary interactionist perspectives on mental health, noting that framing illness and addiction as master statuses often produce the counterproductive result of reinforcing the etiology of these conditions. His most recent album features a self-confident, self-efficacious Alice who is capable of receiving social support from people who affirm him while rejecting people who seek to limit his modes of self-expression, instead of doing the reverse as in earlier times (“The One That Got Away”). He articulates a sense of mastery of his masks, literally becoming the ringmaster in his own circus.
His 1995 album The Last Temptation explicitly operationalizes this triumph. Alice notes that integration has not come easily (“Unholy War”) or without tremendous personal costs (“Nothing’s Free”). He cautions that the temptation to dissociate and vanish into darkness always teases at the edges of his consciousness (“You’re My Temptation”). But he concludes with songs of victory and celebration, affirming that it has been worthwhile in order to achieve healthy relationships (“It’s Me”) and freedom from inner torment (“Cleansed by Fire”). Alice has moved from suffocating within the confines of his masks to displaying them proudly for all to see, transitioning between them with ease in situations with different definitions. He is different people when performing onstage, golfing for charity, taking private moments for prayer and contemplation, vacationing with his family, visiting his restaurant, recording his nightly radio show, meeting fans, writing new music, and reaching out to others struggling with addiction. And yet, he is always the same.
“And when I wake up on a dreary Sunday morning, I open up my eyes to find there’s rain. And something strange within said “Go and find her. Just close your eyes, yeah just close your eyes and she’ll be there” (“Pretty Ballerina”).
Discovering myself—and indeed, embracing all of the diverse masks that I can wear within that integrated framework—has sometimes felt extremely isolating (“Last Man on Earth”) and lonely even when other people were around to offer support (“Is Anyone Home”). But knowing that Alice went through a similar process and experienced similar feelings (“Bad Place Alone”) for many years before coming out on top (“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”) gives me comfort and perspective. I have learned much from the identity work he describes in his music—both the challenges (“Cold Machines”) and the triumphs (“Freedom”). I have found equal inspiration in his frankness about support from others making a tremendous difference for him, and his simultaneous acknowledgement that ultimately the choice to recover is a deeply personal one (“I Am Made of You”). And like Alice, I begin every day with the hope that things will continue to get better, even at times where the struggle feels futile (“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”). Slowly but surely, I am finding that the masks I wear feel less like straightjackets (“The Ballad of Dwight Fry”) and more like costumes.