How The Hell Are Slipknot So Successful?
A group of guys whose personal brand includes severed goat heads, pentagrams and a 666 sign on fire are on the verge of their second number one album.
Almost every globally popular artist has a core group of dedicated superfans that unite under one collective term. Justin Bieber has his “Beliebers”, Lady Gaga has her “Monsters”, and Slipknot have their “Maggots”, who are kind of like Monsters but with less interest in couture and a greater desire to be spat on. Superfans make up the top tier of consumers when it comes to an artist’s commercial value. When superfans proclaim their “love” for something, they don’t mean it in the same way you and I would say we love Chipotle or an above-average meme, they mean they consider Neil Diamond’s unwashed underpants among their most prized possessions and have 20 tattoos dedicated to One Direction.
Like the hormonally charged followers of Bieber and Gaga, Slipknot fans can be incredibly intense (as accurately illustrated in the "Duality" video below). Over their 19-year career span, the band has been listed as the sole reason for saving countless teenagers lives to inspiring high school killings and everything in between, but superfans usually represent one extreme point on a wide spectrum of consumers. For every maniac who breaks into Lady Gaga’s dressing room to fondle her outfits, there are thousands of others who will stick on Born This Way whilst pre-drinking because that’s what it was made for. In terms of mainstream artists, the spectrum of fans is rarely limited to one bonkers woman with the same tattoos as Harry Styles - everyone in the music industry gets involved. From appearing on the cover of Revolver to receiving a 4-star review from The Guardian, Slipknot continue to prove themselves as deserving of media attention that goes beyond the demographic of “embarassing teenager music”.
They have become a pop culture phenomenon despite trying their best to be the antithesis of anything to do with either “pop” or “culture”. Still, there is something about this parade of literal clowns from Iowa that causes people to treat them with a degree of respect that was never truly given to any of the other bands that came up during the “nu metal boom” of the late 90s. Linkin Park? Yeah, maybe that one album. Korn? Lol, good one. System of a what? Slipknot, however, have remained a constant fixture not just in our collective musical memory, but in the charts. Sure, we live in a world where Hybrid Theory is the best-selling album of the 21st century and we’ve all witnessed that metal can chart well, but that still doesn’t explain how a band comprised of grown-ass men dressed like a carnie’s interpretation of Clockwork Orange might be about to hit the second debut Billboard #1 of their career. So, just how did Slipknot succeed where others failed? Why did they alone survive the rise of the skinny jean?
When I first started listening to Slipknot, I liked them because they pushed the boundaries of acceptability and censorship and, like all angsty teenagers, I wanted to piss off my parents as much as possible. But I still count Iowa among the albums that helped shape my taste in music and there are very few heavy music fans in the world who wouldn’t say the same. Behind all the stupid fucking masks and intense breathing is genuine sincerity - stuff people can actually connect with, because sometimes people really do = shit and often the best way to cope with that is to listen to a song with those exact lyrics, muttering them under your breath as you stand on the underground on a Monday morning with your nose in a stranger's armpit.
Slipknot employ the same visual tactics as other metal acts with a make-up ritual that outlasts that of all the contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race combined. That is to say, their image is massively important to their overall “brand”. Insane Clown Posse, GWAR, Lordi and Nekrogoblikon are all examples of how incorporating face paint or a disturbingly fake monster dick into your costume can garner massive cult status, but they are still too niche to break through into the mainstream. ICP may have their own social networking site and GWAR may have appeared on Jimmy Fallon that one time, but Slipknot have managed to sustain cultural relevance and critical acclaim for almost two decades in a manner that goes way beyond a gimmick. Since the release of their self-titled debut album in 1999, Slipknot have been nominated for seven Grammy’s (resulting in one win), all four of their studio albums have gone at least double platinum, and they can go from appearing at the VMA’s with their arms around a drunk McLovin’ to asking their fans to please not bring human remains to their shows without having to compromise their identity. The underground loves them, the commercial world loves them, and the media can’t ignore them. Against all imaginable odds, they fit in everywhere.
At least part of the reason for Slipknot’s unwavering success lies in their dedication to the schtick. It takes a lot of conviction to put on a boilersuit and a plastic mask in 1995 and then rarely remove it for the rest of your career. Judging by interviews in which they are disconcertingly sincere, the dress-up act is more than just a PR tactic for them (although seven Grammy nominations would confirm that it is obviously a really good one). There’s definitely something more sincere going on for them. It’s not like they put on their masks and magically ~transform~ into a Rob Zombie take on My Chemical Romance whose vocabulary is limited to the words “shit”, “suffer” and “die”, it’s more like your dad donning a goblin mask at the dinner table and then continuing to talk to you about David Attenborough like it ain't no thing. They fit so casually into their self-prescribed identities that they haven’t changed them for almost twenty years. They haven’t had to.
Masks aside, perhaps the main reason why Slipknot have been so resilient is because they resonate with angry teenagers in a major way, and the world will never run short of those. Slipknot represent a massive demographic of people whose response to dealing with broken homes, bullying, loneliness and any other shitty hand life can deal whenever it fancies is to have a bloody good shout about it. The thing about ICP, GWAR and Lordi is, they’re not universally relatable. It’s all too over the top, too melodramatic, too much like the dark corner of the internet where World of Warcraft erotica is debated and reviewed. Slipknot found the line of acceptable ridiculousness and it is a man dressed as a clown passionately hitting a bin with all the conviction of a classical piano player. Anything beyond that is overkill. Nobody can sustain a critically acclaimed career off the back of a gimmick alone. Trends change. People get bored. The thing that sets Slipknot apart from every other alt metal band from the last two decades is that there is a credible form of artistry to what they do. In the grand scheme of things, Slipknot are a decent West End play and GWAR are a matinee pantomime starring Christopher Biggins.
.5: The Gray Chapter is Slipknot’s fifth studio album and first to follow the death of bassist Paul Gray in 2010 and the departure of drummer Joey Jordison last year - both of whom were primary songwriters. Despite entering the studio without them, the record stands up pretty well, particularly in a climate where pop music is completely dominating the charts. With projected sales figures of over 100,000 in its first week, .5: The Gray Chapter is the first heavy record to chart well since Bring Me The Horizon released their nu-metal worshipping Sempiternal in 2013, which peaked at #11. I don’t want to tar Slipknot with the nu-metal brush, because they’ve always leant more towards thrash than anything else, but they did come up during a golden era of nu-metal that the Guardian described as “the last guitar-based movement to create a genuine generation gap”.
The Billboard 100 will be revealed on Wednesday 29, so we’ll see if .5: The Gray Chapter actually does come out on top. My guess is it’ll be trumped by Taylor Swift’s 1989, but nevertheless, it's almost unbelievable that, in 2014, the battle for #1 is taking place between America’s Sweetheart and seven dudes whose personal brand includes severed goat heads, pentagrams and a massive fuck-off 666 sign on fire.
Follow Emma on Twitter: @emmaggarland