Ripped to shreds: the rise of horror rock

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • February 18, 2016

A simple cure for heartbreak is to cut open your chest, reach your hand in, and pull your heart out. If seeing someone is too hard, consider going blind. When you don’t want to have a run-in, maybe chop your feet off. When your body begins to fail, tear it into tiny pieces, and sew it back together again, stronger than ever. Suggestions like these are offered in some of my favorite albums of the last two years, which are simultaneously terrific and terrifying.

While these scenarios sound like the beginnings of a horror film, they regularly appear in the rhetoric of contemporary musicians like Grimes, Pharmakon, and Sharon Van Etten. Recently, this body-horror motif that has been appearing frequently in lyrics and manifesting itself instrumentally in genres ranging from pop to noise rock to folk. As a way to reclaim autonomy—from the hands of society, the grips of love, or even the fragility of health—these artists are tearing their bodies apart in their music.

Grimes’ music and performance is largely dark, and this fascination with the body and horror has appeared throughout her career. This has a lot to do with the media’s scrutiny of her. From the beginning, her intriguing sense of fashion, which includes everything from angel wings to glittering alien body armor, has inadvertently welcomed open commentary on her appearance. When Grimes uses this horror-imagery, it’s her way of using shock to reclaim control of her image. The single from her latest album Art Angels, “Flesh without Blood,” is a response to the harsh lens of fame and how it shapes a person. In the song, she picks away at herself: The lyrics describe clawing or scratching, wishing to be a doll, and a general sense of destruction. While the societal systems of money and fame can try to have power over Grimes, only she can control her own flesh and blood.

Grimes has been using this corporeal language to show her autonomy since her first album. On 2012’s Visions, the song “Be a Body” has only one verse and chorus, yet it still explores how external validation defines the self. The lyrics reiterate: “I don’t need hands to touch me/I touch my face with my hand.” The touch of others is not enough to legitimize being: It must be her own, and this notion gives strength to some of the more visceral imagery in her later music. 

Pharmakon’s last album Bestial Burden uses these themes to express a different struggle. The release was an emotional response to an intense health scare songwriter Margaret Chardiet experienced. When a doctor discovered a cyst on one of her organs, Chardiet was rushed into emergency surgery and forced to cancel her tour. The terrifying idea that your own body can attack you is central to the record, and through the industrial noise on the release, Chardiet comes to terms with this reality. Even the cover art, an unsettling image of two hands clawing at splayed organs, draws from the canon of body horror to make this point. The album shifts the listener’s perspective on the body, emphasizing how it's only flesh, and not nearly the most important aspect of being.

Sharon Van Etten uses monstrous bodily visuals in her folk music not to talk about being, but rather to articulate heartbreak. In her song “Your Love Is Killing Me,” the lyrics in the chorus disassemble her body, as cutting herself in pieces it the only way to ensure she won’t return to her ex-lover.  She demands, “Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see.” The protagonist is exhausted from love's control over her, and the violence gives her some form of freedom. The heavy guitar and piano chords in the track also feel erratic, and add to the disjointed imagery.

These songs are often unsettling, but from that uncanny feeling, they draw their power. There is good reason for artists to pull from the canon of horror, as it is a medium that addresses societal and personal flaws head on. By focusing on the body, these songs become even more intimate and impactful. It is particularly powerful imagery for female artists to work into their music—it’s confrontational, and runs contrary to expected feminine ideals.