The bestselling single this week will almost certainly still be “Evergreen” by the Pop Idol winner Will Young. Will is a posh Tory from the sticks and, unlike Sixties rich kids such as Mick Jagger, he doesn’t even try to adopt a mockney accent or a caring agenda. He hangs with the ultra-wealthy, bows and scrapes to duchesses and insists that he has no time for gay rights causes (despite having finally come out on 10 March). In fact, he is so socially conservative that when he was asked recently what his ideal date would be, he said – with no irony – “it would be having tea with the Queen”.
So you might think that all is lost and that the only way your kids can shock you now is by being more conservative than you ever dreamt. Think again: Slipknot are in Britain.
To pluck one random example of their on-stage behaviour: at one gig in the US late last year, they took out a dead beaver, sucked its tail and head, squeezed its guts on to their faces and spent the next ten minutes vomiting all over the stage and on to the audience. One fan claimed she would never wash the puke from her hair. So what, I hear you cry. What’s a little dead-animal-sucking when you’re young? And you’re right. That is not the worrying thing about Slipknot. What is worrying is that they indicate a wider value-shift in western countries.
People on the left, in particular, are extremely wary of discussing this kind of youth music and movement in a negative way, for fear of sounding like Melanie Phillips or Peter Hitchens or any number of the reactionary bores who ranted against Elvis’s pelvis. No doubt, most New Statesman readers would rather their kids went on the road with Slipknot than the dreadful Will Young or one of the manufactured, ball-achingly dire boy bands prancing around these days. (And don’t even mention Cliff Richard and his posse of evangelical maniacs, who are more terrifying than Slipknot will ever be.)
But the popularity of Slipknot does illustrate worrying developments. Right-wingers and Christian fundamentalists are not alone in being concerned about teenagers who have lost faith in pretty much everything.
Slipknot are not scary because of their “shocking” stage act (unless you’re a beaver). They are scary because they articulate (brilliantly, I might add) a candid, self-destructive nihilism that is increasingly the world-view of a significant minority of western teenagers. The most prosperous and healthy generation that has ever lived on this planet is increasingly drawn to people whose philosophy can be outlined in these statements, fairly randomly plucked from Slipknot songs: “Someone hear me please, all I see is hate” or “My life was always shit/And I don’t think I need this any more”.
Or how about: “I tear away with my nails and teeth and fists/Touch the hands of inverted saints/Follow my heart through the threaded pain . . ./I see the future; the future is bleeding”. (In fact, this last passage is pretty feel-good as Slipknot songs go.) There is absolutely no redemption, no possible future happiness in the band’s albums. The closest they get to a love song is “I wanna slit your throat and fuck the wound”. Slipknot sing about and appeal to a generation of radically disconnected young people who have no purpose in life, no values, nothing but a gnawing sense of emptiness. There is not even a conservative longing for a world that has been lost, or a liberal hope that things could get better.
Far more teenagers are drawn to this dark sphere than the much more analysed acolytes of anti-globalisation. More than a million kids have bought into the Slipknot agenda by buying one of their albums; more than 150,000 are sufficiently hard-core admirers to have attended one of their gigs. (Even the gurus of anti-globalisation would kill for a tenth of those sales, never mind that turnout for a public meeting.)
A certain degree of anomie and hormonal flux is an inevitable part of being a teenager. There is an inescapable I-hate-you tendency that can easily descend into melodramatic daddy-shocking of the Marilyn Manson variety. Clearly, there’s a large contingent of Slipknot fans drawn to this whining who will soon grow out of it. But we cannot casually write off the huge numbers of kids buying this stuff. The evidence of what we could call a Slipknot generation of despairing kids is not hard to find. More than 100,000 teenagers in the US (and 26,000-plus in the UK, according to the Samaritans) self-harmed last year, usually by slashing their arms or legs with knives and razors. Slipknot’s music is filled with imagery of self-harm and suicide: “I’ve felt the hate rise up in me . . ./Kneel down and clear the stone of leaves . . ./I wander over where you can’t see . . ./Inside my shell I wait and bleed . . ./Goodbye!”
Jill Eastham, a counsellor at the Carlisle Counselling Centre in Cumbria, who works extensively with self-harming teenagers, believes that there is a growing trend towards self-harm among the young. “They use it”, she says, “as a way of dealing with difficult feelings. It gives them some release. The pain of cutting is preferable to the pain inside.” Revealingly, several therapists who work in this area have noted that teens from high-achieving and wealthy schools and families are considerably more likely to self-harm.
The choice of recreational drugs made by these teenagers is very revealing about their mental state, too. If their self-harm and extreme activities (animal torture seems to be a recurring theme in the Slipknot-related internet chatrooms) were merely attention-seeking designed to appal parents, this self-destructive mindset would not also reveal itself in their drug-taking habits. They would stick, like most people of their age, to the almost entirely harmless mood-enhancers such as Ecstasy or relaxants like cannabis. But recent statistics reveal that the drug which is rapidly climbing up the dealers’ charts (as it were) is ketamine, which is particularly popular with the miserable young white kids who form the spine of Slipknot’s fan base: according to an extensive drugs survey in the US last year, 2.5 per cent of high-school students were using ketamine regularly; and British police have identified it as the drug with the fastest-growing use in the UK today. The record company HMV was so worried about Slipknot fans using ketamine that it cancelled an appearance by the band at one of its UK stores.
Ketamine is an anaesthetic commonly used as an animal tranquilliser. In very small doses, it can induce a giggly mood where everything seems hilarious; but if you take a reasonable amount, you go into “a K-hole”. This is a blank, empty state, “turning you into jelly” or making you “feel like you’re wrapped in a blanket”. You can barely move, and certainly can’t communicate. Unlike the other widely available hallucinogens – LSD, or magic mushrooms – it does not create a feeling of transcendence. The word that crops up again and again when users describe the experience is “empty”.
Amphetamines can enhance your mood and enrich your experiences. A generation filled with amphetamines sees itself as a positive generation seeking to get the most out of life and not wanting to waste its time on dull activities such as sleeping. A generation filling itself with ketamine (and related analgesics such as tramadol), in contrast, admits that it has serious problems. It is a generation that does not want to be awake, a generation that wants to hide from the world and live in a darkened, empty room. Ketamine is not even a “happy” hallucinogen as some mushrooms and, if you’re lucky, LSD can be. Ketamine has even – as the psychiatrist Karl Jansen of the Maudsley Hospital, London, has shown in a study – been used to induce near-death experiences. Many users find the idea of simulating death appealing.
And if self-harming, the growth in the use of ketamine and the rise of Slipknot weren’t enough to convince you of the existence of a minority who genuinely see no purpose other than hatred and destruction, the increasing number of high-school shootings might do it. More than 100 kids were killed in such incidents last year in the US, and random violence among teens is becoming endemic there. A Washington Post poll found that 40 per cent of US pupils believe a fellow student is capable of murder.
Right-wing commentators will no doubt claim that Slipknot and similar bands “cause” self-harm, high-school shootings and the ketamine craze. If only life were so simple. Slipknot are but one symptom which, together with these other trends, points to a crisis at the heart of consumerist capitalism. Slipknot wear barcodes and inhuman masks. In the Land of the Free, they appropriate hyper-capitalist imagery to show they have been deindividuated; the band members are identified only by numbers.
The events of 11 September might have been expected to jolt these teens from their gloom, but actually they have only increased their misery. Germaine Greer has spoken acidly about the “self-pity” of US teenagers. Young Americans many hundreds of miles from New York City (and many years from the Vietnam war, another source of US introspection) were heard sobbing and saying: “I’m going to die!” Greer’s retort to this kind of teen is: “Yeah, you’re going to die in your bed at 90 when the rest of the world dies at 40.”
She is right, and most nihilistic teenagers across the United States know it. They know they face no real threat to their lives but their own despair. (It is overwhelmingly middle-class teenagers buying Slipknot – poor kids, who have real struggles in life, shun them.) Shorn of anything to struggle for, they have turned upon themselves – and recognition of this only deepens their contempt for themselves.
These kids, who hate themselves so much that they will swallow a drug that knocks them out, lacerate their own skin, and think that 40 per cent of their classmates are prepared to shoot them in the back, are not the image of the wholesome young American that George Bush wants us to see. He would have us believe that their problems are rooted in the Sixties, in promiscuity or the absence of religion. To prove him wrong, the left will have to find alternative explanations for why kids idolise Slipknot.