Dolly Parton: Shock Rock Pioneer & Icon
She may not be a rock and roll songwriter and performer, but her aesthetic deserves recognition among the pioneers of shock rock.
Shock rock is the combination of rock music or heavy metal music with highly theatrical live performances emphasizing shock value. Performances may include violent or provocative behavior from the artists, the use of attention-grabbing imagery such as costumes, masks, or face paint, or special effects such as pyrotechnics or fake blood. Shock rock also often includes elements of horror.
When writers discuss the origins of shock rock they generally jump right from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Alice Cooper, but there is an important piece of the puzzle in between that never gets mentioned. Sure, Dolly Parton is not a rock musician, but elements of her image and songs both fit entirely within shock rock aesthetics.
Dolly has admitted on several occasions that her visual appearance is a calculated attempt in shocking an audience into attentiveness. While her image may not be the dark and foreboding precursor to artists like Marilyn Manson, it is visually and sexually provocative, and challenged the norms of the time in which she ascended as an artist. There is no doubt that her highly (and brilliantly) cultivated image was intended to shock, nor that it was effective. But what about her music?
Dolly is a prolific songwriter, and with 3,000 compositions under her belt, she has touched on a wide variety of topics. When you think of her music you probably conjure up love songs and other topics typical of country music, but Dolly’s range also included subversive political and cultural statements, as well as some downright dark and creepy music.
Tonight, while standing on the bridge
My heart is beating wild
To think that you could leave me here
With our unborn child
My feet are moving slowly
Closer to the edge
Here is where it started
And here is where I’ll end it
In The Bridge she wrote about a forlorn lover reviewing her thoughts in the moments before committing suicide. But even that seems a bit light-hearted in comparison to Me & Little Andy, in which she sings of a girl and her dog escaping the home of her abusive, alcoholic father only to end up staying the night at the home of someone who murders them. That she delivers part of these vocals using a little girl’s voice makes it all the more spookier.
Her song Coat of Many Colors is the tale of a bullied outsider, which is abut the most shock rock topic there could possibly be.
If you read about the history of shock rock it is invariably a boy’s club list of names, which probably owes more to perception than misogyny. However there is no doubt that she deserves credit for inspiring modern musicians who use shock as an element of their performance and art, even if they were not specifically conscious of the fact Dolly Parton is indeed an iconic pioneer and master of aesthetic hyperbole.
Can you imagine how awesome it would be to hear her cover The Beautiful People?