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Placebo, Gaspar Noé, and Body Horror
Some thoughts about Placebo's aesthetics
Recently, I saw Placebo play at The Warfield in San Francisco, on May 14th, 2023.
I have been a huge Placebo fan since I was 15. I remember when Meds came out, and I bought it on the release date at the local Tower Records. I didn’t know what to think about the album at first, but I fell in love with the single, “'Infra-Red.” This would be the last tour that drummer Steve Hewitt would be on.
Years later, as an Asian Studies undergraduate living in my dorm room at Temple University in 2013, I remember buying Loud Like Love on vinyl and being amazed at how Brian Molko’s singing voice changed in tone on the title track. And then when “Too Many Friends” began, I always thought it was cringe that he said, “My computer thinks I’m gay.” I did enjoy “Exit Wounds” and “Scene of The Crime.” It was such a forgettable album, that I ended up listening to Battle for the Sun more than I did the new one during classes. I honestly thought Placebo was done after this hippy revival album.
Finally, Never Let Me Go came out last year, nine years later. And I forgot they existed.
Placebo was supposed to play at The Warfield in September of 2022 but was canceled due to visa and covid-related issues. Eight months later, after waiting patiently, they planned a Sunday night in San Francisco. After a decade of Placebo never hitting the United States, they finally came back in 2023.
However, there was one major issue when playing at The Warfield.
Take a look at this note:
That’s right. No one is allowed to film the event, or even take clips of it.
I only took pictures before and after the concert, but not during it.
There was a couple that sat next time, where this drunk girl was approached multiple times by the security staff not to film. It was funny because I thought a fight was about to break out next time. Never a fight like this has ever happened in my history of concert-going.
Fans secretly recorded the event anyway. And the setlist was leaked online too. There’s no way to hide that.
The setlist. by the way, was,
Scene of the Crime
Happy Birthday in the Sky
Surrounded by Spies
Sad White Reggae
Try Better Next Time
Too Many Friends
For What It's Worth
Slave to the Wage
Song to Say Goodbye
The Bitter End
Shout [Tears For Fears]
Running Up That Hill [Kate Bush]
…Half the songs were on the new album. No “Special K,” “Come Home,” or “36 Degrees.” Oh well.
But importantly, I thought the art direction for this tour was unusual for Placebo. Since 2009, Placebo has thrown away the Heroin chic aesthetics in favor of a glitched-out art, that I would even dub as a “vaporwave” obsession around psychedelic colors and video distortion. The official merchandise on this tour featured computer-glitched clouds and a Roman bust.
Right before Battle for the Sun, Placebo had a die-hard aesthetic against the chauvinist image found in Britpop. By the time Steve Forrest joined, Placebo became just a “rock band” with constant nods to other mainstream-friendly acts. That decade was a true identity crisis, and the return to a sea of beer bottles on the cover of Never Let Me Go shows that there is an attempt to return to their original image of depravity. But still, the glitch and distorting effects they currently use cover up the true aesthetic of Placebo.
That original aesthetic was found on the debut album Placebo, Without You, I’m Nothing, Black Market Music, Sleeping With Ghosts, and Meds. Here, with photography by Corinne Day and other like-minded artists, Placebo wanted to focus on teenage nihilism, abuse, trauma, and hedonism through the body, as the body is a projection of these horrors. Gangster rap tries to be intimating through street violence, and grindcore worships gore and guts as the transgressive image. You don’t need these two things, as Placebo just shows the body, or a lonely and innocent teenager, as the victim of these abuses. There is nothing more transgressive than trauma itself.
To get what I am trying to say, take a look at some of the classic album art during Placebo’s golden age:
I love it. I think of the work of Richard Kern, the fiction of Dennis Cooper or Peter Sotos, the film of Larry Clark, and the true awkwardness of Matthew Barney. All of these things could also be found in the work of Gaspar Noé.
Noé directed the video for Placebo’s Protège-moi. While the video was never released because of its sexual imagery, it can be viewed elsewhere on the internet. Noé is not afraid to break the boundaries of ethics in his art. He appreciates the art of Thomas Bangalter, Peter Sotos, and Matthew Barney, and somehow, combines all his interests to produce his particular aesthetic of neo-Sadism. Irréversible, Enter The Void, and Love are all great films that refer to these subjects. I believe Noé is pivotal in the classical art direction and aesthetic of Placebo. If anything, I wish Brian Molko would just give the “body horror” motif another try.
Up until Battle for the Sun, Placebo loved the concept of abuse as their imagery. Right down to what they wore and looked like.
Those days are not coming back.
Many Placebo fans are associated with the goth subculture and such. Keep in mind, however, that Placebo was never really “goth” to begin with, and that their message and sound was always keen on those who are traumatized, abused, and care more about emotional pain. We still have acts like Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit that believe the whole macho imagery is transgressive, that “beatdown hardcore” is the only means of showing anger. Nonsense. The weak, frail boy has a lot to say about being an outsider, more than what a supermodel, like Machine Gun Kelly, would prance around about for “social media” clout and performance. What matters is the intricate language of intimacy, through the description of one’s existence and culture that was forced upon. Placebo did something that others couldn’t say. They are, in essence, a true “queer” band by name.
We don’t have genius music like this anymore.
Placebo excels with its unique brand of aesthetics that has developed a cult following. It’s a matter of whether they are willing to continue that dialogue or forget about the past like they always do.