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9th March 2010
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(Emilie Autumn on the primary purpose of her show)
"Burlesque means a Victorian and turn of the century, and even earlier, entertainment; a show that was mainly using humour and sexuality to make a mockery of things that were going on socially and politically. Thatís what burlesque means, and thatís what weíre actually doing."
Emilie Autumn onstage at the Leadmill, Sheffield, UK, 9th March 2010
Photograph copyright © 2010 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview and Photography by Mark Holmes
METAL DISCOVERY: You seem to excel in every artistic outlet that youíve turned your hand to, but have you ever discovered any limits to your creativity where youíve tried something that maybe youíve not been so good at?
EMILIE AUTUMN: No! The reason why is that, if I try something, I will notÖIím a determined motherfucker and if I try something it will not be put down until I master it! Thatís just the way it goes. So, I can confidently, arrogantly say I will never not succeed at something because I just wonít stop until I do. I refuse to fail or not be good at something. Thatís not gonna happen.
MD: Okay, thatís a good answer.
EA: Thank you. Itís honest, anyway! [laughs]
MD: You use sexuality and humour in your shows to spread your messageÖ
EA: Yeahhh!
MD: Is that supposed to also beÖkind of how I read itÖalso satirical of Victorian culture?
EA: Yeah.
MD: Obviously in Victorian times sex was kind of taboo and death was talked about openly; now itís the converse of that.
EA: Thatís the thingÖitís like, or is it? You know, thereís a lot of things we can do; we can sexualise things - and this is a feministic view of things - but itís like, yeah, you can use sex or you can sexualise these things, thatís okay, we can accept that, but not necessarily from a womanís point of view selling it herself. Iím okay for a guy to be like ďthatís hotĒ, thereís no problem with that but Iím even more okay with me taking control of my own sexuality if Iím gonna sell it. I mean, yeah, we use it onstage because itís an awesome, powerful tool to use as an art form and to spread a message that you want to, and that is true that the things I think are most importantÖthereís the music in the show. The record, obviously, is all about the music. The show is not all about the music; I donít want it to be all about the music; I want it to be about the show. That has several different elements and, for the entertainment value, youíve got the visuals, the music, the action, the acting, all of that stuff but, I think as far as my insidious goals of changing the world in this way - which Iím gonna assume we all have even if we donít admit it - is that the way to do that is not by preaching at people, itís through entertaining, and itís through humour and comedy more than anything. And then, any other tool you have like physical beauty, sexuality, all of that becauseÖand it goes back also to what I do think of the show as, if I were going to label it, is a true burlesque in the real sense of it because it isnít Bettie Page. Thatís awesome but thatís not what burlesque means. Burlesque means a Victorian and turn of the century, and even earlier, entertainment; a show that was mainly using humour and sexuality to make a mockery of things that were going on socially and politically. Thatís what burlesque means, and thatís what weíre actually doing. Not everybody in the audience may realise the depth to which that goes and thatís totally okay, they donít need to, but some people are and thatís all that matters. Those people who want to be reached will be and will take away with them a sense of weíre creating a sanctuary, this place to go to be safe, this place that wants you to be as different as possible that takes everything that youíre supposed to apologise for and says you absolutely, under no circumstances, will apologise for this today. And then maybe you walk out and you take that with you. The show for us, and the music for me, and the book that I wrote, is exactly what that is about. Itís that I refuse to apologise; I will not be afraid of this anymore, and Iíll have my fucking insane asylum cell number tattooed on my arm, which I did, because Iím just gonna own it and not be ashamed of being crazy, of being called whatever, of being on whatever psychiatric drugs Iíll be on for the rest of my life. I will own it, and Iíll not only do that, Iíll make it into something beautiful, and something that can not only help me but hopefully, if Iím good enough at it, other people. And something that can also pay my rent. And thatís the ultimate revenge.
MD: Thatís a very philanthropic outlook.
EA: We try!
MD: Iíve started reading the book, actually, since we last met and itís really incredible on so many levelsÖitís incredibly well writtenÖ
EA: Thank you so much.
MD: Iím only up to around page 100 as I get very little time to read these days! Itís very horrific reading what you had to endure on the psych ward and so forth, and I remember you saying before that the book represents a lifetime of waiting and wanting to be understood, but do you also hope the book serves to educate people as to the wholeÖit seems like a big paradox with the mental abuse people suffer on the psych wards?
EA: Exactly. Thatís the whole thing ofÖone of the main messages is just letís look at this closely enough to see whoís actually crazy here because ninety nine per cent of the time itís not the people behind the bars. Itís not. And itís not just me talking about me, itís me seeing the other people in the modern day psych ward who, looking at them, saying - ďwow, you were put here because you were inconvenient to somebody, or they didnít wanna take care of you anymore, or itís a cheaper retirement home, or for any number of other reasons, but it doesnít mean youíre crazyĒ. In my case, as you know at least a little bit about me, obviously attempting suicide doesnít mean youíre crazy; it means you really wanna get out of here, and thereís a lot of good solid, logical reasons that are stark raving sane why someone would do that. I believed in them completely at the time, and I believe in them now. I donít think I did a wrong thing and I donít even regret doing that. I still, in some cases, regret being found but, now that I am, Iíve made a decision toÖI donít know how long Iím gonna stay on this planet, but thatís not the point; while Iím gonna be here, Iím not gonna waste my time or anyone elseís. Iím gonna make something good out of thisÖwhatever day it just hurts too much to breathe and I say ďI would prefer to go somewhere elseĒ, then I will, and I wonít feel bad about that either. But, yeah, itís the whole being able to seeÖin order to do this, in order to be here and smile occasionally and all this stuff because things are pretty good right now. Like Iím not gonna lie and pretend to be all Gothic and miserable so that I can make a fashion statement or something, itís not about that; itís about taking these things and saying if Iím going to live with them, Iím going to make them into art, or try, and definitely make them into beauty. The thing in order to do any of that, youíve first got to find whatís funny in the situation, and trying to find whatís funny in some of the most horrific situations a person could be inÖthatís not funny, but youíve gotta find something or youíre gonna die. One of my favourite jokes from the book - I donít know if youíve got to it yet - but when itís the chapter where itís my diary entry on what they feed us in there, in the modern dayÖwell, not the Victorian alter-ego thingÖbecause we eat some pretty crazy stuff in there tooÖ[laughs]Öbut in the modern one in Los Angeles where they brought meÖyou know, Iím under suicide watch; Iíve no appetite whatever; theyíre pumping me full of drugs that I donít even know what they are and theyíre just zoning me out completely; theyíve got a guard posted by my open door; Iím not allowed to even get out of my bed to walk around and go to the bathroom by myselfÖso they bring me dinner which I have to eat or else theyíre gonna put a feeding tube down my throat. So it is a soggy paper plate full of cold, not well cooked spaghetti and a plastic spoon to eat it with. Why? Because you canít have a fork or a knife because youíre gonna kill yourself. So, you get a plastic spoon.
MD: Dangerous weapons those plastic knives and forks!
EA: Definitely! Iíll comment about that in a minute because thereís a funny parallel. But, with that, the joke in the book, of which there are many, is have you ever been asked to eat spaghetti with a plastic spoon because, if you werenít crazy before that, you will be afterwards. So thatís the thing of whoís crazy? The person whoís forced to eat that or the person whoís back saying ďthatís what weíre gonna give that patient todayĒ?Öthatís fucking nuts; thatís crazy!
MD: Thatís why the whole thing seems like one big paradox.
EA: Exactly, itís this big fucking joke. Itís an absolute joke, and the real problem is simply that we talk about a lot of things which is good, in our society, which is we can talk about child abuse, and rape, and all that stuff to some degree, but thereís still so much we donít talk about, largely because we donít know. One of these things isÖwell, on the subject of mental illness, weíve no fuckingÖI mean, calling someone bipolar is now almost equivalent to calling someone retarded.
MD: Exactly.
EA: Itís just like a blank, almost insult for someone whoís acting fucking crazy, which essentially is doing something stupid. Nobody knows what that actually means and, also, what nobody really knows is unless theyíve been locked up in one of these places, they donít get what goes on in there. Why? Letís think about it: because you have no voice and anything you say from the time youíre put away to basically the end of your life, even if you get out, any job you ever have, any relationship you ever have, you are completely discredited, because why? Because youíre a crazy girl and theyíre a doctor with a million dollar education. So when the lawsuit happens because of whatever abuse is committed, who are you gonna believe? Itís not gonna be the crazy girl.
MD: I think one of the most disturbing things for me in reading the book isÖwhen I was at university I read ĎOne Flew Over the Cuckooís Nestí, and obviously saw the movie, and I think the book was originally written in the sixties, but nothing seems to have moved on in terms of how they treat people. Some of that was disturbing to read then, but now it seems to still be quite archaic in their attitudes towards patients and how they treat them.
EA: I know, and thereís a reason why this whole parallel of this realityÖI mean, thereís a reason why itís like this Victorian reality, and Elizabethan reality, and all of that stuff because all the things that modern medicine, modern psychiatry, modern psychology, modern drugs, modern attitudes towards mental illness, modern psych wards - all of that has its basis in the late 1800s. Thatís when the first lobotomies, thatís when photography, thatís when all of these things started to happen that created what we think we know about the brain, about people, about gender, about all of these things. I mean, yeah, we had medicine since the beginning of time but, as we know it, like the real popularisation of the psych ward, the lunatic asylum, was then because before that people were mostly cared for at home or in these hospitals and things where they were put away. But, this whole thing of letís treat these peopleÖletís treat them; letís treat a depressed girl who doesnít wanna get married to some guy she doesnít even know or like by removing her fucking uterus, because thatís not crazy, is it? And thatís the whole thing - whoís crazy and what has changed from then Ďtil now? Because that was insanely common. That was an all the time, every fucking day occurrence. Letís just take things out because removing that will just wipe the problem out immediately. Yeah, you have constant headaches, letís drill a hole in your head. This is real. I didnít have to make up anything. This is all historically, absolutely accurate. Thatís why itís terrifying. And the whole idea of the book, as youíve probably figured out, is like you get the diary entries from here, and you get the diary entries from here, all of which are very real and they get closer and closer until, around the middle, you canítÖunless you read the date and where they came from, you canít tell anymore whose is whose because they are exactly the same. Thatís the point.
MD: Itís a real fucking good Gothic horror read as well.
EA: Thank you so much.
MD: Iíve always loved all the old Gothic literature from Walpoleís ĎThe Castle of Otrantoí, to Ann Radcliffe, to Edgar Allan Poe, to even Dickens and Wilkie CollinsÖ
EA: Yeah, thatís the thing of what Gothic actually means.
MD: Are you into Gothic literature at all?
EA: Oh yeah, totally, absolutely. To me, thatís real Gothic art. Gothic is not a black trench coatÖwhich I love too but thatís not the pointÖand Gothic isnít a style of music with people wailing; thatís not what it is, although that can all be very entertaining and Gothic dancersÖvery entertaining, which I actually love, I mean, this is awesome. I know I donít really have to say it because you know what I mean by thisÖour Gothic fans are amazingÖbut what Gothic actually means, and they should know this more than anyone, there are actual fucking authors, and painters, and Goya, and all these things, and thatís Gothic.
MD: Definitely, the original conception of Gothic.
EA: And if you want to go back to farther than that then Goths are what? Goths are a tribe of fucking rapers and pillagers who came over and started slaughtering people, you know, over a thousand years ago. Thatís what Goth is so, if youíre gonna own that title, know what it is youíre doing to where then when Iím like - ďIs this Goth music? Iím a Goth. Iím the Goth queen!ĒÖitís like, really?! Because letís think about what that really means. There are some really awesome things that Goth is. Thereís fucking Gothic architecture. I wish I could be as badass as that! Iím gonna work on it, and then I should deserve to be titled that, but Iím not there yet.
MD: The whole subplot of the book, though, itís brilliant and captures the whole Gothic vibeÖ
EA: Thank you so much. Aww, that makes me happy. Because even just on the level as a writer, I want that to be enjoyed by the people who just want to read a book; they donít need to know anything about me.
MD: Ah, itís incredible. All the interior monologues are very Poe-esque, I thought. Yeah, brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
EA: Yeah, so I think they shouldnít even need to know if itís true or not, it should just be a novel.
MD: Exactly.
EA: Thank you. Youíve made my day!