Quarantining The Past: A Satirical Look At Creed’s ‘Human Clay’

    Scott Stapp, frontman for Creed and father to a son Adam Levine very much like’s to imitate, has finally given us the tell-all memoir we all were waiting for in Sinner’s Creed. Well, okay, we weren’t necessarily waiting for it, but we need it. Or so the press material says of Stapp’s story of his spiritual journey, his testimony. Apparently, Stapp “writes words that matter,” as a songwriter and as an author (though pre-release interviews conveniently ignore David Ritz’s writing help). 

    And yes, there are real obstacles like addiction that the book addresses, though it might avoid less embarrassing obstacles like when you’re own fans sue you for being, well, awful. The point is it’s all about finding purpose and having big answers to big questions. Which was also what Creed’s 1999 album Human Clay was about. And it’s got all kinds of big (read: vague) questions with all kinds of big (read: also vague, and self-righteous) answers. More importantly, it assures us that rich white dudes like Stapp have problems too. Even if they can’t tell us what they are.

    Now what you have to remember as we dig into Human Clay is that, in 1999, Scott Stapp had just recently escaped from a prison of his own creation. It was a strange prison he built in his mind, with Inception-like layers that allow court to be in session and a verdict to come in and appeal-less dockets to be presented while, at the same time, Stapp was stuck in a “cage made of steel.” So, yeah, you try breaking out of a prison/courtroom all on your own, especially when you made it yourself so you know all the ways you can get out but also all the ways you’re trying to get out. Crazy hard, right?

    So you can imagine why Stapp was both feeling free and frustrated on Human Clay. He’d both thrown off his shackles and been duped by his only prisoner (himself), but like the singer from Midnight Oil who, on the cover of Human Clay, found that watch on the side of the road (without a metal detector, by the way) Stapp was going to find his own junk on the side of his own road. He may, as he tells us on album opener “Are You Ready?” prefer not to walk “down roads been walked before” — which, folksy as it is, begs the question how the road got created if no one walked down it — but Human Clay finds him making his own path. Somewhere. On the way to something. I think.

    What If? Indeed

    The singles tell us all we need to know about Stapp and his search for the place and the feeling. “What if?” was a perfect starting point for those of us wishing to walk alongside Stapp on his journey. His brutal honesty and openness are right up front when he tells us “I can’t find rhyme in my reason,” which cuts to the quick, but then he also admits he “lost sense of time and all seasons” which isn’t so much honest as it is troubling, since it sure sounds like he may be suffering from dementia. Or, perhaps, he’s suffering from post-concussion syndrome since he “feel[s] I’ve been beaten down by the words of men who have no grounds.” He probably means the words are groundless, but it sure sounds like he’s been jumped by some homeless guys who somehow fashioned weapons out of their words. Getting beat up by homeless wizards has got to be embarrassing.

    So he’s been beaten into a stupor by bums, which would make anyone wonder about their “reason” and if that weren’t bad enough, he’s got insomnia. He “can’t sleep beneath the trees of wisdom,” apparently because “your ax has cut the roots.” Nice going you, whoever you are, don’t you know how delicious wisdom is when it’s ripe? Why would you deny Scott Stapp that delicious fruit? And all that hacking away is keeping him awake. And our beaten, insomniac hero is now beset on all sides by “forked tongues in bitter mouths” who “drive a man to bleed from the inside out.” So we’ve jumped from men with axes to some kind of snakes — so there’s trees and snakes and lost innocence which means Stapp has read the Bible — and these snakes are so dangerous that they don’t have to bite you, they can simply will you to bleed from the “inside out” which, you know, is how bleeding works.

    What a tough road Scott Stapp has picked to travel, persecuted at every turn by some you, some men. That freedom he gained isn’t serving him too well, but he learned something in his self-made cell, and he’s ready to fight. “What if I avenge?” he asks. “What if eye for an eye?” It’s the first of many almost important questions Stapp asks on Human Clay and, just in case you thought it was all about him, the second verse tells us “my stage is shared by many millions” (millions who probably remember the words better than Stapp) and “we are one, we are strong” even though the rest of us aren’t quite sure who the hell we’re fighting against or even if we’re travelling the same path as Stapp. Of course, if it doesn’t feel like you’re walking with Stapp, it’s because it is in those moments where you feel like you’re not with him that he is, in fact, carrying you. There is only one set of footprints.

    With Arms Wide Open And Other Vague Gestures

    What a dangerous, predatory world Stapp introduces us to, but also a fiery will to survive said world. I’m not sure what he did to invite all that ire — though buddying up with Fred Durst does have it’s drawbacks — but damn if a white dude don’t have some problems. And things weren’t tricky enough, “With Arms Wide Open” is about to really throw Stapp off because, surprise! Little Jagger is on the way.

    “I just heard the news today,” he tells us, so we know that he’s still on his journey because he sounds awfully far away, or his wife communicates to him in morse code. “It seems my life is gonna change,” he continues, which makes him sound pretty bummed out until (psych!) he prays and then “tears of joy stream down [his] face.” And then, as you may have guessed, his arms are wide open (just like he does in all those videos, which looks oddly like a guy on a cross). “Welcome to this place, I’ll show you everything,” he says to either a fetus or a newborn because time passes quickly when you’re hearing news and your life is changing. The good news is that since his arms are already wide open it’s pretty easy to show someone everything, though don’t expect him to point to anything specific. Details ain’t what the journey’s about. It’s also not about talking about your new kid as a person. “We’ve created life,” Stapp tells us like he’s Dr. Frankenstein and, as if his white-dude problems weren’t already insurmountable, now he has to raise a kid after he knocked up whoever it is that’s in the song with him. But no matter, he doesn’t need to do anything, he’ll just thrown out “just one wish, only one demand,” which, by the way, are pretty different things, but way to sneak that demand in rock-star style. “I hope he’s not like me,” Stapp says, “I hope he understands.” And at this point you think that’s a pretty good wish, because Stapp doesn’t seem to understand a whole lot about this. He’s just going to walk around with his arms simultaneous out and holding his son’s hand and then show him both “love” and “everything,” because the two are mutually exclusive.

    Higher To A Place That’s High

    “Higher,” on the other hand, wishes for something entirely different. It comes right after “With Arms Wide Open,” and Stapp is not all that psyched about this baby thing anymore. “In dreaming I’m guided to another world,” he starts, and one hopes he made this one prison-free, but also we start to wonder about his grip on how his mind works because, dude, it’s just a dream. That guy serving you pancakes who you know is your high school gym teacher even though he doesn’t look like your high school gym teacher doesn’t exist in another dimension, I promise. Regardless, a white dude likes to dream and he does not like to get up. He admits “at sunrise I fight to stay asleep” so it looks like mom is feeding and changing the baby again. But let’s cut Stapp some slack, he’s been fighting against something or another for all of Human Clay, and if James Carville got that ten-year-employee watch on the cover of the album, Stapp just has this kid and the you with the axes and the snakes with their mind-bleeding thing, and the pressure of selling millions of albums. Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Just like in the Bible. 

    So Stapp likes to dream, it’s fun, and better than, you know, waking up. “So let’s go there,” he invites “you” which, let’s hope it’s not the you from before, because that you fucked up his wisdom tree. And I’m not sure how you will get there anyway since, um, it’s a dream. But despite his ability to dream on his own, he does seem to need help to get away from his family-man drudgery. “Can you take me higher?” he implores, so apparently he dreams above himself and wherever it is he dreams, it’s, I guess, a lot like some version of heaven since it’s “a place where blind men see” (did I mention Stapp has read the Bible?). Of course, this “higher” place must have some serious infrastructure issues if, as Stapp claims, it has “golden streets” because, listen, gold is a very soft metal and that is just not a sustainable plan. 

    The good thing about being in these dreams that are definitely already his, but he needed help to get to, is that now that he is “up high” he can both “feel like I’m alive” (which we all are when we’re sleeping) and “strong enough to take these dreams and make them mine.” And while you might question the circularity of this logic, haven’t we put enough pressure on Scott Stapp already? Can’t we just let him feel his nonsensical feelings and convey them to us nonsensically?

    So What Is Human Clay, Anyway?

    Human Clay tells us all we need to know about Scott Stapp’s journey. It is one that comes from privilege, the kind of white man’s burden that feels vague and doesn’t make sense because it is both of those things. If Sinner’s Creed has more specific and, yes, more real-life traumas — that are, admittedly, difficult to overcome — it also posits itself not as a story to share, but as a lesson to impart. Stapp has always mashed together the idea of being both persecuted and savior, and Human Clay weaves its vague circles around those ideas. And yet there’s no responsibility to be found anywhere. His dreams are not his, someone else has to take him higher, he created life but hopes something else sorts the kid out. In “Higher” he says “Let’s ask can we stay?” In his dream world. That’s above. Somewhere. Away from something. Something too tough to deal with. Too heavy to carry. Like that waxen Lex Luthor at the crossroads on the cover, Stapp can go anywhere but goes nowhere. He may, like Jay-Z, have 99 problems, but he can’t name one.

    And it’s this kind of vague strife and prescriptive spirituality that make Human Clay both hilariously non-sensical and fascinatingly bland. The album has him getting beaten down, and then spreading life, and then retreating from that life, back into the prison he made before. Though  Sinner’s Creed seems to assure us that the court is no longer in session. Verdicts have indeed come in. Time has been served. You’d think, in his own courtroom, that Stapp would also be the judge, and that this would be how he gets abs0lved of blame, even as seems to have paid for what he’s done.

    But here’s the thing: It’s not Scott Stapp letting himself off the hook, giving himself the authority to air his vague grievances. It’s us. Human Clay sold 11.5 million copies. It charted for 104 weeks in a row. In its popularity, it represented a want to both shirk responsibility and cry foul when things don’t go our way, to feel both unjustly put upon and impossibly strong, despite presenting no evidence for either. It confirms our belief that we too have feelings and problems and therefore invest in outlets that let us bask in the immediate satisfaction of experiencing them without ever having to sort through them, articulate them, or deal with them in anyway.

    Albums like Human Clay reflect a largely white, largely male stasis of both feeling and action, where we are both somehow above the fray and ever burdened by it. This is conservatism disguised as rebellion, a distraction from problems disguised as an illumination of them. It’s a type of escapism, which is not an inherently bad quality to media, but the trap here is that it presents itself as something real. And 11.5 million people went along with that illusion. Sure, the musical landscape has changed since Human Clay came out, but a lot of the indie music being celebrated today (still very white, even as it gets more diverse), with its vague, navel-gazing melancholy, and sounds like soothing musical hugs from speedy foxes or groups of horses or not-quite-French monikers are — let’s be honest — dangerously close to being the other side of the same coin, even if they have more perceived musical merit. Also, consider the anticipation and early praise for Sinner’s Creed in the context of a political climate driven largely by the white and privileged telling us about imagined problems for the few and no true solutions for the many. And yet, we don’t talk about how to change the perspective our politics come from, we just quibble over which distracting voice to listen to. All of a sudden, that own-prison business doens’t seem quite as funny.