Freak Show is the 18th studio album by a band known as The Residents. Released in December of the year 1990, Freak Show is a concept album detailing stories and the lives of a variety of characters within a travelling freak show carnival. The album was also further expanded through multimedia projects such as a graphic novel and a CD-ROM.
The Residents themselves have a long, complicated and interesting history. Starting all the way since the mid 1960s, they're still active till this day with new projects in the works. While still remaining very obscure in nature till this day, their work not limited to only albums and the impact they've left on the avant garde music scene is interesting to look into and plentiful. However that is not what I will be focusing on here, instead this page will be dedicated as a full analysis of the Freak Show album including the CD ROM and graphic novel. I highly reccomend you listen to the album to atleast get a bit of an understanding to what I will be talking about.
It's made very obvious in the name itself and theme that this album is exploring and commenting about a freak show, exhibitions displaying "abnormalities" of any kind. Taking place for almost centuries, being at it's peak popularity throughout the 1840s through to the 1940s before slowing dying out and mostly being looked down upon by most due to it's inherit nature of being massly discriminatory, especially towards disabled people and people of color, exploiting said people for profit. Freak shows have often been used as a topic of storytelling in popular culture especially in media like television, a very popular example being American Horror Story: Freak Show. The whole idea revolving the residents freak show's theme is best summarized here:
Most plots revolving around this theme tend to cover the perspective of the performers within these freak shows and it's no different here in this album, each track past the first and last two tracks focusing on a different performer within this attraction. The characters potrayed being: Harry the head, Herman the human mole, Wanda the worm woman, Jello Jack the boneless boy, Benny the bouncing bump and Mickey, exceptions of the cast featured in the album/other media is Tex the barker/ringleader, Lillie a frequent visitor of the freakshow and the love interest/random woman featured in Harry the head's story (Grizelda).
Each song goes into detail about said performers quirk, some background to said character such in cases like Herman or sometimes their inner monologue about something they wish or aspire for themselves. Every song before theirs has Tex introducing who the performers are and their quirk. This is further expanded on in the CD ROM and the graphic novels.
The immediate most interesting thing to note when you've listened to the songs or even seen the comics or cd rom is how some of these performers aren't even all that "abnormal" especially through mordern lenses, cases such as Herman and Wanda, Herman literally just being an albino man with dirt caked on him and Wanda apart from her wig of worms being just a regular woman, alongside characters like Mickey who are just artificially/intentional "freaks" as Mickey is just a shave/skinned baboon. This I feel is indicative of how in most cases of performers in actual freakshows, they were for the most part just regular people who had disabilities/medical conditions , were of certain ethniticies or even just things like a certain height or weight. What would've been considered "strange" during those times nowadays are just very common and normal things.
Another thing I want to focus on for this analysis as well is Tex's role in this album/story, despite not having much information on hims beyond him being the main guy behind the freak show attraction and what little backstory we get from the lyrics of Wanda (the worm woman) and in the CD ROM, what you can make from it is very interesting especially with how and what it really says about Tex as a character and especially his relationship with the other performers, particulary Wanda.
Tex the barker anaylsis/character study
All we know of Tex's backstory is through a part in the Freak Show CD ROM when you access the area of the performers caravans and talk to Tex through pouring him a drink and a little except in the Wanda (the worm woman) song lyrics at the very beginning in which he was a lion tamer before being injured presumbably in a act before getting into the freak show business.
The most interesting thing we get of Tex is his infatuation/how he views Wanda and to an extent, most of the performers he hires/takes in. We get it all from the beginning and end of Wanda's song when Tex narrates.
"Sneering at a leering lady, as she stares and squirms. At Wanda with her saintly smile And living wig of worms. I like to watch their faces fall as we disgust and shame them, seeking suckers is my game-- No longer lion taming."
"Like a pink and pregnant pumpkin perched upon her neck. Wanda Wadkins' head was hurting, it was bitten by insects. I watched the awkward way she waddled, walking to the pail. She always used to wash her worms, and clean beneath her nails. I love the soul I see inside her, but I just can't love her. Folding fat that rolls around, like bowling balls in butter?!"
"Why, Wanda why. Do I always watch you cry?"
The lyrics I've highlighted are the ones I will be going into detail off as they're the most important in this discussion.
Starting off with the lyrics "I like to watch their faces fall as we digust and shame them", it already gives us an idea that Tex himself acknowledges for the time how cruel and dehumanizing a freak show is towards the peformers and actively shames and judges the audience attending for being digusted or shocked at said performers especially supported by the "seeking suckers is my game" lyric which shows he's fully aware of how ignorant these people paying to come to the freak show are. These lyrics also accompanied with the fact that in the track/song "Lillie" Tex and the performers regulary discuss the kinds of people who come to watch the show and how despite them being "normal", they're perhaps the most strangest and freakiest of everyone of the freak show shows that Tex is aware that beyond the performers quirks especially with characters like Jello Jack that they're for the most part just regular people who's lives are affected by said quirk. However with how he acts towards Wanda and his infatuation with her, despite himself acknowlegding that he truely loves Wanda for who she is as a person, he still rejects any ideas of remotely being with Wanda romantically despite possible mutual feelings being shared based soley on superficial reasons such as Wanda's weight or even her status as a "freak".
This brings me to a smaller point with how Tex recruits Herman in the first place and ultimately how he views himself in this situation. It's shown in the Herman the human mole comic that Herman is just a regular guy named Eddie with albino before having to live low due to an insane accident he just so happened to be involved with, due to being caked with dirt, when captured by some for stealing food, he's mistaken for a literal mole/human mole in which upon of the capturers asking what'd they do with him, Tex offers Herman a job offer as a performer in the freak show.
It says a lot how Tex's first reaction to seeing a possibly injured, dirty man who looks a little odd is to immediately offer them a job as a freak show performer, this alongside his views of how ignorant the audiences of these freak show are really makes me think Tex has a superiority complex, thinking he's so much better than the audience for not immediately sneering at the sight of the performers and offering them jobs at his freak show as if he's their big saviour giving them one last chance to be anything in life when it's so obvious Tex is just as, if not worst than the audience itself for even hosting a freak show business and exploiting the performers for profit while playing into dehumanizing them even more. This all accompanied with how it's implied that after the show most of the performers can kinda do whatever they want (Herman having available contacts for stuff like his old therapist of pizza) really shows just how apathetic Tex is towards the performers, and even in cases where he feels guilt for how he treats some of them (mostly Wanda from the ending lyrics of her song) he doesn't seem to really care to try to actually do anything impactful or make things remotely right.
Lillie song and character analysis
Lillie is a frequent visitor of the freak shows, appearing almost every show in the audience. It's made a point in her track in general how most of the people in the audience watching the freak shows are even more freakier than the performers themselves, with everyone in the freak show agreeing that Lillie is definitely the freakiest of them all. Her story desc reads:
"After the show the members of the freak show family love to make fun of what they consider the real freaks - the people in the audience who stared and pointed but who were obviously stranger than anybody on stage. But no matter how many odd characters they found to laugh at, conversation always came back to Lillie. The freaks were all afraid of the spooky character who followed the show from town to town and who was always dressed entirely in white. Lillie never said a word but somehow created a palpable fear that even eye contact might be enough to draw one into the whirlpool of madness behind her facade of softness and purity."
Out of all the characters within the freak show album, Lillie's appearance/face has never been shown beyond a very vauge silhouette of her and a single picture of what she looks like in the Freak Show pREServed edition.
(White woman jumpscare)
Despite what little info we really have of Lillie's character beyond her being weird enough to scare the performers and the fact that she's extremely white (not even kidding), what we can make out of her song track especially the latter part (alongside a personal theory I've conjured up) is extremely interesting.
The first part of her song is pretty standard with the performers (mainly Jellow Jack, Wanda and Benny) alongside Tex discussing the peculiar faces who come to see the show, it's till Benny brings up Lillie when everyone halts the converstation and it's said how Lillie is the one who "freaks the freaks out" The second half of her song is when things get interesting as it's about Lillie's internal monologue about a certain man she knew who hated her, she attempts to calm herself down by thinking about her favourite color white before screaming out the sentence "make me dirty" and the song ending with the chorus begging for someone to touch her.
"There's a spot a spot on my glove on my glove I know, no no maybe it was make em runny make em runny. Honey... doilies? doilies... where have all the doilies gone... Roses will whither and die, along with the lace and the lies. Nothing is nicer than death, at matching the bad and the best. Heh heh... he hated me he hated me and hate is white and hate is hot but I'll not even have disdain for him not even a stain on a memory looked up to, lacking all respect for him I'm blacking out the specks of decent thoughts that linger in me and leave only white white peaceful white calm white swans silently flying in the snow look down and see the bleached bones of a noble knight who died trying to save his lady his lovely white lady who brought her man milk in the moonlight but it was too late too late too late he said-"
"Scratch out all the pin holes, open up the sores. Don't look out the window Hatred's at the door. Scratch out the pin holes, open up the sores. Don't look out the window, white hatred's at the door. Scratch out the pin holes"
"Make me dirty make me dirty make me dirty! (Touch her someone, Touch her someone, Reach out to her, Touch her soiled soul.)"
Now obviously this is a lot and I'm just going to be explaining my interpretation of Lillie's song especially for it's second half and a theory I have related to her and the comics.
Upon first hearing of the song, I interpretated as a past (most likely) romantic relationship Lillie had which was less than pleasant with Lillie's inner monolouge about this unknown past lover now hating her and how she tries at first to be indifferent about it claiming to not even care from the lyrics "I'll not even have disdain for him not even a stain on a memory looked up to, lacking all respect for him". That as well as the latter lyrics implying possibly sexual context (the repition of the 'make me dirty' and 'touch her someone' lyrics) points to Lillie most likely previously being in a absuive if not very unpleasant relationship atleast bad enough for her to have thoughts like this.
This is where my theory comes in, that Lillie is the same woman/voice from Harry the head's story ("Grizelda"). For some context Harry the head's song has a section within it in which a unknown woman sings about being so mad she knocked Harry across the floor and how he then painted angels on her dress. That woman makes a major appearance in Harry's comic which shows her attending the freak show and her abducting Harry possibly due to an infuatation for him she had in which Harry used in his favour for her to do his bidding. Eventually the woman starts resenting Harry once he starts bothering and insulting her due to not being able to sell his paintings anywhere in which she knocks him on the floor and leaves him to die before returning his head back in a jar of formaldehyde. Apart from two instances in which Harry calls this woman "Grizelda", this woman is never named or referred to with a name. However upon relistening to the tracks, reading the comic and further thinking more about the second half of Lillie's song, it starts to kinda add up and connect.
The fact that within the Harry the head comic it's shown that even the townsfolk finds her peculiar as well, how it's stated that Lillie wears strictly white lace clothing (which the woman in the comic also wears), in one shot of the comic this woman can be seen working with a sewing machine (which makes me think of the "scratch out all the pin holes" lyric) alongside how Harry treats that woman in the comic (regulary insulting her) and how it correalates with the theme of this unknown past lover in Lillie's track hating her as well as the last panel of the woman in the comic naked having clear sexual desires (also matches up with the "touch her" ending lyrics)
Obviously this could all just be a large coincidence or I'm just grasping at straws, however I do like the idea of both the Harry the Head and Lillie tracks kinda intertwining with each other especially with Harry's track being the first character track while Lillie's the last.
The real conclusion to this is that white woman are scary/j
Freak Show's message and disability
I'd now like to circle back to an earlier thing I was talking about before going into character analysises and this image provided in the Freak Show Graphic Novel.
Very specifically focusing on the particular part throughout the whole thing:
"In these more enlightened times, modern medical science has eliminated most of these human oddities either through abortion or corrective surgery. When these curiosities do manage to be born or created through disease or accident, society has decided that it is wrong to exploit these people, and, perhaps, that is a noble attitude. But perhaps, too, it is a denial of the ugliness and deformity that we "normal" people feel within. In an increasingly homogenized and conformist culture, we have become afraid of the distorted reflection we see in "freaks", and at the same time, we deny them the ability to exploit what may be seen as their only "gift." We may no longer condone the exhibition of human oddities, but the "freaks" still attract stares. The difference is that they no longer get paid for it."
"Is our modern enlightened attitude actually an improvement over the old travelling freak shows?"
I think Freak Show really highlights the idea that while people nowadays can obviously recognize and acknowlegde with full confidence how freak shows and the like from the past are inhuman and wrong, and despite many advances made to accommodate those who for example are disabled, have we really truely progressed past such bias of what and who could be considred a "freak"? Especially with ongoing discrimination and ignorance towards marginalized groups such as disabled people, the freak show also mirrors some people's attitudes against said groups as purley gawking material or spectacles to be laughed at or used as inspiration porn.
The perception of disability soley being a burden and "disease" or as an extreme rarity makes it harder to really track any progress for the rights of disabled people and further accomadate for those who are affected by such, if we actually take it upon ourselves to make accesible and educate while unlearning bias and stereotypes, disabled people wouldn't have to face so much stigma and negative impact in their lives.
I think the lyrics from the ending track "Nobody laughs when they leave" truely says a lot.
"Everyone comes to the Freak Show, To laugh at the Freaks and the Geeks. Everyone comes to the Freak Show, But nobody laughs when they leave"