Slipknot's masks have always crucial to their identity and mythos. It started, per a 2002 interview with frontman Corey Taylor, as a way of more deeply immersing themselves in their music and performance—"a way for us to become unconscious of who we are and what we do outside of music," he said. As such, when they update their masks each album cycle, it becomes a source of speculation for critics and fans. What does it mean that Taylor's mask is a little gnarlier this time around? Will the music be darker and more complex, too?
So the masks are very meaningful... except, they're also kind of a joke. Their characters have always traded on classic horror tropes (the deviant clown; the gas mask; the sorta serial-killer, human-skin look) which have an inherent wink to them. They're not demons; they're movie monsters. So the band has always seemed to have a sense of humor about them, even if they do have real connections to their work. After all, they have a percussionist for their new album, We Are Not Your Kind, that Taylor has called "tortilla face," because he wears a mask that looks like a tortilla. Clearly, they aren't taking this all too seriously.
That's part of what makes one strange incident from Slipknot's past so baffling. In 2005, the group had an extended legal dispute with Burger King, stemming from a baffling marketing campaign for "Chicken Fries."
According to the website of Tom Zukoski, an employee of the creative firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the creative firm created a campaign for Burger King centered around the idea that Chicken Fries were a "rebellious" way to eat chicken. What else is rebellious? Well, rock music, of course. So they crafted a band called Coq Roq that recorded an actual album, filmed two music videos, and planned (then cancelled) a national tour. Per Zukoski's site, the campaign was part of a product launch that was then the most successful in the company's history. Crispin Porter + Bogusky won an award at Cannes Lion for the Coq Roq website.
Things got messy, however, when Slipknot caught wind of the whole endeavor. You see, like Slipknot, Coq Roq were a pseudonymous crew of hard rockers—they had names like Fowl Mouth, Free Range, and Firebird—who wore, importantly, creepy masks. Coq Roq, however, didn't style themselves like the residents of a theme park haunted house; they just wore kind of upsetting chicken masks. Still, this rubbed Slipknot the wrong way. In the eyes of their legal team, Coq Roq was a deliberate attempt to profit off their image. According to The Smoking Gun, shortly after the launch of the campaign, a lawyer representing Slipknot sent a letter to Burger King corporate threatening a lawsuit.
It presents a curious argument, suggesting that the masks that Coq Roq wear—which as you might remember, are chickens—are deliberately evoking some of the hallmarks of Slipknot's masks at the time. You can be the judge of that yourself in the video for Coq Roq's "Bob Your Head," a sorta garage-y rock song that, to my ears at least, sounds more like something off an Eagles of Death Metal album than a Slipknot song. But where things get interesting in the letter is when the lawyers allege that Burger King and Crispin Porter + Bogusky actually approached Slipknot the year prior to participate in an ad campaign, which the band then declined. Sorta dodgy, if true!
Just a few days later, Burger King and the ad firm responded by making a court filing asking for a judge to declare that they weren't infringing upon Slipknot's copyright. Their argument, in part, was based on the fact that a lot of bands "wear masks and/or make-up to accomplish a mask-like effect, including but not limited to the bands KISS, Gwar, Insane Clown Posse, Mushroomhead, Mudvayne, Marilyn Manson, Los Straitjackets, and the Spits." They also pointed out that, incidentally, members of Slipknot themselves have acknowledged that lots of bands wear masks. In a 2004 interview, the filing points out, Joey Jordison admitted that "there's a lot of room in music and the arts for bands to wear masks or whatever."
Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed. Slipknot dropped their complaint and Coq Roq ran their course, ultimately cancelling their tour when, per Zukoski, their Canadian singer was unable to leave the country due to his criminal record.
But the whole incident raises a lot of questions, especially now that Slipknot has cemented their connections to the food industry with Tortilla Man. Did Slipknot just not have a sense of humor about the whole thing? What sort of existential confusion do you go through when you watch a commercial featuring a bunch of guys wearing chicken masks and think, "They're ripping off my band?" Most importantly, do I have to be a Slipknot fan now, since they once dedicated themselves to taking down a giant corporation?
Thankfully, you have some time to mull these questions (and others) over as you listen to the band's new epic We Are Not Your Kind, which is out today. It rocks and does not benefit a fast food company in any way.