Why should anyone care about Gene Simmons? It’s been more than forty years since Kiss’s first single, “Nothin’ to Lose,” featured him singing about coercive anal sex. He’s long since descended into self-parody, if that wasn’t already his métier. And yet he persists in the culture like a bad infection, pervading reality TV and wagging his preternaturally long tongue at anyone he disdains, including Muslims, suicidal depressives, non–English speakers, and Prince, whose death, from a fentanyl overdose, he called “pathetic.” Behind all of this is the steady drumbeat of misogyny. In 2002, he told the “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, “If you want to welcome me with open arms, I’m afraid you’re also going to have to welcome me with open legs.”
This week, Simmons has been at it again, having told the New York Post that women should “pretty themselves up with lipstick” and “commit to either career or family.” Later, appearing on “Today” in leather pants and a cap with a bag of money on it, he defended his remarks: “I’m not saying life is fair. I’m saying the male of the species is visually stimulated.” Most recently, after a taping at Fox Business, he burst uninvited into a Fox News staff meeting, yelling, “Hey, chicks, sue me!” as he exposed his chest and navel. He thumped a pair of employees on the head with a copy of his new book, “On Power: My Journey Through the Corridors of Power and How You Can Get More Power.” His journey through the corridors of Fox did not get him more power. It got him banned from the network for life.
Still, “On Power” is selling briskly on Amazon, and not, one suspects, because Simmons has demonstrated its utility as a blunt object. The book’s farrago of libertarianism, traditionalism, and avarice appeals to a set of aging baby boomers, the same ones who propelled Trump to the White House; in Simmons, as in their President, they see an unvarnished truth teller, one who won’t stand for the crumbling of old hierarchies. It’s no accident that Kiss’s high period coincided with the acme of Trump’s development career. Kiss is the Trump Tower of bands: vulgar, fatuous, and pyrotechnic, fixed on lucre and seemingly designed to exercise droit du seigneur.
Simmons’s thesis, if that’s not too decorous a word, is that power is an amoral tool, no matter how much of it you have. It’s the wrong argument for any moment, but it’s especially perverse in this one, when so many powerful men, including Simmons, have been revealed as venal megalomaniacs. He promises a Machiavellian treatise “on the dynamics of power in every realm of life,” but he ignores any evidence of said power’s corruptibility. Instead, he tells us, like a hard-nosed vice-principal, to work endlessly, to crush the lazy, and to celebrate our lust for cold, hard cash.
Yes, Simmons wants you to own your cupidity, so that you might soon own whatever you want. Learn to shout words like “Power!” and “Money!” In the familiar airline-safety advisory about securing your own oxygen mask before assisting others, he sees a mantra, or at least a useful metaphor for trickle-down economics. Concentrate on getting rich, and then you can help people with your wealth, if you’re into that. Anyone who disagrees is powerless to stop him, at least until they give up all that moralizing hooey and go for the gold. “Instead of asking me to conform to your sensitivities, become more powerful than I am and make your vision of life dominant,” he taunts. It never seems to occur to him that people might do this together, through collective action. In Simmonsland, there are no unions, no revolutions, no class struggle. Actually, there are no friends—“unless they’re helping you gain power, they’re not your friends”—and no hobbies, because “business is life. It is everything.” It’s lonely at the top of “Me, Inc.”—the title of Simmons’s previous book.
To justify such unrelenting dreariness, Simmons poses as a pragmatist. “Life Is Not Fair and the World Does Not Care About You,” one of his headers says. But he soon outs himself as someone far more Darwinian, confessing that “life should not be fair, even if we had the power to wave a magic wand and make it all fair.” Nature’s inherent cruelty has given humanity an evolutionary edge, and eliminating injustice would remove the intense existential pressure that “turns coal into diamonds.” The surest route to diamond-hood, thus, is to deny yourself, and your loved ones, anything resembling a handout. You know the Ferber method, in which parents let their babies cry instead of soothing them? Imagine doing that, forever. If you give your kids a weekly allowance “for doing nothing,” well, “stop it,” Simmons commands. Your children may experience something akin to pleasure for its own sake, which will ruin them for this vale of tears. On the other side, don’t expect to go easy on yourself. “Retirement, to me, is more terrifying than death,” he says. (He’s not above golfing, though.)
“Become the product you wish to sell,” Simmons writes, and that is exactly what he’s done, and what Trump has done, in coarsening and packaging himself for the marketplace. Simmons and Trump exist not just to buy and sell but to be bought and sold, and they can’t see how anyone could resist the impulse. Emulate someone “who is powerful and intimidating,” Simmons advises. “I’m sure you know one. I sure do. Usually, it’s me.” It follows, of course, that Simmons is constantly imitating himself, sending himself further into caricature; after so many years, his noise overpowers his signal. He likes to paint himself, sometimes literally, as a cartoon bad guy, but his book doesn’t recommend colonizing the moon or building a gleaming ice castle patrolled by faceless henchmen. That brand of mustache twirling would be much easier to forgive. No, the self-styled villain, banned from the most chauvinist network on television, is actually telling people how to live, and, chillingly, others seem to be listening.
In its most confounding passage, “On Power” finds a model in Frank Underwood, from “House of Cards.” True, Underwood is a murderer—a fictitious one, at that—but he exemplifies a kind of can-do psychopathy that Simmons admires. “If you find psychopaths terrifying, it’s likely because they are the most effective at the evil they do,” he writes. “So I would ask you to seize this power for yourself. . . . Be a psychopath with a conscience.” There is no such thing, of course, just as there is no such person as Underwood; there’s only Kevin Spacey, whose abuses of power have left him in disgrace.
“On Power” is a compact book, almost a vade mecum, published as if some graying titan might consult it before striding into the Senate cloakroom. That sounds absurd, but, if Trump is our President, and our Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is posing with a sheet of cash, who’s to say that Simmons isn’t coursing through the body politic? The book’s top Amazon review, at present, calls it a “raw dose of reality.” And it does reflect a hard truth: that Simmons and his ilk have succeeded in yoking the nihilism of the rock age to a policing, rapacious conservatism. “I made a living spitting blood, sticking my tongue out, and being as grotesque and horrifying as possible,” he brags. Were it written in the present tense, it would be the truest sentence in the book.