Marilyn Manson is perhaps the most controversial figure in music. He’s an American icon, a heavy metal rock star who’s sold more than fifty million albums. He’s a middle-aged man who still hasn’t gotten over his goth stage. He’s a provider of progressively experimental rock fare. He’s the poster child for everything that conservative America hates. And most importantly, he’s an interesting and intelligent commentator on America’s twin obsessions of violence and celebrity—his stage name is a blend of glamorous superstar Marilyn Monroe and heinous serial killer Charles Manson.
There are few artists whose personalities act as companion pieces to their music. Such personas have the power to create an intangible feeling which amplifies the sensory satisfaction of the music. David Bowie and Michael Jackson come to mind, perhaps even mid-2000s Lady Gaga. Marilyn Manson stands on the same pedestal. Or rather, he smashes his knee-high boots on the pedestal until the stone begins to crumble.
Marilyn Manson is a visionary and a curator. While creating shockingly spectacular, grotesquely hypnotizing, or genuinely heart-wrenching music, he also draws influence from his favorite musicians and films, blending styles and feelings in ways that are both disconcerting and satisfying. His music is reminiscent of the experimentation of The Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, only with a vigorous intonation and lyrics infused with strong imagery. Using this concoction of inspiration as a backdrop enables the narrative and social commentary of his lyrics to assault listeners’ ears with unmatched veracity. Manson’s best songs document a career that is unlike any other that came before him. Mixing a rock ‘n’ roll mentality with electronic elements and profound lyrics that narrate the progression of society in real time, Manson has developed a polarizing identity as both a beloved hero and a reviled villain.
It’s saddening that this side of his public image is what bars many people from taking the chance to listen to some awesome music. His bizarre image is an expression of individuality, his demeanor an instigator for contemplation. His overt exaggerations of violence and sexuality act as opportunities for reflection on how the media portrays and idolizes these things. He’s the ultimate example of the saying that you should not judge a book by its cover, and the content within this particular book is just as entertaining as it is culturally significant.
Following the Columbine school shooting of 1999, politicians and the media blamed Manson for inciting the perpetrators to violence. He became an outlet for the nation’s pain and confusion. Manson initially refused to publicly speak of the incident as a protest against media sensationalism. And then, a year later, he released “The Nobodies” as the third single from his album, Holy Wood. The song characterizes the Columbine shooters’ rise from nobodies to household names, and takes a shot at the media with the line, “You should have seen the ratings that day.” In an interview with Michael Moore, he said that his music doesn’t aim to incite violent acts like these but rather to point out how the media hypocritically glorifies these horrific acts. Holy Wood is Manson’s most popular album, featuring some of his most famous songs. My personal favorite from the album is “Cruci-Fiction in Space,” an overlooked gem which acts as a perfect representation of the overarching theme of the record and perhaps of Manson’s entire career; Manson as the crucified Christ, as the scapegoat, as the martyr, as portrayed on the album’s cover. Manson leaves no stone unturned as he discusses guns, God, and government through a symphony of disturbing guitar riffs, sardonic sonic rage, and his sharpest set of lyrics. The flow of the record, the delivery of its concept, and the clarity with which it strikes its opponents result in a gargantuan artistic feat that will go down in history as Manson’s defining statement.
Furthermore, his many songs inspired by teenage years make it clear why alienated teenagers gravitate toward Manson’s music. For a kid frustrated by parents, school, culture, and popularity, Manson represents the antithesis of all the things that they’re dealing with. I personally didn’t get into Marilyn Manson until relatively recently, so I don’t bear identification with his commentary and themes. My major interest is in his musical hypnotism, as the range of his voice, embodying both the ethereal and the energetic, genuinely evokes an emotional reaction whenever I listen. His narrative is mesmerizing. He created a monster through his “Marilyn Manson” persona to combat the monsters he sees in real life. One doesn’t have to agree with the values expressed in Manon’s music to at least admire his volition. He has this mysterious ability to connect signifiers of seemingly unrelated constructs together to create sinister, thought-provoking juxtapositions. He does this in alluring ways, such as through rhyme agreement in “Mephistopheles in Los Angeles,” through clever puns infused with commentary in “Cruci-Fiction in Space,” and through specific dichotomies between biblical imagery and modern vulgar in “Cocaine and Abel.” Admittedly, some of his lyrics are too vulgar for my own taste, and I can only conclude that that’s just a part of the Manson shtick. Shock value is at the core of his brand, so it makes sense that he would immediately follow up a solid industrial ballad with a surprisingly crass track.
I can’t talk about Manson’s impact without talking about the huge impact he has had on the industry of music videos. The artist has been credited with creating some of the most recognizable and visually defining music videos, frequently incorporating surrealist iconography and purposefully grotesque imagery. But it always has some underlying subtext or motif, like his frequent drowning of imagery in the color white, which he believes represents a sense of “numbness” from drug use and public scrutiny. His early music videos for “Sweet Dreams,” “The Beautiful People,” and “The Dope Show” are perhaps some of the most uniquely revolutionary music videos of all time, with their bizarre characterizations and unsettling filmmaking. An ardent cinephile, Manson is steeped in the language and history of film, which almost always finds a place in his music videos. His love of cinema translates to his ability to evoke reactions from viewers and listeners through technical aspects of filmmaking.
Manson’s new album, Heaven Upside Down, was released this year and is definitely worth a listen. The old black magic is there, along with a few more melancholy tracks, the best of which, “Saturnalia,” is an eight-minute ode to orgiastic revelry. His tracks trudge through the subjects of American materialism, consumerism, and the vast emptiness found within corporate control over creativity. Heaven Upside Down finds Manson working with producer, songwriter, and instrumentalist Tyler Bates, who is a perfect fit for modern-day Manson, as he has a strong grasp on how to structure emotionally impactful pieces of music. The collaboration between Manson and Bates on Heaven Upside Down makes the record a strong pop-metal release, showcasing an evolution of Manson’s narrative towards a more refined version of his mission. And he still achieves this through his usual array of purely industrial scream-along anthems like “Revelation #12” and “SAY10,” energetic curveballs like “Tattooed in Reverse,” and more contemplative synthesized rock like “Blood Honey.”
His mixed bag of crass humor and sharp intellect now comes as a balance between a kid too smart for his own good and a genuine troublemaker. Often, it seems like Manson is simply interested in seeing how much he can get away with. In an interview with Consequence of Sound, he said: “I’m just a curious kid that pokes at things, sometimes steps on caterpillars and sometimes pets them, sometimes eats snails as escargot and sometimes puts salt on them and tortures them. Whichever way you want to look at it, it’s just me being interested in how culture works and seeing what I can poke at and look at and reveal and share.” Music is all about personal interpretation, and Manson gives his listeners a lot to sink their teeth into.
The secret to his longevity lies not in his sometimes schlocky image, but in the content of his work. Not only are his songs sonically compelling and his themes fresh and intriguing, but his functions in reporting the true nature of society’s evolution are resilient. His imagery, sounds, and theatrics all have a point, and like all true artists, he wrings significant messages from the lining of his contorted innards. Manson doesn’t just bleed for his art. He drinks, pukes, fornicates, and risks his life for it. There’s a Marilyn Monroe glamour to it, and a Charles Manson blood lust. And he is the offspring of that. Marilyn Manson: America’s true son.
Image Credits: Flickr