OK, so maybe Marilyn Manson isn’t a hero. But I swear, it’s hard to find much to dislike about the guy.
I remember when Manson first came to prominence, back when I was in middle school. I also remember hearing stories of how awful and disgusting he was before I had heard even a second of his music. All of the usual Manson legends got around my school: that he was a Satanist, that he sacrificed animals onstage, performed sex acts onstage, the infamous “rib” story, and of course, the bizarre and totally false associations made between him and the Columbine shooters (who, it turned out, hated Manson).
It wasn’t until I was about to graduate high school that I finally decided to give Manson a whirl, and purchased his then-new album “The Golden Age of the Grotesque”. I had always known that Manson was a bit of a media manipulator, that his whole shtick had to do with making the public lap up all of the nasty tripe he shoved at them, but the sheer hilarity of his MO didn’t become apparent until I listened to that album from start to finish.
Marilyn Manson has always been serious and absurd at the same time. It’s not too difficult to see that his initial, more organically weird impulses got pumped up by a factor of 1000% once he realized that sensitive/dumb/fearful people would bite the lure and run with it, and that feeding the sensationalist engine that powers most modern media is a tried-and-true method for generating a rollicking good time. What makes Manson’s shenanigans all the more powerful and slyly hilarious is the way that he never gets too insistent on any one aspect of his personality, constructed or otherwise. The man is a walking bag of contradictions, regularly gets caught in lies in interviews, and generally behaves like a nutjob, or as Trent Reznor once referred to him, a “dopey clown”. The thing is, Reznor said this in an effort to sadly comment on how far Manson had fallen, but from where I sit, it seems like a “dopey clown” was what Manson has always been, and the way he always wanted it. He’s an exercise in the absurd, a living, breathing gonzo-splatter hodgepodge of uniquely American excess.
His latest album, “The Pale Emperor”, is no less stuffed with Manson’s signature outlandish, tongue-in-cheek antics, but something about this latest effort–a more stripped-down, less electronically enhanced collection of droney blues-riff type tracks–seems more sincere. In the past, Manson may have been content to let his freak flag fly and call it a day, but tracks like the opener, “Killing Strangers” or the deliciously sinister “Mephistopheles of Los Angeles” hit a chord that resonates with more sincerity than Manson seemed interested in–or perhaps capable of–in the past. Manson’s instincts were never wrong, but his artistic strokes were always very broad; the general idea was amorphous and fleeting. This time around, the self-proclaimed “God of Fuck” is still winking the entire time, but his commentary has more gravitas.
Rock Critics in the 90s constantly referred to Manson’s album “Mechanical Animals” as Manson’s take on Bowie, but “The Pale Emperor” seems a much more apt comparison, to me, despite the absence of glammy production and beefy hooks. Manson’s pop sensibility is still there, but the finished product–one that combines the Antichrist Superstar’s yowling, ghoulish vocals with guitars that sound like they might have been recorded in one take inside a barn–reminds me a lot of a more stripped down and meth-addled version of Ziggy Stardust.
I read somewhere recently that audiences these days have a growing problem with ambiguity; there’s an intense need for closure, for a takeaway, and we tend to be frightened and/or dismissive of art that gives us neither of these, but only instills a contradictory combination of dread, ecstasy, revulsion, and howlingly funny satire into our brains without ever quite presenting itself as a fully formed narrative. Manson’s still not interested (or again, perhaps incapable) of giving audiences anything too well-formed, but that slippery brilliance has always been part of Manson’s charm, and it’s most of the reason he’s still so relevant, decades after a Columbine he had nothing to do with.