One upon a time, there was a young man named Brian Warner who transformed himself into a disturbing character named Marilyn Manson. I say "once upon a time", because let's face it, no one really cares much about what Manson is up to anymore. He has gone the way of all shock artists, for there are only so many ways to offend someone. It is like someone who gets progressively immodest; they can only remove so many articles of clothing before they run out of clothes not to wear. Perhaps another problem for him is the fact that he can't sing to save his life, while someone like Lady Gaga can at least carry a tune. At any rate, it has been a long time (in pop culture reckoning) since anyone paid much attention to Marilyn Manson, but let us go back for a moment and give credit where credit's due.
When people think of Manson's music they generally think of the shocking and sometimes horrifying imagery in his music videos. But whether you consider his performances blasphemy or a work of evil genius, you certainly can't come away from it without feeling one way or the other. Therein lies the problem with shock art, and modern art in general. It is not designed to inspire the soul so much as to deliver a rush of adrenaline. There is no room for subtlety in such a genre. Indeed, you can no more muse over a video like "The Beautiful People" than you can ponder the mysteries of giving someone the middle finger. As a result, such public displays are doomed to get swallowed up with all the rest of the cacophonous "look at mes" that seem endemic to the airwaves.
I will admit that of all the bands that have successfully "tried to channel Satan" only Tool has terrified me more than Manson. Congratulations! Due in large part to his remarkable "talent" for creating such hellish imagery, many have regarded Manson and his music as the epitome of what evil must be like. Would that evil were that predictable; "...and no wonder, for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14). I wish the devil always presented himself in such an unappealing manner. If that were the case, 99% of people with good sense would turn and run in the opposite direction. No, the insight of Manson really does not lie in the fact that he drags everyone through a veritable madhouse of disturbing imagery- it rather comes from something not directly related to the songs themselves.
When he's been asked about his name, Marilyn Manson generally says that his reason for choosing it has to do with his embrace of extremes. In other words, culturally speaking, who could have less in common than Charles Manson and Marilyn Monroe? He has also stated that he developed the name because it sounded like the phoniest stage name he could come up with. His point in all this was that everyone makes up their own identity according to their taste, and furthermore, they do this with lies that are largely driven by our ego and our desire to elevate ourselves (sounds like a bit of projection to me). Ironically, as is pointed out by Mr. Warner, not only is his name a total fabrication, but even the famous names that he has lifted are to a certain degree fraudalent (the birth names of the two people in question are Norma Jeane Mortenson and Charles Maddox).
However, amidst all of this mind-numbing relativism (which is really just warmed-over nihilism), Manson has tapped into a bit of a theological goldmine- even if he himself does not recognize it. By constructing an image of himself around two characters that are polar opposites, he actually uncovers a truth about evil which is far more subtle and thought-provoking than donning black makeup and wearing colored contact lenses. Marilyn Monroe represents the glamour of the world. She is, if you will, a mask, or a "masquerade" for evil. While I place no judgments on the soul of Ms. Monroe, I do think it is fair to say that her public persona was a pleasant, though undeniably superficial, construct. Indeed, the Monroe persona was created, not out of some deeply held conviction about life, but rather as a means to garner as much attention for herself as possible. Yet beneath that veneer of glamour and glitz, she was a shell of a person, a lonely soul, a "candle in the wind", who found temporary solace in the practice of wearing this particular guise.
By contrast, Charles Manson was the reality behind the mask. Am I saying that Monroe was really a monster deep down? No. What I am saying is that the glamour of the world, apart from any real virtue or goodness, is the perfect host organism for the work of the devil. Thus, superficial beauty- that is, beauty without any real virtue or substance behind it- is not only empty, but it is the perfect occasion for mass deception. People weren't drawn to Hitler because he was a scary white dude with a tiny mustache and a keen hatred of the Jews. To the contrary, people turned the other way when he tried to exterminate the Jews precisely because he was [to them] an attractive and charismatic leader who told them in a believable way exactly what they wanted to hear. And as unappealing as Charles Manson may seem today, the reason he was able to convince people he was a mystical guru, has less to do with the Swastika on his forehead, or his bizarre vision of an end times race war, and everything to do with his own very special brand of groovy mind control flower power.
Years later the "complimentarity" of the two faces of evil was made even more plain, when in 1999 Woodstock attempted a sequel. During this incarnation of Woodstock, however, both of the aforementioned events would find their ultimate expression. It is certainly worth noting, that the kids at Woodstock '99 were the offspring of those who attended the original. And in the spirit of the original, they too brought with them their own brand of free love and drugs. Religious people are sometimes mocked for their naivete about the world, but there is also a kind of naivete among secular folks as well. Just as the hippies of old thought that the way to encourage peace and love was to preach hedonism, so their posterity commited themselves to a similar Gospel, but with a considerably different outcome. And just as Mick Jagger couldn't figure out why something "funny" always happened when he sang a song about the devil trying to garner sympathy for himself, so Fred Durst couldn't figure out why so many people began to rape, pillage, and burn things down after he sang a song about doing all of the above. Ah, the dreadful innocence of it all. Yes, there is another face to doing whatever "floats one's boat", and for some, depending on their particular temperment, simply sedating yourself doesn't do the trick. What does seem to float certain boats is to bash other human beings in the head with a metal rod in the style of the Hell's Angels.
These are the two faces of evil, and as Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones so kindly point out for us, it does not necessarily come to us in the form that we suspect; "Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name. Ah, what's puzzling you is the nature of my game." The combination of these "two faces" are an odd couple to say the least, and for those less attune to the "nature of his game", all of this chicanry may slip by without being recognized as such. The song itself- Sympathy for the Devil- is an interesting one and could do with its own analyzation, but suffice it to say for now that the Stones, coupled with their performance at Altamont, along with our original inspiration, Marilyn Manson, demonstrate in a most provocative fashion how the devil can be both beautiful and vile all in the same breath.