Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What I Learned from Marilyn Manson

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.

Thus, we are led to an example which I think utterly epitomizes this strange dichotomy (which I would argue is in truth a kind of complimentarity). Just as Charles Manson with his so called "commune of love" added a chilling counterpoint to the hippie drug culture of the time, so also the concert at Altamont, in California, added a haunting contradistinction to the relatively peaceful and idyllic scene at Woodstock. Now granted, everyone at Woodstock was probably peaceful and well-behaved because they were simply too high to do anything else, but nevertheless the atmosphere- at least on the surface- was a very different one. Fast forward to later that year at a concert in Altamont, with a guest list which included, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones. At first glance, one might presume that this would be a relatively sedate affair (pun intended). It was not to be. Now it is true that if you look at the footage of the audience, there seems to be no shortage of young people looking about as aware as a poached egg, but what you will also observe in the video is an unusually large contingent of men in Hell's Angels jackets, on or near the stage. One of the primary reasons for this was the fact that the Rolling Stones, on the recommendation of The Grateful Dead, had opted to hire this gang of bikers to be the security for the concert. At the time this must have seemed like an incredibly "far out" idea, but in retrospect it was anything but. Earlier that day there had already been a violent incident in which a few "Angels" took to beating some of the audience members with metal rods- who they deemed were too close to the stage. And so as night fell, and the Rolling Stones took the stage, there was already a tension in the air. Arrayed in his black and red cape- Mick Jagger stepped up to the mic and began to sing Sympathy for the Devil to a crowd virtually enveloped in darkness. It is not hyperbole to say that all hell broke loose. And despite trying to calm the crowd down with such soothing words as; "Just cool out babies... cool out..", none of them seemed to be pacified. I mean who wouldn't feel a greater sense of ease during a riot if Mike Jagger told them from some safe location; "cool out babies... just cool out!" Amidst all of the confusion, a man can be seen at the edge of darkness being stabbed to death by one of the Hell's Angels. The footage is worth watching if only to observe the eerie disparity between the intensity of the "Angels ", and the alarmingly vacant doe eyed look of many in the front row. Clearly the Stones didn't know exactly what was going on in the fracas, which makes it all the more chilling when Jagger declares to the crowd; "Something strange always happens when we start that song..."

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.                          



  1. The narrator of "Sympathy for the Devil" is not supposed to be Satan - it is supposed to be God (or at least an intentional blurring of these two, blaming God for all the evil in the world. Note the lines
    "Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints, as heads is tails, call me Lucifer, I'm in need of some restraint" The first three are opposites, leading to the logical conclusion that the narrator is the opposite of Lucifer.

  2. Thank you Stephen for your input. However, I can't find any evidence for your interpretation. If it is really God he is talking about, then why does he choose to dress in the devil's garb (though I am not sure that those are the devil's colors) when he performs it. Moreover, if this is really a song about God, then he must think that God is the devil. At any rate, my intention wasn't to criticize that particular song, (I think it is quite interesting, frankly) only to indicate, which seems pretty obvious in light of the events at Altamont, that there was more going on than simply a guy named Mick singing a "groovy" little ditty.

  3. I think Marilyn Manson should have called himself Maddox Mortenson. As for Mick Jagger's relationship with the prince of darkness no one can be suprised at the events that unfolded at those hedonistic concerts. Good blog, a lot to think about, scary too.

  4. What is really scarey is when the band Hansen broke up and later combined with Marilyn Manson to form Marilyn Hanson. Rock would never be the same :)

  5. Yes, some things are just too scary for words.

  6. I'm rather curious about your assessment of Tool. Are you referring to their older stuff, or the newer (Lateralus and 10,000 Days)? It certainly seems to be a bit more new-Agey rather than Satanic, to be honest.

    What in particular threw up red flags?

  7. Matt:
    Sure it's "new-Agey". Let's be honest, that makes it Satanic.

    Disclaimer: I have no idea who Tool is and hope I have never heard any of their oeuvre.

  8. Matt I am not sure what your threshold for evil is, but it doesn't take much digging to be a little disgusted by what tool is about. Just read a little on their Wiki page, and if you want a little more evidence, though I don't recommend it, you can watch the video of Sober, and listen to his delightful little reference to Christ. the video as well is something right out of the bowels of hell. It is about as artful as hell gets I suppose (there's also the song Judith, which he wrote with his other band Perfect Circle). But the music itself, though well crafted and catchy, is so dark and mesmerizing that it lingers with you in the way that a bad spirit might, and you can't stop in from playing in your mind. So long short that's why I find it scary. Incidentally, the albums you mention are later, I am referring more to their earlier stuff.

  9. Fair enough. It's a bit of a throwback to my high school years, so I was curious about your thoughts.

    I was never a major fan of the particular songs you described for obvious reasons. As a note of interest, you may consider listening to or at least reading the lyrics of "Wings for Marie/10,000 Days" in contrast to APC's "Judith"... It's about the same person (Maynard's paralyzed mother), but a completely different perspective. It still doesn't excuse the garbage, of course.

    As for the music lingering... you may be onto something. Danny Carey is known for his interest in the occult and the "tribal" beats are no coincidence, I'm sure.

  10. Thank you for your input Matthew, I will take a look at those lyrics you mentioned.

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