Thursday, 12 April 2007

Resurrection of the Antichrist

To understand Marilyn Manson, it’s key to accept that he’s a pop artist who makes music for teenagers. It’s an aim which ironically makes his work more credible, exciting, and serious than if it were packaged to people in their late 20s. Or, more precisely, Manson makes teenage art with which certain grownups can identify. Just as some 30 year-olds in the late 90s era when Manson was a major pop force could find identification or emotional memory in Dawson and Joey’s unacknowledged love affair.

When Manson’s Antichrist Superstar hit in 1996, the huge media attention tied largely into parental outrage. But an equally vocal attack on Manson came from jaded listeners. They saw Manson as a fraudulent act: A poor man’s Nine Inch Nails.

I know. I was one of them.

The outrage that surrounded that band eclipsed that of every other rock act of the 90s. Eminem picked up the controversy baton once Manson’s star began fading. Since him, there’s been no replacement. And Eminem’s controversy was more a matter of media convenience than any perceived negative youth impact being picked out. Both stars gave the kids who listened to them a degree of dignity. But the shockwaves Manson set off revealed more about our culture’s groundwork. As an old Rolling Stone review of Mechanical Animals pointed out, there was no more insane talkshow spectacle that decade than the repeated habit of Jenny Jones seating those young Manson fans (with their appalled moms) on her show, and “cleaning them up” into the exact unhappy dorks Manson helped them escape from being.

Despite all this, the actual degree of “shock” in the star’s “shock rock” was grossly exaggerated. It’s interesting to look at Manson as rock’s version of the Farrelly Brothers: He wraps positive, humanist messages in immoral packaging, thereby enraging people who won’t look beneath the surface... exposing intolerance in those who accuse him of that very thing.

This isn’t necessarily profound. It’s afterall the star’s conviction that truth is usually uncovered in dark areas that makes him an artist for teenagers. Though the songwriting improved after the first two records, Marilyn Manson is a vocalist of middling talent.

But the phenomenon of Manson ties into his product almost perfectly. Almost all of his albums are stronger than the best song on them, because they're conceptually so perfect. The best of both worlds exception is Mechanical Animals (a fine premise: His glam rock metaphor for drug-pacified Hollywood told in the sci fi vein of Alduous Huxley's Brave New World) where the closing track "Coma White" is the greatest thing in his catalogue, and one of the best last songs on any record I know.

My initial teenage disregard for Manson was that I was looking for something more grown up, and missing its vitality. Today, I play Manson’s catalogue all the time, but the only Nine Inch Nails CD I ever have an urge to listen to is Broken. What seemed more serious about Trent Reznor’s music (that it had less of a theatrical element), is now why it's more difficult for me to take it seriously.

By wallowing in these ugly areas, Manson slowly grew into a moral voice. The first CD Portrait of an American Family has shock value, but the latter ones do only in their bluntness. For instance when Manson sings the line, "I killed myself to make everybody pay," on Holy Wood (a record largely inspired by Columbine, and the blame directed his way for it) it has the veneer of shock. But for the kids who need to hear that stuff most, it has nothing to do with that. It's empowering. As most worthwhile outsider art does, it lets them know they aren't suffering alone in those feelings.

Marilyn Manson sums himself up in the song "(s)Aint", singing, "You said I tasted famous, so I drew you a heart / But I'm not an artist, I'm a fucking work of art." Of course, I think he is an artist, but there's something very right about that too.

The act has a new album out June 5 called Eat Me, Drink Me. Somebody recorded the debut of the first single “Heart-Shaped Glasses (When the Heart Guides the Hand)” off a French radio station yesterday. The quality therefore isn't great, and the song skips forward a couple of times.

But for a star that reinvents himself with every album, the track's direction isn’t unexpected. It’s a poppy summertime love/hate song with a mid-80s sound. Manson’s called this his most sexually frank and wounded album, but an honest adolescent sensibility prevails in the first single. The chorus even recalls the moment in Some Kind of Wonderful where Mary Stuart Masterson threatens Lea Thompson with, “Break his heart and I break your face.”

Some of it sounds uncannily like Animotion’s “Obsession” (recognized in Canada as the theme to Fashion Television.) I can even hear Jerry Goldsmith’s Gremlins score in there.


Jesse Dangerously said...

I think we have talked about how much I love Antichrist Superstar before.

I have in the past contemplated purchasing the Not Another Teen Movie DVD just for his Tainted Love video. I think it's great except for the movie clips.

I lost touch with him after Holywood. Every time I listened to that god damn record I alternately thought I loved it and was bored senseless by it. mObscene seemed boring. I wasn't a teenager I guess was one thing. But I think also it had to do with the parade of producers.

Mechanical Animals was a very well produced album and, despite Warner's insanely off-key crooning here and there, I like it a lot. But it is no Superstar, and unless I'm very much mistaken that is all because of Trent Reznor. Superstar is a unique sonic experience moreso than it is an unparalleled lyrical work or the labour of competent musicians.

I will always aspire to be making music that sounds a little bit more like Antichrist Superstar, because I will never make music that sounds very much like it at all.

Mark Palermo said...

My favourite of his albums is Mechanical Animals, but I can definitely see prefering Antichrist Superstar. I think Manson's songwriting is markably improved on MA, but you're right that it isn't quite the sonic rollercoaster of the former.

That "Tainted Love" video is interesting, because the joke of it is that it's a gothed-out take on hiphop videos of that era. And then afterward, he released The Golden Age of Grotesque, which I feel is the Manson version of a blinged-out rap album. He sings lines like, "I drive a big car, cuz I'm a big star." And even has the refrain of "What's my name?" at one point. It's an ok, somewhat disturbed party record, but doesn't touch the middle three (ACSS, MA, HW).