The silliness of the shock rocker.
Every few years, like clockwork, the pop-music industry presents to the American public for its delectation a rock star so base, so vile, so offensive to common decency, that he must be stifled. Once upon a time, the monster was Ozzy Osbourne, bat eater. More recently, it has been Twisted Sister, 2 Live Crew, Snoop Doggy Dog, and Nine Inch Nails. But this summer's designated villain outdoes them all. Marilyn Manson, who lends his adopted name to his band, is a minister in the Church of Satan, the self-proclaimed "Antichrist Superstar," and the perfect cartoon fiend. Already this year concert halls in Alaska, Idaho, Texas, and Massachusetts have canceled Manson shows, while South Carolina has paid Manson $40,000 not to play. In recent weeks, the band has had to threaten a lawsuit in order to perform in Richmond, Va., and has filed a lawsuit in order to perform in New Jersey. Utah has blacklisted Manson because he once shredded a Mormon Bible onstage, and Christian groups picket outside every venue he plays.
They have picked an easy target. Marilyn Manson plays music that is called, depending on who's doing the calling, "death metal," "industrial," "gothic," "glam metal," "shock rock," or "sleazy industro-crunch." Or, perhaps most accurately: 13-Year-Old White Boy music--the kind of sonic pollution that no one but a boy high on testosterone could enjoy. What this means is huge, distorted guitar noise, a thumping backbeat, lots of screechy fuzz, and vocals that are usually droned, occasionally screamed or hissed. It also means ferocious lyrics: Manson's songs are a foul stew of obscenity, violence, Satanism, scatology, anti-Christian invective, sadomasochism, and suicide. For example:
I am the god of Fuck ...Cash in hand and dick on screen, who said god was ever clean? Bible-belt round Anglo-waste [sic], putting sinners in their place. Yeah, right, great. If you're so good explain the shit stains on your face.
The 28-year-old Manson's public image is as creepy as his music. He and fellow band members have adopted female pop icons' first names and murderers' last names (my favorite: Madonna Wayne Gacy). Manson, whose given name is Brian Warner, cakes his face with alabaster makeup and wears androgynous, ragged leather clothes. He looks like the Grim Reaper after a nasty motorcycle accident. His concerts are frenzied: He lacerates his chest with broken bottles, rips Bibles apart, and uses an American flag as toilet paper. The band's videos are filled with freakish images of medical oddities. Its T-shirts are decorated with pentagrams and slogans like "Kill God, Kill Your Mom and Dad, Kill Yourself." Needless to say, kids eat this up. The most recent album, Antichrist Superstar, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts and has sold more than 1 million copies. (The album was released by--of course--Interscope Records, the label that brought you Snoop Doggy Dog, Tupac Shakur, and Nine Inch Nails.) Any male under 40 knows, of course, that Marilyn Manson isn't the first band to combine horror-movie imagery, crude theatricality, and anti-social lyrics--Black Sabbath did it in the '70s, and Mötley Crüe did it in the '80s. But Manson is more horrible, more crude, more theatrical, and more anti-social than any of its antecedents.
And more ridiculous. You wouldn't think that anyone could take this kind of rock grandiosity seriously after seeing This Is Spinal Tap, but they do. Rolling Stone champions Manson as the conscience of American music: "Never has there been a rock star quite as complex as Marilyn Manson." Never? Manson is lionized for speaking the "truths" that no one wants to hear: that Christianity is false, that conventional morality is stifling, and so on. No one takes Manson's philosophizing more seriously than Manson himself. "Rock 'n' roll was dangerously close to becoming completely boring until Marilyn Manson came along," he said in a recent interview.
Unlike earlier shock rockers such as Dee Snider of Twisted Sister or Gene Simmons of Kiss, Manson isn't a jokester. He honestly believes himself to be "Marilyn Manson," the embodiment of the world's great opposites--man and woman, icon and villain, Christ and Satan. He believes, too, that his music has deep social significance. He cites his intellectual influences to reporters--Nietzsche, Darwin, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, the Bible, Anton LeVay--and delivers the kind of muddled rants that adolescents mistake for wisdom. In his newsletter, for example, he writes: "We are America's shit and they should be ashamed of what they have eaten. Fortunately you have received this in time to escape the encroaching HOLOCAUST of fascist christian [sic] morality."
Not surprisingly, the Christian Coalition, the Catholic League, and the American Family Association have taken up arms against Manson. The silly, juvenile rocker vs. the prudish, humorless censors. You want both sides to lose.
Earlier battles over offensive music were fought on television and in print. But the Manson fight is shaping up as one of the Internet's first great Kulturkampfs. The Gulf Coast branch of the AFA posted "affidavits" about Manson concerts on its Web site. The affidavits claimed that Manson passes out bags of drugs to his audiences, that he raped a dog onstage, had anal and oral sex onstage, threw puppies and kittens into the crowd to be torn apart, and led Satanic services that included a "virgin sacrifice." The affidavits also attest that he watched friends stab a woman to death and bathe in her blood. E-mailed around the country, the affidavits galvanized ministers and Christian Coalition members to organize protests and demand concert cancellations.
The Manson band and its fans have retaliated in kind. The band is threatening to sue the AFA for libel and defamation. (The Gulf Coast AFA has yanked the affidavits off its site.) Manson fans have parodied the Gulf Coast page and organized their own online "Portrait of an American Family Association," which takes its name from a Manson album. There are dozens of POAAFA chapter Web sites, some of which counteract the false affidavits by publishing concert-goers' accounts of Manson shows (glass laceration, no sex).
The Manson fight is a morality play in which everyone wins. The decency folks get to make headlines, shock consciences, and stop concerts. Manson gets to paint himself as a First Amendment martyr and keep selling records. The good times won't last. The shelf life of preteen bands is measured in months. When the censors and parents stop complaining, the kids will stop listening, and the band will fade away.
But there may be some consolation for Marilyn Manson himself. Here it is instructive to remember Alice Cooper, the musician to whom Manson owes most. A quarter century ago, Cooper sold the same kind of horror show to his teen fans as Manson does now: a gender-bending female name, pancake makeup, raucous music, an onstage guillotine, and preposterous gross-out legends. (Cooper allegedly filled balloons with live worms, released them above the audience, then popped them, showering fans with night crawlers.) Cooper was condemned, reviled and, for a brief time, incredibly popular. In recent years he's made a revival. He played himself, campily, in Wayne's World. He draws thousands of fans to his goofy, self-consciously bombastic concerts. Marilyn Manson is darker, more serious, and more vicious than Alice Cooper was. Even so, you can imagine a comeback in 2017: shredding Bibles to a laugh track.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.