What does it take to be a very much talked about metal band in our generation? A unique mixture of sonic influences? Controversy? Elaborate stage personas and costumes? The religious and political right waging war against you? Controversy? In-band turmoil, including an onstage fight? More lineup changes than you can remember? Catching the blame for one of the nations most infamous mass shootings? Did we mention controversy? These things, at least not all of them, are necessary to be a successful and talked about metal band. Just don’t tell Marilyn Manson.
Marilyn Manson, the band, trace their origins back to 1989 when they were known as Marilyn Manson & The Spooky Kids. Fronting the band was Brian Warner, who went by the stage name of Marilyn Manson. The band members combined the first name of iconic female sex symbols (i.e.: Marilyn Monroe) and the last name of an iconic serial killer (i.e.: Charles Manson). They did this in order to demonstrate laudatory appraisal of the United States and its peculiar culture. After dropping the Spooky Kids moniker and releasing the first version of their debut album, then titled The Manson Family, Marilyn Manson released Portrait of an American Family in July 1994 on Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records, along with Interscope Records. It was met with mixed reviews, with Rolling Stone stating that “Manson’s debut […] isn’t the sharply rendered cultural critique of America he’d like you to think it is. Most of the record comes off like some low-budget horror movie.” The debut album peaked at number 35 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart and has since been certified Gold by the RIAA.
In late 1995, Marilyn Manson released Smells Like Children, produced by Manson and Reznor. The album peaked at number 31 on the Billboard 200 chart and went on to achieve Platinum status, though it received mainly poor mixed reviews upon its release. The driving force to the album’s commercial success was its only single, a cover of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). Music critic Robert Christgau defined Smells Like Children as an “Unmitigated consumer fraud—a mess of instrumentals, covers, and remixes designed to exploit its well-publicized tour, genderfuck cover art, titillating titles, and parental warning label. The lyrics to “Shitty Chicken Gang Bang” are nonexistent, those to “Everlasting Cocksucker” incomprehensible. Only “Fuck Frankie,” a spoken-word number in which a female feigning sexual ecstasy reveals that it isn’t “Fool Frankie” or “Fire Frankie” or “Fast Frankie” or for that matter “Fist Frankie,” delivers what it promises. It’s easily the best thing on the record.”
In October 1996, Antichrist Superstar, a rock opera concept album, was released. The lead single, “The Beautiful People” was a smash hit and possibly Marilyn Manson’s most recognizable song to date. VH1 named “The Beautiful People” number twenty-eight of their 40 Greatest Metal Songs. Antichrist Superstar received mainly positive reviews. Lorraine Ali of Rolling Stone commented “The rise of Marilyn Manson marks the end of the reign of punk realism in rock & roll […] The layered effect of the music recalls that of Ministry, but Marilyn Manson’s execution is not as dense. Instead, Antichrist Superstar writhes with a cool, sinister and taunting feel […] before lurching out from the shadows with hammering percussion and static-loaded feedback […] For all of the album’s attractions, the band could have compressed Antichrist Superstar into a more powerful blast of evil.” Antichrist Superstar debuted at number 3 on the Billboard 200 and has sold one million records in the US and seven million world-wide. Antichrist Superstar was to be the first part of a triptych.
The second installment of the triptych, Mechanical Animals, was released in September 1998. heavily influenced by David Bowie and his 1974 album Diamond Dogs, the band and the album took to a glam rock feel. This was a stark departure from the band’s earlier, darker image. Mechanical Animals spent a short time in the Billboard 200’s number one spot during its first week. It went on to sell fifteen million records world-wide, including going Platinum in the US; despite being the lowest selling number one album of 1998. Many fans and critics felt that Marilyn Manson had “sold out’ with this change in visual and sonic image. Mechanical Animals contained another Manson signature song, “Dope Show”.
In November 2000, Marilyn Manson released the third installment, and prequel, to their triptych, Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death). This release saw a return to the dark imagery and musical composition of Antichrist Superstar. Its overarching theme is an exploration of the relationship between death and fame in American culture. Holy Wood debuted and peaked at number 13 on the Billboard 200. it would go on to sell more than nine million records world-wide, going Gold in the US. The album contained three singles, “Disposable Teens”, “The Fight Song” and “The Nobodies”. With a return to the band’s industrial and alternative metal stylings, Holy Wood received positive reviews from most critics. Barry Walters of Rolling Stone said, “The band truly rocks: Its malevolent groove fleshes out its leader’s usual complaints with an exhilarating swagger that’s the essence of rock and roll.”
By this time in their career, Marilyn Manson was a big world-wide mainstream success. They would go on the release four more studio albums The Golden Age of Grotesque (2003), Eat Me, Drink Me (2007), The High End of Low (2009) and Born Villain (2012). By the release of Born Villain, Marilyn Manson’s popularity had waned some. They were still a major cog in the industrial and alternative metal genre machines, but the status that they enjoyed during their previous releases was gone, especially in the United States. The cause of this drop-off of fame may be due to the numerous controversies, especially early in their career, the band garnered.
Besides the outrage and protest by numerous religious groups at Marilyn Manson’s outrageously over the top live performances, which were considered somewhat of a controversy in and of themselves, the band has two major controversial incidents to date. The first was when a group of activists, lead by William J, Bennett, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and activist C. DeLores Tucker, called a press conference aimed at Interscope’s parent company, MCA. Calling several albums released by the label – including Antichrist Superstar — “profane”, “violent”, “filth”, and “crap” the group questioned MCA president Edgar Bronfman, Jr.’s ability to head the label competently while profiting from such material. There was a public US Senate hearing on the effect of violent rock and rap lyrics’ on America’s youth. Many musical acts, including rappers 2Pac and Eminem, as well as Marilyn Manson were set out to be demonized and destroyed. The hearing, chaired by Representative Sam Brownback, featured the testimony of Lieberman and Tucker, and of Raymond Kuntz, of Burlington, North Dakota, who blamed his son’s suicide on Antichrist Superstar, which Lieberman denounced as “vile, hateful, nihilistic and damaging.” It seems as if they forgot that while music is personal for artists and often contains their beliefs and experiences, music, just as movies or books or any other medium for entertainment is just that—entertainment. It is not the artists’ responsibility to raise America’s youth. They do not have to be role models if they choose not to be. These responsibilities fall first, and foremost, on the parents of America; and to the listening parties. We must be able to dissertate imagery meant to be used as entertainment from a doctrine to be followed.
This topic would rear its ugly head once more for Marilyn Manson. Following the ColumbineHigh School massacre, there were accusations that killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were influenced by Marilyn Manson’s music. Later evidence was presented that neither Harris nor Klebold were fans of the band, and many were led to criticize the media for using the band as a scapegoat instead of analyzing the underlying societal problems surrounding the incident. Even if Harris and Klebold were fans of Manson and they truly believed that the band’s influenced them to commit those heinous acts, would it be America’s right to place any blame, directly or indirectly, on a group of musicians who merely create art? When asked what he would say to the children of Columbine High and their community, Manson replied “I wouldn’t say a single word to them; I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”
Eminem criticized the controversy in his song “The Way I Am”, which contains the line, “When a dude’s getting’ bullied and shoots up his school/And they blame it on Marilyn, and the heroin/Where were the parents at?” Marilyn Manson made a cameo in the video for the song, and even contributed vocals to a guitar-heavy remix. In October 2007, 14-year-old Asa Coon opened fire on his schoolmates and staff before turning his gun on himself. At the time of the shooting Coon was wearing a Marilyn Manson t-shirt. On several occasions, Coon told students and teachers that he did not believe in, nor respect God; instead worshipped the band’s vocalist, Brian Warner. Coon was known for violent behavior, and stood out among the student body for his appearance—which included black boots, a black trench coat, black nail polish, and rock t-shirts. Just as the Columbine shootings, media and right-wing America blamed Manson, instead of focusing on the tarnished and poisoning relationships Coon likely had within his family, his school and his community as a whole.
Only time will tell what will become of Marilyn Manson. Will they produce more music? Will they be the spark of more controversy? Will they achieve the super-stardom they earned during the early 2000’s? What will happen with the line-up? A return of John 5? Twiggy Ramirez switching to drums? Inviting ex-Limp Bizkit guitarist back in to the touring fold? More controversy? Guess we will have to wait and watch it unfold.