Why Be Afraid of Marilyn Manson?
A parent examines the Antichrist Superstar and finds he's not the problem.
By P.A. Humphrey
NOVEMBER 16, 1998: He doesn't look dangerous, this skinny kid in the ghoulish makeup and the too-tight black suit. It's July 31, 1997, and thousands of parents like myself are tuned in to Politically Incorrect tonight to catch a rare televised glimpse of the man the American Family Association says is trying to snatch our kids' hearts and minds and deliver them to the Devil.
Marilyn Manson doesn't look like an Antichrist, but then he wouldn't, would he? He stares into the camera with a white-contact-covered eye and never smiles. In fact, he seems to be trying a little too hard to look ominous, like a little boy in a plastic Street Shark costume trying to make the grownups believe he's the real thing.
As the show goes on, however, it becomes more and more disturbing. Not because of Manson, who tries, between scary snarls, to make serious points - "It's very admirable to be idealistic. I want people to think, but I'm not trying to think I can save the world. Maybe the world doesn't deserve saving" - but seems more depressing than fear-inspiring. What is frightening is the show's other participants, Lakita Garth, Miss Black California, tonight's token Christian nutball, who seems sure she can bring Manson to Jesus if she can just become his friend. Self-styled super-patriot G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate and talk radio fame, is almost understanding, declaring that Manson's popularity is evidence that America is going to hell, not the cause of it. What is most horrifying, though, is Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson, who is seriously coming on to Manson and can't seem to keep her hands off him as she utters inane lines like, "It's all about perception, isn't it Marilyn?" For his part, the Antichrist Superstar looks seriously freaked.
"Hey, Mahhh-ahhhm," I hear my then-17-year-old son shout, as I walk in the front door after work. It's his I-want-to-show-you-something (the three-eyed crawfish he'd found in the creek; the "A" on his report card; the cartoon he sketched) voice. I hear the heavy combat boots gallomping down the hall. "Wha'd'ya think?" he says, excitedly, appearing around the corner. I try not to cringe at his once-beautiful dark blonde hair, now half shaved off and dyed blue-black, or the black eyeliner and black lipstick he's smeared on his face. I am, after all, a '60s do-your-own-thing, express-your-individuality kind of person. "Cool," I say, my stomach tightening as I remember his angelic little-boy face and blond curls. "You didn't get any of that stuff on my towels did you?"
Before Marilyn Manson came along, it wasn't all that hard to be a "cool" parent. I could listen to the radio and even like some of what I heard; I could smile at the needs-a-wash, rock-star hair and even believe in my heart that the baggy-pants, flannel-shirt grunge look was more acceptable on my son's girlfriend than the "teen hooker" look so many other girls had adopted.
Then came Manson, a freak-show horror in haunted-house chic, who called himself Antichrist Superstar, and growled about alienation and fear and death. Even his stage name and those of the members of his namesake band are repulsive - the melding of the first names of a female pop icons and the last names of a male serial killers - Marilyn (Monroe) and (Charles) Manson, Twiggy and (Richard) Ramirez, Madonna and (John) Wayne Gacy, Ginger (I don't know) and (Albert) Fish. (John Five, I'm not sure where that one came from.)
The rumors that abound at churches and PTA meetings, in schools and on the Internet about Manson range from the ridiculous ("A cage full of children was lowered into the audience and ripped to shreds") to the outrageously impossible ("Manson cut off his own penis in the middle of the show and kept on singing, blood dripping all over the stage").
The American Family Association, which picketed and protested both inside and outside Will Rogers Coliseum when Manson brought his Dead to the World tour to Fort Worth on New Year's Eve, 1996, has something in store for Manson when he appears at the Bronco Bowl this Thursday night, Nov. 5, but they're not saying what, David Miller, national AFA representative says. Manson came close to suing the AFA and other Religious Right organizations, such as former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett's Empower America, after they launched a campaign against him, in 1997, that Manson has likened to a war. Concerts were canceled, protesters accosted concert-goers inside and outside of arenas. Bogus affidavits from supposed concert-goers who claimed to have witnessed on-stage satanic rituals, sex with dogs, nudity, homosexual acts, sacrifice of animals, rapings of young girls, and heavy open drug use at Manson concerts found their way onto the Internet and into churches across the country.
Since Manson's Mechanical Animals tour has just begun, AFA organizers are not sure what Manson will be doing on stage, although undercover operatives will be planted in the audience to find out, Miller says. They've heard, he says, that Manson has mellowed. "If he was going to tone things down to, say an Elton John level, that might change some things," he says, issuing an evil-sounding laugh that would make Manson proud. "He's acting like he's changed his whole schtick, but you can put lipstick on a pig and he's still a pig.... We'll be a little better prepared this time."
So, what's a parent to think? Manson is a gross-out artist, his look is often repulsive, he has a laissez-faire attitude about sex and drugs, his music is often violent and vile. All this crap has made him ridiculously rich. That's nothing new, though, in the world of rock and roll. What is new is his message - America is neglectful, scornful and afraid of its own children and they're not gonna take it anymore. Maybe parents are the ones who should be listening to what he has to say.
It's his room, I tell myself. He needs some space of his own. I steel myself and walk through the door, trying not to shudder at the house of horrors that the front bedroom of my home has become. Marilyn Manson, his contact-distorted eyes glaring, stares back at me from every available inch of wall space ... not to mention the decorative raised ceiling. A plastic skull hangs from the ceiling fan next to a black-eyed baby doll head. A life-size Star Wars' Princess Leia stands in one corner, topped by a creepy Halloween mask. Christmas lights glitter around the tops of the walls, next to crime-scene tape that I don't want to know where he got. A skull-and-crossbones flag hangs over the window, topped by a Little Mermaid valance. A small black kitten snoozes on the bungee-cord roped-off bed. Looking around the room, it hits me, suddenly ... the creativity, the individuality. "You need to clean this place up," I tell him, in a stern mom voice. "It's a pit."
"It's been designed to speak to the people who understand it and to scare the people who don't." Marilyn Manson is explaining the appeal of his break-through album Antichrist Superstar, soon after its release, to Rolling Stone magazine. The album is dark, brooding, and musically, the experts say, something close to genius. "A lot of what I say to our fans is, 'Stop worrying about trying to fit into the status quo of what is beautiful and what is politically correct. Believe in yourself and stick to what's right. If you wanna be like me, then be like yourself.' "
It's probably not a coincidence that Manson turned up about the same time as all of the political talk about criminalizing children. We must "get tough on juvenile crime," get those punks off the street, make them straighten up and fly right, the politicians tell us. Criminals are younger and younger, we are told, we must make them "accountable for their own actions." No more treating delinquents like children, throw 'em in the slammer and throw away the key; execute 14-year-olds (maybe even 11- or 12-year-olds); tell 'em what they can wear and how they can talk; make 'em run through metal detectors at the schoolhouse door; turn what used to be kid stuff - throwing spitballs and roughhousing on the school bus - into criminal offenses. Let's put prayer back in the schools ... but first, let's bring in the cops.
For angst-ridden teenagers who feel alienated and alone without all this virulence, Manson's satirical take on American culture (a culture that doesn't care for its own children and then wonders why so many of its children don't care about anything) was there with an answer: "I can't believe the things/that don't believe in me/Now it's your turn to see misanthropy." - from 1996.
"You're not going to wear that, are you?" I hear myself saying, sounding more like my own mom than I ever thought possible. "What?" he says, looking down, bewildered. I admit that I find funny the Manson t-shirt that reads: "(small print) Warning the music of Marilyn Manson contains messages that will (large print) KILL GOD (small print) in your impressionable teenage minds, as a result you could be convinced to (large print) KILL YOUR MOM AND DAD (small print) and eventually, in an act of hopeless rock and roll behavior, you will (large print) KILL YOURSELF. (small print) Please burn your records while there's still hope." I know it's satire, but "I Am the God of Fuck" - that one, I'm not sure I'm ready to be seen in public with.
Without the 20th century evangelical church in America, and its growing attempt to control the way Americans live, Marilyn Manson admits, he could not exist. The Religious Right needs Manson as much as he needs it. With the death of communism, the religious conservatives and the politicians who feed off them needed a new bogeyman to scare true believers into keeping those checks coming in. Marilyn Manson, who urges kids to question the existence of God and believe in themselves, is a gift from evangelical heaven.
"There's a distinct lack of leadership, idols, icons and superstars for kids to identify with," Manson tells Ray Gun magazine. "When I was a kid there were a lot of people that, as an escape, I could look to or look up to, and it just seems like there's not that anymore. America needs that Antichrist figure, that anti-hero to save these kids from the oppression of right-wing morality."
Or, as he tells Rolling Stone, "It's always existed, man's lack of wanting to think. It's easier to be told what to do. But we're in an age now where noncreativity and going with the flow are encouraged."
It's a simple philosophy, really, behind all the confusing mumbo-jumbo - be an individual and think for yourself. No wonder the Religious Right is worried.
It's his message more than his actions that most frightens religious conservatives about this particular pop rock star, Tarrant County Family Association Director Brian Lacey agrees. "If he believes the things he says, that's sad," Lacey says. "For a lot of kids who listen to him, it's just a rebellious phase. Even my little sister knows about him, but what about the ones who hear him and believe?"
Incidents like the stabbing, last week, of a 14-year-old girl by a teenage friend, a Manson fan with an almost life-long history of psychiatric problems, add to the hysteria.
Interviewers often call Manson complex, probably because he gives different answers to the same questions, depending on who is interviewing him, when and where. His whole persona, the band, the whole act is built on paradox and contradiction, but Manson knows how to push all the right buttons.
"I don't think religion has anything at all to do with the human soul," he tells Ray Gun. "Religion is the easiest and lowest common denominator. It's more about fear and man's misunderstandings of his own mortality.... I discovered that sex is a button you can push and it pisses certain people off, but when you push the religious button, it takes things to a different level. I pushed something that made people want to kill. That's kind of interesting, considering the irony of it."
There I am, innocently wheeling my chrome-plated grocery cart down the supermarket aisle when I spot them, loading up with Doritos and salsa and Cokes, and laughing at some silly joke or other - my son (as usual, a vision in black - nail polish, lipstick and eyeliner meticulously in place), his best friend, a kid I've known since kindergarten (same makeup, wearing a pale aqua chiffon evening gown and combat boots), and two unidentifiable black-clad girls who obviously believe these are the two coolest guys ever. "Hey," I say, stopping to chat, gradually noticing the hateful, disgusted looks people are giving these really good, really nice kids. My heart breaks a little. "Be careful," I tell them. "Be careful."
Marilyn's mom, it has been written in numerous articles, calls him "Brian," the name she gave him at birth. Brian Warner, his name was then. His dad, one of his biggest (not to mention, oldest) fans, calls him "Manson," as a mark of respect for his artistic expression.
Although the stories about his childhood, like all the stories Manson tells, are rife with contradictions, little Brian apparently had a fairly normal childhood in a fairly normal, only slightly dysfunctional family. He spent most of his childhood in Canton, Ohio. His parents - his mother's a nurse, his father a furniture salesman - stayed together and never abused him. It wasn't all Leave It To Beaver suburban paradise, however. His father, a Vietnam vet who suffered from exposure to Agent Orange, traveled a lot on business, drank too much and was sometimes cruel to his wife; his mom spoiled her son and turned him into something of a mama's boy, Manson has said. His parents encouraged him, he says, to be an individual and to express his creativity. Photos from back then show a cute little kid with the typical long-over-the-ears, banged haircut and a larger-than-average nose. He was, he has said, always an outcast, the strange kid who never fit in.
At 18, he moved to Fort Lauderdale with his parents and, still not gaining acceptance by his peers, started hanging out by himself at a shopping mall, listening to heavy metal music and playing video games. That's where he met another loner - the artist now known as Twiggy Ramirez. They were a pair of pimply faced suburban metalheads with big dreams and no hope, until Brian Warner, who started out to be a rock and roll journalist, decided to make himself into a rock and roll Superstar, instead. "It's part of the shell that I've always built up around myself," Manson tells Rolling Stone. "And it's only because what is inside is so vulnerable that the shell has to be so hard. That is the only reason."
Brian Warner probably wouldn't have morphed into Marilyn Manson, though, if his parents hadn't been concerned about the quality of his education and decided to send him to a private Christian school. He was terrified by the tales of the end of the world, and obsessed with the idea of an Antichrist who would bring it about, Manson remembers. It was the hypocrisy between what he learned there and what he found in the "real" world that spawned Antichrist Superstar, Manson tells Access magazine. "... I realized that the things that terrified me as a kid were things I was going to grow up to be. So, now everyone's fear of the end of the world and this fear of the terrible Antichrist person is all coming true because of that fear itself. I am something that America has created out of its own fear."
"They had this," the high school assistant principal hisses, bringing the Sharpee-tattooed baby doll head out of his desk drawer and shoving it within inches of my face. I understand I am supposed to be shocked, horrified, disgusted. I try not to laugh, taking the head gingerly from this goofball former football coach and trying to look appropriately serious. "He listens to Marilyn Manson, do you know that?" the snotty school secretary sneers as I head for the door. "Have you heard the words to those songs?" I reply with the only thing I can think of at the moment: "Yep. Ever heard the words to 'Louie, Louie?' " I hurry out to my car, hoping the answer is, "No," and she won't know how lame the comeback was, flop into my seat and burst into laughter. "No wonder that kid is the way he is," I imagine the coach saying.
The American Family Association is planning strategy just like an army planning to launch an invasion, and just as seriously. They are going to battle for God. This time, though, they are a little more restrained about what they say and how they say it. Maybe Manson's threat of a lawsuit has made them more circumspect.
"What is there to fear from Marilyn Manson? I don't think I want to comment on that right now," David Miller says, chuckling that evil-sounding, deep-throated chuckle. "Let's just say we have some things planned."
The radical right - with its horror stories about bestiality, rape, sodomy, even murder taking place on the stage during his concerts - has once again declared war on Marilyn Manson. And, it's not over, yet. In a country where the president, the top dog, the fearless leader can be hauled before a tribunal to talk about his sex life, how can they seriously expect people to believe that a rock 'n' roll star can do stuff like that and not end up in jail? Probably because it works.
"Maybe Manson has mellowed," the AFA's Brian Lacey says, with a chuckle, "because maybe he's losing a little money."
After the AFA's attack on Antichrist Superstar and Marilyn Manson, last year, alarmed officials - not noticing that none of the band members had been arrested for any of these crimes, or maybe just seeing a perfect chance to look good to conservative voters - began to panic. They tried to stop the band from coming to their towns. In Saginaw, Mich., after the city solicitor ruled that the show could not be canceled, the Rev. Dana Wilson, who had collected 20,000 signatures on petitions protesting Manson's appearance, told city officials that the Bill of Rights does not apply to minors and urged that they be banned from a scheduled Manson concert. "Someone somewhere has to draw the line and say what these concerts are exposing our youths to," he said. Alaska Assembly member Cheryl Clementson urged parents to buy up all the tickets to an Anchorage show so kids couldn't get them; South Carolina state Rep. Dan Tripp, a Republican, introduced a referendum to ban Manson from ever performing on state property; Richmond, Va., City Manager Robert Bobb, canceled the Manson performance scheduled at a city-owned arena, saying, "Satan worship and animalistic type of programming is not consistent with the image we're building for our community;" and Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, calling for the cancellation of a concert scheduled for the state fair grounds pronounced, "It's further proof that society's moral values continue to crumble."
I pick up my daily newspaper - the one I've read all my life, the one I used to think was the epitome of journalistic excellence until I grew up and learned better - and there he is, a self-righteous, blue-nosed columnist blabbering on about the "kind of parents" who would "allow" their children to go to a Marilyn Manson concert - the immoral, careless, evil people who give birth to children but are too lazy to teach them morals, control their thoughts and raise them right. I look in the mirror and see not an uncaring monster, nor a dupe of the devil, but just a mom. I admit it, I drove them there.
He doesn't look dangerous, this skinny kid in the Ziggy-Stardust-does-the-Wizard-of-Oz outfit (red, glittery cut-away jumpsuit and knee-high boots, with matching tomato red hair). Marilyn Manson has become something of a regular on Politically Incorrect, so his presence still must draw concerned viewers. Parents who are trying to figure him out have long since given up.
Manson doesn't look like an Antichrist. When he stares into the camera with red-contact-covered eyes and scowls, he seems more like a defensive little boy than the devil. Maybe that's because of the disbelieving reaction of his fans to what many say is a cheesy new album. It could be because of the death threats and attacks that were launched against him during his last tour. Or, it could be that the Antichrist Superstar really has been reborn and doesn't have much of substance to say. He's 29 years old, for God's sake. Does anybody except the radical religious and his teeny-bopper fans expect him to have it all figured out?
"Hey, you goin' to the Manson concert?" I ask him, explaining about the story I'm working on. Naw," my son says, flipping the faded black ponytail over his shoulder.
"Why not?" He looks disgusted, the way he looks when I ask him to take out the garbage, "I don't know," he says. "He's just ... I don't know ... he sucks."
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