News Column

The aging of Marilyn Manson's dark fame

July 11, 2013


July 11--In the spring of 1999, after two high school students shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher and injured 23 others at Columbine High School in Colorado, Marilyn Manson was deemed a pop devil.

The rock star's over-the-top ghoulish make-up and gloriously dark music had become much more than just theatrics and ironic twists on social contrivances. Pundits, politicians and sensationalist journalists trying to make sense of the massacre pointed fingers at several things, violent video games and metal music chief among them.

But Manson, the self-proclaimed "Antichrist Superstar" born Brian Warner, took many of the media's flaming arrows. And although it was later revealed that the Columbine killers weren't even fans of Manson, the damage had been done.

The shock rock star, who headlines The NorVa in Norfolk on Friday night, had become an easy target as neo-conservatism started to edge its way into the pop mainstream at the tail end of the '90s. Grunge, gangsta rap and Manson's music, big commercial sensations in the mid-'90s, were seen as toxic influences on the disaffected, mostly white, teenagers who bought truckloads of those CDs. But despite an eloquent rebuttal by Manson published in Rolling Stone magazine two months after the Columbine shootings, his relevance diminished.

Numerous corporate-glossed changes shuffled through pop during and after Manson's first wave of fame nearly two decades ago. You've had the sometimes pretentious neo-soul trend, transparent emo pop, and mostly thoughtless rehashes of Giorgio Moroder-style electro-disco infused with Auto-Tuned vocals. Through it all, Manson more or less remained the same -- the rock provocateur known more for his disturbing persona than for his music, much of which hasn't aged well. But in a fragmented era where the self-conscious neon pop of the two Justins -- Bieber and Timberlake -- is inescapable, Manson is nothing more than a curious pop sideshow, far from the cultural menace he once was.

"On the one hand, he has turned into pretty much a nostalgia act and no longer has much impact on youth culture, who get more negative influences from Kanye West and Justin Bieber," said Jon Wiederhorn, author of "Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal" and the recently published "Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen." "These days, Manson plays to an older audience who remembers him from his prime and wants a theatrical presentation of the greatest hits, much like his idol Alice Cooper."

But unlike Cooper, the godfather of shock rock, Manson never separated himself from the persona he created in the mid-'90s -- a kind of glammed-out gothic hero for the lost and angry. Initially conceived as an avant-garde critique of American despair and hypocrisy, Manson's image and music were as contrived and theatrical as Cooper's had been in the 1970s. Today, the inane grammatically challenged Twitter rants of celebrities tend to shock pop fans more than Manson's campy horror show antics.

"Manson has always been able to sell himself, but I think maybe he's lost touch on that front," Wiederhorn said. "He's still trying to sell the shock, which doesn't exist anymore. It must be hard to admit that the power you had as a motivational force for youth disappears. Now, he's viewed more as perverse and antagonistic."

Twenty years ago, Manson was 24 and had more nerve and verve. He also arrived when music videos were still a powerful marketing tool, which Manson used to his full advantage in the way Michael Jackson and Madonna had a decade before.

With its dungeonlike atmosphere and zombie characters creeping around on stilts, the video for "The Beautiful People" was a freakish nightmare with a thrashing, grinding soundtrack. In the clip for "Long Hard Road Out of Hell," Manson is a gothic drag queen in a long, satiny black gown, raven-dark hair extensions and blood-red talon nails.

Manson's stage antics also became the stuff of pop legend: He cut himself with broken light bulbs and tore pages from the Bible. Pinatas filled with animal innards were whacked open over crowds. Crass and crude, the presentation helped drive sales for his first two efforts: 1994's "Portrait of an American Family" and the 1995 EP "Smells Like Children," which included a cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by the Eurythmics. Both hit stores when Marilyn Manson was the name of the band Warner fronted.

On 1996's "Antichrist Superstar," Warner had become the band's moniker, and the persona and musical formula took shape. New wave, goth rock and pop swirled in a turgid sonic sludge, overlaid with Manson's guttural growls, high-pitched wails and droning David Bowie-like crooning. The album sold more than 7 million copies around the world, affording Manson a more elaborate, Satan-obsessed stage show.

The follow-up, 1998's "Mechanical Animals," featured a cringe-worthy cover shot of Manson as a naked androgynous alien named Omega, with exposed breasts and no genitalia. The image and sound were essentially a modern mash-up of Bowie and Alice Cooper -- sleeker and decidedly more melodic than previous efforts. "Mechanical Animals" debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's pop album chart and spawned four hits, including "The Dope Show" and "I Don't Like the Drugs (But Drugs Like Me)."

Because of its cover art, some retailers refused to carry "Mechanical Animals," which didn't stop its multiplatinum sales. Then, seven months after its release, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, dressed in trench coats, terrorized and killed classmates at Columbine High School. Pundits and politicians, including Sen. Joe Lieberman, attacked Manson. His music and persona were thought to have influenced the troubled teenagers, who turned the guns on themselves.

"When it comes down to who's to blame for the high school murders in Littleton, Colo., throw a rock and you'll hit someone who's guilty," Manson wrote in an essay for Rolling Stone, published in June 1999. "We're the people who sit back and tolerate children owning guns, and we're the ones who tune in and watch the up-to-the-minute details of what they do with them. ... I was dumbfounded as I watched the media snake right in, not missing a teardrop, interviewing the parents of dead children, televising the funerals. Then came the witch hunt."

And Manson's career never fully recovered. His first studio album after Columbine, 2000's "Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death)," was among his most focused efforts. But the extravagant rock opera trappings, the skewing of religion and goth glam were no longer relevant. Disaffected white teens had started to gravitate toward the twisted trashy fantasies of another white outsider: rap star Eminem.

Rock expert Wiederhorn says Manson refused to evolve.

"He was effective when he was cutting himself onstage and was a fearful presence, but you can't keep that stuff up forever, unless you're a genuinely disturbed character," Wiederhorn said. "He's actually an incredibly bright man. A lot of people don't realize that. He has a strong sense of what his aesthetic is. And he's convinced that his art is his persona, which is where he differs from a lot of other shock artists. Other people like Rob Zombie never bought into the shtick. It was just a theatrical presentation."

More than a decade ago, Marilyn Manson was perhaps the most demonized artist in pop. Today, he's something of a curiosity, a star in his own dope show.

Rashod Ollison, 757-446-2732, Check out Rashod's blog at


Who Marilyn Manson, Picture Me Broken

When 8 p.m. Friday

Where The NorVa, 317 Monticello Ave., Norfolk

Cost $40

More info


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