"On the Cultural Re-Appreciation of Marilyn Manson as Musician"
After what was likely years of not thinking about Marilyn Manson, even in passing, seeing him recently cameo on Eastbound and Down without his makeup and persona (is that Alan Rickman? Nope.) made me recall an album I’d spent some time with up on its release: his fifth album, “The Golden Age of Grotesque”.
This album found him trying to recapture some of his metal/industrial audience that jumped ship after his glam outing in "Mechanical Animals", filtering his traditional metal-provocateur personality through his obvious influences of 1930s Germany, Vaudeville, and fascist imagery. At first blush, it seems decidedly tame. Aside from some foul language and references to the Third Reich, this version of Manson seems almost content to no longer be as culturally relevant has he’d found himself some years prior. This persona feels almost personal- the origin story of a man with a taste for the edges of entertainment.
Opening with an extended bit of industrial noise collage appropriately titled “Thaeter”, the themes and sound palette become immediately apparent. The clicking of a film projector, the increasingly agitated banging and metal scraping pull together into a hypnotic, repetitive, melody that begins to approximate an orchestra warming up. Somewhere far away, perhaps backstage in a dressing room, an Alto singer warbles her voice.
This gives way into the silly palette cleanser “This is the New Sh*t” which cheekily opens by proclaiming:
Everything has been said before
There’s nothing left to say anymore
When it’s all the same
You can ask for it by name
The chorus offers a funny skat-lyric approximation of what Manson’s critics reduced his merit to: sex, drugs, and “don’t forget the violence.” The song seems to say “Here’s what everyone expected from me, let’s get this taken care of right off the bat.”
The big-band and vaudeville influences come off strongest in "Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggety-Zag". Featuring a swing jazz 2-step stomper straight out of a big band tune, the guitars imitate the horn section and saxophones. It connects the punk and “thug rock” scenes as being simply extensions of the swing dance movement proclaiming “We’ve got your Venus not in Furs- but in Uniforms.” Chanting “One of us! One of us!” further ties the insider/outsider themes to the era in an obvious reference to one of his favorite movies, 1932’s Freaks.
In the title track, Manson proclaims himself the “Low Art Gloominati” who “aims to depress.” The song creates a great visual of a world run by the fascism of base desires- where any depraved will can be satiated by filth. The song paints audiences as complicit in this golden age however, saying “the devils are girls with Van Gogh’s missing ear.” Artists and entertainers didn’t just start making filth: we asked for it.
The middle of the album finds two songs with similar themes: “Slutgarden” and “Para-noir”. Both songs re-claim traditionally negative ideas about sex and intimacy as being par the course. Either song seems to conflate the shock value his brand once traded in with his own personal feelings of shame or value. On “Slutgarden” he chants “I’m unsafe” before retreating to “memorizing the words to the porno movies.” The ‘slutshaming’ gets further introspective, even scratching away at some of the persona he’d built in years past:
I never believed the devil was real
But god couldn’t make someone filthy as you
As if to break out of the traditional “OMG do you think he really worships the devil?” conversation his image had fostered for some time, this song seeks to reframe what it is about his image we find shocking, pushing his image closer to someone like Prince than someone like Alice Cooper. Does Manson himself find his ‘sluttiness’ morally filthy? The conversation continues in “Para-Noir”, where he seems to conclude: “I don’t need a reason to hate you the way I do.” Self-loathing doesn’t need moral crutches.
The album closes out with “Vodevil”, a pun that emphasizes the duality of the persona on this record: Marilyn Manson is at once playing the part of harmless vaudeville performer, cheekily smiling and asking “why’s everybody so offended?” while on the other hand he’s rebuilding the parts of his image he seems to find truly offensive and shocking, claiming:
This isn’t a show, this is my fucking life
I’m not ashamed you’re entertained
This isn’t music and we’re not a band
We’re 5 middle fingers on a motherfucking hand
As a thematic punctuation mark, the song nails it. This is an album-long discussion of morality- a state-of-the-union as Manson sees it. In his “Golden Age of Grotesque” we are a society constrained and ruled no longer by fascists akin to 1930s Germany, but by the very entertainment we rush to consume and then just as quickly decry as being “filth”.
Somebody had to ask for this filth in the first place- and we’re the ones left holding Van Gogh’s ear.