Ah, Marilyn Manson. Fifteen years ago, everyone on the planet had an opinion about him. You were all but court-ordered to. Rock music ruled the airwaves and the hearts and minds of popular culture, and the marketing forces of the powers that be could still construct an entire career out of press savvy and arresting imagery.
It’s hard to remember with any realness just how serious Marilyn Manson seemed. I remember that people used to be terrified of him, I think, but I don’t remember it really – I sort of have it filed in my head as “a thing that used to be true” and that’s that. But boy oh boy did people seem worried about what he had to say, especially since he didn’t actually seem to have anything to say1. He was perhaps the last figure in rock music that parents were actually threatened by, or at least to make the media think that parents were threatened by him2.
But that was a long time ago. Since the days when his musical releases were met with fanfare and trumpery, he has fallen more-or-less completely out of the culture. Not even permitted to stay around as a vestigial punchline, like his forebears Alice Cooper or Ozzy Osbourne, Marilyn Manson has become equivalent to any other rock band that continues to stubbornly overstay their welcome.
And all of that is fine. It’s probably inevitable, really – almost no one gets to stay famous forever, after all. The question that comes up is: what are the records for? Marilyn Manson the band was never really the reason anyone was into it – Marilyn Manson the phenomenon put the butts in the seats. So why continue to make albums?
The albums themselves weren’t as unworthy as I may have made them sound – the band in the late nineties was competent, mildly compelling sub-Ministry. Overproduced, overplayed and overwrought at worst, there were, nevertheless, some quality songs3, and moments where he was a credible vocalist in the “yammering frontman” style. But really, the music wasn’t why it got over.
So here it is, 2012, and there’s a new Marilyn Manson album. So who is this for? Let’s start by talking about who it is. As with most nineties-leftover stragglers, the members of the band Marilyn Manson are not the people who were onstage when last I payed attention. Actually, that’s not true: the only two members I could ever name are Marilyn Manson and Twiggy Ramirez.They’re still in the band. I’m disappointed, however, to find that the “model/serial killer” naming convention has been abandoned.
But I guess it would have to be, wouldn’t it? The whole reason for wondering who the fuck listens to Marilyn Manson in 2012 is because of the abandonment of the showmanship pretense that got people in the door in the first place4. So Marilyn Manson and his trusty musical sidekick Twiggy Ramirez are joined by a guy who played in a band called Crack, and another guy who, presumably, didn’t5. At least there are no Will Hunts.
The publicity which, according to wikipedia, includes the information that they wrote the record on tour, and that MM himself thinks that it sounds more like Killing Joke and Bauhaus, makes it seem like this might actually be a better album. I haven’t listened to it as of this sentence, but I’ve got it read, so I’ll go off and listen to it in a minute.
My official prediction is that it will sound like cut-rate Ministry with less production than I last heard, and possibly also dinkier. Because when bands say sound like Bauhaus, what I think is “we’d like to sound like Joy Division, but we’re dinky6.” Actually, in that same interview he mentions Joy Division, and The Birthday Party7. But, as David Lee Roth8 himself said: why let the truth get in the way of a good blogging rant?9
OK. Now I’ve listened to it. Whatever Mr. Warner is claiming is different with this album, I don’t hear it. But that’s ok – this really isn’t music for me. It’s for the theoretical Marilyn Manson fan, whoever that may be. This is, by any measure I could think to apply, just like all of his other albums. That’s not to say it’s terrible10, just that it’s indistinguishable.
And it’s not even time-shifted – this sounds like late-twentieth century radio-metal. The guitars are way up in the mix and crunch all over the place, the drums sound like a human being was never anywhere near them, and are buried deep under tracks and tracks of identically-crunchy guitars, the bass is heard sporadically, and mainly at the beginnings of songs, and the occasional keyboard or synthesizer or whatever periodically pokes at the rhythm above the crunchy, crunchy guitars. They’re so crunchy.
Furthermore, and I get that I’m still not the audience, and that it was never meant for me in the first place, but every. single. song. begins “bassline, then the vocal comes in, then the guitars come in, then everything goes RAAAAAARGH”. Now, far be it from me to insist that this is not a system that can work. It’s not an editorial comment, except that the album has fourteen songs11 and is over an hour long. That’s too many songs, and that’s too long. Each song is between four and five minutes long, and even at those perfectly-normal marks, some of them are still interminable.
Really, it’s a terrible record12. But it’s not without its bright spots. The first song, “Hey, Cruel World…”, despite having a terrible opening line and a great deal of gratuitous swearing, is legitimately compelling – Manson works himself into an admirable froth, the band almost sounds like a band playing instruments together, and it makes pretty good use of the riff they purloined from Killing Joke’s “Wardance.” It’s worth noting that it’s also the shortest song on the album, not counting the radio edit of “No Reflection,” which actually overplays the band’s hand – they cut a full minute out of that song to get it played on the radio. They didn’t just take the profanity out, they actually took part of the song out. They should have done this with the whole album. Seriously. ”Hey, Cruel World…” is fewer than four minutes long, and manages not to get bogged down in the nonsense that drags the rest of the album into shiny, semi-mechanical quicksand.
AND OH, SUCH QUICKSAND THERE IS. If “No Reflection” is the lead-off single, they made a huge mistake. It’s completely forgettable, and there was a better song right before it on the damn album. The rest of the album gives time to ejaculations from the Marilyn Manson Random Lyrics Generator (fun drinking game: every time he sings the word “suicide,” take a drink and then question your life. It’s what I did! I don’t have any answers or gin anymore!), some really crunchy guitars, the worst drum sound I’ve heard in years, and, perhaps unforgivably, guitar solos.
The first twelve songs, then, go by like…well, like a bus. It takes too long, it makes too much noise, and while you appreciate that it’s getting where it’s going, you mostly just wish you didn’t have to deal with it right now.
I will confess, I had high hopes halfway through the record for a song called “Breaking the Same Old Ground.” I thought it would be Marilyn Manson’s Clerks 2. You see, most people welcomed Clerks 2 because it represented a return to Randall telling dick jokes, which was the preferred purpose of Kevin Smith films. Not I! It’s actually my favorite of his movies because it’s actually a movie about trying to move on with your life and being unable to. At the end of the film, poor, beleaguered Dante returns to the world he tried to leave behind, and resolves to be happy and content with that, having ditched his ambition along with his fiancee13. One of the most effective Marilyn Manson’s songs to this point is the Antichrist Superstar-closing “The Man That You Fear,” which is something of a mission statement from his biggest, most public (and therefore, from an artistic standpoint, best, since, again, Marilyn Manson was all about the spectacle, and not necessarily the music). Easily his best, most durable song, “Coma White” is (facile though it is) about being failed by drugs, and it’s at the end of its album. I can’t remember any of the other album-closing songs, but I assume that they fill a similar function. Could “Breaking the Same Old Ground” be about the struggle of plowing the same field and expecting it to bear fruit?
I have no idea. It’s fucking terrible. I guess it might be. If it is, the answer to the hypothetical musical question I asked is “No. No it is not.”
Ah, but “Breaking the Same Old Ground” is not the last song on the album. There remains….a cover! Marilyn Manson is partly – perhaps even largely – to blame for the glut of “ironic pop song covers” that clogged the radio ten years ago, due perhaps to his ability to choose a song (The Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams”) that fit in with his image14. It caught on because there were reasons for it to: it was timely, it was fitting, it was well-planned.
“You’re So Vain” is a song that’s basically more famous for being ambiguously pointed at a real person. I’ve heard it, like anyone who lives where there’s radios, probably a billion times, and I just listened to a cover of it, and I still only know the chorus. It’s not a particularly memorable song. In fact, the chorus was used as part of the worst song of Nine Inch Nails’ best album, Starfuckers, Inc., a song that was directed at Marilyn Manson. Combined with Manson’s lyrical obsessions with fame and narcissism, and how we’re all part of the disease that breeds blah blah blah, we have a pile of things that point to this cover making any sense. But here’s the rub: it doesn’t make any sense.
What is the point of covering this song? I mean, obviously the point is to capitalize on the easy publicity of it – it’s easy to write about, which means that people will write about it, but why this song? He could’ve covered “99 Luftballons” or “I Wanna Be Your Dog” or fucking “Islands in the Stream,” and any of them would have made more sense. Instead he covered a song that, I guess, reminds us of the heady days of the late nineties, when people cared enough about him to be mad at him. Which is nice? I guess?
And in being nonsensical, “You’re So Vain” stands in for the problems of the album itself – it’s easy to see how this record got made15, and I suppose there’s something to be said for doing it, but there isn’t anything new about it. Just as “You’re So Vain” is a pointless, inexplicable cover that has the band reminding us of moments when they were good, so is the rest of the album a pointless, inexplicable exercise in recording new music but not doing anything with it. I said before that the album was terrible, but that was an exaggeration. It’s not terrible. It’s not anything. It lacks even enough force of existence to make me do anything but shrug.
So who the fuck listens to this? Well, as you can see I did some youtubing to find the videos that I reference, and it turns out that…well, a lot of people do. Apparently, mostly the exact same people that listened to Marilyn Manson when I was in high school. He just doesn’t have any of the cultural cachet he did at the time, which is weird. So I guess with that answered, the question remains: what are they getting out of it? What is the benefit to listening to a band that once theoretically scared people somewhere round about the year you were born? I suppose it’s the same as it is for people my age who listen to KISS – which I don’t understand any better, but I’m comfortable equating the two groups. Pity the poor rock radio fan: in a world where his format of choice is dying by measures, he’s stuck reliving the glory days of someone slightly older than him, reminiscing for a time that he is probably only dimly aware of, when someone like Marilyn Manson could represent an actual presence in the culture. Then stop pitying him, because the motherfucker has YouTube, and there’s, like, a gajillion hours of better music on there that he’s too lazy to click on. That guy is who the fuck listens to this.
1 This isn’t quite fair. Marilyn Manson has always come off as erudite and well-read in interviews, and he is clearly together enough to mount an entire career on little more than publicity. He has things to say in the micro: when asked, he’ll find things. But in the macro his message seems to be “if you are alarmed by my actions, it is your own fault, because you are part of the system that ended up being responsible for them,” which is both uncreative and extremely tiresome. He’s probably smarter than that message, but apparently not above underestimating the intellectual limits of faux-disaffected young men.
2 both the passive voice and the disclaimer are warranted here – I don’t now anyone who actually found him threatening. But the idea was that there were people all over. You’d think that rural Ohio, which is pretty much cultural shorthand for “places where backward people take things seriously that coastal big-city people are jaded by,” would have exposed me to some of those people, but it never happened.
3 and actually, the first album of his “decline”, Mechanical Animals is downright listenable!
4 according to wikipedia, this policy was abandoned in 1996, which means that at no point in my awareness of them were they actually named after models and serial killers, which causes a paradox whereby I wonder why the fuck I think that was the case. I don’t care, though. And “Daisy Berkowitz” is a pretty good name.
5 dimoko will be thrilled to note that this record is released through Cooking Vinyl records, which means that Marilyn Manson now shares a label withClem Snide. I think I speak for him when I say: it’s what he’s always wanted.
6 note: I do not think that Bauhaus sounds like dinky Joy Division. I think that bands that say they sound like Bauhaus sound like dinky Joy Division. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is still the bomb diggity. Tangentially, the Birthday Party’s Junkyard came out thirty years ago, and still kicks the ass of everything Marilyn Manson has ever recorded. Just throwing that out there. It didn’t require an Will Hunts, either.
7 congratulations, you’ve been rewarded for reading the footnotes.
8 or, I’m told, Mark Twain
9 this is absolutely, 100% what David Lee Roth* said.
*or, I’m told, Mark Twain
10 I’ll say that later
11 actually, it has fifteen, but the last song is the “radio edit” of the first song.
13 Spoiler Alert!
14 more in terms of “overplaying a subtext that was already there from the beginning in the loudest, most obvious way possible.”
15 With lots of crunchy guitars! So crunchy!