Rockers like Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper & Ozzy Osbourne have built their careers scaring the hell out of us. This past weekend at 2019 Louder Than Life Music Festival in Louisville, I was able to catch Manson in person, and well, he scared the hell out of me!
You see, Manson, like Cooper & Osbourne, unleash big emotions on stage, and those big emotions are not the pretty ones. Rather than singing about love and romance, their songs give voice to rage and alienation. They have become the avatars of adolescents – particularly boys and young men – figuring out where they fit in the world.
But when we take a peek inside the creepy, haunted funhouse these performers project on stage and look at their actual lives, the interior looks a lot more like the house next door. Alice Cooper is a grown-up preacher’s kid who enjoys playing golf. Ozzy Osbourne is a doddering and doting dad who relies heavily on his wife to manage his life.
The effect isn’t quite the same in the case of Marilyn Manson. Stroll through the front door of his haunted mansion and you won’t necessarily find the familiar and the comfortable.
What we do find is a certain chaotic cohesion that seems designed to perfectly express the central theme of Mason’s art: duality. Good and evil. Individual and belonging. Ugly and beautiful.
It takes moxie to be both repulsive and appealing at the same time, and Marilyn Manson has it. Here’s how:
Moxie makes sense of chaos.
Manson was born Brian Hugh Warner in Canton, Ohio. His childhood appeared fairly typical on the surface. His dad Hugh was away a lot working as a salesman. His mother, Barbara, carefully watched over her seemingly sickly son.
But all wasn’t as it seemed. Manson has indicated that his mother Barbara suffered from Munchausen by Proxy, a syndrome where a caregiver fakes or induces illness in others as a means to get attention. Young Brian was left vulnerable to his mother’s mental illness. Hugh might not have been equipped to assist, as he was struggling with his own challenges. He saw combat in the Vietnam War and like many veterans of his era may have suffered from undiagnosed PTSD.
His grandfather kept a secret porn den in his basement, and young Brian stumbled upon his grandfather pleasuring himself on occasion to disturbing images.
To top it all off, Brian was also routinely bullied, both at the strict private Christian school he attended and at the public high school, he attended later.
That’s a lot to process for any kid. Marilyn Manson is the result.
“I created a fake world because I didn’t like the one I was living in,” he said in an interview with The Guardian.
And what does that ‘fake world’ look like? Manson makes sense of the chaos and confusion that inevitably arise when expectations and reality don’t match up by embracing and exploring them. His life is a study in contrasts and contradictions. He’s a raging musician who finds peace in painting watercolors. He’s a rock star who studies philosophy and frequently shares razor-sharp insights. He critiques consumer culture while profiting from it at the same time. His stage name is taken from a horrific criminal mastermind and a Hollywood icon. He’s a living juxtaposition who makes all sorts of sense and no sense at all at the same time.
Moxie understands the nature of fear.
By 1999, Marilyn Manson had powered his way to rock icon status. His provocative appearance, performance, and message had penetrated the public consciousness and even people who weren’t fans had some awareness of him and his work.
Then came the Columbine shooting.
It was one of the first mass school shootings, and the public was searching for answers. Rumors swirled and news outlets reported that the killers were dressed as Marilyn Manson. It wasn’t true; they weren’t even fans of his music.
But the truth didn’t matter. All that mattered was having someone to blame, and Manson presented a juicy target. Who was going to defend a guy who mocked Christians, studied with the Church of Satan, and released an album titled “Antichrist Superstar”?
Venues canceled concerts and protesters turned up at his shows. The backlash derailed his career, Manson says.
In the interview, Manson puzzles over why so much of the blame ended up pointing at him. Why blame him for violence, he reasoned, when on the very day of the shooting the president of the United States ordered a significant airstrike on a foreign nation? Isn’t that a violent act, and isn’t the president more powerful and influential?
Manson pointed to larger and more difficult problem to tackle: our own violent, consumption-driven culture. Fear is a marketing tool, he reasoned.
“Keep everyone afraid and they’ll consume,” he said.
He wasn’t wrong. In fact, 20 years later, he’s looking more and more right. Political and advocacy groups raise money by stoking fear of their followers. They promote awareness campaigns and fundraising messages that scream, “The world is burning! Only we can save you! Give us money so we can protect you!” in what feels like an only slightly more genteel shakedown.
Manson is a keen observer of human nature, and of our culture.
Moxie makes its own way.
While he’s primarily known as a musician, Manson has never been afraid to take his skills as a performer to the large and small screen. Unlike other well-known musical artists who cross over to television or movies, Manson doesn’t limit himself to playing a version of himself. Roles have included a small role as a roller-skating waiter in Eastbound and Down, a cross-dressing club kid in Party Monsters and a menacing white supremacist in Sons of Anarchy.
He’s recently been cast in a role that’s a little closer to home. He’ll be playing a death metal singer in the Starz series American Gods.
Manson recently took the stage at the Louder than Life festival here in Louisville. I didn’t get a chance to sit down with him, but maybe I will if he returns in future years. If he does come back and I do get a chance to interview him, what would you most like to know about him?