Offensive Art (Marilyn Manson and John Waters)

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Marilyn Manson's music is centrally concerned with evil, supposedly his own, but it actually questions the definitions of evil, because it is joyous and the performance is spectacular and Manson is not destroying so much as he is creating.
Jeremy Russell

Issue #34, October 1997

I'm dying, I hope you're dying, too.
— Marilyn Manson

For several months now I have felt as though I've died and am now doomed to spend the rest of my life exhuming my own corpse. Banality is perhaps the first thing my auto-autopsy reveals. It is definitely a major player in the grand conspiracy which I can only conclude was my cause of death. Of course, the truth is I haven't died, but only that I've had my pleasant fantasies stolen by what Les Claypool once described as, "the cold wind of conformity." Since I started my new job (my first full-time employment) I just haven't been the same. It isn't that the job is bad, it's a great job and a wonderful opportunity for me, but giving forty hours a week of my energy to somebody else is draining, to say the least. My girlfriend recently said to me, "I miss you while you're at work." I looked back at her and said, "I miss me, too." And I meant it. While I'm at work I feel as though I were fulfilling someone else's prophecies. I guess Marilyn Manson, whom this article is really about, summed it up best, "When you wish upon a star/ Don't let yourself fall, fall in too hard."

Since taking my place in the world of conformists committed to commuting, I've started to look in wonder at the kinds of art to which I'm attracted. I generally like art that has a hint of rebellion. I like that 'fuck you' feeling in the cartoon painting of the mouse giving the finger to the eagle, before his sharp claws clamp shut. But it doesn't do much good to read about, observe, or listen to art that's inciting me to rebel when I have to find a way to grind through another eight hour workday. Nor are the claws about to clamp shut; they move bitter slow in the working world.

It has gotten so that I have become fiercely jealous of the freedom exhibited in the art I once so loved. Now whenever I see or hear of people doing whatever they want, speaking out against injustice in the world even, I ask myself, "Where the hell did they get the money to do that? Where did they find the time to say whatever they wanted?"

Marilyn Manson has become particularly odious in this respect. I mean, here's this tall, Iggy Pop-looking Goth squirming in lingerie on stage, rubbing his anus and inviting the audience to spread its own legs for another fucking star. Yet, I am one of the many fans (how I hate that word) who subsidize his angst-ridded rebellion and, although I am not convinced that he's the God of Fuck, Marilyn Manson sure knows how to put on a good show. He melds the Goth look, influenced by the likes of Alice Cooper (note the all-too-obvious name similarity), with the latest in queer-core latex and a junky's "hard-drug face," while his music melds the freneticism of techno to the head thumping pulse of heavy metal and squirts twisted metal spikes of pure industrial noise throughout. But mostly, I pay to see him flaunt his freedom to offend liberals and conservatives alike, singing, "Everybody's somebody else's nigger." I also enjoyed joining in the anti-Christian rhetoric — just to annoy all the protesters outside. Not to mention his great rendition of the Eurythmics Sweet Dreams. Then I realized that I wasn't just enjoying the thrill of good music, or the sass of flipping off the moral majority, I was enjoying the fact that I too was a little bit offended by some of Marilyn Manson's topics. And as he sang, "I know that I can turn you on/ I wish I could just turn you off," I suddenly I realized that part of the fun was the thrill was having him offend even me. Like a good horror movie, where some of the thrill is being scared (something which you don't normally think of as being all that thrilling), the ability to offend is an art form. You have to build your audience up to it and then slap them with it. I doubt Ozzy Osborne just whipped out a bat and bit its head off; he had to build up the tension first.

Toxic Warning Manson builds that tension most effectively through his lyrics, his 'irresponsible hate anthem.' Manson mentions every American evil, i.e. everything defined as 'evil' by the American mainstream: heroine addiction, homosexual promiscuity, pornography, fascism, hatred, pederasty, suicide, rape. And usually his lyrics are vague enough to be either a warning about these evils or a recommendation of them. For instance in the his song with the most radio play, "The Beautiful People," Manson sings, "Capitalism has made it this way, old fashioned fascism will take it away." This can be read to mean, fascism will fix it (a recommendation) or fascism is the inevitable result (a warning). While you might be led to believe (based on the Manson website or interview material) that he really believes in performing the evil deeds he sings about, I think his ultimate advice is, "Save yourself from this." Notice that, with the exception of certain self-destructive tendencies and a probable proclivity for other men, Manson doesn't do any of things he sings about. Because it isn't advice. He's trying to make a point about the nature of our current nihilism and cynicism. As he said in an interview, "Somebody had to go this far." Sure, so that his artifice can aid us in the daily grind in these concentration camps we call cities. The result of his lyrical build-up is that in the cathartic moment he makes it feel good, even righteous, to feel like shit. We can move in time to the sound of his self-destruction, which in turn points out to us the mechanized death that will eventually come to us all as our population increases beyond what the Earth can maintain, weather it is global warming, anti-biotic resistant disease, war, starvation or simple lack of air. As Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sang in the same concert in '95 where I first beheld Marilyn Manson, "I have found that you can find happiness in slavery." I'm glad I have Marilyn Manson to serenade the death march, because somehow it makes me happy to for a moment rage, rage against the dying of the Earth (and my own cog-like part in that death). I scream along with him in rebellious angst at the industrial production killing and polluting our environment, "Your world is an ashtray/ we burn and coil like cigarettes/ the more you cry your ashes turn to mud." Then I go back to my grind, no better off.

Still, despite all this, I think there is something of redemption to be found in Marilyn Manson and it goes back to that question of freedom and who has it. John Waters nailed how I feel when he described having a job as "doing somebody else's obsession." The artists we subsidize are those who do our obsessions (whether they're making banal television or brilliant oil paintings). Now, I would say that most people's obsession is to escape from their lives. They feel so awful all the time, that all they want to do is forget about the death of the planet, forget about the shit-eating they did at work that day, forget about everything. So, the major cultural obsession right now (other than capitalism) is escapism. Marilyn Manson doesn't help you if you want escapism; he pushes your face right back into the world and orders you to take a look. John Waters did a similar thing in his film Pink Flamingos. For those of you which haven't seen it, the film involves such sights as a man doing an anus-dance and a transvestite, the infamous deceased Divine, eating fresh non-metaphorical dog shit. Again, it was a film so offensive that it made my stomach turn, but I was completely gratified by that feeling. I nearly puked; it was great!

The plot, summarized very briefly, involves a competition for the title of the "Filthiest People Alive." Divine holds the title and the villains, the Marbles, want to take it from her by proving themselves more filthy. Divine shoots them in the end. She executes them for being assholes in a scene which informs us that the difference between filth and evil is enormous. Divine lives a filthy white trash lifestyle — which is what John Waters forces you to consider, poverty and perversion (two old friends of mine) — but she takes care of her aging mother and her son. In many ways she is a very sweet person. The evil characters, however, kidnap women and force them to have babies for their illegal adoption ring in a parody of small business. One of the greatest scenes has the Marbles humiliating a job applicant. The difference between Divine and the Marbles is light years. Although they both disgust us, we recognize that there is a line that can be drawn between disgusting and evil. Waters thereby exposes the difference between real crimes and victimless crimes, exposing the repressive laws against libidinal excitement and harmless individual freedom for what they really are, a subtle form of hate crime. And the most heinous of these libidinal control devices, as the Marbles so plainly show us through their abuses and enslavement of their servent, is work — wage slavery as it was called in more hysterical times. Waters has said, "Eating shit doesn't hurt anybody," which is only true if the person doing the shit eating wants to; otherwise, they are being hurt. Divine apparently wanted to ... for fame. And then the question becomes very vague, because surely if Divine could have been famous any other way she would have. So, Divine becomes a symbol for us all. We all eat shit every day at the office — or 'do somebody else's obsession.' Which is why to watch a movie about people being degraded, or degrading themselves at least as voluntarily as we march our tired asses to work, is not escapism. It forces the awfulness back on us, but meanwhile teaches us how to enjoy it as well.

About his film, Waters has said "It is obscene, but joyous," and here is the magic that takes us back to Manson. Manson's music is centrally concerned with evil, supposedly his own, but it actually questions the definitions of evil, because it is joyous and the performance is spectacular and Manson is not destroying so much as he is creating. Each of his albums is elaborate, artificial (in the best sense of the term) and engaging. Ultimately these artfully constructed offenses are a long way from the banality (as seen on TV) that dominates this country, because they don't simply hide reality from you, they actually cry out against the system of labor harnessed to progress — the one which has had me in its clutches since I was ejected from my scholar's crib. They are decrying the industrial apocalypse machine and all the subtle cultural intricacies that lead to it. Do not accept what you have been given; question the limits of this conventional morality. Then maybe those of us who have died to work the computers and factories like voodoo zombies can be resurrected into our own obsessions.

Jeremy Russell, who is a mild-mannered unassuming communications manager by day, tends to spend his freetime writing and listening to music, without any shame, even if what he's doing is transgressive (and he hopes that it is). He tends to enjoy himself a great deal during his freetime. Unless he's asleep, when he's always having nightmares.

Copyright © 1997 by Jeremy Russell. All rights reserved.

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