I’m not a fan of Marilyn Manson. I wasn’t much into the goth scene in high school when he was at the height of his popularity. But I did have sympathy for the “goths” at my school who were made into outcasts (even suspended for a tangential issue) because of their fandom. So, what I have to say here is not a ringing endorsement of Marilyn Manson, his music, or some of the grotesque aspects of his performance art.
I think that Manson was right in his response to the allegations that he personally or his music was responsible for the national tragedy of the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. During the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Manson suspended the last handful of concerts in the United States. Then, on June 24, 1999, Rolling Stone published Manson’s op-ed in response to his critics and to the national fury about his music as incendiary. In it, Manson points to a the commercialization of guns, the lack of respect for life in a nation constantly at war, the mass media obsession with celebrity, and the inherent violence and sexuality within religion and celebrity culture. In sum, he says that we are all to blame, and we all should work to rectify the causes.
Here is an excerpt:
I chose not to jump into the media frenzy and defend myself, though I was begged to be on every single TV show in existence. I didn’t want to contribute to these fameseeking journalists and opportunists looking to fill their churches or to get elected because of their self-righteous finger-pointing. They want to blame entertainment? Isn’t religion the first real entertainment? People dress up in costumes, sing songs and dedicate themselves in eternal fandom. Everyone will agree that nothing was more entertaining than Clinton shooting off his prick and then his bombs in true political form. And the news – that’s obvious. So is entertainment to blame? I’d like media commentators to ask themselves, because their coverage of the event was some of the most gruesome entertainment any of us have seen. I think that the National Rifle Association is far too powerful to take on, so most people choose Doom, The Basketball Diaries or yours truly. This kind of controversy does not help me sell records or tickets, and I wouldn’t want it to. I’m a controversial artist, one who dares to have an opinion and bothers to create music and videos that challenge people’s ideas in a world that is watered-down and hollow. In my work I examine the America we live in, and I’ve always tried to show people that the devil we blame our atrocities on is really just each one of us. So don’t expect the end of the world to come one day out of the blue – it’s been happening every day for a long time.
What I find most intriguing is that there is a prophetic tone to Manson’s critique of American culture. By that, I don’t mean to say that Manson was predicting anything (because that is a bad definition of “prophet”). Rather, I mean it the same way that Walter Brueggemann wrote about in his book The Prophetic Imagination, published in 1979. Brueggemann is a theologian and scholar of the Bible who wrote about a frame of mind throughout the Hebrew and Christian sacred texts in which there was a biting critique of the dominant culture. Generally, that meant a tongue-lashing about society’s violence, inequality, power structures, and apathy on the part of the religious institutions.
I wouldn’t equate Manson with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) or with Jesus. Manson would not want to be equated with these figures, either. But I do see similar themes in how he critiqued American society and culture after such a tragedy. The whole of Manson’s career has been to shock and disgust America’s dominant culture informed by consumerism, mass media, and religion. Thus, he holds up a grotesque carnival mirror to show the absurd qualities of society. In the process, he claimed that all of us were to blame for a culture that allows death and destruction. Twenty years after Columbine, we still look for explanations for mass shootings. But the reasons that Manson outlined in his op-ed are still present, even amplified by decades without halt.
Rock music has a tendency to offer a prophetic voice. In lyrical and performative machinations, it can expose elements of the society and culture that foment such voices. Often society rejects rock performers as pariahs, as scapegoats, as anti-Christs. Perhaps these artists are prophets without honor in their own societies.