It seems far removed from current reality, but in the late 1990’s Marilyn Manson was the most shocking band to be played on the radio and, most importantly, on television. Whether pop culture has moved in a way where what Manson did now seems comparatively mild, or perhaps because time has added perspective to events, it all now seems less offensive.
While the merits of the music can be disputed by some, there was certainly brilliance in the purposes of offering a mirror pointed towards the horrors that media, government and safe modern living represented. The band and it’s singer provided this by using the same tools of promotion that were being used to broadcast news of wars and atrocity, together with promoting new teen pop stars and corporate products.
It was of course also a time when other forms of music with a more aggressive message were getting a lot of traction. Grunge and gasta rap were still around, although in their dying days (comparatively to their initial incarnations), while nu metal was making pummeling rhythms and distorted guitars cool for frat kids and teen comedies.
And even so, Marilyn Manson performing live on the MTV awards for three years in a row, was by far the most talked about and “controversial” event by a by a major music artist. Whether a fan or not of the music, there is certainly more “art” than “pop/rock music” to what Manson did. Like some of the best horror movies, the most terrifying thing about his performances was that they left plenty a lot of room for the imagination. And the public certainly filled in the gaps with their own vision of what this was supposed to mean.
Those easily offended or waiting to be shocked, projected their biggest fears on to the performances. It’s a clever touch from the band to get MTV to ask them to perform for the entertainment of the audiences and while doing so, to remind the audiences gently of some of the horrors they were trying to escape through this entertainment.
There’s also a good deal of humor with the performances and the songs that were at the time big rock hits for the band. “The beautiful people” is performed complete with a speech about the fascism of the beautiful and the elite, while in a room filled with rich celebrities. “The Dope Show” similarly has lyrics talking about superficiality and the image outweighing any meaningful message, while at the height of manufactured pop music, at an MTV organized event. And “Rock is dead”, echoing the Doors’ unreleased song, seems to question whether rock’s promise of revolution, through shock or otherwise, has been replaced by predictable entertainment and false moral values.
Interestingly, Marilyn Manson’s rivals for the “shock factor” award, the nu metal kids and gangsta rappers, were part of the audience at the MTV sponsored events. According to the reports, they were left as upset and offended by the show as were some of the representatives for youth morals that were so vocal against Marilyn Manson and advocating censorship of the band’s work.
It’s water under the bridge by now, but still a good reminder that art that echoes reality is much more frightening then fantasy ever can be.