Halloween begs the question: Where are all the scary pop stars?
A few weeks back, I took in the Twins of Evil Tour, a jaunt that features Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie as the co-headliners. As noted in my recap of the show, the thing that separates Zombie’s performance from Manson’s is that the former never demanded to be taken seriously, while the latter’s peak occurred precisely because people took him at face value.
It’s an important distinction, because it ultimately allowed for Manson to be much bigger during the height of his power. And that was considerable power: Between the premiere of the video for “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and the release of Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death), Manson was a headline-grabbing, TRL-dominating, album-selling dynamo who, it could be argued, was the most relevant rock star of the late 1990s.
Few people making guitar-based music inspired as much conversation, outrage, intrigue, and passionate fandom as Manson. Though it’s easy to see now that his mainstreaming was calculated (facilitated in part by the edge-smoothing of producer, label boss, and collaborator Trent Reznor), it’s still impressive that Manson managed to sell nearly two million copies of an EP of remixes of songs that nobody bought the first time around, three covers, and a recording of a phone call titled “May Cause Discoloration of the Urine or Feces.”
Manson snuck into the pop consciousness during the vacuum period created following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994. Those three or four years are some of the most fascinating in rock history, as without a figurehead to show the world the way, every weirdo crashes the stage all at once. That’s how lifetime oddballs like Primus and Butthole Surfers suddenly had legitimate radio hits (in “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” and “Pepper,” respectively), and modern rock radio stretched from the relatively traditional scraps of grunge (like Bush) to the rise of hilariously weird sonic experiments like Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” (which was a modern rock number one for six weeks in the summer of ’96).
And then there was Manson, who ascended the ranks thanks to a bevy of excellently heavy, big-hooked tunes (including signature hit “The Beautiful People” from 1996’s Antichrist Superstar and the glammier cuts from 1998’s Mechanical Animals, including “The Dope Show” and “Rock Is Dead”). Like any artist as well-curated as Manson, it wasn’t just about the songs—it was also about his striking visual sense, his humanizing personal biography (full explained in his best-selling book The Long Hard Road Out of Hell), and something of a philosophy, one that dabbled in Satanic imagery but was mostly about rejecting dogma and putting all your chips on self-reliance.
All most people saw, though, was Manson’s ghostly white face and wacky contact lenses staring back at them from T-shirts and magazine covers. People were terrified of Manson and what he represented. His merchandise was banned from schools, his shows shut out of entire states. So intense was his presence that he even took the blame for the Columbine massacre, simply because he was a convenient, universal image to demonize in lieu of finding actual explanations.
The Columbine saga was on my mind while I was watching Manson on stage at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom last week, shouting the same faux-controversial things I saw him shout when I first saw him in 1996, and using the same props he was using when I saw him again in 1999. I realized that it was a little surprising that anybody found this guy scary at all back then, considering how cartoonish his whole act was (and remains). And though the 16-year-old version of me railed against the idea of casting Manson as a villain, I miss the very idea of that now.
Which brings me to the big question: Where has all the fear gone in pop music?
The late ’90s were littered with musicians who frightened parents and got finger-waggers like Tipper Gore and Joe Lieberman all bent out of shape. In addition to Manson, there was his mentor Reznor (who was moaning curse words and trying to sneak nipples onto MTV), Eminem (who took the lessons about being a provocateur from Dr. Dre and at last ran them into suburbia), Korn (who seemed more dangerous than they actually were), and Limp Bizkit (who were slightly more dangerous than they probably intended). Not all of these artists made great music all the time, but they did push buttons that inspired alarmist editorials, actual government hearings, protests, and bans.
But when was the last time anybody tried to ban pop music in this country? You don’t see a whole lot of people getting riled up about Mumford & Sons. U2 remain vaguely controversial, though mostly for Bono’s extracurricular political reasons. Aging provocateurs like Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses are more “dangerous” than dangerous, and even bands on the fringe—like lovable British horror-mongers Cradle of Filth, who just released their tenth album this week and put out album covers like this—seem to be vaguely more concerned with being in on the joke than creating any real fear. And hip-hop seems tamer too. Remember when DMX seemed like the most terrifying artist on the planet? You’d think that with all the Illuminati imagery that current rap music would play more into that, but people only seem to get wound up at the cartoonish cats in Odd Future and Kanye West’s disregard for award show procedures.
Perhaps it’s just because tastes have shifted, as many of the post-grunge modern rock genres (especially nü-metal) were built on traditions that already gave proper ladies the vapors. But there has to be a philosophical shift as well. In a post-9/11 media environment, are we too distracted by things that actually have the potential to harm us (terrorism, white collar corruption, people who use bath salts, natural disasters that totally have nothing to do with climate change) to worry about whether or not a rock star might worship the devil? Or is it that the attitudes in pop (and especially mainstream rock) have are more focused on other things? Scary musicians don’t automatically make better music, but they do introduce important issues in the pop conversation about individualism, censorship, the power of mythology, and the role of the artist in contemporary culture. It’s a fascinating conversation that feels missing in 2012.
So tell me, readers who stuck around this long, when was the last time a musician really seemed to rankle everybody? And do you miss the idea of artists like Marilyn Manson poking societal institutions with a stick?
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