Breaking the Rose-Coloured Glasses — The Unmaking of Marilyn Manson
Who had “justified cancellation of major pop culture figure” for February?
If you’re reading this, you have doubtless heard the very disturbing claims made last week by Evan Rachel Wood and a handful of other women against Marilyn Manson. If you haven’t read their various statements, I suggest you do so before reading any further. I would also recommend watching the statements ERW made before Congress and the California State Senate in the last couple of years. If I had been paying more attention, I might have put the pieces of her story together sooner.
Am I disappointed? Extremely. Did I see this coming? No. Should I have? Perhaps, but I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. And sometimes they let you down so hard.
Marilyn Manson and I go back a long way, and the same is true for many of my fellow Millennials, and younger Gen Xers who have been our peers in pop culture consumption. It’s been twenty-five years since Antichrist Superstar put Manson and his band of misfits on the world stage. Twenty-three years since my father told me and my sister to change the channel when the video for “The Dope Show” came across our TV screens. Twenty-two years since he was forced into hiding because he was ludicrously blamed for the actions of the Columbine killers. Twenty-one years since I shuddered at the sight of the cover of Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) on display in Canada’s most popular record chain. Nineteen years since he stole the show in Bowling for Columbine, and many people began to look at him differently. Sixteen years since Dita Von Teese’s iridescent purple wedding gown from her delightfully weird wedding to him was splashed all over magazine covers and spreads all over the world. Fourteen years since Evan Rachel Wood, who is just months older than me, was revealed to be dating him, and the only problem I saw with that relationship was the timing; it had obviously begun while he was still married.
These just are a few highlights of Manson’s pop culture presence that stand out in my mind, and they’re all from my formative years. Truth be told, I’ve never been that big a fan of his art; sure, I’ve had a smattering of songs in my library since music went digital (had I ever bought one of albums in my CD-buying days, my parents would have put it under their heels). But I could do without much of the music, and the music videos (especially the earlier ones) were either too grotesque for me to enjoy, or I just found myself laughing at them as I thought of the pearl-clutching they were inspiring (which was probably what he was hoping). Even his paintings, which are interesting, are really not my style, so I never purchased any prints. I did buy his autobiography years ago, but it was a gift for my sister, and I never got around to reading it. But if you had asked me as recently as last month to name a short list of the pop culture figures from whom I had learned the most valuable lessons, he would definitely be on it. If you had asked to say whether, on balance, he was a positive or negative influence on my life, I would have said positive.
What are these lessons, you might ask?
· the media want you to be afraid, because then you will consume (I’ve thought a lot about this one over the last year, understandably)
· controversy, on the whole, is good, because, inter alia:
· it makes people think, something many people don’t do enough of
· it makes people question their sensibilities and knee-jerk reactions to things
· no one pays attention to the problems of the world when they’re too comfortable
· being controversial will leave a more lasting legacy than being squeaky clean and safe
· God does not need me to be offended on His behalf. The joke is on people who think otherwise
· I can see value in art that is not to my own taste, and doing so is a sign of maturity and intellectual honesty
· People make scapegoats out of musicians, film and television stars, athletes, and other public figures — especially when kids are concerned — because it’s easier than taking personal responsibility
· Only you are responsible for your own actions. A person who commits an act of violence or other evil is, ultimately, solely responsible for their actions, even if other people were contributory factors
It was a winding road from the horrified fascination I felt as a child when I first saw him, to the place where I valued his presence in our culture, the place where I have spent my whole adult life until now. Some kids in my class growing up were allowed to listen to his music and watch his videos, and their parents generally did not restrict their entertainment. I was part of the other cohort, the kids whose parents monitored and routinely censored their music, television, and movies, and Manson was decidedly unpopular among these parents. My parents are not religious, but they are both culturally Christian, and the blasphemous anti-Christian themes of Manson’s art were hardly endearing to them. They are both David Bowie fans, and I don’t think they enjoyed Manson’s particular way of paying tribute to the icon, mixing it with what they saw as merely rubbish meant to generate revenue. But they both acknowledged his intelligence and creativity long before I was able to see past the creepy surface. And it never occurred to either one of them to blame Manson (or any other celebrity) for the Columbine massacre.
I was in the fifth grade when Columbine happened, and while my parents limited how much media my sister and I were allowed to consume about it (something they would repeat in the quite near future, on 9/11), for some time it was a very frequent topic of conversation at home and wherever we visited. Holidays and family visits were invariably punctuated by my mother leading a heated conversation about why warning signs were ignored by parents and police, why the killers were able to get guns so easily, and mostly, where the hell were the parents? That was my mother’s primary question about the whole ordeal — where the fuck were the parents? Why did not they not know what their kids were doing? How could they be unaware that their kids were gathering an arsenal of weapons? In all these roundtables, I cannot recall Manson’s name being mentioned, although the issue of violent media as a whole would sometimes come up. However little they may have thought of Manson, my parents were not stupid enough to blame him in any way for the violent acts of others.
Michael Moore’s celebrated documentary Bowling for Columbine played a major role in changing how my peers and I viewed Marilyn Manson. My parents rented it so that we could discuss it at home, but I also watched it at school along with my classmates. Manson’s interview with Moore in the film lasts about three minutes, following a short montage of politicians and religious figures pointing the finger at Manson for the massacre. For some people, those few minutes of Manson speaking were the first time they ever heard him talk like a normal person, and many were surprised by how articulate and intelligent he was. The aversion to him that had been instilled in some of us gave way to appreciation of his keen observation of the ills of the world, and his willingness to have important discussions even if it upset people. In other words, we were growing into the demographic for whom Manson’s art was made — educated adults who are taught to think critically. For example, the gruesome cover art of Holy Wood, if you look past the surface, is actually a powerful statement about scapegoating and censorship. Critics of Christianity often characterize the crucifixion of Christ as scapegoating, writ-large, and Manson was made to pay a price for crimes he did not commit at Columbine. Still a little much to compare yourself to Jesus, I thought, but I got the point. The crucified person on the cover is also missing his lower jaw, which represents censorship and taking away someone’s voice. I still don’t think that art should have been on display in public for kids to see, but that doesn’t take away from the art’s intrinsic value.
My tolerance for easily offended people rapidly waned in early adulthood. To the budding libertarian in me, people could be divided into two categories: those stupid and/or immature enough to actually be offended by Marilyn Manson and artists like him and wish to silence them, and those smart enough to see when something was an act designed to screw with the former category. As a child I had been outraged by his work, but I was an adult now, and I knew better. But with this new perspective came a pitfall that I am only recognizing now: I stopped taking even his most questionable public antics seriously. Anything he did on stage or in music videos, and even some things he said in interviews (when I was paying attention to his press appearances, which was not always)…I merely chalked it up to his stage persona. It never occurred to me that the twisted public image of Marilyn Manson was mirrored in any way by Brian Warner in private.
A 2009 interview he did with Spin has resurfaced and made the rounds on social media in the last few days, in which he expressed the desire to smash in ERW’s skull with a sledgehammer. Fucked up stuff, so why did I have no recollection of this? It may be that I just never read the interview, but it is also possible that I heard about it, and just thought this was him taking the demonic rock star gimmick too far, and I eventually forgot about it. Spin had reported some years before that Manson had once put a gun in the mouth of a record label executive, and when I read that I just laughed. I figured that either the magazine was publishing what we would now call fake news, or that Manson himself had started a rumour to that effect; again, just to screw with people. I did not entertain the possibility that it might be true.
I still remember quite vividly finding out that Manson and ERW were dating when they went public in 2007. The fact that she was nineteen and he was thirty-eight did not seem like a big deal to me; the only improper thing about that relationship that I could see at the time was that it had begun while he was married. But I was also nineteen then, and I’m thirty-two now, and I obviously see things differently. I still firmly believe that relationships should not be dismissed out of hand solely on the basis of an age gap. But I am unable to accept that an eighteen-year-old girl who commits adultery with a thirty-seven-year-old married man could be thinking clearly. Take a rock star like no other, pushing forty, with a hot wife, whose die-hard fans still support him, but whose star is waning as his shock value fades, and an artistic, intelligent, and curious young woman, and you have the recipe for a tabloid-friendly, premature midlife crisis. Evan once described their relationship as “healthy and loving”, and Manson appeared to draw new life from his relationship with her. Who was I to question that? His 2007 album, Eat Me, Drink Me, was a refreshing departure from the nihilistic screeds that made up much of his earlier albums, and actually gave us a look into the person behind the makeup (or so I thought at the time). Evan was an obvious inspiration for the album, and I still think that the dark and erotic video for “Heart-Shaped Glasses (When the Heart Guides the Hand)” is a masterpiece. I admired her “balls” for appearing in it, and I’ve owned more than one pair of heart-shaped glasses in the years since.
The fact that their relationship came to an end did not surprise me any more or less than any other celebrity breakup, and I didn’t give any thought as to why it might have ended. When Evan spoke publicly about being a victim of sexual and domestic violence, years after their split, I completely believed her, but I did not think of Manson (or anyone else) as the likely perpetrator. Perhaps in the years since their breakup the two have become less connected in my mind; maybe her story of survival was in such abundant company the last few years that I have forgotten to ask myself who the perpetrators in these stories might be. Or had my own belief — long-relegated to my subconscious — that Marilyn Manson and Brian Warner are two distinct entities rendered me inadvertently blind?
Spoiler Alert. In Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone’s character, Catherine Tramell, kills her lover in a gruesome manner which mirrors a murder committed in her latest novel. The homicide detectives point out during the interrogation scene (yes, that scene) that her book describes the exact way her lover was killed, and she says, cool as a cucumber, “I’d have to be pretty stupid to write a book about killing and then kill somebody the way I described in my book. I’d be announcing myself as the killer. I’m not stupid.” She denies killing him, and is soon released, leaving the detectives thinking that a copycat killer is more likely. They could not believe that she would be so brazen or foolish as to actually use her art to describe her real-life evil.
Is this the same kind of phenomenon? Have I, and millions of others around the world, assumed on some level that Brian Warner cannot possibly be as dark, twisted, amoral, and generally fucked in the head as the character he has played for decades? That he could never be stupid enough to let his work reflect criminal acts that he would never want revealed? That being Marilyn Manson in public is not a sufficient outlet for the darker parts of his soul? That his stage persona is not a persona at all, but a thinly veiled window?
The answer to this last question, given the testimony of his victims, seems to be “yes.”
And I admit that is hard to hear. It is never easy to learn that someone you admired for a long time, and thought of as a fundamentally decent person, is a scumbag. Relegating an artist’s work to the trash heap, or at most the privacy of your own home, is also not a joyous undertaking. Irrational though it might be, it can be embarrassing to have been so wrong for an awfully long time, even if it’s about a public figure you don’t personally know. And it is so incredibly disappointing on so many levels, mainly because Warner is a genius who had the potential to do a lot of good in the world. I understand having demons — I have some of my own. I know the damage that can be done by childhood traumas — I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to generally be a kind of dark and twisty person — life has made me that way, and dark themes show up in my own art. Haunted people make good artists and commentators, but most of us do not harm other people as a way to deal with our own problems.
The lessons I have learned from his work and life are so deeply ingrained in me that they could never be unlearned — nor would I want them to be. I also know that for some of his fans, his work has been not just a source of entertainment over the years, but comfort and solace. If anyone reading this right now can relate to these things, my advice is this: If you need to mourn, do so, but do it privately. Confine your discussions to people who you know will not be adversely affected by what they hear as you navigate your emotions. Do not feel guilty or foolish for finding value or comfort in Manson’s long body of work. Carve out the good and keep it. I will, and for that, I do not apologize.
All that being said, if you find yourself in denial, you should get over that quickly. If one person were accusing him of horrific domestic violence, I would say let us wait and hear both sides of the story. But at least ten women have come forward with similar stories; if you seriously think they’re all lying, you need to have your head examined. And yes, it is true that both Rose McGowan and Dita Von Teese have stated that their relationships with him were not abusive in the ways described by these accusers. But the fact that someone did not abuse all of their intimate partners does not constitute evidence that they have not abused any of their partners. If you are more concerned for the poor accused rock star than for the women whose lives are forever blighted by his abuse, you are the embodiment of everything wrong in this world.
It is time for Marilyn Manson to be relegated to the past, and for Brian Warner to face the consequences for his actions as himself. No more make-up, no more dressing up like the Tim Burton version of the Village People, and no more rock star excesses that are too often used as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. He has already been dropped by his record label, his agent, and his manager of 25 years, and been cut from television appearances. No major record label will touch him at this point, and while his die-hard acolytes will continue to support him, his music and videos will be boycotted by many. It is unclear at that point whether any criminal charges are forthcoming, as the statute of limitations has expired for many victims. If a fairly recent victim chooses to come forward, and to press charges, he may face legal consequences for his actions, but I would not encourage anyone to hold their breath. Whether he ends up being criminally charged or not, the best thing for Warner to do, for everyone, is to leave the public eye for good. Let us send the Pale Emperor into exile so his victims can finally live free.