CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR
Marilyn Manson – The Dope Show
From: Mechanical Animals (1998)
To this day, I don’t really know where Marilyn Manson came from.
I know there’s a backstory and I know there were albums and singles that led up to him showing up on MTV in weird face paint whispering and screaming in worm-infested science labs shot with canted angles, but I don’t know what the story is or what the other albums were or where all the love of “awful, just awful” images came from. All I know is that one day he was there.
And for a white 8th grader living in a modest western suburb of Chicago, it’s hard to overstate what that arrival meant. Because in all the western suburbs, and probably much of Chicago and most of middle-class white America, the general consensus was that someone fell asleep at the switch somewhere when the portal to hell opened up and this little band crawled through.
Now these things roamed Earth freely. And put on concerts. And showed us their pale, disgusting buttocks. And wiped those buttocks with pages of the Bible. And probably tried to summon Hitler as an opening act. And probably slaughtered little girls who sang in their church’s choir for the finale. And you know … probably sparked mass genocides. And it may or may not have been the dude who played Paul on “The Wonder Years” leading the charge. Which made you wonder when that dude died, why he’d gone to hell and why the devil he came back to torment all of us like this. Paul was a pretty sympathetic character on “The Wonder Years.” No one hated him, did they? At least no one could have hated him to the point that society deserved this kind of revenge.
Frankly, I’m surprised I lived through the experience to recount it more than a decade later. Must have been too wrapped up in Oasis to leave myself vulnerable to the Antichrist Superstar’s spell.
I don’t know what it would take to shock society at large in the way that Marilyn Manson did through 1996 and 1997. I’ll cite those years, because that was during the whole Antichrist Superstar cycle, the f*cked-up cover of “Sweet Dreams” and front page news stories about how incensed some mothers could be that this kind of thing could be considered popular. I mean the protests that this band sparked actually managed to cancel performances in that time. The Columbine shooting would take place 2 years later and because those deranged high school kids either wore the band t-shirt or somewhere mentioned an appreciation of the band’s music, he was called to the carpet for that needless act of violence. And he came off as pretty sensible in that Michael Moore movie about Columbine, but given where the majority of people stand on Moore these days, I’m not sure that means a lot.
Maybe I’m older and not so hip to any of the outrage anymore, but I don’t think anything’s pervaded society like that since. I think what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 maxed out most of our “Holy sh*t” stock. People, music, movies, art, wardrobe malfunctions—all that can still shock society, but maybe for a week or month at best. Not years.
I went to a public junior high school and a public high school. Marilyn Manson t-shirts ended up being banned in both. I had a Beatles t-shirt with a picture that caught George Harrison mid-snap and made it look like he was flipping the bird. That was OK. This wasn’t.
I don’t doubt that there are impressionable youths out there right now. I don’t doubt that there were some in my junior high and high school classes. But certainly history, if not trying to keep your cellphone out of a baby’s reach, has taught us that restricting access to something is only going to make the people you’re restricting it from that much more interested in it. You make Marilyn Manson out to be something that dangerous, and you’re going to make a lot of kids want to stay up late to catch the showing of a Marilyn Manson video on “120 Minutes.” You make a concert out to be some place where you might walk out having seen someone killed, and there are enough curious, thrill-seeking 14-year-olds out there who’ll decide, “I’m finding a way in.” But you leave it out there for everyone to see, and yeah, 14-year-olds who don’t know the difference and like to run with the herd will get really excited about a song or maybe the CD. Then when Limp Bizkit gets a little more popular, they’ll move to that. The rest of us will be able to judge that all in all, this is actually pretty sh*tty music.
And all Marilyn Manson wanted to do was get on the pedestal to make his comments about society. From what I gathered from his whispers/screams on Antichrist Superstar-era videos, it was that there were a lot of phonies out there trying to religious you up and a lot of rich people who deserved your scorn. I think that dialog’s still continuing 16 years later in this presidential race, but we’re not cancelling any of those rallies now, are we?
By the time Mechanical Animals rolled around in 1998, its lead single “The Dope Show” was just a rather benign commentary on celebrity. By that point, people watched “Behind the Music” and certainly no one could’ve thought Marilyn Manson was the first person to think, “Yeah, this celebrity business is a bit of bullsh*t when you examine it.”
Of course, it might have been a more cunning commentary coming from someone who hadn’t used his quick rise to celebrity to hook up with a movie star and parade her around red carpets in a slinky. It also might have meant more if the guy considered to be a protégé of Trent Reznor, one of industrial music’s godfathers, didn’t use Manson as a target the very next year in his song “Starf*ckers, Inc.” And maybe it would’ve meant the most if the guy singing about the “lot of pretty, pretty ones who want to get you high” that ultimately “will leave you low and blow your mind” didn’t himself subsequently end up as some wasted fool who couldn’t heed his own warnings.
The interesting thing about “The Dope Show,” though, was it was Manson’s most commercial single and truth be told, not an entirely awful song. Bands such as Suede had already made a 1990s push to revisit the heights of the 1970s glam rock era, so there was nothing that wild or new about what Manson was doing, but he was actually showing a bit of pop sensibility and delivering a single for a major label that had (gasp) a hook. Whether or not that spat in the face of everything he and/or the band had tried to achieve by that point is debatable. I suppose you could make the point that he was being SUCH a non-conformist that he wasn’t even going to conform to his previously stated railings and deliver a pop single that (holy crap, dude) lampooned the pop industry.
I remember the song coming on Q101 when I was hanging out with my girlfriend at the time. She reacted as most people did—spat out an “Ew!” and went to change the station.
“That’s actually not that bad of a song,” I said.
She turned to me with this look on her face that mixed horror with “You’ve gotta be kidding me” in a way I’d never seen before.
“You like Marilyn Manson now?” she asked. I might have been wearing a Beatles T-shirt at the time. Let’s just assume I was for comedic purpose.
“No, no. I’m not saying I like the song, I’m just saying it’s a well-structured little pop song. It’s not like he’s telling you to kill your cats. He’s just saying being famous is stupid. It’s kind of funny. It’s not shocking in any way.”
“I’m not listening to it. I can’t believe you like Marilyn Manson now.”
“I DON’T LIKE IT! I’m just saying it’s interesting! He’s doing what everyone else does now! No one’s gonna care about him anymore! Change the station! I’m just saying change it for the right reason!”
I still can’t figure out why she eventually dumped me …
Anyway, the point I was making was correct. The fact was and is that John Lennon, David Bowie, 10,000 Maniacs, Pixies and even Sara f*cking Bareilles (not to mention an innumerable amount of artists that have ever felt even mildly burned by the industry) have done it before and since with much more panache than Manson. Maybe he saw himself as individual because none of the others produced a video for their single that featured them in a latex body suit that had boobies.
But after those “demons take over the biology lab” videos from his previous album, “The Dope Show” video seemed tame. If you’ve staked your career on the ability to shock people and done it to such a point that you’ve freaked out middle America enough to have multiple concerts cancelled, dyed hair and fake boobies is a step in the wrong direction. We’d seen better. The only remotely interesting thing about that video was that somehow the jerk from “Titanic” had found his way into it. But even then, the only talking point was “Wait, is Marilyn Manson down with the jerk from ‘Titanic’? Is that because they’re old acting buddies? You know, because Marilyn Manson is supposed to be Paul from ‘The Wonder Years’?”
It wasn’t really worth cancelling shows over.
And that was the moment the country decided that maybe Marilyn Manson wasn’t so scary.
Sure, there would still be lost teenagers who would get their hands on guns and kill themselves or innocent people and Manson’s name would end up attached to those news stories, but he wasn’t even the first to have those kinds of charges and allegations leveled at him. Given the chance, don’t you think David Berkowitz’s neighbor’s dog would’ve said, “Hey, hold on, I was just asking for some Purina. I never said THAT …”?
At the end of the day, we had someone who disliked the tenets of Christianity, enjoyed sex and thought the music business was hollow (despite gleefully enjoying the benefits of it). Wow.
Maybe the most shocking thing about Manson is he managed to make a bumbling Jay Kay look like he was intelligent and way ahead of the curve.