Once the king of controversy, shock 'n' roller Marilyn Manson is now about as spooky as the Phantom of the Opera. Take his role in Michael Moore's controversial film, Bowling for Columbine, in which he dissects the "fear and consumption" at work in American culture with the acumen of a college professor. His steadfast critique has won him newfound fans who appreciate the kinder and gentler side of his persona a side that's always been there, but hasn't really been displayed in public. When he speaks out of character, Manson, who was born Brian Warner, sounds more sane than you'd imagine, given his propensity for outlandish stage shows.
"If I had a dollar for every person who's come up to me and said they appreciated what I said in that film, it would be a different story for me," Manson says via phone from a tour stop in Canada. "It's changed the way people treat me. But the movie has a severe political agenda that I can't agree with."
Manson's politics aren't really that complicated. He draws upon fascist imagery as a form of deconstruction, manipulating the masses to show the fascism inherent in both rock 'n' roll and politics. On his latest album, The Golden Age of the Grotesque, he makes connections between the pre-Nazi period of Germany, the McCarthyism of the '50s and the current political climate all formulations he started to make before the Bush election.
If Manson's not so scary anymore, perhaps it has as much to do with the fact that conservative politics now seem more threatening than a guy in a girdle and black boots. Manson created quite a fury in the '90s but controversy isn't something that can be easily sustained, especially in an age when it's so hard to shock.
Flashback to 1996. Marilyn Manson had just released Anti-Christ Superstar and was barnstorming his way across Middle America, ripping up Bibles and invoking Nazi imagery on his sold-out tour. Religious groups came to picket his shows and tried to ban the Canton native from performing. He published the Long Hard Road Out of Hell, a best-selling autobiography, and had an altercation with the editor of Spin magazine that resulted in a well-publicized lawsuit. He trashed hotel rooms and paraded around Hollywood with Goth boy toy Rose McGowan. He cross-dressed for the cover of 1998's glammed-up, gender-bending Mechanical Animals, an album that featured great anti-anthems such as "Dope Show" and "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)." He was everywhere.
And then Columbine happened. The media assumed that because the kids who shot up the school listened to industrial rock, they must like Manson. They didn't. Manson responded, writing an articulate essay for Rolling Stone in which he decried the violence and his responsibility for it, saying, "America loves to find an icon to hang its guilt on." He canceled the Denver date of his tour out of sensitivity, but he didn't bail on the entire tour, despite more protests.
But after two lackluster albums 2000's Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) and this year's Golden Age Manson's out of the spotlight. He's maintained that Eminem has become the enemy he once was, and he doesn't mind having that weight lifted.
"I think Eminem has become the new scapegoat," Manson says. "But I've never wanted to be thought of as a scapegoat. I wanted to be the person with an opinion."
But the media spotlight is Manson's fix. Without it, he's reduced to a harmless ghoul, all made up with no one to scare. It's suggestive that he's been banned from playing only one date on the current Ozzfest tour a Six Flags show in upstate New York.
"They've decided to single me out," Manson says of the cancelled show. "But I've never backed down or said that my art is all show. People just don't like my aesthetic. We'll find another place to play around that date."
It's ironic that Six Flags wouldn't want Manson, because his show has become an amusement park ride of sorts. After all, he's carting a blow-up doll built in his own image along with him on this tour and he's well aware that the current show might seem more Mickey Mouse than Mad Max.
"My current show has taken the political upheaval of pre-Nazi Berlin and combined it with American symbols of Disneyland," he explains. "It provides you with a lot of visuals that combine the grotesque and the burlesque."
"This is the New Shit" is the disc's first song, and it illustrates the extent to which Manson's become conscious about his art. "Everything's been said before," he screams, setting the stage for the album's self-parody.
"That song asks the question that was on my mind," Manson says. "It's the same thing as when people ran out of ideas many years ago. You try to look at things like a child. I wanted to get all those opinions out. I wanted everyone to see my sarcasm more. I wanted people to enjoy it."
Unapologetically decadent, songs such as "Slutgarden" and "Para-noir" are sexually explicit and more seductive than repulsive. "When I said sweet, I meant dirty," Manson sings in "Slutgarden," confusing pleasure and pain. In the liner notes, he explains that in "Para-noir," "the women of the world list their reasons for fucking me." "Fuck you because I loved you/Fuck you for loving you, too/I don't need a reason to hate you the way I do" he yells to a foul-mouthed female singer over slow techno beats, again confusing hatred and love. And it's all played out like some perverted morality play Manson and band are even listed as "cast."
The problem is, the music is more of the old shit. Industrial-strength guitars back Manson's screams, and the din doesn't subside over the course of nearly 60 minutes. Manson does his best to provoke, christening himself the Antichrist once more ("(S)aint") and mixing Christian images with sexual ones ("Slutgarden"), but with so many rehashed industrial beats, it's hard to think of Golden Age as the departure Manson seems to think it is.
Manson might not be scary anymore, but you can bet that he'll put on the biggest spectacle at Ozzfest when it comes to Blossom on July 22. In the past, he's walked on stilts and turned himself into a marionette. And against a deteriorating Ozzy Osbourne, an increasingly irrelevant Korn, and the slew of nü-metal leftovers on the bill, Manson will still stand out and he knows it.
"We're doing something different from what everyone expected," Manson says. "We're trying to open a new chapter in the vaudeville tradition."