From his makeup to his music, there is nothing Marilyn Manson likes more than to shock. But behind the pose, has he really got anything to say - and why does he prefer living under Bush?
Monday December 1, 2003
Marilyn Manson: 'I don't always have lipstick on, but I don't like reality - I'm a Peter Pan, I suppose'
In 1995, Marilyn Manson released an album called Smells Like Children, which was received, as were his two previous and nine subsequent albums, not entirely in the spirit in which it was intended. With his Halloween mask and androgynous, crone-like appearance, Manson was regarded by sections of the media as a child-snatcher and his music blamed for contributing to the Columbine high-school massacre. So it is with some amusement - if that isn't too animated a state to describe his wintry half-smile - that the 34-year-old rock star considers Michael Jackson's arrest last month for child molestation. "It felt like he was trying to outdo me," he says drily. "I do have a child skeleton. But we're a little bit different, he and I." Manson stands out against the chintz furnishings of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Knightsbridge, which one senses he is grateful to for amplifying the wackiness of his image. It is similar to the effect he gets by posing - cavorting, I suppose - in front of the chintzy mentality of small-town America. Manson, whose stage name (he was born nerdy old Brian Warner) satirises the uncritical nature of celebrity by marrying Charles Manson with Marilyn Monroe, has made a career, literally, out of being misunderstood. In this he has been aided by the idiocy of America's Christian right, to whom the sight of him capering about on stage in Mickey Mouse ears and a bondage mask is not unsubtle burlesque, but heresy.
Although Manson takes the fashionable view that there is no such thing as being misunderstood, since "the person who thinks I worship the devil and kill animals is just as important as someone who makes an interpretation that's closer to what I intended," he has, none the less, profited from being so condemned. "It's my job to be the Pierrot," he says, "the clown, in the theatrical sense." And he thinks of himself as a cabaret MC, a Joel Grey figure peddling escapism in times of, if not fascism, then ultra-conservatism.
It is an admirable effort, inspired by his early years as a sickly and marginalised child, but it carries with it certain problems of style over content. The panda facepaint, the frogspawn contact lenses and the dull, rasping voice might be whimsically intended, but their effect is one of deep and tedious mirthlessness, the sort of pained pretension you see in teen goths stalking round Camden on a Saturday. A man who describes himself as "a death's head on a mop-stick" and answers his critics with the lyric, "I want to hang all your cattle," can't ever be accused of taking himself too seriously. But during the course of an hour's interview, the most extravagant departure Manson makes from blankness is a shallow smirk, in response to the question, "Do you vote?" (Manson: "No." Me: "Why not?" Manson, smirking, "Because I don't have a driver's licence.") He is polite but diffident, balancing one huge-booted foot on the other and compulsively rearranging his tie.
The Manson image, more suspiciously viewed in the US where the goth look never took off among teens, was created as a reaction to the oppressiveness of first Christian school, then the wider conservatism of the American midwest. He grew up in Canton, Ohio, the son of a Vietnam veteran and a housewife, which he says had him hating life from early on. "As a kid I just felt like an outsider," says Manson, and at least has the grace to look embarrassed by the cliche. "Like any kid," he adds hastily. "I was treated with distance. I think I was probably drawn to a lot of European music and art."
His hero is Oscar Wilde, for "his life, his writing, everything that happened to him," and to a lesser extent, the Marquis de Sade, "despicable though he might have been". Manson identifies with the way in which both men were persecuted, although his own situation, in which he has invited persecution as proof of the power of his art, is hardly commensurate.
Whatever one thinks of his music, Manson's place in American culture is useful in exposing the extent to which it is still possible to be punished for one's imagination. "People only hate what they see in themselves," he says, which, in his case, is a sickness at the heart of the nuclear family. His rebellion is not excused by poverty or abuse and although his father came back from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder, they were ostensibly a happy family. And yet he grew up in an atmosphere of intense anxiety, linked, he thinks, to religious hypocrisy. Who does he think the Christian right hate more, him or Eminem? "Um, I think me. He's hated by a lot of liberal groups, but he doesn't really ever talk about religion and that's why there's such a big difference - his success was much more immediate. That's one thing that really can hold you back in America."
What does he think of gangster rap in general? "I like some of it. But I haven't found any particular rap album that strikes me emotionally per se. I think some of it is creative, some of it's not. Some of it's really processed."
Unlike the gangster rappers, whose unhappiness takes more traditional form in machismo and homophobia, there is something passive about Manson's anger, something detached. He hasn't been a teenager for a long time. For all the enraged lyrics, the defining sentiment of his work is listlessness. "We don't rebel to sell/it just suits us well," he sings. He likes to think of himself as an aesthete, but if there is anything cynical about his work, it is here. Manson flatters the inertia of his teenage fans, but is himself a model of American workaholism. "If there's something I don't like, I always try my best to outdo it," he says. "I always thing it'll be better next time. If I think I weigh too much, I'll lose weight; if my hair looks stupid, I'll cut it. I guess I'm my harshest critic. I'm not easily satisfied. I work very hard, although I don't really consider it work. I find it very hard to relax. Watching movies is my one distraction."
On political matters, he is non-committal to the point of senselessness. Voting doesn't interest him because politics in America is "very limited to two parties, two choices. I just generally ignore it." He was neither pro the war, nor anti it. "I could try and do peace songs if that was what I was supporting. Or not supporting." In fact, he had a tougher time living under Clinton than under Bush, because in the era before al-Qaida there was no one else to blame but Manson. "There was definitely a lack of any sort of villain in the Clinton era, which is why when Columbine happened, it was easy to pick on me. My face was around and it made good TV. Now, if something like that happens, there are far too many things going on for them to care about; there are more things for Americans to hate, and to complicate it, they're not even sure if they hate Bush."
So he prefers living under Bush then? "Uh. I predicted before he was elected that this would be a much more prosperous time for art and it has been. I'm not saying that I want Bush to continue. Or not continue. I just make the best of it and get lost in something else." He draws parallels between his art and the vaudeville of the 1930s, which was devised as a haven from politics. "Really that type of theatre was a great outlet for decadence, an escape from the rest of the world. I've always been doing that, but in the past maybe it's been more nihilistic, self-destructive. It's more of a celebration now."
Ultimately, he says, his art is a defence against getting old, the thought of which terrifies him. I suspect this is another pose borrowed from Wilde, although Manson smartly identifies it as one of the reasons his critics hate him so much. "This is the root," he says. "It's fear of the imagination, which is fear of being like a child, which is fear of growing up, which is fear of death. That's why censorship attacks people's imagination, but not what's happening in reality. You can watch CNN and see plenty of violent things, but if I go out on stage with a chainsaw, that horrifies them."
Does it still hurt when he's called a freak?
"There's nothing that anyone could say about me that would hurt my feelings. I proved that I could not be destroyed with Columbine. I became the most hated person that I could be. So nothing hurts me, no." But if he doesn't feel pain, then surely he is desensitised to all sorts of other things that are necessary to art. "Yeah. But it's more out of oversensitivity that I do that. Because I'm very sensitive. So I just try and shut things out. I don't feel any less of an outsider than I did when I was a kid. I probably feel more isolated now."
If Manson fears growing up, it's partly because his career relies on being not too far removed from his core audience. Like his friend, Ozzy Osbourne, the terms in which he is referred to have softened over the years from shock-rocker, to glam-rocker to goth-rocker. How much longer, I wonder, can he carry on being a standard bearer for teen rebellion? I mean, who ever heard of a 40-year-old goth? "Of course. It won't be viable once it's insincere. I don't expect to limit by imagination to music. I like to paint. I think making movies would make me very happy. After this tour finishes in January I'm quite interested in spending some time in Europe, Paris maybe, to see what that does for me creatively."
It's another cliche, from another era. I wonder if Manson ever stops acting, if he is always performing like this. "I don't think I am. I don't always have lipstick on, I'm not always creating art. But I don't like reality. I'm a Peter Pan, I suppose." Tellingly, the one thing he expresses dislike for is reality TV, which he calls "the death of entertainment". I suppose it is the anti-Manson, the celebration of everything he is trying to escape from: hideous, unstylised normality. In one, final attempt to get him to give an opinion on something political, I ask him whether, if the Queen had summoned him to play at her Jubilee, he would have accepted? "I'm not against it," he says without expression. "I suppose you'd have to do it. Purely for the sake of irony."