Marilyn Manson - Portrait Of An American Family

Self-indulgent storytime: The first and only time I ever did acid, I was in ninth grade, and I stayed up all night at a friend’s house even though I had a basketball game the next day. Everything was going pretty well until we threw on Marilyn Manson’s debut album Portrait Of An American Family, which had come out earlier that year and which turns 20 tomorrow. This was not a good idea. But listening to Portrait is just what we did that year. It’s what just about all my friends did. We yelled its choruses at each other across lunch tables. We yelled its samples, the ones we didn’t yet recognize as being from John Waters movies or the Twin Peaks pilot. There was a period of months where I listened to Portrait at least once, every single day. But back to the acid trip: There’s a moment, near the end of final track “Misery Machine,” where the music stops and these plinking noises come in and you hear all these deep voices rumble, “His horn went beep, beep, beep.” I don’t know why, but those voices immediately made me think of Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and that was it for me. I was done. It wasn’t like I thought the clowns were in the room with me; I just couldn’t stop thinking about them: “Dude, it’s like greasy killer clowns, sitting around a fire, staring at me. Your light fixture kind of looks like one.” My friend still makes fun of me for it. I fouled out of the next day’s game, possibly in the first half, possibly without scoring.

I get the feeling that Marilyn Manson would enjoy this story. Scaring ninth-graders on acid was sort of the point of Marilyn Manson — or it was one of them, anyway. The main point was probably to scare those kids’ parents, the ones who didn’t realize the kids were dropping acid in the first place. Manson’s associate Trent Reznor was a target of massive parental fears during the early ’90s, but Reznor wasn’t a transgressive taboo-busting type; he was a sincere and emotionally intense singer-songwriter who cussed sometimes. But Manson was what parents thought they saw in Reznor. Portrait opens with Manson reciting the creepy tunnel monologue from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, going all over-the-top hammy with it, screaming the end and throwing on all these spooky sound-effects, the type you’d blast from your front porch on Halloween. The poem was already a chilling piece of work, but Manson needed to make it more obviously scary, to eliminate even the slightest ghost of subtlety from it. Throughout Portrait, he pulls that trick over and over: Demented circus music and Charles Manson samples on “My Monkey,” groaning that what he wants is just your children on “Organ Grinder.” “Lunchbox” is about using a metal lunchbox to fight off your bullies, but I always thought it was a pre-Columbine story about keeping a gun in your lunchbox at school. It just made more sense, given everything else that was happening on the album.

Listening to Portrait today, I can’t believe how seriously I took all this, that I didn’t realize how fundamentally silly the album is. It’s a well-produced grossout horror movie, a self-conscious dismantling of the ’50s-style cultural morality that had mostly disappeared from mass culture by the early ’90s anyway. (My working theory: when you consider Andrew “Dice” Clay and N.W.A and GN’R Lies and Total Recall and peak Bret Easton Ellis, American popular culture probably hit its crassness peak in 1989 or 1990, making Manson actually late to the party.) Portrait has not aged terribly well; today, it’s a sharp and well-produced rock record with some strong riffs and a singer who seems determined to sabotage all his own songs by refusing to dial back the theatrical gurgle-growling for any reason. Reznor co-produced the album at a period when he was near king-of-the-world status, and the enormity of its guitar and drum sounds is still evident. But the songs and sentiments are a bit undercooked, and the constant samples and noises just clutter up the mix when a little empty space might’ve worked wonders.

But quibbles aside, those of us where were in ninth grade approached this thing with wide-eyed wonder: “Did you hear what he said? He’s the god of fuck!” When Manson opened for Nine Inch Nails on their Downward Spiral arena tour, the rumors were heavy in the lunchroom the next day. I heard, more than once, that he and his bandmates were fucking each other up the ass with dildos, and it seemed plausible enough. In fact, I’m fairly certain that no ’90s rock star was the subject of as many Rod Stewart stomach-pump-type urban legends as Manson was. It seemed reasonable enough to believe that he’d played Paul on The Wonder Years, or that he’d had ribs removed so that he could suck his own dick. With Portrait, he’d already established himself as an absolute fringe-dweller, a transgressive figurehead, the type of shadowy figure who captures kids’ imaginations. And while he didn’t really make a popular dent until his cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” a year later, Portrait laid the foundation for that persona. It made anything seem possible. Metal had gone into the red zone with shock-value tactics before; it was a big part of what Cannibal Corpse did. Industrial music had pushed even further with it; Lords Of Acid and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult had made careers of it. But none of them had translated that willful shock appeal to something bigger; none had made it resonate the way Manson did.

What still resonates about Manson isn’t really his music, though 1998′s Mechanical Animals still stands as a pretty incredible album. Manson was a culture-war agitator for our side, someone willing to jar and frighten the fuck out of the power structures that seemed there to keep teenagers in their place. His whole thing was a violent, overblown rejection of vast forces of oppression and control, and his tactics made him a target, both of mass-culture disdain (especially after Columbine) and of superior alt-culture snark (especially after that Onion article). All that was by design. He put himself out there to take those attacks. And on some level, he’s a saint for that. Simply by existing, by moving the baseline, he made lives easier for hundreds of thousands of teenagers. That, rather than “Cake And Sodomy,” is his legacy. Now, let’s watch some videos.

Comments (32)
  1. Cake and Sodomy was the only song I liked much on this album, but I was kind of late to it. Anti-Christ Superstar and Mechanical Animals are both good albums, and Holy Wood has its moments as well. Good write-up, I agree about how silly it all is in retrospect and even though a large part of me is sort of embarrassed for still considering myself a Manson fan, another large part of me isn’t.

  2. Oh hell yes. Best Manson album by far. I didn’t get into this immediately, but I got the S.F.W. sdtk which included ‘Get Your Gunn’ and I was hooked and picked it up shortly thereafter. I remember seeing on the CD cover ‘you cannot sedate, all the things you hate’ and thinking that was so badass and somehow ‘wise’. Thinking back, this is the album that got me away from being a normal, good 6th grade Christian boy and made me want to get into the darker side of life and anti-authority (which looking back is of course comical, but at the time I really felt like a rebel listening to this album). It’s definitely silly and circus-y, but it seemed so much more serious and well put together than a lot of the nu metal crap that came after it. Maybe it was just my impressionability at the time. Regardless, one of my faves of ’94 and likely a more important album than I fully realize in how it shaped my subsequent public school years and the crowd I associated with. Luckily I never painted my fingernails black though.

    • Well put. To me, the scariest and most shocking part of the whole was the look of MM, especially his eyes and just the grotesque-ness of his face combined with the subject matter in the music. Hearing these songs today reminds me of being up into the late hours of night playing games like Doom 2 and other FPS’s, likely under the influence of THC and a lot of teenage hormones. As I’ve no doubt matured well beyond where I was when this came out, I can still appreciate it for what it was and consider it “good.” It was truly unique, and a lot of it rocked quite hard.

  3. could this anniversary thing be getting a little out-of-hand?

  4. Yeah, the music was only part of this phenomenon. The rumors, the crazy interviews, the fact that my parents and all the other typical rock music scolds thought this was corrupting the youth, the fact that all the freaks at my school listened to it – it was all part of the fun of being this band’s fan.

    Just the name of the band and the NIN connection was enough for me to buy this without hearing it. I originally thought it was a female industrial singer and not a band, which only made me want to buy it more!

    Also totally agree on the late ~80s/early 90s being the height of crass. Don’t forget about Cop Killer!

  5. We had all those same rumors at my school at that point only it was the bassist, Twiggy, that had played Paul on The Wonder Years. So, what I’m wondering is how did they spread in the pre-internet days? Were they being printed in some national publication or would people share them at camp and send everyone back to their respective schools to establish them there? Seriously, how did this phenomenon happen?

  6. Interestingly enough of all that era’s hard rock Manson holds up really well. I was listening to “Tourniquet” the other day and thought “Damn. This still sounds really, really violent. And really good”

  7. Back when MM was just metal and hadn’t entered the fame game. I have to say, personally, I enjoy Anti-Christ Superstar and Mechanical Animals much more, but there’s a certain purity to the music on this album that represents the time it comes from very well (its aged very well, too).

  8. This is all leading up to Stereogum’s huge, blow-out 10 year craziversary on August 23 for ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned.’

  9. Daisy was the most interesting guitarist the band ever had. Shame they kicked him out.

  10. I totally remember all those MM urban legends (Paul from the Wonder Years, sucking his own penis, etc) back in middle school.

    Also, I didn’t know if this was supposed to be funny, but I was rolling when I read this, “Manson’s associate Trent Reznor was a target of massive parental fears during the early ’90s, but Reznor wasn’t a transgressive taboo-busting type; he was a sincere and emotionally intense singer-songwriter who cussed sometimes.”

  11. And now I feel really old! I can still remember the day I bought it. Awesome album!!!!

  12. As someone who came through the scholastic pipeline a decade later, he was the singer that kids that were trying to be hardcore would listen to but was a bit of a musical joke to everyone else. Can’t say I’ve heard a single song by him that I liked, but I did love the rumors.
    That “removed his ribs to suck his dick” rumor was still getting pasted around in my time though, so that seems to show what kind of impact he had on culture (hint: not musical).

  13. A lot of this album (and MM’s music in general) sounds really silly now that I’m no longer 14, but “Cyclops” is still a hell of a jam.

  14. Never had any interest in buying a MM album. Never even crossed my mind. Never liked the singles, the persona and visuals, and at that age all the kids I thought were dumb liked it, so that cemented it that I didnt ever want to be a fan. Still not interested to go back and listen either. Am I wrong in this? Does it really stand up as a classic and well-constructed album, or is it just a product of it’s time without a timeless appeal?

    • Portrait of an American Family and Smells Like Children are marginally interesting, Halloween-rock curios. A couple solid tunes here and there, but the band is still finding its voice.

      Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals are legitimately interesting albums. Whether or not they’re good is a matter of taste, but they are definitely interesting. One is an industral rock tantrum about the rise of the Antichrist and one is a glam rock odyssey about an androgynous alien.

      Holy Wood and Golden Age of Grotesque slide back into “marginally interesting” territory. The music gets more rote and the concepts/aesthetic are boring. Holy Wood has something or other to do with the JFK assassination and Golden Age has Manson as the ringleader of some sort of Weimar Republic kitsch revival.

      After that, I stopped paying attention. It seems like Manson’s persona has gradually watered down from larger-than-life characters like “I’m the fucking Antichrist” and “I’m a sexless alien glam creature” to “I’m a sleazy old creep who does hella coke and bangs girls significantly younger than me”

      • Agreed. But while Portrait (and Smells, I guess) still finds the band finding its voice, the early stuff has a sense of humor that almost completely evaporated with Antichrist Superstar. Kind of like the difference between the Misfits and solo Danzig…that humor can really help when you’re dealing with men obsessed with ghouls.

  15. And the first Ghetto Boys album

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