Antichrist Superstar Turns 20
“Multiple orgasms.” That was how my friend Erin described her first experience hearing Marilyn Manson’s second album, Antichrist Superstar, back when it came out in 1996, 20 years ago as of this past Saturday. She wasn’t serious. She wasn’t even figuratively serious. If you were with Marilyn Manson in 1996, you were with him. He was playing his role as a transgressive rock star, and you were playing your role as a fan of transgressive rock stardom. You were conscripting yourself as a soldier in a still-raging culture war. Manson, more than any other musician who was peaking in the mid-’90s, had staked himself out a position that seemed determined to shock and appall the baby boomer parents of everyone who was a teenager then. His music and persona were explicit rejections of everything the boomers had put forth as being cool. Entirely by design, Manson had found a way to stoke one of our final shock-rock cultural moments, pitting kids and parents against one another on a level that seems absurd now.
When Manson came to Syracuse on tour a couple of years later, when I was in college there, the local mayor tried unsuccessfully to block his show. I didn’t go to the show, but I did go downtown that night, just to take in the scene. I saw cops in riot gear, and fundamentalist Christian protesters with placard signs, and Manson’s faithful post-goth army. This was the last time rock music would kick off a full-on cultural clash on that level. It probably never will again. The music was almost beside the point.
Brian Warner was the right guy in the right place at the right time. He’d linked up with Trent Reznor when Reznor was in his world-takeover phase, and friends who saw Manson open for Nine Inch Nails on the Downward Spiral tour reported seeing an unforgettable gonzo spectacle, band members chasing each other with dildos and fire. (In that era, just when the internet was starting to become a thing and before it could reliably be used for fact-checking, Manson was the ultimate beneficiary of kids telling stories and making shit sound more outrageous than it already was. He was the last great urban-legend rock star.) Manson’s Reznor-co-produced 1994 debut, Portrait Of An American Family, had been a grandly scuzzy stomp-rock provocation, one I’d listened to every day for at least a few months in ninth grade. But it hadn’t crossed over. Manson wouldn’t cross over until the next year, when he covered the Eurythmics’ synthpop classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” and slathered the song with his look-how-evil-I-am croak-whines. By the time Antichrist Superstar came out, Manson was absolutely primed for transgressive rock stardom. It was his moment. He could’ve released anything, and teenage goth girls would’ve still talked about their multiple orgasms.
In the wake of Antichrist Superstar, my little brother dyed his hair inky black and started wearing fingerless leather gloves and the sort of big black hat that the Undertaker still wears. He wasn’t alone. I can’t remember one single rock star, in my lifetime, changing teenage fashion singlehandedly the way Manson did in the mid-’90s. For a cresting generational wave that wanted, justifiably, to get the fuck away from everything its parents’ generation represented, Manson was exactly what the doctor ordered. (My brother’s therapist, during a family session, tried to bring the family together by getting my dad to read a Rolling Stone profile on Manson, thinking that this would show my dad that Manson was actually a thoughtful and intelligent artist. It didn’t work.) But years later, my brother confessed to me that he’d thought Antichrist Superstar was a piece of shit, that he’d listened to it once and then never put it on again. The album didn’t need to be good. It just needed to help him find his identity, his cultural footing during a rough time.
Listening to Antichrist Superstar now, it’s amazing that this little album caused all this fuss. It’s not a piece of shit — or I don’t think it is, anyway — but it’s still a step down from Portrait, and it’s nowhere near as powerful as Mechanical Animals, the androgynous glam move that Manson would make a couple of years later. (Mechanical Animals is a minor classic, and it remains Manson’s best album by orders of magnitude.) Antichrist Superstar has its moments, like the glam-rock tribal-thunder beat of “The Beautiful People,” a song grandly aggressive enough that it served as the Monday Night Raw theme music for a little while, or the coldly beautiful Vocoder bridge on “Cryptorchid.” Mostly, though, it’s grim and texture-free riff-roar shit, with none of the vulnerability or melodic power or dynamic range that co-producer Reznor, deep into addiction when he was working on the album, had been bringing to his own work. Lyrically, these days, it just sounds stupid and clownish; none of its mainstream-needling holds up in a time when the mainstream has essentially disappeared. “I wasn’t born with enough middle fingers,” Manson roared on the chorus of the opening track — a funny line that would’ve been a whole lot funnier if he hadn’t rhymed it with the N-word. (Rock music was deeply, deeply unwoke in the ’90s. Nobody even blinked at shit like that.)
Antichrist Superstar was an album made out of grand, blind ambition. It was supposedly a rock opera, though I’ve never been able to hear an actual narrative in it. Manson made it while experimenting with new drugs and sleep deprivation. In his memoir, he writes that, while making the album, he “shoved sewing needles underneath my fingernails to test my pain threshold because my emotional one had already been crossed.” (It doesn’t matter whether he actually did this stuff. It only matters that he says he did it.) But that ambition didn’t extend to the actual craft of the album. Mid-’90s Manson served the same role, within the world, that Alice Cooper had served in the early ’70s. But Cooper had songs. Beyond the undeniable hammerhead stomp of “The Beautiful People” (which still sounded great when Kanye West mimicked it on “Black Skinhead”), Manson could never make anything resonate the way Cooper could with “I’m Eighteen” or “Billion Dollar Babies.” It just wasn’t who he was. But he didn’t need to resonate with his music. He did just fine on persona alone.
As a ninth grader, I’d fallen in love with Portrait. As an 11th grader, I’d totally outgrown Manson’s whole schtick by the time Antichrist Superstar came out. I snorted at it, made fun of the younger kids (like my brother) who’d bought into it entirely. That was the thing with Manson. He targeted his entire thing at kids who were in a very specific stage. Once they moved on, most of them were done with Manson, which is one big reason he couldn’t maintain his Antichrist-era stardom. (Another is that he’d totally exhausted his own shock value, one reason why it was smart to pivot to his Bowie-esque post-gender aesthetic on Mechanical Animals.) But even though Antichrist Superstar doesn’t stand as a particularly good album (at least to my ears), it still served a vital function. For a whole wave of kids who needed to define themselves in opposition to whatever had come before, Manson served as a conduit, a breaking point. He helped kids figure out who they were. And in doing that, he contributed a great public service. Kids need to find their own multiple orgasms, figurative or otherwise. Manson helped thousands, maybe millions, find theirs. For that, salute him.