When Marilyn Manson’s Rock Is Dead tour came through the Landmark Theater in Syracuse in the fall of 1998, I went down to see the show. I didn’t set foot in the Landmark. (Come to think of it, I’ve still never seen Marilyn Manson live.) The whole (dope) show was happening outside the venue, on the sidewalk. Roy Bernardi, the mayor of Syracuse, had tried to get the show shut down. He called upon the better nature of the bookers at the Landmark: “We have a moral obligation to the people of Syracuse.” He rang alarm bells: “I’m all for the First Amendment right, but are they going to harm our young people?” He threatened to withhold funding from the historic venue, or to get the show’s permit denied. But the show still happened.
Outside the Landmark that night, there was a line of cops in full riot gear. There were the Manson faithful, all done up in their most theatrically goth late-’90s Hot Topic gear. (Lots of skiing goggles worn across the forehead, lots of shiny vinyl boots, lots of whatever you used to call those beaded metal chokers.) And then there were the protesters. Multiple Christian denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, had their troops out on the sidewalks, holding signs or earnestly appealing to the goth kids in line.
It wasn’t quite the Westboro Baptist Church spectacle that I suppose I was expecting. The Christian protesters weren’t angry — at least, not that I could see. They were concerned. A lot of them were teenagers, probably the classmates of the kids in line, and they were just as bemused and flustered and inarticulate as all teenagers are, everywhere. My friends asked one kid what the Bible said that would lead anyone to believe that there shouldn’t be a Marilyn Manson concert in Syracuse. He stammered that he wasn’t quite sure. A few minutes later, an exuberant youth pastor came bounding up to us like a golden retriever: “Are you the folks who were asking about Jesus?”
For those of us in Syracuse, the day Marilyn Manson graced our village was the most important day of our lives — or, at least, it was a big deal. For Marilyn Manson, it was Tuesday. This, or some variation of it, was every night for Marilyn Manson in 1998. He’d become a less a man and more a symbol in the culture wars, a human harbinger of a corroded society. Like the rock stars of generations past, he’d effectively channeled and monetized the befuddled horror of parents and the transgressive impulses of teenagers, pitting one against the other. That reached a fever pitch six months later, when Manson became a public scapegoat for the Columbine massacre. But it was deafening even before that.
Imagine trying to exist at the center of that whole cultural cyclone. Imagine trying to make art there. Manson had willingly taken on icon status. He’s presented himself as more symbol than person from the very beginning. By 1998, he’d achieved all of his dreams, and he was smart enough to recognize how ridiculous the resulting shitstorm was. If anything, he seemed bored with it. “Rock Is Dead,” one of the singles from that album, spelled that boredom out in plain terms: “Rock is deader than dead / Shock is all in your head / Your sex and your dope is all that were fed / So fuck all your protests and put ‘em to bed.”
Soon enough, they would put those protests to bed. Manson was the last of his kind: the rock star as symbol for rebellion, the one that sent parents’ groups into public hysterics. The peak of his career was the last gasp of the idea that rock ‘n’ roll could be dangerous, subversive, or threatening. Soon after, it became just one genre of music among many.
For a few years, rap in general, and Eminem in particular, served the role that Manson could no longer fill. And then the internet atomized everyone’s tastes, to the point where concerned parents couldn’t even be bothered to get loudly stressed about whatever MySpace emo bands or regional rap figures their kids were into. Maybe Manson saw that coming. Maybe that’s what “Rock Is Dead” was about. (He wasn’t the only one who had that idea right then. At the same time as Manson was on his Rock Is Dead tour, Korn and Rob Zombie were on another tour that was also called the Rock Is Dead tour.)
In any case, as the fury surrounding him was at his peak, Manson did something that I don’t think anyone was expecting. He made the best album of his life. And he did it while consciously switching up his own image, presumably alienating plenty of the kids he’d pulled in over the previous years. Mechanical Animals was a concept album about cultural numbness and futuristic robots, or something, and it was explicitly modeled on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era. But Manson, being Manson, cranked things up even higher, performing at the VMAs while wearing prosthetic boobs and genderless Barbie-doll smooth crotch nothingness. (At the time, there were plenty of rumors that Manson had all that stuff put in surgically. This was the sort of rumor that Marilyn Manson lived on.)
I’d long written Manson off as any kind of musical force by the time Mechanical Animals came out, figuring I’d outgrown him. But Mechanical Animals surprised me. This was a good album, made at a time when Manson didn’t really need to make a good album. It was musically adventurous and dynamic and packed with bigger, more confident hooks than Manson had managed on his previous non-“Beautiful People” songs. It was a very good arena-rock album from someone who’d cultivated a fanbase that, by and large, didn’t especially care how good his music was. Its existence was a minor miracle.
Listening to Mechanical Animals today, it hasn’t held up quite as well as I might’ve hoped. The gleaming, processed crunch of brickwalled late-’90s major-label rock production has not aged well. Neither has Manson’s quavering rasp, or the way he latched down on a word like “fuck” as if he could scare people more by delivering it more vigorously. Plenty of the lyrics are very much in the “my first decadent Hollywood drug album” vein. Some of the wordplay is clumsy and goofy enough to leave you shaking your head today; he really said “pheno-Barbie doll.”
All that said, Mechanical Animals still pretty much rules. Much of it is a cleaned-up version of the mechanized riff-rock lurch that Manson had used on Antichrist Superstar, but the hooks are sharper and harder and more confident. And the further-out moments are genuinely fascinating. “I Don’t Like The Drugs (But The Drugs Like Me)” is slithering, strutting cocaine-funk with gospel-style backup singers. “Fundamentally Loathsome” is Faith No More-esque sardonic death-lounge. “The Speed Of Pain,” probably my favorite song on the album, is windswept acoustic cyber-blues shot through with lonely vocoder howls.
And it isn’t just the music that’s good. In 1998, high school kids were still calling each other homophobic slurs in the hallways. That was a normal thing. It was normal when Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet and my friend’s dad was sitting around making “Ellen Degenerate” jokes. Someone, somewhere, was probably using the term “transgender,” but it had not entered the cultural lexicon. The way we looked at gender was a whole lot more rigid, regimented, and binary. And here we had one of the biggest rock stars in the world, on both his album cover and the VMAs stage, adapting a whole confrontationally post-gender persona. He was doing that as a shock tactic, of course, and it worked. But he wasn’t just aiming to unsettle his fans’ parents. He was aiming to unsettle his own fans, too. And he succeeded.
In January of 1999, when South Park was still a cultural phenomenon, there was an episode about a man who’d been thawed out of a block of ice, frozen in the distant prehistoric era of 1996. He had to be kept in an isolated room, his environment made to look like nothing had changed since 1996. (He had an Independence Day poster on his wall.) Eventually, though, the man gets out. He sees a televised image of Manson, in full Mechanical Animals cyber-drag, and he freaks out, smashes a plate glass window, and runs wild in the streets. That was an exaggeration, of course. But for a moment there, Marilyn Manson really did cause hysteria wherever he went. And before he lapsed into endlessly repetitive self-parody, he did something with that hysteria. For that short window, Marilyn Manson was both an A-list rock-star experimentalist and a soldier of progress. He had a moral obligation, and he fulfilled it.