Who's Beautiful Now?

My Marilyn Manson connection began with a T-shirt. As I was standing in line for a Tricky concert, kids fresh from Manson's Antichrist extravaganza the night before arrived wearing his Satanic Army togs--a spoof of the Salvation Army. I knew I'd gone to the wrong show. Fuck the music. I wanted that goddamn god-damning T.

My other major Manson moment was at one of his book signings. Corn-fed girls you'd think would be worshipping Hanson were screaming in each other's green hair, crying and passing out, and the boys were just as crazed. One had just met his hero. "I asked him if he wanted a blowjob," gushed the lad, "and he said, 'Not right now, thanks. I'm busy.'"

Manson has made a career out of T-shirts and blowjobs. A brainy, gawky guy who turned himself into a party-monster consumer-product to critique thoughtless consumerism, Brian Warner's success rests with his ability to tap into the adolescent tribal-sexual angst that malingers within us: if I wear the right T-shirt, will I belong? Who will I have to suck off if I don't and what will I have to swallow? Rock 'n' roll sold this Catholic school misfit the T-shirt that could get him expelled and give him a true religious experience. He's been on his knees, wearing it, ever since. And loving it. And hating it.

Yet for nearly everyone old enough to remember the original shock-rock icons, Manson initially didn't do much besides exaggerating the past. The contact-wearing pupil proved himself a worthy spectacle with Antichrist Superstar, but the grand concepts and assaultive surfaces couldn't make the puny tunes any less inconsequential. Yeah, the lyrics mortified the fundamentalists and producer-mentor Trent Reznor out-Reznored himself, but how many fence-sitters can recall any MM ditty besides "The Beautiful People" and that Eurythmics cover?

Well, here's one you will. "The Dope Show" is the first Manson single as memorable as its video. Over a skipping Gary Glitter beat, the pied piper of gloom celebrates the Clinton-era narcotics of oral stimulation and headrushing authority. Its sing-along chorus lends the social study a levity the Reznor period denied, and the bite-sized lyrics--bon mots like "Cops and queers make good-looking models"--help the medicine go down. Despite the guitars pumping the hook in the proven grunge tradition, this bouncy sugar pill is radical for Manson notonly because it's pop, but also because it's something few '90s rockers have attempted: it's sexy.

This born sophist once merely dared to deconstruct sexiness. By now embodying it, Satan's ambitious little helper has relocated Manson theory out of its logical head and into a freshly liberated and femme-y cyborg that sets it in motion. Its slinky gloss going against the rough Reznor grain, Manson's alien mannequeen declares independence from the industrial factory. As the title suggests, Mechanical Animals wraps its robot arms around a faked realness so artificial it liberates. "I'm as fake as a wedding cake," he boasts over a bumpin' and suitably processed "My Sharona" riff during "New Model No. 15," one of the album's plentiful playful fits. "You were automatic and as hollow as the o in God," the last rock showman of the 20th century moans in the Ozzy-oid title track, the "you" standing in for sex / drugs / rock / Christianity / America/ Manson. Clutching even closer at the cloak of his own synthetic materialism, he delivers the album's thesis in "Fundamentally Loathsome": "When you hate it you know you can feel/But when you love it you know it's not real."

Mechanical Animals celebrates sexy celebrity in a typically Mansonian bacchanalia of contradictions. He's said all along that dirty media dominance is the cleanest and closest thing to divinity in a world that crucified the god in itself and replaced it with blind faith. Now he understands first-hand that stardom sucks, yet while he lifts a platform boot against its phony fat ass he still can't help reveling in the excess. Antichrist Superstar critiqued fame in order to make him famous. Having been there/done that, Manson wants more because more is the American way he's hell-bent on subverting--even as he's soaking in it.

A walking, talk(show)ing, fun-house mirror educated in the school of Madonna, Manson knows that taking his performance art project to the next level begins with a fabulous new wardrobe. Redressed in reinvented '70s glam, accessorizing the alienation he wears on his sleeve with good ol' Ameriteen adulation Spiced up for the millennium death ball, Manson aestheticizes generational despair. But you can bet he's not about to merely embody it and then sacrifice himself like Kurt, Biggie, or Tupac. Like Courtney's glamour move, Manson's glitter-rock revivalism (timed with Todd Haynes's upcoming early-'70s Bowie/Iggy biopic Velvet Goldmine) could backfire. His sparkling outfits are too colorful for the goths, too pricey for the average teen, and too homo-rrific for dudes scared of wayward desire. But oooh do they rock, simply because they're too too.

You'd think the puppet couldn't dance without Daddy NIN pulling the strings, yet Mechanical Animalsis melodic, catchy, even soulful in a flagrantly soulless way. Like an AC/DC CD that shoots from a cocked hip rather than the usual padded groin, the album invites rockers to shake booty with real drums that sound like samples but groove with human rhythms, not the machine-gun beats of yore. Trading Reznor's industrial sheen for ex-Material- art-funkster- turned-mainstream- rock-honcho Michael Beinhorn's metal polish, the grinding guitars and bubbly synths generate finely crafted pop that grooves and proves the extended Manson family can rock it old-school--with results far fruitier than those of the postgrunge lemmings who ran off the cliff with industrial rock's brutal bombast while neglecting its juicy transgender core.

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