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The Marilyn Manson Reckoning

| The New Yorker

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Earlier this week, the actress Evan Rachel Wood confirmed that the man she once described to a House judiciary subcommittee, while speaking in support of the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, was Brian Warner—the goth-rock musician who records as Marilyn Manson. He and Wood started dating in 2007, when she was nineteen and he was thirty-eight; in 2010, they were engaged for a short time. Wood’s testimony was grisly, unflinching, and detailed: emotional abuse, physical abuse, rape. “He started grooming me when I was a teenager and horrifically abused me for years,” she wrote on Monday. According to Vanity Fair, four other women soon posted statements to social media, describing similar patterns of violent behavior from Manson. Within hours, Loma Vista Recordings, Manson’s label since 2015, announced that it was ceasing “to further promote his current album” and would not release any more of his music. Manson’s representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but on Monday evening, Manson posted a statement online: “My intimate relationships have always been entirely consensual with like-minded partners,” he wrote.

 

For years, Manson was unafraid to publicly admit to violent ideations. Some of his comments felt campy and performative, but others were plainly disturbing. In a 2009 interview with Spin—after he and Wood had briefly broken up—he said that he once called Wood a hundred and fifty-eight times in a single day, and that he regularly fantasizes “about smashing her skull in with a sledgehammer.” (In 2020, in response to questions from the magazine Metal Hammer, his U.K. representative characterized Manson’s language in the Spin piece as “theatrical,” and in service of promoting a new record.) In the same interview, Manson suggests that he feels entitled to love, sex, and devotion, explaining that his song “Devour” is about “when someone said to me, ‘Okay, I want to be with you until I die.’ And then they gave up.” But Manson is merely describing the fracture at the center of every ordinary breakup: even the deepest loves can disappear or change shape without deliberate duplicitousness, cruelty, or failure.

Manson became a prominent countercultural figure, in the nineties, after touring with Nine Inch Nails and releasing a thick, menacing cover of the Eurythmics’ 1983 single “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” He assumed the first name of a beloved but aggressively sexualized starlet and the last name of a demagogue serial killer, and developed a purposefully grotesque persona both on- and offstage. Manson’s outlandishness had many precedents—GG Allin, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Gwar, Insane Clown Posse—but, much like Trent Reznor, who co-produced Manson’s first LP, “Portrait of an American Family,” his work could still feel powerfully transgressive, especially in the context of MTV. In 1997, it was not difficult to draw a line from the video for “The Beautiful People,” which takes place in a medical laboratory, with Manson’s body digitally contorted to unsettling proportions, to “Sensation,” a controversial museum exhibit that débuted, the following September, at the Royal Academy of Art, in London, and included Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (a fourteen-foot tiger-shark carcass suspended in formaldehyde) and Marc Quinn’s “Self-Portrait” (a sculpture of the artist’s head, fashioned from his frozen blood). I’ve never personally connected with Manson’s music or the more goading pieces in “Sensation,” but I still found the pearl-clutching surrounding both releases overblown, spiritually akin to the Satanic Panic of the nineteen-eighties. There can be real value in certain kinds of shock—in prodding the limits of what is considered obscene—and the institutions that immediately and vehemently condemned these works were often the same institutions that perpetuated crushingly narrow ideas about what sorts of human behavior are acceptable (or, worse, legal).

From the start of his career, Manson was an outsider and a provocateur, poses that have long been fundamental to rock and roll—a particular brand of male rebelliousness (usually manifesting as a kind of wild-eyed, carnal debauchery) is endemic to the genre. Yet the idea that this misbehavior has often included—sometimes nearly required—sexual violence is still frequently overlooked. Back when I was an alt-rock-obsessed teen-ager, it was far easier to pretend that I was a (welcome) part of the brigade rejecting “the mainstream” than to reckon with the reality that many of the musicians I admired were still, in fact, helplessly tethered to it—particularly when it came to the way these artists thought, sang about, and treated women. Now every time a supposed iconoclast is accused of abuse, the news feels especially vicious to fans who had looked to that artist for help finding self-acceptance. It might sound counterintuitive, given the calculated ugliness of his persona, but Manson’s unabashed and extreme behavior made him feel, to many, like a safe space.

Thankfully, more contemporary artists are working in good faith to suggest a different way forward, exploding lingering norms and defying notions of what constitutes authenticity or rebellion. The pop producer and performer SOPHIE, an early progenitor of hyper-pop (SOPHIE died tragically last weekend, at age thirty-four), is a wonderful example of generous, nutritive transgression; so is Anohni, once of the band Antony and the Johnsons, who makes stunning, spectral electro-pop that’s fundamentally at odds with old ideas. Orville Peck, Lil Nas X, Kim Petras, Harry Styles—their success proves that singularity and disobedience no longer need to be tied to destruction.

It’s exceptionally dispiriting to feel oneself developing “abuse fatigue”—becoming inured to new and devastating allegations as a matter of self-preservation. Manson, who is fifty-two, has not been especially coy about how he may have inherited damaging ideas about relationships: “My father’s view of women was, ‘If you wanna get a man, spread your legs. And if you wanna keep a man, shut your fucking mouth,’ ” he told Dazed in 2015. “It’s foul. But that’s how I was reared and raised—under the assumption that, if you want to keep a man, don’t mouth off. You wanna get a man, show him your business parts. I’m not saying that’s my philosophy, I’m just saying that’s what my father taught me.” It takes so much time to dismantle these sorts of doctrines and mythologies—a true generational shift. Is it possible we’re in the midst of one right now? On good days, I like to hope that we are.

 

 

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