By Andrew Paul
Marilyn Manson’s 1997 “Dead to the World Tour” was anything but its name. The controversial performer played nearly 180 international shows in little over a year, minus the multiple dates cancelled or delayed due to church protests, town bans, and bomb threats. When not sporting a thong and corset while theatrically destroying Bibles at sold-out arena stops, Manson argued against American evangelical conservatism on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and gave controversial performances lambasting MTV’s core audience during its Video Music Awards. But most telling of all — and despite the Moral Majority’s protestation — Marilyn Manson had the record sales proving he had undeniably tapped into a new, modern teenage angst behind the Clinton Era’s suburban American facade.
On September 30, 2017, two decades and seven albums later, a pair of massive prop guns collapsed on Manson during a show, injuring his leg and abruptly ending the concert barely twenty-minutes into the set. The then-48-year-old lay trapped under the wreckage as emergency responders worked to free him, eventually carrying him out on a stretcher while audience members posted the awkward images on social media — an unfortunate and absurd scene encapsulating the aging, odd, and increasingly irrelevant realm of music once termed “shock rock.”
Built on foundations of terror, shamelessness, and lurid theatrics, shock rock once terrified and titillated the masses, but is now almost entirely nonexistent within the modern pop culture landscape. Lyrics and imagery from Manson and his progenitors, including KISS and Alice Cooper, convinced suburban parents, evangelical pastors, and television talking heads that the nation was on the verge of some vague, youth-driven Satanic uprising. Conservatives blamed the initial symptoms of the American mass-shooting epidemic on Manson’s macabre album lyrics while waiting in line at the polls to vote for NRA-backed politicians. Meanwhile, snowballing media hysteria along the way ironically made shock rockers’ imagined devilish powers even more lucrative, spawning platinum records and sold-out tours.
It’s easy — and maybe even warranted — to look back at shock rock’s mid-nineties apex and dismiss the possibility that artists like Manson had anything meaningful or novel to say beneath all the face paint and guitar distortion. Was there any truth to Manson’s overdramatic warnings of cultural apocalypse? Maybe the music’s message and imagery weren’t dangerous at all, but simply deafeningly, garishly vacuous. If so, what drove the final nail into the subgenre’s coffin? To answer that, it’s probably best — and most fitting — to start with the first musician to enter his concerts by way of an actual casket.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ 1966 television debut on The Merv Griffin Show performing “I Put a Spell on You” might be shock rock’s original and most potent incarnation, creating a musical caricature of racist fears during the height of desegregation. Clad in a cape, wearing a fake bone through his nose, and clutching a skull-topped staff, Hawkins hopped around the stage speaking in “Voodoo” gobbledygook, struggling to keep a straight face as the audience gasped and laughed at his schtick including smoke bombs and a crawling severed hand. Despite the stage props, Screamin’ Jay’s theatrics never masked his musical talent, his voice a bellowing furnace of emotion and energy fueling some truly classic blues and soul songs.
In the following years, heavier psychedelic and rock n’ roll acts beginning with groups like Black Sabbath owed at least some portion of their style to Hawkins. In the late 1960s, Vincent Damon Furnier began experimenting with a new character he named Alice Cooper, inadvertently solidifying his infamy with a controversial concert incident involving a (temporarily) live chicken. While not shock rock per se, bands like KISS, Motörhead, and Metallica followed not long afterwards, each with varying degrees of theatrics, volume, and shock appeal, but uniformly worrying parents with their lyrics and stage personas. Many of these groups still enjoy worldwide success, but more than anything it’s because their legacies are already firmly in place, and their commercial returns are indebted to often uncredited African-American pioneers like Hawkins.
The rise of cable TV and the internet alongside Marilyn Manson’s career may have helped fuel his success and infamy as we barreled towards the new millennium, but in the long run, the World Wide Web’s anarchic freedom, television’s increasingly-lax censorship, and shock rock’s decline may all ultimately be related. The President of the United States admitted to extramarital oral sex (among other activities) the same year Manson released the follow-up to Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals. Meanwhile, the puritanical rudder historically steering national discourse continued to malfunction as we entered the 2000s.
Thanks to our technological democratization, we now see bloodshed, catastrophe, immoral acts, and tragedies mass-distributed daily in ways once inconceivable. How shocking is an androgynous man wiping his ass with an American flag when the President casually tweets about committing war crimes? A man high-kicking across a stage in ripped fishnets and devil horns feels almost quaint, even nostalgic. Conservatives long claimed that artists like Manson encouraged the worst kinds of violence, misogyny, and self-harm. Now, the far-right’s shock troops embrace the first two, and literally encourage the latter for their perceived enemies.
Of course, the simplest explanation may be that many of those most morally concerned wised up to Manson and his ilk’s proto-edgelord tricks long before legions of internet trolls out-crassed them. His persona and lyrics presaged our current crises, but were ignored at the time perhaps in large part because his delivery methods were so offensive to the easily disturbed, and so obviously silly to any truly critical eye. Even if this is the case, that in itself arguably confirms Manson’s most vulgar warnings about America’s numbing capacity for callous cruelty, hypocrisy, and authoritarian tendencies.
Regardless of reason, classic shock rockers undoubtedly have less space to strut across the national stage, which is unfortunate. For all his immature bluntness, it really does seem as though Manson wasn’t far off with his critiques of fascistic jingoism and disproportionate Evangelical influence on our society. As Manson hisses on “The Beautiful People,” his first original and still most recognizable hit:“The horrible people, the horrible people/It’s all anatomic as the size of your steeple/Capitalism has made it this way/Old-fashioned fascism will take it away.”
There is nothing more unsettling or distasteful than cruelty merged with entertainment. Shock rockers like Manson always knew this, and the best were able to walk right up to that line. When an entire, powerful segment of society understands this, but instead embraces the eradication of that line through a mixture of pop culture, memes, and internet savviness, then it numbs the public to something like a subgenre’s funhouse performances.
But thankfully (maybe thanks to a pact with the Devil) shock rock isn’t quite dead yet. If anything, it’s darker than ever to reflect the era. Today’s heirs, like the NYC-based punk-rap act, City Morgue, are merging real shock, internet culture, and theatrics all while returning to the subgenre’s roots of racial commentary. The group’s two members, ZillaKami and Sosmula, are both under 25 and grew up in the New York slums worshipping a pantheon that included Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, as well as controversial rap and horrorcore artists like Odd Future, Tech N9ne, Gravediggaz, and Three 6 Mafia. Their aesthetics, particularly a set of already-notorious music videos, imbue their work with a modern, nihilistic racial tension; declaring their generation’s very existence is a shock in itself. They represent the street-raised “wardogs” barking from their Soundcloud mixtapes that the dystopia isn’t coming for us, it’s already here. They don’t resemble the cyberpunks and biker gangs of Akira — they are them, and they’re taking shock rock into the new decade.
Society will always need its devil’s advocates, those who make us question our assumptions about the ones in power and our shared norms. A toxic internet landscape revealing to us the unequivocal limits of our humanity doesn’t render macabre entertainment irrelevant, it merely reorients the relationship between ourselves and the subgenre. If anything, shock rock is perhaps now more life-affirming than it ever intended. It shows us the borderline where humans dressed as monsters stop — just before the darkness ahead, where the real monsters reside.
Andrew Paul’s work is recently featured with The AV Club, The Outline, GQ, Rolling Stone, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He lives in New Orleans, as well as online at www.andrewpaulwrites.com.