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It’s Perfectly Normal to Like Marilyn Manson

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You might find something inherently disturbing about the music of Marilyn Manson and it isn’t the morbid imagery, grotesque visual aesthetic or intentionally antagonistic lyrics. The most shocking thing about Manson’s music might be how much you really, really like it. Like really like it.

It’s okay to admit, but it’s not something you need to run out and tell your mom about — or your too-cool-for-school friends. Not because you should be embarrassed, but because moms and cool kids will never understand Marilyn Manson. If they did, Manson would essentially cease to exist: He’d be a 45-year-old in androgynous S&M gear who doesn’t scare anyone anymore. He’d be a guest judge on ‘The Voice.’

But none of that seems all that likely at the moment.

Manson still remains pretty controversial today, and that’s 20 years after he first started offending censorship proponents and the religious right — which is actually pretty impressive when you think about it: He’s been consistently upsetting for two decades. But that’s the entire thing about Manson — he’s a character. He’s a conscious performance put on by a kid from Ohio. His parents’ names are Hugh and Barb. Hating him is like hating Stephen Colbert on ‘The Colbert Report.’ He’s not really that guy.

"That’s the entire thing about Manson — he’s a character. He’s a conscious performance put on by a kid from Ohio."

What Manson is, though, is working on you at the subconscious — appearing grotesque and spouting horrific lines at you — all not in an attempt to brainwash you into committing some violent act (as he eloquently explains in ‘Bowling for Columbine‘), but into getting you to think for yourself. True, his stage show has included some disgusting and immoral acts — like ripping pages out of the Bible and wiping his butt with an American flag. He wanted to make you see them as physical objects that only mean as much as you put into them. He’s a smart, well-spoken guy and he more than held his own in this 1997 episode of ‘Politically Incorrect’ (alongside Florence Henderson, who completely has his back).

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If you don’t buy any of it, there’s probably little chance anyone’s going to change that.

But if you do buy it — that Manson resorts to theatrical extremes to keep up with the far uglier nature of reality — or you can just look past all that and hear the music, you’re way more open to hearing how deceptively decent his catalog has been throughout. Sure, Manson’s voice can be a little bit of an acquired taste (and the vocals are always front and center in the mix), but if you tolerate punk or metal at all, they’re not that much more discordant than the next singer’s — and actually, probably better.

He was definitely at his creative peak during the late ’90s, racking up three platinum albums (1995’s ‘Smells Like Children,’ 1996’s ‘Antichrist Superstar’ and 1998’s ‘Mechanical Animals’) and four Grammy nominations. You can’t sell a million records unless people actually want to hear it, and those who have been along from the beginning have seen Manson adapt and reinvent himself to varying degrees of success with each passing album.

The earliest incarnations of the band — back when Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor had Manson under his considerable wing — were rooted in industrial and techno. People often forget the band’s mainstream breakthrough came thanks to the ’90s nu-metal boom on ’80s covers and their version of the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams‘ from the 1995 EP ‘Smells Like Children.’ Of course, it was ‘Antichrist Superstar’ that shot the band into the forefront of public consciousness thanks in huge part to a (sometimes) more melodic and organic rock sound.

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Manson also elevated his conceptual and narrative abilities with the ‘Antichrist Superstar,’ which was more than just a sacrilegious take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ It was also constructed as a rock opera on its own: It was the final installment in a trilogy of albums that would tell Manson’s semi-autobiographic story. Although he didn’t reveal that until way later, that means 1998’s ‘Mechanical Animals’ is the second chapter in the series and 2000’s ‘Holy Wood (in the Shadow of the Valley of Death)’ is the opener. The gist of the story is that when an angry young man’s planned revolution becomes commercialized, he needs to destroy what he’s created — himself.

‘Mechanical Animals’ was something of a revelation in and of itself. A sharp left into glam, Manson turned himself into a kind of quasi-futuristic, Bowie-esque hermaphrodite while creating what’s arguably his best record. Bathed in synths and electronica flourishes, the album provides what are easily among the most beautiful entries in Manson’s catalog — ‘Disassociative’ is like ‘Bends’-era Radiohead, ‘Coma White’ is distant cousin to a power ballad and ‘I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me) features a gospel choir. But album opener ‘Great Big White World’ sets the quintessential tone.

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‘Holy Wood,’ released the year following Columbine, was Manson’s reaction to accusations that he somehow inspired the massacre. Although reaction was decidedly mixed, there are some who maintain that the aggressive and especially angry album is his most even and representative work. But whether it was due to the relative disappointment of that album or his changing role in the post-9/11 landscape, that began Manson’s decline.

Still, there are evocative moments scattered throughout 2003’s ‘The Golden Age of Grotesque,’ 2007’s ‘Eat Me, Drink Me,’ 2009’s ‘The High End of Low’ and 2012’s ‘Born Villain,’ but not nearly as many as his ’90s output. That could all change, however, with the release of his ninth album, ‘The Pale Emperor,’ later this month. Already being hailed as a return to form, it’s Manson about as human and confessional as we’ve ever heard him. It seems as though some of the twang of ‘Sons of Anarchy‘ has worn off on him through his recurring role of the show’s final season and there’s a distinct blues streak that runs through the record. Shooter Jennings even guests.

While Manson will likely always be lumped in with shock rockers like Alice Cooper and, really, any metal act that wears a costume or assumes some sort of character, it’s certainly possible he’s never gotten the musical credit he deserves. But a lot of his musical legacy could rely on what he does next. Will he continue to embody someone else with each release? Or will he eventually perform as Brian Warner — his most complicated character yet? Either way, you can feel secure knowing you definitely won’t be the only one paying attention.

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