Marilyn Manson’s biggest crime was being boring, at least musically, and nothing encapsulates the emptiness of the band and the eponymous figure’s music better than 1996’s “controversial” second album (on the appropriate Nothing Records label owned by recording giant Interscope) Antichrist Superstar.
Amid the self-perpetuating legendarium that is 1990s music media’s promotion of Manson the actual content of the music is often forgotten. I revisited this album recently with fresh ears, having not heard anything other than the occasional radio play of “The Beautiful People” since the 1990s and I must say my initial reaction to it from way back when holds up: it’s dreadfully boring.
The marketing for the album and the band, however, was genius in a way most people did not understand at the time. It’s an antifragile approach to public exposure, a piece of social media virility before most people even had internet access. Manson was and is a “shock rocker,” which really means the entire project is a performance project directed more toward people who aren’t interested in the product than people who are.
Manson was blamed for all kinds of silly things in the 1990s, including mass murder for anyone that clearly remembers the media firestorm following Columbine. Christian parents groups routinely protested Manson concerts, which of course was the point of a product like Antichrist Superstar. It makes the man, the band, and the music something forbidden and therefore worth examining. Even now, it works, as here I am writing a review. The point is, it gave a great deal of exposure to music that was… well, frankly not worth listening to.
This isn’t because Antichrist Superstar is evil per se (though Manson is in his own way) or spiritually dangerous, but because it commits the worst crime in pop music: it’s boring. It’s 17 tracks of droning, recycled riffs, simple drum machine patterns, fuzzed-out sloppy guitars and bass, and one of the most annoying vocal deliveries in music history. Even the lyrics lack any punch (when you can understand them), as long as you are over the age of 13. In true 90s style, there is one catchy track and the rest of the album is packed with forgettable filler.
That brings me to my first point, which is that this music is a corporate product for pre-teens. I was 13 when it came out, and I thought “The Beautiful People” (the one “good” track) was rather heavy and compared to other things on the radio at the time, and it was. 1996 was the start of the great consolidation of radio stations under the clear Channel banner following deregulation. In brief, congress removed the limits on how many radio stations one entity could own in 1996, and by 1998 Clear Channel owned most of them, only the FCC still regulated what type of stations could be operated in a market and therefore enforced a monopoly. 1997 was cultural ground zero, and by that time the average teen’s listening experience was tightly controlled by corporate fiat through singular ownership of radio and MTV. The high-talent products of the 1980s were exiled in favor of programmed drums, sloppy nu-metal, and “alternative” rock, which was just simple mainstream rock following in the Seattle sound.
Manson’s music throughout the 90s was a corporate packaging of older ideas with the imagery turned up to 11. Musically, it’s 80s metal-punk like Samhain meets industrial KMFDM, but with none of the punch or rawness of those influential acts. Things are very simple in construction, but the individual elements are utterly forgettable. It’s a package and an ideal that’s for sale, like how a fashionable jacket is meant to make people look a certain way, not keep them warm.
The recording is clean and crisp in the 1990s style, but they add fuzz onto everything in an attempt to replicate what Glen Danzig settled for because he had no budget. The fuzz (not simple overdrive) is everywhere on the album, including on the vocals, and I can’t help but feel it was added not just as a manneristic copy of older punk and metal production styles, but to cover up the poor performances of the rotating musicians on the album. Programmed drums (which keep time) don’t help. Trent Reznor is one of several producers on the album, and the overall experience is inconsistent and not at all a spillover of his normal creative variety. The fuzzed-out digital guitar tone of “The Beautiful People” is dialed in, but sounds thin and flimsy on almost every other track, and of course is weak compared to real metal tone of the 1990s a la Pantera. The bass sits up in the mix with an equal amount of fizzle, making tracks sound like metal until you start really listening, at which point you realize it’s just another punk riff. Most percussion is programmed and mono-velocity, which makes the mix sound sparse for a rock record in most places and lifeless in others. On top of all of it are the vocals, which aren’t sung so much as performed and produced, fully subsumed in the industrial idea of production as a musical element unto itself.
Speaking of vocals, Manson (the man) delivers one of the most annoying performances I’ve ever heard in the studio. His voice tends to oscillate between a grating dry vocal fry and a tone-less shriek that somehow sounds like a half-whisper. It sounds like a bad imitation of Alice Cooper. In fact, his whole act seems like Alice Cooper, but with 13-year-old “dad, pay attention to me!” energy given a large corporate budget. His lyrics are almost substance-less, composed of endless crooning about God that boils down to (again) “Screw you, dad! You’re a bigot!” Supposedly Antichrist Superstar is a concept album, but that gives it, and Manson, far too much credit.
Just as an example, from the single, “The Beautiful People”:
The worms will live in every host
It’s hard to pick which one they hate the most
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
One of the funny things about the 1990s was the amount of corporate-supported rock bands singing about how bad “capitalism,” which made them all millionaires, is. Historians will wonder when they analyze 90s rock why everyone was so miserable and antisocial in the most peaceful and prosperous decade known to America. The irony is rarely contemplated; instead, the target audience (impressionable teens) just apply immediate doublethink to allow themselves to mentally swim in rebellion while utterly conforming to the bland, secular society in which they live. This messaging is easy to use, as thirteen-year-olds are among the least free people imaginable, with every minute of their day planned out.
Part of the problem of the shock-rock approach once you exit the adolescent prisoner stage of self-reflection is realizing that rebellion is not a thing itself. Manson (and most other rebellious rockers) don’t offer a coherent ideology or even an ad-hoc set of political positions; They are not for anything. They are simply anti. There is a sort of meta-irony that Manson is perhaps aware of:
Anti money, anti hate
Anti things I fucked and ate
Anti cop and anti fun
Here is my anti-President gun
Anti Satan, anti black
The anti world is on my back
Anti gay and anti dope
I am the faggot anti-Pope
I can’t believe in the things that don’t believe in me
Now, it’s your turn to see what I hate about me
This reminds me of “We Hate Everyone” by Type O Negative from 1993, only it’s presented seriously rather than as a joke. There is no “thing” in the anti-message. That is by design, because chances are you will find something in the complaints that you would think about as a teenager, and (again by design) take the suggestion that you ought to complain about the other things, too. Sure, the band doesn’t understand Christianity, but maybe their complaints are valid, yeah? Better buy more albums and worship more MTV stars and turn up the music about how bad Grandpa’s culture is.
As far as the devilishness of Manson’s music, this is really where it is, not in the fake imagery and certainly not in the boring music. It’s not in the lyrics themselves, which are quite tame compared to real metal of the time. It’s the corporate world sending out the message to kids that they should BUY PRODUCT as a form of rebellion against YOUR BORING OPPRESSIVE PARENTS. Mammon and Moloch are not in competition here. The infinite jest is that Manson is the Antichrist Superstar, and you (the kid) are making him so by feeding him money, which you give him because you think he (fully funded, supported, and promoted by mega-corporations on a monopolized radio network and MTV) is the great rebel.
Antichrist Superstar was a very enlightening album to revisit, not just because it confirmed my original judgements almost 30 years ago, but because it brought back to mind the feeling of “alt rock” in the mid-1990s and is (or was) a perfect example of an album from that time. It was a single catchy track with 16 other tracks of boring or down-right annoying filler, promoted based on a single song played to death on monopolized radio and a big “rebellious” image. Legends circulate about extreme things during recording (such as Manson sticking needles under his nails to test pain tolerance) that create a legendarium which increases the appeal of the record. All this was probably very intentional; even before the internet attention was money.
If you are familiar with the record and want an interesting experience, look up the demo tapes that Scott Putesky (Daisy Berkowitz, Manson’s original guitarist) put out. The energy difference is astounding. The demo is not nearly as boring as the final product. That also dispels some of the legends; Manson had (at the time) a professional band and went in to make a product with intent, not to summon magic and create the world’s darkest music (ha!) while slamming heroin and torturing himself.
The most damning part of the legacy of Antichrist Superstar is that I’ve never met a single serious musician who was influence by it. I’ve met plenty influenced by Reznor, but none by Manson and if they are, it’s usually his first album (developed when his band was called “Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids”), Portrait of an American Family, and even then, it’s the mood or the image, not really the music.
Since it came up on the discord server, I’ll give a very brief list of real metal albums from 1996 that I think blow Antichrist Superstar out of the water:
Pantera: The Great Southern Trendkill
Cannibal Corpse: Vile
Type O Negative: October Rust (their “softest” record, to be honest, but great)
Slayer: Undisputed Attitude (punk cover album)
And some 1996 albums I didn’t hear until later:
Darkthrone: Total Death
Dimmu Borgir: Stormblast
And you should listen to Death: Symbolic though it is from 1995. A true classic.
I’m an independent author and musician. You can check out my literary fiction book Afterglow: Generation Y or the collection Generation Y: The New Lost Generation with authors Brian Niemeier and JD Cowan for more on the 1980s, 1990s, and “Cultural Ground Zero.” You can listen to my music at zulonline.bandcamp.com and hear my live performances at https://www.youtube.com/@Zulonline