The obsession of our popular culture with beauty has come to a tragic form of heroism. Celebrities in hearfelt and simultaneously over-produced pop songs assure the children who are their ideal audience that they are beautiful people. This assurance against evidence is premised on the knowledge that everyone is the same and that the effective truth of uniqueness is anonymity.
In societies where people are segregated by age, the young are helpless to withstand the times and powerless to attract or reward whatever attention they might get. The lie they wish to hear above all is that they have so much beauty within themselves that they can be justified. Their experience is being ignored, not found worthy of attention. The more celebrities rise spontaneously among the people, the more the people act as though they themselves were worth no attention. The celebrities then reflect this self-loathing back onto the worshiping crowds.
Whoever is foolish enough to stand in the way or take exception will not be treated kindly. Freaks are intolerable; they remind us of ourselves too much. Celebrity worship, on the other hand, is the next best thing to success worship, if not the way we train kids for it… This is the generalized problem of the Gay Nineties, when popular music was dominated by blithe beauty. At the outskirts, seething anger and a new attitude of rejection of the ideology of community-within-pop-music was rising, although it was silenced by the tyranny of record sales.
No one saw the technological revolution coming that undermined any pretense that phenomena were shared. The Sixties ideology of progress-through-rock was still premised on the self-delusion that democracy happens in the concert arena. Old-rock thermometers like U2 spent the nineties trying to diagnose the suicide of rock (Achtung Baby), the false dawn of the EU, and collapse of the Berlin Wall/USSR (Zooropa). This meant that there would be no more geopolitics in pop music, no new space of freedom in which to exercise creativity or to fight for progress. At the same time, in post-Cold War complacency, the feverish lie of American music energy died as well (Pop). There would be no new divinities divined in the Nineties revival of club dancing.
Meanwhile, new bands, above all Radiohead, worked within this new situation whose central fact was that there would be no more future. They explained as best they could that sensitive souls would from now on be scarred by hopelessness, even as the parts of society that don’t like the weirdos would turn on them. Radiohead was a preemptive strike against the incoming aggressive conformism of success, and an attempt to put some backbone into the alternative to the massively popular music of the times.
Radiohead really does offer an alternative, a minority opinion, as the nineties bet heavy on conformism, but it failed to offer a way forward. And this was the most promising and inventive band of the turn of the millennium. Thus, the attempt to ground or project the hopes of the middle classes and do the work that post-war politics failed to do, attaching the people to America – music in that deepest sense crashed. Visionaries turned out to be dumb; the loud and proud crowd turned out to be blind.
At the end of the nineties, this combination of despair and ignorance evoked a nearly heroic answer from the least likable, but most likely quarter. Marilyn Manson arose to shock the notion and be scapegoated, the only public way of dealing with social pathologies. The name was supposed to evoke both beauty in danger of self-destruction and a prophetic cult bent on murder that are part of the American heart as avenues of distinction. These are the dark sides of celebrity, moving from low-level fanaticism and reaching the intensity of worship. But the act wasn’t supposed to be ironic. It was supposed to be so earnest as to seem almost stupid. It was supposed to oppose ugliness to conformism and thus rescue the dignity of unhappiness. The only revolution left in music would be to save whoever was miserable from the tyranny of happiness. People looked at the monstrous look and failed to connect it to the young audience, who seemed innocent and unexperienced, as American teenagers always must.
Unlike the promise we now hear with every new hit, that celebrities will lead the armies of democracy to self-discovery through suffering, and everyone will be found deserving, Marilyn Manson wanted to assure his audience that the tyrannic celebrities of Hollywood-America would not win out in the end. That the future is not trapped in the dreams and nightmares of California’s mid-century past, as his name suggested. He got that people were stuck in the past in unforgivable ways.
M.M. stands as a caricature of the typical American relationship to judgment. He excited millions of people to love his ugliness; he excited other millions to love the fact that they had someone to blame, as though he had created the social conditions by which he rose to celebrity or the psychological anxieties that made people turn their attention to him.
He himself returned these all-American sentiments in the all-American way of refusing to be judged by others. But his point was not to assert freedom of speech or merely to condemn hypocrisy, though these are also all-American sentiments. His point was that his ugliness came to him from America and he was merely reflecting it back. He was the monster among the beautiful people that would remind people that they’re not as pretty as the idols they worship–that, in fact, the statues were all going to end up corpses, which he so uncannily anticipated. In an America where androgynous sexy creatures had been rising to celebrity for decades, an androgynous monster arose, both to showcase the unnatural status of celebrity and to remind people of the ugly passions they bring to beauty manufactured for their consumption. All celebrities have to defend themselves from the devouring passions of their believers. He chose to play a sacrificial role in enacting or embodying the madness.
This may be the strangest figure to hold America accountable for her sins, but he at least pointed out that as social pathologies mounted, the beautiful people could not be anything but phantoms of the mid-century past. The fantasies increasingly sold to Americans by corporations would never connect them to any real community–they’d just get them used to living in fantasies. In the real America of the nineties, when it came to the future, the mood was hysteria, not the pleasant Boomer immorality of the Clinton White House. Ultimately, M.M. made the mistake inherent in his situation. He advertised hatred as a surer compass than the deceptions that were tied up with conformism.
The line of reasoning that comes out of his badly-written, sometimes startlingly sophisticated wording – sometimes remarkably insightful ugliness – is this: Who doesn’t want to be popular? Who doesn’t want to be a celebrity, ultimately, a little god among the littler people? Who doesn’t want to celebrate, therefore, whatever it takes to succeed? But celebrity and celebration take a lot of dirty work, so who would really choose innocence over conformism? He dared his damaged-goods audience to stop thinking of themselves as less human than the beautiful people. The forgotten people whose youth was experienced as unredeemed suffering would have their revenge. His success, because he spoke about their anger, would bring them out of their previous isolation. They had heard all their lives the question, what’s wrong? They had learned that their unhappiness was incomprehensible. They gradually had learned to hear that ‘what’s wrong?’ meant: what’s wrong with you? Well, they would no longer be bullied by the questioning that always implied their unhappiness was a disease or that there’s no good reason to be unhappy in paradise.
He was right that in America success would be tied up with conformism – one economic bubble at a time – one desperate bet on some future prosperity after another. He maybe even knew some psychology, some of the facts on the ground, when it comes to the real misery so artfully concealed in public.
He was certainly right that the force behind moralism – anger – would have to be harnessed if any kind of liberation of the freaks was to be possible. He was just wrong about whether it could be done his way or whether it was worth attempting.
Maybe he believed in his strange artistry too much – as he sometimes said, ruefully, he turned out just to be a fad. But he revealed the crisis of the time, a crisis not of his own making. It turned out he was a byproduct of the great American crisis of confidence, which we now experience on a political level, much more than America ever was a byproduct of his silly provocations.