It’s been a rough few days for Marilyn Manson. In the past week, the shock-rocker has found himself on the receiving end of accusations of racist insults and sexual harassment from actress Charlyne Yi as well as boos from his own fans, who didn’t take well to a show in New York cut short by a “meltdown” from the artist, who performed only six songs, noodled around aimlessly on the guitar, and begged the crowd for “love.” Manson would “recover” the night after by punctuating his show in New Jersey with a cover of Patti Smith’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Nigger” as well as by mooning the crowd.
Manson has shocked many an audience before; at this point he’s probably better known for the controversies surrounding his music than for the music itself. No one is surprised that a performer who trafficked in Satanic imagery for a decade, dressed to impress upon viewers the image of a ghoul, declared in a rock song that rock was dead, got falsely accused of inspiring the Columbine massacre, made a song whose title nodded at Lolita, shot a music video for the song where he and his then 19-year-old girlfriend (roughly half his age) appeared to have sex, claimed that the intercourse in the video was real, headlined the “Rape the World Tour,” shot another music video after breaking up with said girlfriend where he beat an actress resembling her to death, and has been sued many times by musical collaborators for cheating them out of royalties — no one is surprised that some shit is going down around Marilyn Manson. His aesthetic posturing has always been difficult to distinguish from just being a huge asshole, all the time.
He’s not alone. The ’90s, during which Manson made his reputation, were a spawning ground for musicians with antagonistic public attitudes. Oasis was defined by the Gallagher brothers’ inveterate rudeness; their rivals Radiohead cultivated a sullen exterior that stood in for aesthetic seriousness; Trent Reznor, Manson’s mentor and occasional enemy, has never been known as a nice dude; Courtney Love was Courtney Love; Tupac Shakur could be a dick; so could Eminem. What redeemed it all, or seemed to at least, were the two things: first, that a lot of the music that emerged from these people was new and great; second, that there was some inkling of a liberatory politics, whether of class, race, gender, or culture, embedded in being a jerk. When so much hierarchy is masked by being “nice,” being mean can often signify doing the right thing. What drew Manson and Reznor together originally was a visceral hatred of right-wing cultural conservatives, whose censorious sanctimony was amplified by real political power. The bleakness, sacrilege, and violence that throbs in their music were middle fingers aimed at pious busybodies eager to deny art’s freedom of expression.
But times change, tastes shift, and bad people put on different masks. After the war on Iraq and the tortures at Abu Ghraib, transgression stood for something bigger and more reactionary than the dour musicians of the ’90s could express. Combined with the usual aesthetic wear-and-tear, it was enough to ensure their decline; newer, cheerier acts emerged who barked little and bit less. At this point, outside of rap, it’s become increasingly difficult to frame being an asshole as anything but socially regressive. The leading reactionaries of today aren’t churchgoing prudes who want to censor art; they’re the kind of people who abuse free speech to the fullest extent possible. When Manson, last fall, pointed a fake rifle at a concert audience in San Bernardino, the act was cringeworthy not just because terrorists had massacred 14 people in the same city three years ago, but because it was exactly the same kind of antic one would expect from a second-tier troll.
In this context, finding out that he doesn’t mind throwing racial slurs around or harassing lots of women sexually just confirms the fact that his grip on reality, and his place within it, is collapsing in ways that he can’t imagine. Aesthetically or politically, disrespect is no guarantee of integrity; it might even predict strongly for its absence. If Manson believes in anything beyond gratifying his own vanity by pissing off everyone around him, he’s free to say so. He has always been free to say so, and more free than most. But there’s not much glory left in crossing lines just to prove you exist, let alone any excellence. When the commander-in-chief is guaranteed to top you in the art and politics of “dishonoring everything,” it might be time to do something else.