Marilyn Hanson

Sound Salvation is Sarah Vowell's weekly music column in Salon Magazine.

By Sarah Vowell

Published March 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

There's a lot going on in this room. I am sitting here reading Marilyn
Manson's autobiography while singing along to Hanson and doodling in a
notebook a phrase that has been on the minds of everyone who watched the
Grammy Awards last week -- SOY BOMB. And Marilyn Manson's going on about
pissing off fundamentalists (like that's hard) and I've now drawn a skinny
little torso around SOY BOMB to resemble the guy on TV, and when Hanson sings,
"Isn't it strange that we all feel a little bit weird sometimes," it comes off
real perceptive and deep. And I know that imagining a band called Marilyn
Hanson is an old joke by now and that SOY BOMB probably doesn't mean
anything. But I wonder: What if the strange thing isn't that we all feel a
little bit weird sometimes? What if the strange thing is that we don't agree
on what weird is? Is it Marilyn Manson or Hanson? Is it the SOY BOMB guy or
Bob Dylan? Because the more I think about that Grammy moment when the
topless dude disrupted Dylan's set by writhing around with SOY BOMB painted
on his chest, the more I realize that he wasn't half as odd as the eyeliner-wearing Dylan himself, who accepted his award for best album by mumbling
something about the time when he saw a Buddy Holly show as a teenager in
Duluth and said that Buddy Holly looked right at him as if that was
supposed to mean something very obvious to the rest of us, as if it was
supposed to be the anecdotal equivalent of that Clinton-shakes-Kennedy's-hand
photo that gets trotted out to underscore presidential destiny. Maybe
it's just that Marilyn Manson and the SOY BOMB guy try to be weird whereas
Hanson and Bob Dylan just are weird.

People get all worked up about Marilyn Manson as some kind of culture
clasher, but if you really pay attention, he's more of a Tom Petty figure.
His music, like Petty's, is a highly competent version of a genre. What
Petty does for mid-tempo rock -- display quiet confidence, utter lyrics that
are neither hackneyed nor astonishing, arrange the instruments in a suitable
fashion, wisely hire a good drummer -- Manson does for heavy metal. The
arrangements of Marilyn Manson songs, for instance, are well-planned, mildly
ambitious and efficiently executed. His voice is neither great nor
horrible. He can be a power balladeer, like when he covers the Eurythmics'
"Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," or he can punk out on the delightful little
ditty "Cake and Sodomy." Clearly, he knows what he's doing. And his life
story reflects this.

"The Long Hard Road Out of Hell," co-authored by Manson with Neil
Strauss of the New York Times, is beautifully designed, nicely paced, loaded
with interesting epigraphs and not as pretentious as you'd think. For a man
who considers himself the antichrist, it's one of the least evil memoirs I've
read in a while; it can't even come close to last year's Spaulding Gray
ickfest, "It's A Slippery Slope," for example, in which the author
nonchalantly recounts ruining the life of his longtime girlfriend while
learning to ski.

Manson isn't subversive, but he's an ace student of subversives past. He
doles out little manifestos like: "As a performer, I wanted to be the
loudest, most persistent alarm clock I could be, because there didn't seem
like any other way to snap society out of its Christianity- and media-induced
coma." Fine. This has been the goal of the avant-garde since before dada
and it's hard to pull off. He's also fluent in the more American, postwar,
what-are-you-rebelling-against?/whaddya-got? school of delinquency, claiming
that cops make him nervous because "even when I'm not doing anything illegal
I'm thinking about doing something illegal." He pulls pranks like cutting
his arm with a razor blade in front of children at Disney World, bragging
that "there's nothing like the feeling of knowing that you've made a
difference in someone's life, even if that difference is a lifetime of
nightmares and a fortune in therapy bills." Isn't that so cute, in an "I just wanna be somebody" Mark David Chapman sort of way? This book is so by-the-book.

I actually felt a real kinship with Manson reading the earlier chapters
about his upbringing in Christian school. I had a similar freaky '70s youth
courtesy of the book of Revelation, and Manson's descriptions of his apocalyptic nightmares involving the Mark of the Beast in the form of UPC codes (considered by fundamentalists at the time to be one step away from systematic 666) nearly mirror my own less-than-sweet dreams of the era. But one thing Manson -- who's very clear about his will to shock -- and I don't agree on is the nature of the antichrist himself.

Manson's antichrist theories are probably more complex than mine. He sees
the figure "not as a villain but a final hero to save people from their own
ignorance. The apocalypse doesn't have to be fire and brimstone. It could
happen on a personal level. If you believe you're the center of your own
universe and you want to see the universe destroyed, it only takes one
bullet." Manson claims this as his birthright, titling his last album
"Antichrist Superstar."

I don't know about Manson, but where I come from, we Pentecostals
received intensive antichrist-spotting training. And like everything we
learned in Sunday school (and reinforced by two of my favorite TV shows at
the time, "The Munsters" and "The Addams Family"), the rules were pretty
simple. When the antichrist arrives -- there was no "if" -- he will not look like
a demon. He will not be dressed in bondage gear, have tattooed arms, expose
his bottom, wear goofy makeup or give his songs titles like "Kiddie Grinder"
like Mr. Marilyn Manson. No, he will be beautiful. He will be loved. He will
be blond. (At the time I pictured Robert Redford, but I realize this was a
little off. There's something cold about Redford. There's a wall around
him.) The antichrist would be a smiley, likable kind of Joe, a
Kevin Costner type, in actor terms. The antichrist would be popular. John Carman
of the San Francisco Chronicle was onto something recently, imagining that "if
Clinton roamed the corridors of the White House shooting everyone in sight
and then, soaked in blood, seized the airwaves to declare that he is the
living antichrist, his rating would probably shoot up another 10 points."

In short, the antichrist will not be riffing on the songs of mass murderers
like Marilyn Manson does with Charles Manson's "My Monkey." The antichrist
will be a three-headed, tow-headed monster of harmony, filling your head with
"MMMBop" bliss so that you don't notice he's stealing your soul. And that's
why that joke imagining a band called Marilyn Hanson isn't even very funny. Wouldn't the two looks cancel each other out? Like, what happens with the hair combo when you superimpose Manson's goth black tresses on Hanson's goldi-locks -- what do you get, auburn? Wouldn't Marilyn Hanson look and sound just like Pavement? What's the fun in that?
Because adding the healthy modern darkness of Marilyn Manson to Hanson's
freakish light could only dilute the blond boys' delicious depravity.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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