At the age of 14, sitting in a mall food court in North Texas, I showed my mother some song lyrics by a band called Nine Inch Nails. She put on her glasses and read them -- songs about obscenity, anger, despair, mutilation, addiction. "This is how I feel," I said. She looked surprised, and that surprised me in turn. She didn't know I felt this way? She didn't feel this way, at least a little bit? "I had no idea you felt this bad," she said. But even though it made her nervous, it made me feel like I could talk to her. She hadn't recoiled. She hadn't condemned my music -- the totem of my teenage identity.
In the twisted world of adolescence, songs about rage, violence and self-destruction make you feel better. They acknowledge and sometimes even exorcise the hypocrisy, loneliness, hostility and fear that many teenagers feel in mercilessly high relief. My mother's openness and trust strengthened our relationship. Yet she probably wondered why the emotionally obvious, undeniably crude lyrics appealed to me more than, say, the poetry in my English book. She worried that I was adopting the do-what-thou-wilt philosophy of the lyrics ("God Money, I'd do anything for you"). Yet it was precisely the acknowledged melodrama of these songs, their self-mocking sincerity, their confusion of irony and earnestness, that spoke to me.
Identity and music are linked in adolescence, and it's not a connection exclusive to any particular genre. The bathroom graffiti at my middle school will be forever emblazoned on my memory: "Ropers rule," referring to the country music crowd, who all wore skin-tight Wranglers, was replaced a few days later with "Stoners rule," a message from the heavy-metal contingent, who wore the most offensive T-shirts and refused to cut their hair. The most surreal tag was "Christians rule," scrawled in marker above both of the previous pronouncements.
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Late this October, in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, 17-year-old Jay Fieldon Howell was arrested and charged with stabbing a 14-year-old girl in the neck in front of a satanic altar he'd built in a backyard shed. The girl survived the attack, and Howell could face up to 99 years in prison for injury to a child. The two kids had been watching a Marilyn Manson video together moments before the alleged attack. Manson is a shock rocker whose Gothic (or "goth"), glam-rock act has made him the devil du jour of the Christian right. Some members of the community in Fort Worth and the neighboring city of Arlington are drawing a connection between the attack and Howell's attachment to Manson's music.
Howell had been under psychiatric care since he was 8, but recent psychological evaluations didn't indicate violent tendencies, according to his mother, Cindy Crews. He was dabbling in Satanism, having decorated his room with an altar, black candles and the numerals 666. "He seemed normal with his peers because his peers have all the same interests also," the Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported Crews as saying. "He just wanted to be his own self. He felt he had a right to have his own beliefs -- dress how he wanted and follow his interests."
Though many in the area think Howell's interests were not "normal" at all, the case hits close to home for those parents who don't think their children are capable of violence, but are unfamiliar with the music and cultural trends their children are experimenting with. Some school officials see a lack of responsibility on the part of parents who buy Manson's records for their children without considering the influence he might have on their behavior. Last month, one area school district banned Marilyn Manson T-shirts.
In response to the Howell case, the local Tarrant County nonprofit Crime Prevention Resource Center put together a two-hour training session for school officials, law enforcement officials and parent groups to warn them that Manson's music could trigger violence among teens already prone to destructive behavior. They pass out copies of his song lyrics, including "Irresponsible Hate Anthem" and "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)," and discuss his intentionally shocking stage acts. "We have fragmented personalities out here," program director Ramon Jaquez told Salon in a phone interview, "and music sparks the fuse that sets them off."
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Jaquez, who leads the training sessions, has even suggested that school officials and police look at Marilyn Manson fans as "gang members," suggesting that they're more prone than other groups of kids to drug abuse and property destruction. Jaquez says the state of Texas classifies gangs as a group with a leader, though not necessarily a structured leadership, that commits criminal acts. Other members of the community have said they do not see goth music fans as gang members, pointing out that group membership does not necessarily lead to illegal activity. But Jaquez says the goth rockers he's seen use drugs in a higher proportion than other kids and regularly deface property with graffiti. "They're being just as disruptive to the educational process as the Crips or the Bloods," says Jaquez, whose work with gang members has led him to believe that they are all troubled children who need structure at home. Through his seminars, Jaquez has reportedly called on schools to search the lockers of Marilyn Manson fans and monitor the books they check out from the library. He has also reportedly distributed a pamphlet titled "What a Parent Can Do," in which he suggests that parents of Manson fans consider hospitalizing their children.
Jaquez takes Manson's lyrics literally -- such as the song "Antichrist Superstar" -- and he believes teenage fans look to Manson, in all sincerity, as a religious leader. The irony that many assume goes hand in hand with grotesque histrionics and "devil worship" doesn't figure into Jaquez's view of the goth subculture. Manson's autobiography, "The Long Hard Road Out of Hell," written with Neil Strauss, makes it plain he had a different agenda. Manson recounts the controversy that 2 Live Crew, a band from his home state of Florida, created with their album "Nasty As They Wanna Be," which was labeled obscene. "This inspired me to create my own science project and see if a white band that wasn't rap could get away with acts far more offensive and illicit than 2 Live Crew's dirty rhymes. 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."
Shock has always been Manson's artistic method. A rebel child from a conservative Christian background, Manson (born Brian Warner) distorts the dark imagery of damnation and apocalypse he encountered at the Christian school he attended as a child in South Florida. In various interviews, Manson describes himself as an outcast during his religious childhood, a kid who listened to heavy metal music and subsequently realized that he could make a money by selling bootleg copies of those albums to the Christian kids who were too scared to go to the store and buy them themselves. Christian fundamentalists across the country have followed his tours with religious protests and launched a Web site to spread the word about "The Truth About Marilyn Manson."
While religious protests have been known to create difficulties in booking shows in small towns, those protests also fuel the fire of Manson's popularity. In a live concert last month in Syracuse, N.Y., Manson wore a garter belt and dry-humped the stage. "A couple of people outside told me that Jesus loves me," SonicNet Music News reported Manson as saying. "Jesus Christ was the first rock 'n' roll star. He had his shirt off, he was drinking wine and he f---ed a group of prostitutes. When [the protesters outside] say, 'Praise Jesus Christ,' they're saying praise Marilyn Manson. Praise Jesus and praise drugs."
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Donna Gaines, a professor of sociology at Barnard College of Columbia University, says Marilyn Manson "has probably saved more kids' lives than any parent would like to admit." When four teenagers in suburban New Jersey committed suicide in a pact in 1987, many blamed the band the teenagers were listening to. Dr. Gaines' book, "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids," examines the social, personal and economic realities at the root of the problems those particular teenagers were facing. "Nobody was willing to acknowledge that the four kids had been labeled losers, druggies, dropouts, essentially pushed out of the house by their parents. They had traumatic family lives. They were not able to really find a place in the American economy because in the mid-'80s there was a loss of manufacturing jobs. That pushed a large portion of the American working class into the service economy and dead-end jobs." Yet heavy metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne's bad influence was a more convenient explanation for many members of the community, she said.
Gaines affirms that artists like Manson generate a fervent devotion from fans. "If anybody read Marilyn Manson's autobiography, they would really understand where he comes from ... He's a teen messiah. Marilyn Manson, like Frank Zappa before him, Lenny Bruce before Frank Zappa, have said to the kid who's a misfit, 'You know, it's not you. It's them.'"
Gaines' advice to parents is to become familiar with the subculture their kids are interested in. "Parents need to develop skills to differentiate between a kid who's having problems and who's dressing it up in satanic regalia, or a kid who's just playing with culture and growing and learning." The intersection between the personal and the cultural is extremely murky, especially in high school. But it does explain that the real power of music is in the way it speaks to kids and the kinds of possibilities it suggests in their imaginations. Criminalizing the subculture of kids who already feel like misfits can create a backlash, Gaines says, citing rap as a prime example. "I think it increases the alienation [kids feel] from the mainstream." Adolescents are prone to do what we expect of them. If you call a teenager a criminal, he or she might just start living up to your expectations. In that case, the solution just worsens the problem.
The great irony here is that Gaines and Jaquez agree that Manson has a devoted following and a profound influence on his teenage fans. But they are on opposite sides of the fence as to what that means. To Gaines, it means survival; to Jaquez, danger.
Dr. Lynne E. Ponton, an adolescent psychiatrist at University of California at San Francisco, has worked with teenagers for 15 years. She's seen quite a few goth music fans, and says that subculture appeals to teenagers who are looking for meaning and for identity. Unlike the culture of other teen groups, such as the "preps," the goth scene "acknowledges that there are bad things in life, and that you have to make an attempt to understand them. And it tries to explain some of them. Teens who have these dark feelings inside of themselves may have parents who are abusive to them or see adults that are abusive. And they want to understand. And at least the Gothic philosophy allows that to be looked at." In her book "The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do," Ponton says that risk-taking is a necessary, inevitable part of adolescence, and she lays out the difference between healthy risk-taking and dangerous risk-taking, such as unprotected sex, self-mutilation and drug abuse.
More than any other group, Ponton says, teenagers expose themselves to traumatic situations -- "because life is scary. They watch scary movies more than any other group. They participate in situations that are scary and traumatic in an attempt to master and understand what's going on in the world, to prepare themselves." Ponton includes Manson's music in this category of scary experiences, and says she would be concerned if one of her teenage daughters were listening to it. When treating goths, she has learned to be slightly more alert to past experiences of abuse and molestation and to self-mutilation. However, "The response of treating them uniformly like gang members really oversimplifies it. I don't think you can say that all listeners of Marilyn Manson are the same. It really boils down to individual parents' trying to figure out why their kids are listening."
Ponton says the effect of searching teenagers' lockers based on what music they listen to is "absolutely horrifying. Because identity for teens needs to be separate from the adult culture. It's very invasive and makes them feel like they are even less of a person. It doesn't make them feel like, 'Gee, these adults care about me.'"
At the heart of Jaquez's approach to solving teenage delinquency and violence is a social conservatism and years of experience working with teenage gang members. "I work with a lot of gang members, and we're dealing with the product of the baby boomers," who, Jaquez says, have absolved themselves of parental authority and responsibility in the name of friendship with their children. "We've lost a lot of structure, spirituality, discipline, respect for authority ... We need to go back to the core values that we used to have that founded this nation."
Beyond this, however, he points out the difference between the artist's intended message and what the child may be getting out of it. "We've got to figure out what messages they're interpreting. It's not important what we think, it's what they think." The seminars are a way of trying to guess. Jaquez recommends that parents check out Marilyn Manson's Web site as well as the sites created by teenage fans. He believes that Manson's fans follow him as a religious leader, believing, in all seriousness, in Satanism as a religion. "We have an artist who is advocating the use of illicit drugs and anti-authority and anti-religion and self-mutilation and 'Kill your mother.'" He says many entreaties against his seminars come from kids and music journalists who call the program's message religiously discriminatory. While Jaquez claims to be concerned with "what they think," when questioned, he has trouble citing what those thoughts might be.
So what do kids make of "Antichrist Superstar"? Ponton agrees that teenagers are often "not sophisticated" in discerning the irony of Manson's lyrics and stage show, and believes rock stars should be responsible for the impact their messages have on teenage fans. "He's got to remember that his audience is at an age developmentally that many of them still think concretely, and they don't have the sophisticated knowledge of poetry and metaphor that he has." Even so, few fans look to Manson as a religious leader. Those who do have deeper problems that need to be addressed by adults who can help without being judgmental.
It's worth noting that Jaquez, Gaines and Ponton agree that listening to kids' problems is the only viable solution, but their approaches differ distinctly. Gaines points out that getting kids to talk is much easier said than done. "That's just teenage adolescent values, to push parents away," Gaines says. "The peer group and the youth subculture are the first things kids do that's away from family and the school. It's the first place they have that's their arena. That can give a kid a vision of the future and possibilities that even the parent cannot provide. Because do you really think a kid's going to go to their mother and say, 'I'm queer, I don't fit in here. How am I supposed to find out how to be queer?'"
Being open and accepting of a teenager's feelings is vital to any trusting relationship with him or her, Ponton says. But beyond listening, Ponton suggests actively encouraging kids to take healthy risks. Going on a school camping trip, for instance, or getting involved in theater -- an activity goth fans are particularly attracted to -- or making films or videos are all healthy risks. "Then they express their own feelings," instead of imitating the attitudes they hear in the media and in other artists' work.
What kind of environment are the kids creating for themselves through subculture? One that allows for self-respect and viability, Gaines says. "Parents have to look at the whole child, what's going on in the kid's life. [Parents] need cultural literacy in whatever the kid's scene is. Any subculture is going to attract kids who are well-adjusted, kids who are maladjusted and kids who are very deeply disturbed, because kids get into stuff for all different reasons. So a kid that's fascinated with some kind of esoteric subculture that's almost the antithesis of what the parents are doing a lot of times is doing that to feel a sense of power. And what parents should be asking themselves is, 'What am I doing to make my kid feel completely powerless?'"
Parents will always be faced with the challenge of deciphering when kids are in trouble and when they're learning to navigate themselves out of harm's way. Gaines says her parents, both musicians, were extremely tolerant of her teen rebellion, in which she stayed "up in my room listening to Frank Zappa, shooting heroin, drawing pictures of nude people on the walls. I don't know how they put up with it. But I'm teaching at an Ivy League college today."
While Ponton advocates a more involved, less permissive approach to parenting, she believes in preserving teenagers' freedom to choose the risks they take. "Ramon is adopting the strategy that adults have for ages, of control, instead of guiding them in making their own choices. That's the major difference that I have with him. We don't control them, we guide them -- they choose."
"Parenting is torture," Gaines says. "You can only do your best and then really hand it over to God; I mean that sincerely. I'm not a parent. And that's why I can only say to parents, just have some faith in your kid and be alert and ask for support from your community to try and understand this stuff before you get carried away with fear. Because fear can alienate everybody. Fear is the biggest demon here."