Opinion: How I overcame my fear of Marilyn Manson after 10 years and learned to respect his art

Marilyn Manson — a rock god with a seemingly contradictory satanic ambience — invaded my safe space as a 10-year-old girl on the doll-dressing website Stardoll with his frightening figurine. If my avatar, africa97, wasn’t preoccupied with buying furniture for her online suite of two rooms once she’d earned enough Stardollars and Starcoins, she was dressing celebrity dolls. My favorite dolls to dress were singers — Shakira, Rihanna, Esmee Denters, to name a few — but then I came across a new singer I was most perturbed by. When I bravely clicked on Marilyn Manson one day, my discovery turned into my greatest nightmare for years.

Why, I wondered, would a website plot the image that would haunt me for sleepovers to come? My middle school friends often dared me to Google “Marilyn Manson” just so a 13-year-old version of me could squint her eyes when the results popped up. I never gave Manson a chance because he believed in the devil. And I had never thought of using the eyeliner that perfected his drag aesthetic.

The soft resurgence of Manson on my radar came when Justin Bieber wore his T-shirt on his 2016 Purpose Tour. Instead of shuddering, I grew curious. Manson, who has been hailed in the alternative metal and hard rock game since his band’s inception in 1989, had grown in my eyes from frightening figurine to millennial rock icon. And I was exposed to it: His acclaimed song “The Beautiful People” from his 1996 album “Antichrist Superstar” inspired the rhythm of Kanye West’s “Yeezus” track “Black Skinhead,” the fiercest song by my all-time musical inspiration.

And before Manson released his 10th album, “Heaven Upside Down,” last October, his name rose on my search history.

When Billboard interviewed him in September before the album drop, and published a story I had been thinking of writing myself because of his return to my media landscape, Manson talked about meeting with Bieber — his devotee. Bieber, while talking to Manson at a bar, told him, “I made you relevant again.” While Manson continued the interview with an anecdote of how he pranked the pop star, I found some credence in Bieber’s comment because Manson’s hard demeanor had concretely resurfaced for me, and my 20-year-old self wasn’t afraid this time.

Manson’s reputation as a gothic icon still permeates popular music culture, as Bieber repurposes his original tour merchandise and millennial rockstar Lil Uzi Vert wears $100,000 customized jewelry dedicated to him. But the “edgelord,” as the latest Pitchfork album review describes him, saw his gothic music become the scapegoat for the 1999 Columbine high school massacre in Colorado that killed 13 people. Two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, instigated the “bloodiest, creepiest, most vivid school attack anyone at the time could remember,” Andrew Gumbel, who reported on the aftereffects, wrote in the Guardian. The soundtrack to this gory episode of American history? Marilyn Manson found himself and his career playing defense.

“Certain people blame me for the shootings at the schools…. But, honestly, the Columbine era destroyed my entire career at the time,” Manson told the Guardian journalist Alexis Petridis, who referred to him as the “lord of darkness.” Petridis’ interview with the singer is most famous for its first sentence: “It is while discussing the difference between his stage persona and his day-to-day life that Marilyn Manson leans over and flicks me in the testicles.”

A small pang of fear crept back into my feelings toward Manson when I read that.

Harris and Klebold supposedly channeled a Manson-inspired rage that Pitchfork categorized as “cutting himself onstage, baiting transphobes with his drag performance as effortlessly as he baited Christians with his purported cahoots with the devil,” but added that he’s not responsible for “encouraging it and certainly not engendering it.”

In a 1999 piece Manson wrote for Rolling Stone, he addressed his anger over the false reports that the Columbine teenagers wore makeup and all black to represent their supposed icon of darkness. Further investigation showed that Harris and Klebold didn’t even listen to or like Manson’s music. Somehow his assumed “role of the Antichrist, … the Nineties voice of individuality” let conservative members of society “associate anyone who looks and behaves differently with illegal or immoral activity.” His protected art did not incite violence to any degree, especially that of Columbine. What Columbine left was a false mark on his career, and a new perception of his art almost 20 years later — something my initial fear of him tapped into.

One of the songs from “Heaven Upside Down,” “We Know Where You Fucking Live,” proves Manson is a force to be reckoned with: he leads “female members of a cult to kill for him” in the music video, as the nuns with guns set out to fulfill their leader’s mission. But in surprisingly groovy tracks like “Kill4Me” (yes, I am aware of its title), his music only extends to be a scapegoat for one’s mental anger or frustration — not an instigator of violently acting upon a listener’s feelings. I was astonished that I could actually bring myself to listen to Manson and to feel my head slightly sway to the acoustics outlining the bloodied, metal lyrics typical of his repertoire.

If Manson is your regular poison, listen to this: Extreme music actually is therapeutic for angry people, according to research conducted by Dr. Genevieve Dingle at the University of Queensland School of Psychology in Australia.

Her studies found that people could release their anger through “music that could match” it. Once they felt the full effect of their emotions, listeners channeled their newfound inspiration, decreasing their “levels of hostility, irritability and stress” as a result. By Dingle’s findings, the Columbine teenagers could have even used Manson’s tracks to take out their anger. Besides, blaming music in the first place for a school shooting is as unfounded as blaming video games for the same catastrophe.

Henry Jenkins, provost professor of communication, journalism, cinematic arts and education at USC, said that even though “young offenders who have committed school shootings in America have … been game players, the overwhelming majority of kids who play do not commit antisocial acts.” Their troubled home lives paired with mental problems have caused such school shootings to continue throughout America’s history. An armed teenager killed two and wounded 16 teenagers on Jan. 24 at Marshall County High School in Kentucky. He was charged with murder and attempted murder, CNN reported. Looking into his playlists will not be useful in the investigation.

Manson’s emotional and mental state remains of interest to me. In the multiple interpretations Genius offered for the chorus of “Kill4Me,” one suggests that he “still has a chip on his shoulder regarding being blamed for the Columbine school shooting…. In this lyric Manson is asking in a sarcastic way — would you really kill for me?” The track, among the album as a whole, acts as an artistic response to the way Columbine damaged his career.

Manson uses “Heaven Upside Down” to deal with his hurt from a society that labeled him the outcast playboy. Channeling his experience from what Columbine did to his career fuels the newer art he is producing. His long commitment to his music — “buttressed by the First Amendment, and supported by a long line of Supreme Court decisions,” as the American Civil Liberties Union puts it in describing freedom of expression — is protected legally even when not accepted ethically. “Kill4Me” is not a mission statement for Manson-ites, but a way to understand how he processes the blame people pinned on his extreme persona.

Manson told Petridis from the Guardian that he hopes that his album sales, which were low during the Columbine era, “go up on this record.” But “Heaven Upside Down” proves that the singer’s demise has become his ultimate come-up. His art channels his own anger as well as his fans’ without festering a need to act upon them violently.

I now regret agreeing with Bieber’s relevancy comment, for excusing a society for blaming an innocent man during one of its scariest times, and for misjudging his tortured art as my personal torture.

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Top image: Photo Credit: AP Images. Photo Illustration: Heran Mamo/Neon

Heran Mamo
Heran Mamo is the co-editor of Neon and a senior studying journalism with a minor in culture, media and entertainment. She likes writing about pop culture and its convergence with social issues. She has worked as an editorial intern for Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter. In her free time, Heran likes curating Spotify playlists and shopping for sneakers.