Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood
Censors, Start Your Engines

I can be such a grouch sometimes.

Last time, you may remember, I announced that there probably wouldn’t be a Top 10 List this year, due to the overall shabbiness of the past 12 months in music. Well, after much consideration, I’ve put one together after all. I even have a couple of honorable mentions. True, this is the worst list in years, and it’s capped off by an album that I’m still not sure belongs anywhere near such a list, but it exists, and you’ll get it on December 19.

To fill the space between here and there, I’m going to discuss some decent recent releases that didn’t make the cut, starting with your parents’ worst nightmare, Marilyn Manson.

In many ways, Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) is the most important album of Manson’s career. It’s only his fourth, which is amazing to me. It seems, like evil itself, that he’s been around forever, but then, I get Manson and Alice Cooper mixed up sometimes. His last one, Mechanical Animals, was specifically designed to show that Mr. Manson could exist away from his mentor (and, some said, his musical brain), Trent Reznor. The answer was a resounding yes, even though he seemed to trade one mentor for another. (In this case, Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. With fake breasts.)

For all his detractors, Manson seems to be striking a chord with his audience. It’s true, he isn’t giving us anything we haven’t seen before, but despite many widely held beliefs, he’s extremely literate and has a lot to say. Brian Warner conceived Marilyn Manson as a scapegoat, someone people could blame the state of the world on. In turn, Manson would use his influence to point towards what he felt were the world’s true evils. You’d think, considering his “go ahead, blame me” stance, that Manson would be prepared for a major tragedy to happen, and for him to be singled out as the root cause.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Columbine High School? Two kids, two guns, lots of death, and suddenly everyone’s looking at the media again, like they always do. This time, the finger of blame landed squarely on Marilyn Manson, even though future reports showed neither gun-toter even listened to his stuff. Manson had painted himself into this corner. The question became, now that the whole world was listening, what would he say in his defense?

Holy Wood takes terrifying aim at a media system that breeds people like him, and people like the Columbine kids. It’s the culmination of everything he’s ever tried to get across. Along the way, he invokes Kennedy and Christ, both killed on television (metaphorically in Christ’s case, literally in Kennedy’s) as a popular event. He asks what we’re teaching our children when death seems the easiest path to fame, and when we seem not to notice them unless and until they commit some unspeakable act. God is still in the T.V., Holy Wood seems to say, and if you want to be just like him, you have to be on T.V. too.

“Lamb of God” is the most direct (and musically lovely) of the condemnations here: “If you die when there’s no one watching, then your ratings drop and you’re forgotten, but if they kill you on their T.V. then you’re a martyr and a lamb of God.” Whatever else you might say about Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold, no one will ever forget them. Our media culture made them famous. What, Manson asks, does that say to our kids? Their parents watch T.V. more than they watch them, so logically, if they get on television…

Or, put another way, “Let’s hear it for the kids, but nothing they say.” That’s from “Burning Flag,” another righteous condemnation. “Multiply your death, divide by sex, add up your violence and what do you get? We’re all stars on your burning flag…”

Is this what people want? Ironically, the reactions to (and stunning popularity of) Marilyn Manson himself would seem to suggest this. Manson reflects the most deplorable aspects of popular culture to see if people will pay attention to him, and they do. Often, though, we take the wrong messages from people like Manson. We certainly took the wrong ones from Columbine, and Holy Wood is a concerted attempt to correct that.

In “The Nobodies,” Manson seems to address Columbine directly: “We are the nobodies, we want to be somebodies, when we’re dead they’ll know just who we are.” The most damning line goes like this: “Some children died the other day, we fed machines and then we prayed, puked up and down in morbid faith, you should have seen the ratings that day…”

The smartest thing Manson has done with Holy Wood is make it part of his autobiographical trilogy. (Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals are the other two.) As a whole, it’s about being famous for the wrong reasons, a concept Manson could only undertake if he were famous for the wrong reasons. Holy Wood, to Manson’s eternal credit, doesn’t exclude its author. Rather, he says that the same distorted system that created Columbine also created Marilyn Manson. I am everything you fear, he says, now understand me.

Holy Wood is such a thesis that it’s easy to forget it’s also an album of songs. How are they? Passable. Manson has tried to combine the styles he’s worked with in the past. Hence we get the crunching power of Antichrist Superstar on half the tracks, and the fragility of Mechanical Animals on the other half. Musically, it almost feels like he’s run out of ideas. “Disposable Teens,” the first single, is “Beautiful People.” Many of the other songs stay within that format. When he expands the sonic range, that’s when the album springs to creepy life. If the closing song, “Count to Six and Die,” doesn’t raise the hair on the back of your neck, I’d be surprised.

The music is, in the end, a secondary concern for Manson. Holy Wood is about his message, and it’s never been stated clearer or with more stunning power than here. I’m not sure where he can go after this. The well, both lyrically and musically, might be dry. Holy Wood, and the trilogy as a whole, certainly offers a viewpoint that’s worth considering, however. Manson has made himself impossible to ignore, especially to those who most need to hear what he has to say. In that way, his work has been a resounding success.

Next time, another also-ran. Again, e-mail me with comments, complaints, concerns or other random feedback – I’d love to hear from you.

See you in line Tuesday morning.