Marilyn Manson knows that anyone bold and freaky enough to venture into the shock-rock market had better bring nerve, imagination and a showman's grasp of the grotesque. Leather prosthetics will help. So will face paint and a willingness to bare your butt. Taking the last name of a criminally insane convict isn't a bad idea, and if you can figure out new ways to poke the church in the chest--while dolled up in bishop's miter and black lipstick--all the better.
But no one in this niche is guaranteed a long career unless he does one favor for teenage fans: alarm and depress their parents. Ever since Elvis arrived and 15-year-olds learned to declare their independence with decibels and rump-shaking, the more a performer can worry Mom and Dad, the tighter the bond between artist and audience.
So how's Manson doing? Stop by the "Mom's Room" of the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., on a recent night. It's a decent-size living room with a table, a few sofas and a television. This is where parents of concert-going kids hang out, chat and wait to drive home their raspy-throated children. Plenty of venues now offer these tucked-away silent zones.
Up a long and winding flight of stairs, and past the French-fry concession stand, Marilyn Manson is starting his shrieking, 90-minute set before a house that looks at best half full. More troubling for him, he's touring to support an album, "Holy Wood," that is selling poorly, at least compared with his previous effort, "Mechanical Animal," which debuted at No. 1. In interviews, Manson has claimed that last year's deadly shootings at Columbine High School harmed his commercial prospects, as a host of culture critics accused him and other Goth-influenced artists of helping inspire the violence.
That sounds like a stretch. By the logic of rock, the more parents blame Manson for Columbine, the larger his legend should loom. Where better than the "Mom's Room" to gauge whether Manson can still push a parent's outrage meter into the red zone?
Bad news, Marilyn: You don't frighten these ladies at all.
"I enjoyed his early stuff," says Marie Vegas, a Frederick County, Md., mother. "I do. I'm not so fond of the new album."
Huh? This is Marilyn Manson. You know, the guy who cavorts in a bustier and advocates drugs? The sexually ambiguous ghoul who's into self-mutilation? The one with all those severed heads in his videos?
"He's just an egotistical rock star," says Susan Fair of Pasadena, Md.
"Every generation has its own freak. I loved Alice Cooper," she adds. "These guys are laughing all the way to the bank."
Oh, Susan Palaszynski finds the music and obscene lyrics plenty disturbing. But not enough to tell her 17-year-old daughter to listen to something else--that would backfire, of course--or pull down any of the Manson artwork that adorns every square inch of the girl's bedroom, including the ceiling.
"I just don't go in there anymore," says Palaszynski, chuckling.
Manson's big problem is that the parents of his target audience were raised in the '70s, which means they know what this weirdo represents in the lives of their children: a phase they'll outgrow. If you ever laid eyes on Alice Cooper or Screamin' Jay Hawkins, you know Manson is part of a tradition as familiar as vaudeville. In the '70s, when parents had grown up listening to Perry Como, you had a shot at horrifying them with "Welcome to My Nightmare." But in 2000? Please.
The moms don't actually see the concert, since the Patriot Center doesn't offer closed-circuit television. (They watch election news.) That's a shame, because Manson is tireless in his quest to goose the fright factor.
Dressed in a garter belt, black skintight pants and black boots with 5-inch heels, he struts and screams like a fascist dictator with a neurological disorder. He sings from a red pulpit adorned with a cross fashioned out of a pair of handguns and a rifle. Near the end he pulls down his pants, rubs a towel on his rear end and then tosses the befouled rag into the crowd.
When the towel ends up on EBay, the online auction site, some frustrated Manson fan might try giving it to his parents for their anniversary. No promises, but maybe--just maybe--it'll get a rise out of them.