Batman and The Joker. Thor and Loki. Superman and Lex Luthor. Beside every superhero is a supervillain, causing havoc in their respective worlds while living out a thrilling storyline of their own. Without them fucking shit up in the comic book universe, Batman and co. would basically be sat around twiddling their thumbs, which wouldn’t make for a very exciting story.
The world of rock ‘n’ roll would also be less interesting without its grotesque and fascinating caricatures; villains are everywhere in rock, but there’s one guy who’s nailed the perfect mix of dastardly antagonist and enigmatic misfit. Yes, Dani Filth looks the part, but scrub off his make-up and he’s actually quite a nice bloke from Suffolk. No, rock’s true supervillain – we’re calling this – is a misunderstood anti-hero with a penchant for corsets, and his name is Marilyn Manson.
Well, alright, it isn’t, it’s Brian Warner, but that doesn’t have such a dastardly ring to it. When an interviewer asked him if he had an obsession with serial killers, he responded, “No more than the rest of America does… The name came from watching a lot of talk shows and realising that Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson were the most memorable people from the Sixties.”
From the off, he was there to make people uncomfortable, and with those just two words, offered a dark critique on American celebrity culture. It’s a stroke of genius worthy of The Riddler. And, like every good villain, he had a faithful troupe of minions behind him – his bandmates all took their names from female celebrities and murderers, too.
While true sociopathic villains often hide their dastardly side behind overblown shows of philanthropy like, for example, the rich-and-charismatic-but-secretly-evil Lex Luthor, Manson is the opposite – underneath the makeup and provocative onstage antics lurks an intelligent and reasonable guy.
His MO is to make himself as unpalatable as possible to the public, and he does that with gusto. Where The Joker daubs a grotesque grin on his face, Manson declares himself the Antichrist, cuts himself on stage with a broken bottle, publicly burns the Book Of Mormon (that’s the actual book, not the script to the musical), joins the Church Of Satan, and gets himself arrested for whipping out a fake willy on stage in 1994 (although Rolling Stone thinks it was his actual todger. Guess the jury’s out on that one). Five years later, Till Lindemann and Flake Lorenz were arrested in Salt Lake City for similar willy-based antics. Rammstein have never referred to the moment that Manson got his dick out as a beacon of inspiration (that would be a weirdly specific thing to hone in on, really), but it’s a perfect coincidence. Villains have copycats and allies that keep the societal panic alive, and boy, did people panic over Manson. “Enemy of Christians… Manson is an immoral Satanic bisexual!” declares one website, using some super retro, Windows 98-style scrolling text to really hammer the point home. It goes on to claim he threw a puppy into the audience for the crowd to tear apart, demands virgin sacrifices at his concerts and hands out a shitload of drugs at every show. Of course he doesn’t do any of that, but he hasn’t got an entirely clean slate either.
He describes in his autobiography how he invited a deaf groupie into the studio while the band recorded B-sides for the single Lunchbox in 1994, adorned her body with salami and pig’s feet, and took pictures. Ex-keys player Madonna Wayne Gacy then had sex with her, and when she showered, guitarist Twiggy Ramirez pissed on her. “I think she, too, found it to be art and was having a good time,” wrote Manson in his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell. He told the High Times he’d smoked human bones (“It smelled like burnt hair, gave you a really bad headache and made your eyes red,” in case you were wondering) and SPIN that he’d snorted sea monkeys. Gross. No wonder some hardcore Christians and concerned parents chose him as the figurehead of evil and depravity that all society should be fighting. It’s enough to make the rest of us uncomfortable, too; the nonchalance with which Manson describes his exploits is unsettling. We have to hand him another villain point here, because he literally DGAF. He’s not about to apologise for his past sea monkey-imbibing any more than Catwoman is going to stop nicking stuff. He wouldn’t be a true villain if he never did anything that made us question his morality.
Like The Hand, the army of evil ninjas from the Daredevil series, rock’s villains also come in groups. Before Manson and Rammstein were being blamed for corrupting the minds of the youth, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest and Slayer had the same accusations thrown at them. The villain collective is alive and well in metal, and Manson’s at the helm – there hasn’t really been another artist since him who’s achieved the level of mainstream success he has, while also being so widely reviled. There was a time when he needed only to sneeze to send America’s conservatives into a state of terror, and the panic culminated with him being blamed for inspiring the Columbine high school shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Our villain is obviously innocent here, and penned an intelligent and lengthy rebuttal for Rolling Stone. “A lot of people forget or never realize that I started my band as a criticism of these very issues of despair and hypocrisy. The name Marilyn Manson has never celebrated the sad fact that America puts killers on the cover of Time magazine, giving them as much notoriety as our favorite movie stars. From Jesse James to Charles Manson, the media, since their inception, have turned criminals into folk heroes. They just created two new ones when they plastered those dip-shits Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ pictures on the front of every newspaper. Don’t be surprised if every kid who gets pushed around has two new idols,” he wrote. In this case, his only crime was to call out some uncomfortable truths about media sensationalism. This is his Wolverine moment – he crossed the line in the past, but he proved that he is on our side after all. The supervillain tones things down a notch to anti-hero.
Like all good morally ambiguous protagonists, Manson was shaped by his past. His father was a Vietnam war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. He told SPIN Magazine in 1997 that his grandfather would watch bestial porn in the basement while running a toy train set to hide the sounds. Being exposed to the sicker side of human nature so young would scar some people for life, but for Manson, it was fuel to question and explore life’s darkness. He wasn’t the first to do it, and he won’t be the last, but as celebrity Satanists go, he’s the most famous – love him or hate him, you’ve definitely heard of him. “Marilyn Manson has always been intended to confuse some, anger some and make some people feel at home,” he told PopMatters. “There’s no way to misunderstand what I do – but everyone can understand it differently.” Like the best villains, he’s polarising. He commands to be noticed. He doesn’t do things by halves. He is, in his own words, The God Of Fuck, and rock would be a duller place without him.