The role of an artist should be to lead us to new and better ways of being; instead we have made them cyphers for our most depraved fantasies.
This week the story of yet another music industry sex abuser has hit the headlines. Shock-rock superstar Marilyn Manson has faced multiple accusations from different woman that he treated them in a degrading and abusive manner in general, and during sex in particular. These claims are given substance by the fact that these women were, for the most part, substantially younger than Manson when he was sexually involved with them.
Manson has denied the claims vigorously, with the veiled implication that these accusations amount to a coordinated claim on his bank balance. A more disinterested observer will notice the modus operandi of the #MeToo movement, whereby once one victim is finally believed, many others then feel confident to share their own experiences, partly in solidarity and partly in the hope of finally being believed themselves.
I would like to invite us, the audience, to consider our own complicity in the making of these monsters.
The original “shock rock” of the 1960s and 1970s was, at heart, a form of drag. It was a camp act in which the performer winked conspicuously at the audience to let them know that they were all collectively indulging in a fantasy. Behind the scenes, these artists took pains to separate themselves somewhat from their characters — to intellectualise their creations and engage in a mature dialogue with their audience. That is not to say that they were above moral reproach, many were drug addicts, sexual predators and erratic libertines, but they were at least faced with an expectation from critics and their audience to lead fundamentally different lives on and off stage.
As time wore on, but particularly from the 1990s onwards, the expectations on artists changed. The audience began to demand that musicians embodied their personas full time, that they be real. Artists had ever been a caste apart (no one seriously thought David Bowie or Lou Reed turned into staunch conservatives by day) but increasingly they were rewarded for staying permanently in character, so that we could project our most depraved fantasies onto not just their music, but onto their physical persons.
Mawkish devil worshipers Black Sabbath were superseded by actual satanists like Burzum; led by a vicious antisemite whose arson against sites of ancient Norwegian Christianity literally helped him sell thousands of records. Fast and furious biker gang rockers Motörhead, who were nonetheless known for their humility and consciously invoked the innocence of old timey rock ’n’ roll, were surpassed by acts like Mötley Crüe. Mötley Crüe’s on stage persona was supplemented by books like The Dirt, which detailed the full scale of their rapacious, murderous depravity, which only earned them greater acclaim. Pantomime villain Johnny Rotten looked passé next to the punk rock icon of the 1990s, Kurt Cobain. No butter adverts for Kurt, he lived his art from the needle to the grave. The transition was even more conspicuous in hip-hop. American hip-hop shared with American punk a tendency to combine artistic activism with the “realness” of lived experience, but whereas groups like N.W.A. exposed the grim reality of gang ridden black America, the new generation of gangster rappers were expected to actually be arch criminals.
And of course there was the king of campy shock-rock himself, Alice Cooper, to whom Marilyn Manson clearly owes so much. But unlike Cooper, Marilyn Manson is not actually camp, he is not in drag, he is the real thing. When the curtain comes down, the makeup doesn’t come off. He, like many of his contemporaries, has made his fortune by submerging whatever artistic personality he once had into the persona of his act. This has made him one of the richest and most successful musicians of his generation.
We shouldn’t be surprised when these monsters that we have made turn out to be problematic. We projected our most debased fantasies onto them and they obliged us. Yes, let us denounce these beasts, let them be dropped from their record labels and from our record collections, but going forward let us redeem ourselves by placing new expectations on the artists we look up to. Let us demand that artists perform their proper social function as our cultural and intellectual avant-garde and stop using them as cyphers for our violent, anti-social fantasies.