A decade ago, long before Janet’s Superbowl nipplerip, Gaga’s inescapable gonads and baby Bieber fever, two seemingly dramatically disparate artists stood atop of their respective games tearing strips off of mainstream society with suitably twisted smiles. Both incredibly incendiary individuals who courted controversy and invective, Eminem and Marilyn Manson aren’t just ageing, extreme pop stars – they were important cultural icons – if not for any reason other than prompting widespread discussion and debate out of a stifling status quo while shaking up conservative paradigms. Still, this piece isn’t intended to proselytise for the pair; rather compare the two as they appear today, with a focus on their most recent albums.
In late May 2009, and only a week apart, they both released their first album for years; Manson’s last being June 2007, while Eminem had been indefinitely indisposed since 2004. Fans generally considered the previous effort of each artist disappointing, and hopes were high that their respective returns would also herald a return to form. Both had been beset by personal problems between records and were subsequently damaged and hurting, but on the bright side they were also reunited with their original partners in crime: Dr. Dre was back in Em’s corner, while Twiggy Ramirez had reconciled with Manson and rejoined the band. Yet despite having plenty of emotional material to mine and their closest collaborators back to create with, neither Eminem’s Relapse or Manson’s The High End of Low made much positive impact.
While both artists covered at least some old ground (or sounds) on these albums, Manson also continued to morph from malevolent menace into melancholic malaise, as first exhibited two years prior on the EAT ME, DRINK ME album. Also – and this is a crucial distinction – that same album was Manson’s first not borne of an overarching theme, as well as the first bereft of input from all of the band’s other primary members, with Tim Skold and Manson taking full responsibility. The result was an unsurprisingly different, and to many minds ultimately disappointing, soundscape, with lyrical content all too weak and human: the button pushing, bloody minded persona was now just a person with a poor singing voice and a heart in pieces. The misery and caterwauful delivery continued on THEOL, which sadly reinforced the impression that Marilyn Manson without a message, concept or its trademarked Molotov cocktail of mock madness and method was much less mesmerising.
With shocking stage names / personas wreaking havoc and writing histories of infamy that gave them veritable hordes of haters to go with their millions of committed fans, a shared knack for wicked wordplay is where the similarities between these two badass apples ends. One evident example of difference is that Marshall Mathers the human being has always been more interesting than Brian Warner, and not just because Mathers and Eminem overlap to the extent that the former has been part of the latter’s narrative: while the simple fact that he is easier to relate to than Warner is influenced by his increased exposure and resultant familiarity, Mathers just seems less alien than the deliberately androgenous Manson – an attribute that automatically engenders a degree of empathy. This effect is probably increased by the public knowledge of Mathers’ problematic issues in the past with his now (twice) ex wife Kim and his mother, as such things humanise him, while Warner appears to exist in name only. Also, Mathers is a proud and fiercely protective father of three girls (two of them adopted; one from his ex wife, the other her sister), whereas until very recently Warner was engaged to actress Evan Rachel Wood – a lady young enough to actually be his daughter. Eminem also suffered the loss of his closest friend and D12 cohort Proof, who was shot dead in 2006, leading Em to relapse into prescription drug addiction.
Such personal details might appear peripheral, but they come into sharp focus when you consider that a percentage of each artist’s 2009 album dealt with problems in their private lives – which could potentially provide insight into how and why these albums, and artists in general, were and are perceived the ways in which they are now. On the surface at least, the psychology is simple; people will (subconsciously) more readily accept and favour others that they can identify with, while fearing and rejecting what those they cannot.
Tellingly, Eminem had always been open about Mathers and his flawed humanity, while Warner didn’t really get a word in until 2007’s EAT ME, DRINK ME album, in a move that has seen Marilyn Manson’s music become more maudlin overall since. Not only has this bemused the band’s hardest of cores, it even sounds more than a bit soft and sad to the passing pair of ears; in short, the one time Antichrist Superstar and Man That You Fear has become the chubby middle aged tragi-gothic guy you feel sorry for. This is part of the reason that THEOL has even less chance of scoring new fans than it does of satisfying Manson’s existing ones.
It is important to note that it is probably easier to be a rapper / MC than it is to be a lead singer in a group. A hip hop lyricist alone can command more money and attention than can the solo frontman of a band, and they are (theoretically at least) less reliant on the availability, input and performance of others than a singer is. Eminem has also become a capable producer, but while Manson dabbles with a variety of (usually unusual) instruments and has scored film (Resident Evil), he’s definitely no one man band ala Trent Reznor, and the lineup of Marilyn Manson has never been static for too long: a group of extreme and volatile individuals is inevitably going to lead to friction over time. Another important distinction is that while Eminem and Manson are both highly energy intensive entertainers, Manson has always appeared more self destructive, and has repeatedly required medical treatment of various kinds after collapsing or coming off stage at a number of shows.
Eminem is still in his 30s and full of vim and vigour despite being a recovering drug addict and father of three, and while he sounds more mature and wise the street cred that repping hip hop collects continues to work in his favour when it comes to image. Add to this that while Em is only three years younger than Manson, he appears fit and healthy compared to Manson’s pale, pasty paunchiness: although he’s never tried to paint a pretty picture, present day Marilyn Manson seems to have hit the wall of middle age, and hard. Eminem on the other hand strikes one as hardened and honed by the discipline of focus – a suggestion that can be heard in Recovery as well as seen in its accompanying booklet.
Not only have the men behind the masks and their music changed, so too has the world and the audiences of each artist. With Eminem making his first waves a few years after Manson made friends in high places and headlines most of their fans should be around the same age (30+). Many of them are likely to have moved onto other interests and things, just as the globe in general has, including Manson – to a certain extent. While critiquing his creative output when it comes to music, it should be pointed out that painting and trying to get his movie made have been taking up a decent amount of his time and attention in recent years.
While Eminem has himself had more pressing responsibilities in the form of children, they appear to have had an almost literally lifesaving, transformative effect on him: their presence providing perspective and peace, allowing space for positivity to blossom. While this ostensibly hippy hopeful shit might seem almost anathema to somebody like Eminem, not only can it be heard throughout Recovery, it can also be seen, just as his previously mentioned improved health can be – in this instance a big white plus (+) sign on a red background takes up the face of the CD itself, and also replaces the O in ‘Recovery’ in the title art on the cover.
It remains to be seen if Eminem’s renaissance will allow him to continue to be a successful pop artist, but there’s signs of reclaiming lost ground: sales of Recovery are already one and a half times that of Relapse at over three million sold in the US alone, and he seems to have regained both momentum and motivation. Manson on the other hand only seems to be gaining weight while growing increasingly irrelevant. Still, this might have more to do with the analogy of bright stars – or in this case fiercer fires – burning for half as long than any deficiency in character, as the sheer scope of Manson’s messages and rage saw him expend more energy projecting his chosen persona than Mathers did being Slim Shady – living so wilfully sinful and suggestive in God’s favourite country takes more of a toll than being a white peg in a black hole or something.
Perhaps this also offers insight into why they seem to have such different directions at the moment: Mathers has managed to put most of his problems behind him and build a new life based around raising new lives, whereas the things that motivated Manson to sport makeup, seek out microphones and indulge in the occasional spot of self harm still pervade our planet. Manson went like a bat into hell and became inhuman in order to expose hypocrisy and prompt inquiry, while Mathers took to hip hop to express himself and exorcise his personal pain.
Regardless of who threw more of themselves into their art, had more culturally significant purpose or has made the most, or more important / lasting impression, both of these ultimately human beings have also helped catalyse change – change that has been arguably more positive than negative. Manson voluntarily performed (supposedly perverse) community service by challenging what he saw as counterproductive institutions, and is possibly the only person to have shut Bill O’Reilly up for more than a few seconds. Not to be outdone, the lyrically ‘NO HOMO’ Eminem befriended England’s other queen (Elton John) and somehow increased album sales by beginning to heal his soul.
The moral of this story? Turning yourself into a modern day Antichrist and (post) human target offers slightly more career longevity than literal martyrdom, and kids make great lil life force batteries – especially if you can score some that spawned from somebody else.
Reallytho, big respect goes out to two extraordinary examples of ‘extreme’ creativity and nonconformism.
Thank you for being you, and for doing what you do
nb: A paragraph earlier in this piece claimed that the similarities between these two remarkable people were limited to the shows they staged and (an oft savage) skill with words, but that’s overlooking Em’s recent ‘rebirth’ and selling both of them short. The most important similarity now shared by these artists is the message to believe in yourself, no matter who, where, or what you are.
..In prettier and post pious prose; sometimes the wolves want to strip the shepherds of power so that the flock can be set free, and you don’t even have to be a fucking sheep or a sly fox in the first place, seen? Neither teeth nor tether are necessary to perform your only real duty in life, which is simply to BE.
Word up and amen to that, motherfuckers.
(written late 2010)