Defending his intention to vote for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, Marilyn Manson went on record as such: "I think music and all art really flourishes and becomes much more exciting under a conservative president because there's a need to react against limitations." It's a claim that's as provocative as it is frustrating, especially considering that Manson then went on to change his mind, first saying he'd vote for Gore after all, then ultimately deciding to abstain from voting altogether. But regardless of how he chose to participate in the US electoral process, Manson's insight brings much to bear not only on the general artistic climate in this country since Bush has taken office, but also on his own personal status within it.
On The Golden Age of Grotesque, his first recording since one of the most controversial elections in US history, Manson shows that his perpetually changing attitude has embraced the profound shifts in global consciousness that have developed in the meantime, but not necessarily in the way that we might've expected. Instead of delivering a scathing commentary on the political state of affairs, Manson has traded in most of the focus inherent in his previous records for a more generic meditation on rebellion and sexuality that substitutes cold disaffection and self-aggrandizement for passion. Where its predecessors contained a wealth of substance in their obvious intentions to incite strong reactions, Grotesque seems content with the message in and of itself -- a "dumbing-down" of sorts that's a major disappointment coming from an artist for whom intelligence has always been a redeeming quality. But then again, since Manson proclaims, "I'm not an artist I'm a fucking work of art", in one of the CD's better songs ("(s)AINT"), perhaps it's not my place to squabble.
What makes all of this so much more unfortunate is that, musically speaking, it's one of Manson's strongest recordings to date. Longtime Manson Family member Twiggy Ramirez may have gone the way of Playboy Mansion parties and Queens of the Stone Age cameos, but newcomer Tim Skold brings several years of experience with KMFDM to the band and the production boards, resulting in a significant return to Manson's industrially rooted sound. Also noteworthy is the way in which John 5 has stepped forward from his previous anonymity within the band -- several of the tracks on Grotesque feature mindwarping lead breaks that rival the work of nü-metal's most accomplished guitarists.
But even with several excellent songs -- "Slutgarden", "Spade", "Para-noir", "mOBSCENE" (blatant rip-off of Faith No More's "Be Aggressive" notwithstanding) -- it's the lyrical inanity that makes the most lasting impression. Manson is clever to be sure, what with lines like "I've got an F and a C and I got a K too/ And the only thing missing is a bitch like yoU", yet it's the pandering to pre-adolescent angst that dominates the thematic content. "Use Your Fist and Not Your Mouth" is one of the biggest culprits, introducing the concept of "black-collar" culture (you know, as opposed to blue- or white-collar): "This is the black collar song / Put it in your middle finger and sing along". Another dubious gem comes in the chorus of "Vodevil" (pronounced "vaudeville"), as Manson "defiantly" states, "This isn't music and we're not a band / We're 5 middle fingers on a motherfucking hand". If I was 12 years old, I might be eating this stuff right out of Manson's "motherfucking hand", but hearing it now makes it appear as if his edginess is a lot more shallow than I originally gave him credit for.
Which brings me back around to Manson's "conservative president" statement and the fact that it'd be much easier to respect his point if he had delivered a record that showed his art to be flourishing, instead of mining his pretensions to their basest levels. Because as miserable as it's been in the aftermath of Bush's election for those of us who don't feed off of negativity, The Golden Age of Grotesque is about the least exciting reaction against limitations I've heard in a long time.