Goth-ish: Three Covers by Marilyn Manson by oscar mardell
Grunge had been welcomed in South Wales, had found a home among the industrial ruins of Cardiff, Swansea, and Port Talbot. And Newport had even enjoyed the reputation of a Second Seattle—a reputation sealed when Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love in a club there called the Zanzibar, which I remember because a helium zeppelin, flown from that club’s roof and bearing its logo, used to dominate the city’s skyline through the early Nineties. And this was strange to me, because to be a Marilyn Manson fan there, at the other end of that decade, was to occupy a very liminal social space.
On one hand, to be a Marilyn Manson fan was to be excommunicated from the dominant social group, branded, in that group’s parlance, a “sweaty.” A 2004 [i.e. retrospective] entry in Urban Dictionary preserves this arcane lingo for internet posterity:
… chavs use the word sweaty as an insult to anybody who likes any guitar-based music, whether it be McFly or Slipknot.
The chav will say: "ewwww ya listenin 2 Busted, SWEATY!!! 11"3265921 LOLZERZ!! 1222378 Onetwo"
“Chav,” it must be said, is a fucking awful word, and shouldn’t be used now except between inverted commas. I will say, however, that when it first appeared in Wales twenty five years ago—that is, before it trickled upwards into the vocabulary of toffs hellbent on “The Demonization of the Working Class” [Owen Jones’ memorable subtitle]—that word came as a revelation: a branding, and an alienating, therefore, of modes of dress [tracksuits, Burberry] and behaviour [DIY violence, mostly—two attempted to mug me with a Stanley knife when I was about seven or eight, another attacked my brother with a scythe] which were so ubiquitous that they were permitted to remain anonymous. At the risk of conflating radically different issues: “chav” used to function in the way that “homophobe” did when it appeared in the sixties, or “cisgender” does today.
Anyway, if one was nominated a ‘sweaty’, one’s schooling was supplemented with a rigorous programme of bullying, of systematic exclusion from the facilities to which the cool group was entitled. Should a “sweaty”, say, enter the school toilets, then they were subjected to a “swirly” [essentially, a baptism, a forced return to the flock, the thinking probably went], suspended by the ankles and dipped headfirst in the flushing bowl; should a “sweaty” venture, as I once did, onto the basketball courts, they were beaten up on those courts in full view of the whole school.
On the other hand, to be a fan of Marilyn Manson was also to be excluded from Goth-proper, barred from the chiaroscuro elect who hung out at the Castle [a Fourteenth Century fortification overlooking the river Usk which was reduced to a Radcliffean pile during Glyndŵr’s rebellion]. Today, the site is boarded up and illegal [albeit not entirely impossible] to access; then, townsfolk were kept out by rumours alone—that it was home to a cult of self-harm whose androgynous devotees were forever mutilating their forearms with surgical scalpels, writing up suicide pacts, and injecting heroin.
I can neither validate nor disprove those rumours, for I never ascended to Goth-proper, never sported the makeup nor the dog collar nor anything more subversive than a chain on my wallet, and never infiltrated the Castle, therefore. Certainly, Bridgend was later shaken by a spate of suicides: between January 2007 and February 2009, twenty-six from that county took their own lives. But no evidence linking those cases ever emerged, and those affected, moreover, were not Goths but normal-looking—that is, track-suited—youths. Certainly, there was no shortage of heroin in South Wales [nor, as Vice’s 2009 documentary Swansea: A Love Story made graphically clear, has there been any shortage since]. But the only junkies that I ever encountered first-hand [as opposed to those whom I encountered via proxy of the paraphernalia that they left in parks and playgrounds] were, again, the track-suited sort. I was skating with a friend from choir one afternoon when a young man in Adidas stripes nipped into the phone booth beside us, as if to make a quick call. He got out the works, rolled up a sleeve, and shot up there and then. We told Mum, who called the cops, but a father and son outfit pulled up and beat him to a pulp with lead pipes before anyone arrived. [Mum sat that battered junky on our doorstop, and he did us the most extraordinary show-and-tell, cataloguing the different drugs he was on, illustrating their effects with virtuosic displays of the collapsed veins in his feet and groin. Imagine a prelude to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, in which Dr. Tulp is running late, and the introductory part of the lecture has to be delivered by the cadaver.] Hence, it seems to me that the tales of the Castle said at least as much about the people who told them as the people they concerned.
Anyway, Goth-proper knew full well that Marilyn Manson is fundamentally a pop act. In fact, Goth-proper reserved more hostility for Marilyn Manson’s fans than it ever did for the devotees of the Top 10, whom it regretted but tolerated as one might a natural disaster.
The tried means of evading bullying in the state comprehensive is identical to the fagging system in the boarding school, wherein a fag and fag-master enter into an unwritten but inviolable bond which grants the latter limitless rights to abuse the former, on the condition that that right remains exclusive—should a third party so much as steal a chip from the fag’s dinner-tray and that party has the fag-master to answer to, or else the fag-master loses his privileges. In the state comprehensive in the early 2000s, these bonds never crossed sub-cultural lines: “sweaty” was bound to “sweaty,” “chav” to “chav.” But a Marilyn Manson fan was always open game. The worst thing about that thrashing dealt to me on the basketball courts, then, the thing that distinguished it from the thrashings I received before and afterwards, was the fact that Goth-proper looked on—and saw that it was good.
The reason for this, I think, is chiefly one of etymology: Marilyn Manson’s name joins the first and last names, respectively, of two icons from seemingly opposite ends of the American pantheon—Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson. But when placed in such proximity, these names form not an opposition, but a pair of synonyms, drawing attention to the immense overlap between normal and cult, between “chav” and “sweaty” alike, and posing a threat, therefore, to both.
Marilyn Manson was thrust into the mainstream via his 1995 cover of the Eurythmics 1980 hit, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” On the face of it, what that cover did was reasonably straightforward: a simple conversion of an upbeat eighties’ pop-hit into an angst-ridden pining. In Marilyn Manson’s version, the tempo has been slowed down, the pulsing synthesizers have been exchanged for an overdriven guitar, the doubled-up vocal track—which had allowed Annie Lennox to sing along with herself—has been swapped for croaking and occasional screaming. And the original video, in which the Eurythmics pose in or besides various markers of power and success—tailored suits, golden records, offices lined with leather-bound volumes, globes, computers, etc.—has been replaced by shaky-cam footage, in turn warped by a fishbowl lens, of half-naked Goths in an abandoned ruin riding around on pigs and self-mutilating in ballerina tutus. The eponymous “Sweet Dreams” are no longer the ambitions of the Reagan/Thatcher-era yuppie, but the anguished hallucinations of the MTV generation. And while the song was successful among a reasonably large sector of that generation, it was met with outrage from just about everyone else: particularly from those who felt that it was too strange, or that it had perverted the original too much; and particularly from Goth-proper, which felt, presumably, that it was not sufficiently strange, and that it had not perverted it enough.
For me, the Marilyn Manson version didn’t pervert anything; it merely illustrated what had always been there. The Eurythmics’ track had been acutely sensitive to the fact that yuppie ambition was an extension of the sadomasochistic impulse [“some of them want to abuse you/ some of them want to be abused”], and the various poses struck throughout the video were clearly ironic. What made Marilyn Manson’s cover so wonderful was that it was not simply a derivative, but a reading, an interpretation of the original—one that exposed the transgressive core of a mainstream staple and attracted, therefore, the disgust of the whole school.
The climax of Marilyn Manson’s interaction with the mainstream arrived by means of the otherwise unwatchable Not Another Teen Movie (2001). The film’s soundtrack consisted of contemporary covers of Eighties’ hits, and the only decent one of these was Marilyn Manson’s version of “Tainted Love”—an old Northern Soul number which had been turned into a number one by Soft Cell in 1982.
There exists a trope in which acts that perceive themselves as alt attempt to stress their being so by juxtaposing themselves against “normie” culture. In the video for their 2006 single “Redneck,” for example, Lamb of God performs at—and so ruins—a child’s birthday party [I feel it necessary to add, however, that any attempt, on the part of that band, to have us perceive it as transgressive is wholly undermined by the fact that its logo is in Papyrus]. On the face of it, Marilyn Manson’s version of “Tainted Love” seems a version of this same trope. A bunch of Goths crash a mainstream party. The host, a typically-feminine cheerleader-type, is given over to fits of rage, wild banging against the door, when she finds herself locked out of her bedroom; Marilyn Manson, like a sexually-ambiguous Dionysus, conducts his wild rites inside before a band of young women wearing rabbit heads. It all looks as if the inhabitants of the Castle had descended upon, say, the football stadium or the mall.
Except that Goth-proper, as its apathy toward that thrashing on the basketball courts made clear, did not see itself in this video. And perhaps rightly so. Musically, the most notable difference between the Soft Cell and Marilyn Manson versions is not the addition of distortion and croaking, but the fact that the triplets which lent the former its groove have been substituted for ordinary crotchets. And rhythmically, this makes Marilyn Manson’s version feel even poppier than Soft Cell’s—or more accurately, it makes it sound like hip-hop [that is hip-hop prior to 2017, when Migos made triplets ubiquitous]. Marilyn Manson’s “Goths”, moreover, look like a rap posse, from rocking up in a Cadillac, to break-dancing on the floor. The scene in the bedroom, meanwhile, is almost indistinguishable from something like P.I.M.P.: beneath the rabbit heads, the women remain stick-thin and scantily-clad. Despite his own androgyny, Marilyn Manson, it seems, is continuing to objectify and over-sexualise the female body [suggesting, in effect, that the ability to transgress the gender binary is a privilege exclusive to those who start out on the male side]. From the view of Goth-proper, then, the video merely showcased a subtribe of “normie” kids reuniting with the larger part of that group. The “Goths” were merely a bunch of posers, and the host’s rage was a reaction to her being confronted not by some other, but by the spectre of her own self.
But this was to overlook two things. Firstly, the scene in the bedroom didn’t just objectify the female body. I couldn’t simply ignore the fact that the rabbit heads were deeply, deeply creepy. For me, their only function was a turn-off, and their wearers didn’t look half as hot as Manson did in that room. In fact, the scene appeared to be emptying the typically “sexy” female body of its erotic associations, and rendering it—or, rather, exposing it as—a site of horror, an image responsible for taunting those who did not possess that body. And the host’s rage, then, was not just self-loathing, it was also the reactionary anger of one for whom male heterosexual desire [to satisfy which she has tailored her own body] remained sacred. Secondly, it wasn’t so easy for me to distinguish between Goth-proper and poser, between one who represented a genuine threat to the mainstream, and one who merely looked threatening but was actually complicit within it. To me, the essence of Goth-proper was a stylistic one, consisting foremost in a particular look; it was clear, moreover, that the version of ‘Goth’ by which the dominant order had felt threatened—i.e. the version which was the subject of its rumours—had always been an invention of that order, a straw man against which it could, like the cheerleader banging on the door, alternately project its own vices and defend its own values. Those at the Castle, I thought, had merely consented to play this pre-ordained role, to serve the wider community by acting as its scapegoats. By having a bunch of pseudo-goths participate in a “normie” party, Marilyn Manson’s Tainted Love offered a beautiful allegory of that agreement.
To one school of thought [if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it], Marilyn Manson’s 2004 cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” was simply unnecessary. The track is already sufficiently transgressive—a haunting meditation on the modern experience of the sacred. Loneliness, the song suggests, forces us to pursue a relationship with the divine which is not, say, shared among a community nor mediated by some religious institution, but which is direct and particular to each individual, a “Personal Jesus”; and this relationship, moreover, does not cure but merely aggravates our loneliness. The video clip, which shows a group of cowboys attending a Mexican brothel, isn’t merely illustrative but adds additional comment: the transactional nature of this one-on-one mode of worship, of a “Personal Jesus,” is akin, the clip suggests, to prostitution, and is terrifyingly, impersonal, therefore. The clip makes regular jump cuts from the women demonstrating their wares for prospective customers, to those same customers riding bucking broncos. The suggestion is obvious—that the cowboys will “ride” the girls like “mechanical animals” [another fascination of Marilyn Manson], rather than people. Faith, for Depeche Mode, has become a joy ride on a hooker. And this is pretty hard to beat.
Musically, the Marilyn Manson version makes very few changes to the Depeche Mode. The instruments are simply a bit heavier, and the vocals a bit shoutier. But the video is very different. It does allude to the original, conflating [and inverting] two of its central elements—this time a woman is the rider of a bucking bronco. Lest we mistake it for a voyeuristic scene, however, the clip is careful to render her body, like those on display in “Tainted Love,” as another site of horror. Her head shakes and convulses like Reagan from The Exorcist. It’s about as sexy as the scene with the crucifix. Otherwise, the video seems to present a motley assortment of disparate symbols: the band look like a cabaret act from the Weimar republic—albeit one rendered, perhaps, by the combined faces of Otto Dix and Kathe Kollwitz; Marilyn Manson brandishes stigmata on his hands, identifying himself, then, with the eponymous “Personal Jesus”; on the screen behind are images of Stalin, Mussolini, Kennedy, Gandhi, and Mitsubishi Zeros. An image of George W. Bush flashes subliminally; some Gothed-up nurses bring out a baby, which Marilyn Manson cradles as if he were the Madonna; then he shatters it on the floor and money comes pouring out. What unites these images, however, is that they have all functioned as icons. All have stood in for some power greater than themselves, and have thereby granted access to that power. All have been, for good or for bad, objects of idolatry and devotion. And chief among these is Marilyn Manson himself.
The stigmata are to remind us of what every teenage masochist knows deep down: that idol and scapegoat, “Marilyn” and “Manson,” are synonyms; that when the Son of God is sent from Heaven we think it necessary to crucify Him; that being adored must be a form of torture, and that to be the recipient of blows which unite the school in approval is to be the object of a particular kind devotion. One didn’t need to bother with suicide pacts, or heroin, or scalpels, when so many were willing to serve as faithful agents of one’s own self-harm.
Oscar Mardell was born in London, raised in South Wales, and currently lives in a commune in Auckland, New Zealand, where he plays found percussion instruments, typically cutlery, under the stage-name 'Reverend Spooner'. He made a cameo in the video for Princess Chelsea's 'We Were Meant 2 B', and was one of the masked dancers for Jonathan Bree's 'You're So Cool'. His writing has appeared in The Literary London Journal, War, Literature and the Arts, 3:AM, DIAGRAM, and Queen Mob’s Tea House.