Manson’s “Antichrist Superstar” turns 22

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

I know that I’m a few days late of the 22-year anniversary, but on October 8, 1996, Marilyn Manson released Antichrist Superstar. This album, arguably the first - and some might say the last - true rock ‘n’ roll album of the 90’s, was more than just industrial metal, or as the media dubbed it, “shock rock.” It was a release that inflamed the conservative Christian community in the U.S., drew mass picketing from religious organizations, and incited politicians to actually try and ban sales of the album and performances by the artist. But while the history behind the album is important, these elements don’t come close to explaining why Antichrist was such a masterpiece.

The height of the Satanic Panic

That being said, before I discuss the actual album, background is important. For those of you who didn’t grow up in this time period, you’ve got to remember that the 90s represented the height of the Satanic Panic. This was before the recession, before the country was divided by race and politics, before extremism became normality, and during a period where warfare, terrorism, and privacy were not hot button issues on the tips of everyone’s tongues. Average middle-class American families were primarily concerned with dark rumors of Satanic cults, violent music, and the slow but sure death of religion as majority amongst the U.S. populace. This was all bolstered, of course, by the many televangelists who sought to drive up their ratings, back when daytime talk shows and religious programs were still taken seriously. When Manson emerged as the self-described “All-American Antichrist,” he made himself the prime target and scapegoat - intentionally so, but nonetheless, a mass religious and moral panic ensued.

Of course, Satanic music was nothing new. As a black metal fan, I can tell you that bands like Bathory and Mayhem were releasing music much more blasphemous than Manson’s as far back as the early 80’s, not to mention thrash bands like Slayer, with albums like Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood released during the same decade. And sure, Slayer achieved huge success during those years, with fans in NYC getting so into the music during a show in 1988 that they literally rioted. But Manson did what no bands had previously done, and brought Satan into middle-class homes, courtesy of TV screens and channels like MTV, where the song “The Beautiful People” was nominated for three awards. Antichrist Superstar also crawled to the number 3 spot on the Billboard 200 and went on to sell almost 2 million copies - in the U.S. alone. This was different; this was not like before. The All-American Antichrist, the God of Fuck, was topping the same charts as Phil Collins and Madonna. Unlike black metal, unlike even Slayer, Manson was firmly planting himself in the minds of parents, churchgoers, and politicians.

Picture it: Endorsed by the Church of Satan. Headlining the Dead to the World Tour - the most controversial of its time, when burning a bible onstage was still considered a shocking - sometimes even criminal - act. Tearing the Catholic Church a new one with the first song off the album, “Irresponsible Hate Anthem,” with lyrics like: “I am so all-American, I’d sell you suicide. I am totalitarian, I’ve got abortions in my eyes. I hate the hater, I’d rape the raper. I am the animal who will not be himself.” It wasn’t only shocking to outsiders because of the lyrical content; it was all the more powerful because Manson was intelligent, philosophical with an eye for the occult, and most importantly, he was dead serious.
The album itself will never be topped or recreated, both in terms of musical quality and lyrical genius, especially due to the conditions under which it was recorded. Antichrist Superstar was recorded in New Orleans, a city notorious for its occult history (and I can attest that there is some dark energy in that place). The recording process included sleep deprivation, hallucinogenic experiments, drug use, necromancy, and self-mutilation, with Manson himself pushing sewing needles into his fingers to put himself into a perpetual mindset of pain and suffering.

Occult symbology and numerology

That torment is mirrored in the sonic carnage of songs like “Little Horn” and “The Reflecting God.” I’m a huge fan of all Manson’s works, but I’ve never heard any songs that topped the ones on this album, at least not in brutality or darkness. But the imagery of the album might even be deeper than the music. It is absolutely laden with occult symbology and numerology, as well as military references, sociopolitical critiques, and Biblical references (often perversions of Christian symbols or ideas).

The shock symbol, for instance (see image on right), contains Hebrew letters that spell “Leviathan,” a demonic name, and the red shock bolt in the center actually has a triple meaning (there’s no doubt in my mind that this was intentional by Manson, as multi-sociocultural commentary as well as a mockery of the Holy Trinity). First, the symbol is extremely evocative of the “SS” symbol used by the Nazis - this is an example of Manson exploiting people’s own fears and using the very aesthetics of fascism to criticize what he saw as “the fascism of Christianity.” Second, the symbol actually represents an electric shock warning sign used in some countries; in other words, Manson is saying that like an electrical device, this symbol has the ability to harm those who would not approach it with caution. And third, Manson is literally poking fun at the media having nicknamed him a “shock rocker.” Well, Manson says, here, quite literally, is your “shock” symbol!

Meanwhile, let’s talk about the numerology side of things. The roman numerals that appear on the back of the album (see above image) are IX (9), VI (6), III (3), and VII (7). When those numbers are multiplied by themselves, they equal 1134. When 1134 is read upside-down, it looks like the word “4311,” or “Hell.” The number 15 is also frequently used, which represents the 15th tarot card, “The Devil.” And the year in which the album was released, 1996, and the song of the same name, can be rearranged to look like 1666 - a significant year in and of itself. It was the year of the Great Fire of London, and it was also believed by some scholars that the “number of the beast,” 666, actually referred to the year 1666. It all amounts to fire, destruction, and rumors of the devil walking the earth. Manson knew this, and the lyrics to the song “1996” are a dead giveaway (no pun intended):

“Light a candle for the sinners, set the world on fire. ... This is where your faith is - 1996.”

Worm into angel

Beyond the symbolism of the work, Antichrist is also a concept album. The backstory focuses on a person called “The Worm,” who begins a transformation - represented by the metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly, here represented by “worm into angel” - of an abused and insignificant being into an epicurean demagogue who is nihilistic and disgusted with humanity. He begins a genocidal extermination of the human race, and the album ends with such Nietzschean statements as “when you are suffering, know that I have betrayed you,” and “when all of your wishes are granted, many of your dreams will be destroyed.”  Note the lyrics to the track “Minute of Decay”:

“I’m on my way down now, I’d like to take you with me. A lack of pain, a lack of hope, a lack of anything to say.”

Antichrist Superstar is so powerful not just because it challenged the Church and organized religion in a more artistically powerful and intellectual way than any other musical work ever has (or will), but also because of the pure, unfettered, nihilistic, misanthropic apathy that is literally bleeding from the album. The utter blackness and hopelessness of Antichrist awakens something emotional inside the listener - and also within the performer. Manson himself broke down and cried while recording the vocals to the above song. Manson was not only an artistic, lyrical, and philosophic genius, he was also a prophet. Look around, and you can see that modern America, in the year 2017, represents that “Minute of Decay.” Our time is defined by nihilism and apathy, by self-hatred and self-destruction, and we are reaping what we have sown. In this age of technological advancement, equality, and “enlightenment,” we are truly learning, just as Manson said, that “when all of your wishes are granted, many of your dreams will be destroyed.” Antichrist not only predicted - and precipitated - the fall of Christianity, it also foresaw the death of America, and the transformation of the American Dream into a nightmare.
Music is always ahead of its time. Elvis was. The Rolling Stones were. Black metal was ahead of its time by regressing to an ancient time and an old way of thinking, but it was still ahead of its time. So, too, was Marilyn Manson and, specifically, this album. Spin writer Ann Powers once noted of the album, “So-called morality has repressed the human spirit to such an extent that only hate remains. Rock ‘n’ roll can metamorphose its practitioners into the embodiment of that hate, freeing them from the lie of a good society.”

A very happy birthday to Antichrist Superstar, the album that delivered irresponsible hate anthems to us, and thrust a middle finger in the face of Christ, just when we needed it most.

“Time has come it is quite clear, our Antichrist is almost here.”

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