I’m not a fan of Marilyn Manson’s music. At all. But I recently stumbled upon this appearance by Manson on the (shiver) O’Reilly Factor, and was impressed by the way he handled himself in the face of Billo’s one question rephrased umpteen times. It doesn’t surprise me that a man with skeletons enough in his own closet that he’d rather remain hidden would be terrified of someone who routinely parades them around on stage and on record, but it never ceases to amaze me when people fundamentally misunderstand the role and nature of (good or bad) art. Let’s face it, Bill’s never had Pearl Jam on the show to discuss the killing spree in “Once”, because the concern with music that’s about violence or whatever stirs controversy isn’t about the substance, it’s about the image. Image image image.
Murder songs have been around forever. A particular type of song, called a “murder ballad”, came over to the states from the British Isles and was adopted and evolved in Appalachia. Those songs tend to follow a particular formula and structure that isn’t used much today in original material. Then you’ve got Johnny Cash singing about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Did TV and radio pundits ever accuse Cash of advocating murdering Nevadans? Nope. I remember hearing Eddie sing about his hand in his pocket, so determined, discreet, and of the 16 gauge buried under his clothes. Never made me want to pick one up; nor did it make me believe that the song was literal truth. The mistake a lot of reactionary folks make with controversial art, is that art is not advertising or propaganda. It doesn’t work the same way. Art does not (or at least, should not) ask something of its audience, to buy something or believe something. A devoted propagandist can never understand the true function of art enough to recreate it, because he/she can’t get over wanting control over how their statement is perceived.
Are killing sprees a reality? Unfortunately yes, so songs like “Once” explore their own reasons why (“Once” of course, with the help of the rest of the Mamasan trilogy). The song does not advocate murder. It’s chilling (“you think I got my eyes closed…”), full of realistic details and imagistic language (“Indian summer and I hate the heat”) that imagine a particularly extreme mindset. But it’s also subtle in comparison with Manson’s provocations, and as such, has never drawn any meaningful ire or handwringing from media watchdogs. Without explicit language, shock-value imagery, or offensive, heretical ideas, “Once” slips through as just another driving rock song for most, with lyrics to dig into or ignore, the first track on a classic album, the one fans alive at the time will always remember hearing first. A song that, like those by Pearl Jam’s peers, made a clean break from the shallow, style ‘n image over substance shtick of hair-metal, and looked toward something more honest, probing, real. Come to think of it, does that Smoking Gun document not remind you of a Poison song?