Ecstasy of influence: Bowie via Manson

Marilyn Manson - Mechanical Animals (1998)

I first got to know about Elmore Leonard through Quentin Tarantino – on that note, Tarantino introduced me to a whole raft of pop culture curios – and I started digging into Norse mythology after Marvel Comics planted a seed in my brain thanks to their version of Thor.

Lovecraft swam into my purview during my teenage years – though I would delve into his stories much later, again – motivated by this initial, delayed spur – through the likes of Metallica and Cradle of Filth, and Lord Dunsany I read after finding out that actually, both Lovecraft and my former literary hero JRR Tolkien were influenced by him.

One of the joys of delving into the DNA of your favourite creative people is finding out, once you crack that shell, what lies beneath. Everyone is influenced by someone else, and this hall of mirrors is what arguably characterises our relentlessly postmodern age. (Should that be post-post-postmodern? I’m not an English undergrad anymore, which frankly means I’m past caring.)

In the case of the late David Bowie, it was Marilyn Manson who did it for me – specifically, the Marilyn Manson of the androgynous Mechanical Animals era.

Now of course, I had known who Bowie was long before my friend Herman loaned me a bootleg tape of the said Manson album (come to that, I of course knew who Manson was before that talismanic tape too). Family lore has it that my aunt and father went out to buy the latest Bowie LP to reach Serbia during a respite from the hospital as my mother was getting ready to give birth to me, even – and I’m sure that same record was spun in my presence after I eventually popped out into the world on that fateful May day in 1985.

But I think I first started to gain an understanding of what Bowie was “about” thanks to Manson’s very deliberate and openly acknowledged cribbing from Bowie during that comparatively brief chapter in “the God of Fuck’s” career.

I wouldn’t really be able to talk about the technical make-up of the songs in Mechanical Animals, so I doubt that I’d be able to construct much of a formal argument in favour of why these songs ‘worked’ on me the way they did.

But neither was it a case of being transfixed by the superficial aspects of Manson’s project, dazzling and sort-of* subversive as they may have been in the pop-culture mainstream at the time. And I say this at the risk of discounting just how mind-blowing it was to me to watch Manson’s performance of The Beautiful People – taken from Antichrist Superstar, the album previous to Mechanical Animals – at the MTV Video Music Awards back in 1997 (I was twelve). It still gives me a thrill of sadistic pleasure to remember the cut-aways to the likes of Sean Combs apparently scandalized by Manson’s bare-bottomed, fascist-attired attack on MTV glamour culture. The hypocrisy of someone like Combs taking apparent offense at Manson still strikes me as telling, in a “gotcha” kind of way.

But Mechanical Animals was certainly a ‘softer’ beast, and its immersive qualities are what seduced me. Beyond the obvious, catchy charms of The Dope Show and I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me), songs like The Last Day on Earth and my personal favourite, Coma White, transported me somewhere alien but strangely calming.

The electronic wash that characterises the album still gives me a sense of something cold but meditative, and it’s all helped along by the androgynous surrogate – ‘Omega’ – that Manson created for the purpose of the album. As I would later learn, creating an artistic persona, particularly an androgynous one of this kind, was cribbed from Bowie, who admittedly trumps Manson on this front – not only because he ‘got their first’ but also because he had a far clearer vision about when to adopt these personalities and when to drop them**.

But at the time, it introduced me to the concept of, well, the concept album. Not only that, but the concept album as propped up by an invented personality the performer deliberately took on. In short, the idea of music as storytelling, which has resonated with me ever since.

It’s this echo of Bowie that I’ve carried with me ever since. Of course I’ve listened to Bowie since that time too, though not, I must admit, with the kind of visceral fan-like fervour the teenage me bestowed upon Marilyn Manson.

That’s another thing about influences. You can be introduced to artists askance. Simply put, it wouldn’t have made much sense to me to force myself to listen to Bowie at the time. I was into hard rock and heavy metal, and Manson was a more palatable jumping point into the Bowie milieu for me at that point. This is, of course, the problem with recommending essential works to people with the kind of evangelical zeal we reserve for the very best. We tend to forget that everyone’s on their own journey, and telling them that you HAVE to read/watch/listen to this at that point in their life makes little sense.

If you’re meant to reach it, you’ll reach it. In the meantime you can follow the breadcrumbs you recognise.

*I think I opted for ‘sort-of’ partly because I know Bowie did all this before

**Manson’s dithering post-Holywood career is a testament to this… compare it to how Bowie, despite some flailing years of his own, remained so much in control that he even recorded a final album as a farewell

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We Need to Talk About Genre | Individuality vs Community

Argument: We divide fiction up in genres because of our chronic fear of loneliness.

I’m invested in this question, which is evidenced by my foolhardy effort to write a parallel-narrative novella incorporating both the fairy tale idiom and the very ‘real’ world, as well as my attempt at getting at what that multi-faceted mongrel genre ‘the New Weird’ is all about for a Master’s dissertation.

But first, some (recent) observations on the matter from more articulate and well-versed people than myself.

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  1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at this year’s National Book Awards

“I rejoice at accepting [the award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”

 

  1.  ‘A Better Way to Think About Genre’ by Joshua Rothman (New Yorker)
Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye

“It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed. As it happens, there is such a system: it was invented by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, and laid out in his 1957 masterwork, Anatomy of Criticism.”

  1.  The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally. by Nick Mamatas (Los Angeles Review of Books)
A young HP Lovecraft

A young HP Lovecraft

“Lovecraft’s quality is obscured by his difficulty, and his difficulty is obscured by his popularity. If Lovecraft isn’t seen as a difficult writer, it is because of the pulp idiom in which he worked. [Jonathan] Franzen points to college as the place where people are made to read difficult books, but Lovecraft is an adolescent fascination. Lovecraft demands the careful attention that only a teen boy with little else to do – no high school romances, no sports practice – can muster. Lovecraft’s pulp provenance, and early spike by Edmund Wilson, kept Lovecraft’s work from being taken seriously. Only over the past twenty years, with reprint volumes via Penguin Classics and Library of America, with champions such as Michel Houellebecq and Reza Negarestani has Lovecraft earned a place in what we used to call the canon (while making quotation marks in the air with our fingers, notch).”

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These are all problems that have been burning at my brain in some form of another for as long as I can remember (slight exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way). Because I take this very seriously for whatever reason – friends and family who know me intimately can feel free to psychoanalyze away – I’m driven to find an evolutionary root to our need to divide up literature into genres, and then argue about it endlessly.

Cards on the table: if I’m a follower of any critical school on this front at all, I’m a follower of Frye’s. His organic view of genre both suits my needs as a writer and provides me with an inclusive argument about genre that, ostensibly, short-circuits going-nowhere binary arguments on the issue. Also, there’s a pervasive paradox in the way I process this whole thing: I hate the idea of genre as segregation, but I don’t want us to do away with recognizing genres, because there’s an aesthetic pleasure in picking out what belongs to which tradition.

That Edgar Allan Poe influenced Lovecraft who in turn influenced Ridley Scott and Stuart Gordon and Caitlin R. Kiernan and Nick Mamatas and Cradle of Filth and countless others, and that the details stolen from Lovecraft by each of these artists are traceable to Lovecraft but still distinct, and that this intertextual richness evokes a kind of hopeful reminder of the prodigious human imagination, as it stretches across generations.

But on a more universal note, I will suggest that genre stems from a combined need for both INDIVIDUALITY and COMMUNITY. In this pantomime debate between the ‘literary mainstream’ and the ‘genre community’, the literary side is ‘clubby’ in the original sense of the word: the domain of an elite that gatekeeps itself into a privileged minority, with all the attendant ‘real world’ social implications of that.

While the ‘genre’ community, on the other hand, is seen as a regressive ‘cult’ circle that turns its back on the ‘real world’ in favour of a vacuum-sealed aesthetic that often favours the tried and tested over any attempts at current social commentary or formal innovation (perhaps the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is an iconic example).

But this perception – the pantomime is very much a perception – is made doubly complicated by the fact that we’re discussing works of art here. Leaving aside value judgements of the individual works of art in question, the reason why the genre debate will never settle into a peaceful resolution is because we’re asking the works of individuals to answer to the needs of a community, however large and nebulous this community may be.

There will always be mavericks, trailblazers, and ‘exceptions to the rule’. But even declaring that the mavericks are all that you like places you in a double bind: each maverick will have their influences, and in each influence – much like Lovecraft’s fish-god mongrels from Innsmouth – lies a genetic code that can’t be denied, and which ties back to a tradition.

Traditions are what genre is built on, and tradition will be something not even the most opaque of ‘literary’ fiction would be able to deny… strain as it might for originality and freedom from market constraints and critical labels.

We all want to be ourselves, but none of us want to be lonely.

READ RELATED: Getting it Ass-Backwards: The Genre Binary at LonCon