Revisiting the shock rock icon’s 1994 debut album — and the provocative, ambitious career it spawned.
Portrait of An American Family, released 25 years ago this Friday (July 19), is the theatrical metal album that introduced us to one of the most divisive, provocative and controversial figures not just in music, but in global pop culture: Marilyn Manson. This was the beginning of the alternative nation's version of Your Mom and Dad’s Worst Nightmare.
“I am the god of fuck!" Such is how Manson — the androgynous, tattoo-covered, makeup-wearing amalgamation of Charles Manson and Marilyn Monroe, two staples of your parents’ generation — opens “Cake and Sodomy,” the album's first full track. Other cuts include “Organ Grinder,” “Misery Machine” and “Wrapped in Plastic,” and Manson ensures that no opportunity to shock or rock is surpassed. He subverts childhood classics, like Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Scooby-Doo, and quotes serial killer Richard Ramirez in "Snake Eyes and Sissies": "Killing is killing whether done for duty, profit or fun."
For its audience of teenage kids, the album was a big middle finger to the societal rules they were supposed to follow. And it was using the very imagery of a model America as its weapons.
“I wanted to address the hypocrisy of talk show America, how morals are worn as a badge to make you look good and how it's so much easier to talk about your beliefs than to live up to them,” Manson told Empyrean Magazine in 1995. “I was very much wrapped up in the concept that as kids growing up, a lot of the things that we're presented with have deeper meanings than our parents would like us to see… So what I was trying to point out was that when our parents hide the truth from us, it's more damaging than if they were to expose us to things like Marilyn Manson in the first place.”
But, as he would remain for much of his decades-long career, the Manson of 1994 was still very much in flux. The man born Brian Warner was still finding out exactly what brand of villain he was and would be. The story of this Manson — who would soon become a full-fledged rock star, before shooting to international notoriety as the object of a generation’s finger-pointing blame — has its humbler beginnings in Florida, of course.
In the early 1990s, Manson and his band – then called Marilyn Manson & the Spooky Kids (and, frankly, their debut album is at times very spooky sounding) – had made a name for themselves in South Florida with their theatric live performances, industrial metal sound and outrageous looks. The band, co-founded with guitarist Daisy Berkowitz (a combo of Daisy Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard and serial killer David Berkowitz; early incarnations of the band also feature Oli Newton Bundy and Zsa Zsa Speck), signed with Sony Music and started recording demos.
Then, in the summer of ’93, they entered a Miami studio with producer Roli Mosimann. But Manson quickly became distraught with the overly polished results — leading to Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor entered the picture, becoming a pivotal figure in the rise of Marilyn Manson. The two met in the early ‘90s, when Manson was working as a music journalist and interviewed Reznor. The two stayed in touch, and Manson periodically sent Reznor demo recordings.
When his new band was in a bind with their debut, Manson again turned to Reznor. At the time, Reznor was yet to become an international industrial rock star. When he heard the Miami demos, Reznor agreed with Manson — yes, they sucked — and he signed on to both produce their debut and release it on his Nothing Records label.
And here’s where it gets truly interesting: In 1992, Reznor bought 10050 Cielo Drive, the infamous Hollywood Hills home where the Manson Family committed the Tate Murders. He had built a home recording studio inside the residence, where he was living and working on an album of his own, NIN’s classic The Downward Spiral. So now Manson would record pieces of his debut album at the site of the murders that inspired not just his artistic name, but his subversive approach to art in general.
Reznor brought in the engineers, technological prowess and attention to detail he was applying to his own personal projects, and the result was… fine. Portrait is not Manson’s best work, musically. But it’s the emergence of a character that dismantled, challenged and stripped bare many American ideals and hypocritical power structures. Commercially, the album failed to chart upon release — then, the band joined Reznor and NIN’s Downward Spiral tour, setting the scene for their big breakout. In two years, Manson would become one of the biggest rock stars of the era with his band's cover of Eurythmics' synth-pop classic "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," off their ‘95 EP Smells Like Children, and "The Beautiful People," the lead single from 1996's Antichrist Superstar (which remains a musical highpoint for Manson).
But Portrait was the introduction to Manson’s unique creative mind, one obsessed with pop culture and its analyzation and dissection and subversion. It was the first entry in one of the most interesting careers in modern entertainment. And it proved to be lucrative: In the U.S. alone, three of the band's albums have been certified Platinum by the RIAA and three Gold, and eight releases have debuted in the top ten of the Billboard 200 albums chart — two at No. 1. And over the years, he’s collaborated with everyone from DMX to Lady Gaga, Eminem to Avril Lavigne. He’s one of the most successful trolls in popular music history.
In the 25 years since its release, Manson has grown into not just a respected frontman, but also a visual artist, filmmaker and actor. His resume reads more like a pop culture history book. He’s appeared in a variety of TV series, including Sons of Anarchy, Californication, and Eastbound and Down. He played a porn star in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. He’s married Hollywood pinup girls (Dita Von Teese) and dated (and bitterly split from) young film stars (the then-19-year-old Evan Rachel Wood). He’s had well publicized drug and alcohol addictions. And he’s been the subject of some of the greatest rock rumors, ever. As a credit to his own legend making, both were totally believable, even if they were ultimately debunked.
Manson was one of the most entertaining figures in mid-to-late-'90s rock. And then, in 1999, there was Columbine. After the massacre at the Colorado high school, Manson was an easy target, especially for the religious right. Because the perpetrators were alleged fans of Manson’s music, his entire existence was put on trial on prime time news. And at every turn, Manson proved to be intelligent, well-spoken, and empathetic in ways his so-called adversaries were simply incapable of being.
Years later, on the eve of the release of his 2011 album Born Villain, I sat in Manson’s West Hollywood loft apartment drinking Blue Moon beer with the towering singer. He had just moved out of the house he shared with Wood and was attempting to “grow up.” He was laying off the drugs (namely cocaine) and hard alcohol (namely his beloved absinthe).
“You’re supposed to make things that are a question mark, not an answer,” he said. “The villain is the most important character in the story — it’s the character that creates changes. That’s how I see my life.” Portrait of an American Family was the first act in that villain’s ever-evolving career.