Controversy in Music

Gavin Herrington, Staff

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Every generation seemingly boasts notorious celebrity figures, particularly musicians, often driven by a social conscious or intentions of disrupting the status quo. When people discuss these controversial musicians usually recognizable names such as Elvis Presley, Slayer, Marilyn Manson or Eminem are first mentions in any well-researched compilation.

But I’m not looking to compile a list of personal favorites for controversial figures. Instead, I’m curious in our modern society, which is paradoxically overly-sensitive and desensitized, who will be the next scapegoat the older generations blame current behaviors on, the one singular figure of controversy to which all negative attention will be focused upon?

I am hungry; hungry for controversial statements that aren’t completely shallow attention grabbers, so a “musician” such as 6ix9ine won’t be considered, as I find him to be intellectually incompetent and I also won’t be referring to a general conglomeration of artists belonging to a genre considered repugnant simply for being different, an example is the case with elderly peoples generally hostile disposition towards hip-hop as a genre itself.

So in order to make an educated assumption as to who the greatest potential option for a new poster-boy to represent controversy would be, we will analyze the history of a previously demonized superstar named Marilyn Manson who exemplified, in shining fashion, how to infuriate and agitate the older generations. From there we must comprehend the attributes and traits that define a controversial artist. Then we will, using the information we’ve gathered, anoint the likeliest king of controversy for the future, although it will surely be a difficult task to undertake.

Marilyn Manson was an oddity in a ocean of bland, repetitive music. Even after his peak he’s an unforgettable metal superstar who’s ingenious and most of all, the spearhead of controversy inserted head first into mainstream music during the late 1990s and early 2000s with his bizarre, satanic appearance and a namesake inspired by two notorious figures, Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson.

Marilyn Monroe was an actress defined by her glamorous lifestyle as a Hollywood celebrity often involved in scandals erupting from her promiscuous behavior whilst in contrast Charles Manson was infamous as the charismatic, psychopathic leader of a murderous cult thus displaying the spectrum of celebrity controversy from the most glamorous excerpts to the grittiest and most gorey, grotesque perspective.

But it wasn’t the clever title creating unquantifiable controversy, it was a controversial persona harshly critical of everything, using his discography as a voice to express his social commentary. Marilyn Manson was perceived as bizarre and absurd, often shirtless at concerts with white makeup, spitting into the crowds, spewing profanity, inciting a generation of youth to rebel against tradition and embrace cultural revolution with his onstage antics and outspoken nature.

During the prime of his career he was particularly critical of religious institutions with socially-conservative agendas and of the standards ingrained into American society amongst other things such as the political establishment. Parents became concerned and furious with the Antichrist Superstars influence on their children and began to take legal action, especially after the Columbine shooting where it was claimed the shooters were influenced to take action due in large part to Marilyn Manson’s “Reflecting God,” although this has been investigated and rebutted.

All this controversy propelled Manson to number one public enemy and cemented his legacy, particularly with his critically acclaimed episodic album trifecta of Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals and Holywood which all explored controversial subjects with interesting methods and distinct sound compositions reflective of what was being critiqued. Such is the case in Mechanical Animals where the image of Hollywood superstars is distorted from their often glamorous portrayal, showing substance dependency, oversexualization, conforming for success and compromising happiness to appeal to an audience with an industrial metal sound mixed with pop elements.

But can’t anyone cause controversy? Why is Marilyn Manson different from an outrightly disliked artist with tons of negative attention? What defines him from an artist who similarly exclaims profanity like the slew of trap rappers in today’s industry? Well the defining factor is substantive lyricism with actual constructive intent that attracts controversy as a means of drawing attention to the message whilst in contrast the greater majority of musicians coined as controversial usually intend on creating material solely to be attention grabbing without a profound message that could incite change or at least intellectual discourse on a subject, probably because they often times are producing songs that are focused on generating revenue versus attempting to actually be lyrically thoughtful.

But profound subject matter can’t be the only factor. What about his appearance? Why is he any different from somebody like 6ix9ine with facial tattoos, colorful hair and flamboyant grills?

I think contrary to 6ix9ine, the appearance Marilyn Manson is absolutely essential and paramount to the narrative of the character he portrays instead of cosmetic appeal or swagger. Without the off putting and uneasy sight of his pale, ghostly makeup and body implants the image of an alien like outcast deformed by and simultaneously discarded by society becomes less believable and not quite as compelling when visualising the character in conjunction with his descriptive lyrics often dependent on the listener referencing the look of Marilyn Manson.

Outside of substance and appearance something a little less controllable enters the equation, timing. As with comedy, timing is fundamental to making a joke poignant and similarly this isn’t an exception to controversial music. An example of this is when chronicling Manson’s career as its progressed. When he began there was an empty void awaiting fulfillment when he attacked customary tradition pertaining to religion, now when he produces material with a similar message in the modern age it isn’t as powerful. Why? Because taboos become extinct from generation to generation as the older mindset disintegrates when the boundaries of tradition are pushed. So it’s a little bit of luck, being in the right place at the right time to deliver a message or understanding the most compelling issues to effectively criticize.

Now knowing the important details, who could be the next Elvis or Eminem or Marilyn Manson? Personally, I am uncertain as no relevant modern musician can compete, but I believe the undisputable conscious mouthpiece of this generation is Kendrick Lamar, particularly on the issue of black on black violence, police brutality and the disenfranchisement of people living in poverty, especially his hometown of Compton.

Kendrick combines the previously mentioned attributes of a controversial artist with his substantive material, an appearance that represents himself as a dynamic character and impeccable timing with his commentary on society’s current ailments. Although not as monumentally or relatively as controversial as artists like Marilyn Manson, he is actively speaking on pressing matters which have provoked the likes of Fox News to launch fervent smear campaigns against him, which he sampled in one of his most recent tracks, “DNA.” There’s no other current mainstream artist I can cite as a political activists who’s sparked discussion to the degree which Kendrick Lamar has in the last decade.

And this is not to say others haven’t. Many of my favorite underground rappers like Immortal Technique or Dead Prez are way more political and articulated with their political opinionation, but the primary thing they lack is the mainstream popularity and charisma Kendrick Lamar possesses which has allowed him to propel to stardom with a platform where his opinion is valued by his listeners and despised by his adversaries.

He may not be the most controversial artist ever but he’s on his way to cementing his legacy as this decades version of an Elvis Presley or an Eminem with his poignant social commentary. Kendrick Lamar, in spite of anyone’s personal opinion on him, has had an undeniable impact with his music and I believe he will continue to do so as he releases projects in the future. And on a final note, I can’t wait for a new challenger to raise the bar even higher with even more controversial music simply to watch the mayhem unfold with beautiful chaos, but for now Kendrick Lamar will have to do until he is dethroned.

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