Nothing happened. The world didn’t end when we moved into the 21st Century, all the millennium tension went away, 2001 went from science fiction to historical artifact, and the majority of people looked around and saw that things were pretty much the same on this side of the line as they were on the other side. And that was that.
Today, I read an interview with Marilyn Manson where he explains his evocation of CABARET in his recent work as a reaction to present times, Thirties vaudeville as a haven from politics. Notably, however, Manson describes himself as broadly apolitical, which makes you wonder exactly who said haven was devised for. To me, it’s an interesting mess. CABARET’s paean to decadence only gains its enduring power from context — the knowledge that the Third Reich awaits it upstream, which lends it the authentic final doom of all true legends, Ragnarok and Robin Hood’s final arrow shot to mark his grave. Wearing the clothes of the period doesn’t reiterate the lessons of the time or the film — that you can’t hide from evil, that the machinery of conservative societies will always find a way to crush the Too Much Fun Club — but it does produce other, perhaps graver signifiers.
Popular artists generate two forms of address. They produce a sense of collusion with those who already agree with them — through this CD, this book, this graphic novel, I’m telling you that it’s you and me against the world, I am your friend/ally/leader in this, I understand you — and they also, unavoidably, tell the receptive mind what to think and what to identify with. Through this work, I am telling you that this is an apolitical time, that voting doesn’t matter, and we may as well go to the Kitty Kat Keller while we can.
Post-millennium relaxation. Nothing’s happened, nothing’s changed, and you and me, we can’t change anything.
Now, I have a lot of time for Marilyn Manson these days. Much of his music doesn’t do a lot for me, but I enjoy his persona, himself as art. He’s a clever man, and I suspect his apolitics are not all artifice. He’s thirty-four years old now, an experienced artist and an experienced media operator, and he must know his audience. And America, and Britain, currently exist in a political dead zone. George W Bush does not have credible opposition, and whoever’s put up against him in 2004 will likely be crippled by the nomination process in any case. In Britain, the same holds — the leader of the opposition, Michael Howard, is a leering, unelectable monster with criminal tendencies who was until recently shunned and vilified by his own party as a moral mutant.
In the face of all that, it’s an understandable message to broadcast: find a place away from politics, because this is a time in which voting genuinely doesn’t matter. We’re all fucked. Apathy is nothing to be ashamed of. Anger is pointless.
And certainly we’re in a time where anger in art has largely gone away. This isn’t the cool detachment of post-modernism, so much as just a turning inward. The kind of stuttery lurching rise of emo over the last couple of years is a case in point: a total defanging of pretty much any working definition of punk in service of whining about how you’ve got no fucking girlfriend. “Emotional punk” = Crying Ugly Kid Music. There should be a sign in guitar shops: “We reserve the right to refuse sale to people who want to write songs about wearing glasses and being dumped by girls who didn’t know your name anyway.”
It’s understandable, and certainly it doesn’t hurt for Manson to bolster the “outsider” self-perception of his audience.
But it bugs me nonetheless. Is it a creative reaction, to answer “nothing’s happened” with “nothing’s going to happen and you can’t do shit about it”? Is that doing anything more than prepping an alienated audience for a doomed life of dying your hair back to brown and getting a job in insurance? Is that where we’ve ended up? That all popular culture has to say is, “well, fuck it”? Even as a transient pose?
The lesson of the 1930s is that, in a time of encroaching conservatism and creeping repression, the correct response is not to flush your fucking spine down the toilet.
(Written in 2004: re-reading it today, I find that some of it seems to me to still kind of apply, so I thought I’d give it another airing. Previously published on artbomb.)