Journal of the Plague Years 2021: That’s a Performance I’d Pay to See

After a couple of false starts and cancellations and a lot of scrambling around, I finally have a firm date for top surgery. That’s the exciting part. The scary part is, it’s two days from now.

So, yeah. I want it very badly. It seems crazy. I feel unprepared. I felt that about starting testosterone, and every time I’ve come out to anyone. Each step is terrifying, and gratifies me more than I hoped.

Perhaps because I’m facing something scary and unimaginably large, I’ve spent the last couple of days mulling over an unrelated ethical problem: Evan Rachel Wood’s abuse accusations against Marilyn Manson.

I can’t deny that Manson’s work is important to me. I’ve followed his career since Antichrist Superstar was released in 1996. My interest tailed off sometime after Mechanical Animals, but I still find his early performances spellbinding. “Kiddie Grinder” is one of two epigraphs to my doctoral dissertation (the other is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Philomela’s defiant speech to her rapist, just before he cuts her tongue out).

Several times over the last few days, I’ve been rocking out in my car. One song ends, and I’m poised for the opening chords of the next: “The Dope Show,” say, or “Kiddie Grinder” itself. I wonder if I should skip it out of respect to Woods.

So far, I haven’t.

I’m no expert, and I don’t have any inside information, but to me Wood’s allegations seem eminently believable. If you’ve read Manson’s autobiography or watched concert movies like Dead to the World, it’s hard to argue that he wouldn’t do it. He cut himself onstage. To claim that he wouldn’t cut himself to control a girlfriend is naive or disingenuous. Decades of research and experience tell me, yeah, it’s credible. She had every reason to feel terrorized, and she’s shown great bravery in coming forward. His record label was right to drop him.

So why don’t I delete his songs from my playlists, or at least skip them for awhile? My reasons are below. They may not be valid — they may be based on justifications or evasions — but they’re true. The discussion below is circuitous because my reasons aren’t entirely logical. I hope you’ll stick with it.

When credible allegations came out about the comedian Louis C.K., a lot of people defended him, or expressed shock and surprise. Jon Stewart was one of them. I felt at the time, and still feel, that their response was naive and disingenuous. I think Louis C.K. is hilarious, but as soon as I heard the allegations I thought, Yes, of course. The stories were absolutely consistent with the content of his humor, and his public persona. I still think of lines from his standup, and they’re as accurate and uncomfortable as they ever were.

So, both things are true. He used his power to abuse less-powerful female colleagues. He was a brilliant comedian. I felt at the time, and still feel, that anyone who abuses a position of trust should face professional consequences. It’s hard to keep all those things in your head at once, but necessary, I think.

I remember watching two comedians — I believe one was Jon Stewart, but I forget the other — talking about how they’d been forced to reevaluate Bill Cosby’s work. I’ve never admired his work or watched The Cosby Show. The case seems simpler, though, because of the hypocrisy involved. He’d played a wise father figure, and turned out to be a sexual predator. Both comedians said they found his work unwatchable because they felt a sense of dissonance that they couldn’t overcome.

It’s harder to make that argument with Louis C.K., and should be impossible with Marilyn Manson. Both are, if nothing else, bitter enemies of hypocrisy. Manson’s work, in particular, fascinates me because it concerns family trauma, and how the cycle of abuse perpetuates itself. He’s expressing a particularly male relationship to abuse, something that I’ve explored in the dark corners of the novels published here.

So do I think Wood should shut up and go away, so that Manson can continue to express his genius? Hell, no. The cycle of trauma and abuse doesn’t stop because people shut up, keep quiet and look away. It only stops when people speak up, confront what happened, and demand that it stop. This work is hard, unfamiliar, and essential.

It’s also not mine to do. It’s the work of the individuals involved, of the courts, of the industry king-makers and gatekeepers. I don’t intend to buy further Marilyn Manson albums, and I wouldn’t attend a concert, but I’ll continue to listen to the albums I own, just like I frequently re-read Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel or the Iliad. Any work of mine is largely private, and carried out as part of my creative process.

These matters were on my mind yesterday, as I comforted myself and prepared for surgery by watching multiple live performances of “Kings of the Wild Frontier” and “Physical (You’re So).” Adam Ant has performed both songs regularly for decades. For me, KoWF is the ultimate expression of discomfort in your own skin; “Physical” captures raw and unapologetic male desire. Up until recently, he usually stripped partially during one or both songs. Some of the greatest versions date from 2011-2015, when he was my age or a bit older, and stripping in public had become openly confrontational.

There’s a version of “Physical” from 2011 that’s particularly edgy. After he’s ripped his shirt off, Adam improvises with a female backup singer. He sings, “When you see my penis…” and she fills in the blank in different ways: “I choke myself,” “I piss myself,” “I shoot myself.” I watched it last night and thought, as I always do, that it’s impossible to know what’s going through the backup singer’s head. Does she feel abused? Empowered? Amused? It’s a great collaborative performance; he’s obviously wealthier, more powerful, and internationally famous.

In the end, I don’t know. Probably neither of them, does, either. The performance expresses something about male sexuality and submission, and is musically brilliant. The aggression expressed in the lyrics can’t be separated out from the power dynamics onstage. I watch it because my writing comes at similar sentiments from a different angle, because I’m trying to figure out how to be male, and because I think Adam Ant is fundamentally hot. In the live performances I saw, he comported himself like an elder statesman of rock while singing “Red Scab” and “Whip in My Valise.” People tossed their underwear on the stage. I stripped. We all did.

To say that something is intuitive, poorly understood or confusing is not to say that it doesn’t have consequences. Part of the problem is, that women have been told to shut up so that men can express these sentiments in their art without fear of retribution for their offstage actions. The artwork is valuable to me, but not more valuable that the women harmed while making it. The artists are human and fallible, and should face consequences if they’ve violated laws or abused their power.

In the end, I think the most interesting work would be where men who have been caught up in the cycle of abuse speak about it from a perspective shifted by time, introspection and self-awareness. Imagine if, instead of feeling entitled, defensive and self-pitying, they allowed themselves to see the damage they caused, and held themselves responsible.

That’s a performance I’d pay to see.

Arizona’s numbers as of February 5 are below.

Total Covid-19 cases: 775,622

Current hospitalizations: 3,167

Total deaths: 13,948

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