With Portrait of an American Family, Marilyn Manson, the band, hadn’t quite solidified their signature industrial metal sound, as they would on their follow-up, Antichrist Superstar, but it was certainly a promising beginning. What Portrait of an American Family lacked in musical prowess, it made up for in its incredibly intelligent lyrics.
Throughout the LP, Manson attacks America’s hypocritical, self-righteous, talk-show culture with startling wit and accuracy. These themes, combined with somewhat disjointed, groovy, rock riffage, eerie samples, and creepy keyboards, made this album a wakeup call to teenagers to ditch the self-loathing of early ’90s grunge music and to get pissed off at society instead.
In Manson’s own words, from his 1998 autobiography Long Hard Road Out of Hell, “I wanted to be strong and independent, to think for myself and help other people think for themselves.”
Of course, in true Marilyn Manson fashion, a drug-fueled, sex-crazed, blood-soaked journey preceded the album’s release on July 19th, 1994. Before he was the Antichrist Superstar, or even Marilyn Manson, Brian Warner was a journalist kicking around in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a concept for a band “but no musical skills whatsoever.”
This concept included the duality of human nature encompassed in the name of the band: “The words Marilyn Manson seemed like an apt symbol for modern-day America, and the minute I wrote it on paper for the first time I knew that it was what I wanted to become,” explained Manson.
In the early 1990s, the band, then known as Marilyn Manson & the Spooky Kids, had quite a reputation in the local Florida scene for S&M, nudity, blood, chainsaws, cages and fire in their stage shows. As Manson put it, “As a performer, I wanted to be the loudest, most persistent alarm clock I could be, because there didn’t seem like any other way to snap society out of its Christianity — and media-induced coma.”
This is when Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor comes into the picture. Manson had several run-ins with Reznor — including interviewing him for a music magazine and opening for NIN at a club in Florida — that eventually led to Marilyn Manson being signed to Reznor’s Nothing Records label.
What would eventually become Portrait of an American Family began in 1993. After Marilyn Manson had shortened their name, they started working on their full-length debut, then known as The Manson Family Album, with producer Roli Mosimann at Criterial Studios in Miami. The band and Reznor were unhappy with the sound of these recordings, declaring that it was too polished and didn’t represent the band accurately.
They ended up remixing and re-recording many parts of the album in Los Angeles. As a part of this process, major parts of the music were re-done, including Sara Lee Lucas’ live drumming being replaced with drum programming by Nine Inch Nails keyboardist Charlie Clouser. The re-working of the album was done at various locations, including 10050 Cielo Drive (since torn down), the house where Charles Manson and his “Manson Family” committed the murders of actress Sharon Tate and others in the 1960s.
It is obvious that Brian Warner, who had taken on the stage persona Marilyn Manson, started as a writer. The album is full of memorable, if not simple, songs with powerful lyrics, vocals and samples. The song “Wrapped in Plastic” was inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series, and used the plastic wrapped furniture of the typical American family as a metaphor for the dirt they are trying to hide. The track “Get Your Gunn” was inspired by the murder of abortion doctor Dr. David Gunn, and the irony of a “pro-life” person killing someone else.
The album almost didn’t come out because of the song “My Monkey”, which sampled and borrowed a few lyrics from Charles Manson. Nothing Records’ parent company, Interscope Records, was worried about a backlash due to the flack Guns N’ Roses had recently received for covering a Charles Manson song. In the end, with the backing of Reznor, and a potential record deal somewhere else, Interscope backed down and “My Monkey” stayed on the album. The song is a cartoonish, keyboard-driven track with an actual 5-year-old child, Robert Pierce, singing some of the lyrics.
The album boasts other “classic” Manson songs like “Cake and Sodom”, which inspired the infamous “I Am the God of F**k” t-shirt that probably got many high school kids suspended; as well as “Lunchbox”, which was popular during the band’s early club days, and remains a staple of Manson’s current live set. The song was inspired by real bullying incidents where children got in trouble for beating each other with metal lunch boxes, with lyrics like, “I want to grow up/ I want to be/ So no one f**ks with me, yeah.”
This theme of the corruption of childhood innocence by a capitalist Christian society is the backbone of the entire album and is also obvious in the aesthetic of the band at the time. The album cover features creepy puppets on the front, with Manson writing, “I was interested in the danger and menace of seemingly innocent children’s movies, books and objects.”
At the time of its release, Portrait of a American Family had indie-credibility, but didn’t exactly catapult the band to instant stardom. The LP eventually went gold, though, thanks to fans who rediscovered the album after Antichrist Superstar became a big deal. However, Portrait of an American Family will always remain seminal to legions of ’90s kids in black lipstick.