Recording sessions for its national debut, Portrait of an American Family, began in July 1993. Working with producer Roli Mosimann at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, the band recorded a selection of new songs along with reworked material from their Spooky Kids repertoire and, by the end of Autumn 1993, had completed the first version of their debut, a full album's worth of material collectively known as The Manson Family Album. At the time, "Snake Eyes and Sissies" was on track to be the band's first single, with a single edit having already been made. However the band was simply not satisfied with the output of these recording sessions and shelved the album for a short time.
Within a few months, the band convinced rising star Trent Reznor to produce the album instead. The abrasive sonic "rawness" that Mosimann's production had brought to such groups as Swans had failed to materialize on The Manson Family Album; Reznor and all the band's members thought it "sucked", and was poorly representative of Marilyn Manson's dynamic live performances. In October 1993, Reznor agreed to fully commit to the project, taking them and their tapes to various studios in Los Angeles. With the help of Reznor and numerous live members of his band, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson re-recorded and reworked their old material until they were satisfied and released it under the name Portrait of an American Family. "Snake Eyes and Sissies" would never see a single release and in the album's credits Mosimann is credited as an engineer with no mention of his production work.
Years later, former guitarist Daisy Berkowitz was asked about these original recordings in an interview and gave the interviewer a cassette tape featuring the unused recordings. The interviewer then released them to the Internet where they are now widely available, usually labeled as Portrait of an American Family (Pre-Reznor Mix) or Portrait of an American Family Demos.
The band's frontman has discussed his thoughts in retrospect on Portrait of an American Family with Empyrean Magazine, circa May/June 1995:
Well, the whole point of [Portrait of an American Family] was that I wanted to say a lot of the things I've said in interviews [...] But 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. 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, like Willy Wonka and the Brothers Grimm. 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."
"Cake and Sodomy" is the second track on the album. In 1990, Manson met a woman at a McDonald's restaurant in Fort Lauderdale who invited him to spend a weekend with her in New York City. Upon discovering that the girl was using her sister's ID because she was too young to work, Manson abandoned her, shortly after which he ran into two clubbers from South Florida. Manson spent the remainder of his stay in New York at the clubbers' hotel room, where he stumbled on public-access television cable television channels, which were "a completely new phenomenon" to him. Manson "spent hours flipping through the station, watching Pat Robertson preach about society's evils and then ask people to call him with their credit card number," while "on the other channel, a guy was greasing up his cock with Vaseline and asking people to call and give him their credit card number." This inspired Manson to grab the hotel notepad and begin penning the song's lyrics. Manson explains in his autobiography The Long Hard Road Out of Hell that "I had written other songs I thought were good, but "Cake and Sodomy" was more than just a good song. As an anthem for the hypocritical America slobbering on the tit of Christianity, it was a blueprint for our future message."
"Lunchbox" is the second single and the third track of the album. It was inspired by a piece of legislation dating back to 1972, which makes it illegal to have metal lunchboxes in schools. The song tells the story of a school age child who is bullied and uses his own lunchbox as a weapon in retaliation, waiting for the day he can "grow up to be a big rock and roll star" who is never intimidated by others. The earliest recording of this song dates back to the band's After School Special cassette tape, released in December 1991. The album version of "Lunchbox" samples The Crazy World of Arthur Brown song "Fire".
"Dope Hat" is the third and final single and the sixth track of the album. The earliest recording of this song dates back to the band's The Family Jams cassette, released in 1992. Whilst the band's keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy was given a music credit for the song on Portrait of an American Family, curiously his name is absent from the credits of The Family Jams and Refrigerator, two cassettes a demo of "Dope Hat" had appeared on beforehand. The single's release was accompanied by a music video which featured Manson in the role of Willy Wonka in a shock-horror version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
"Get Your Gunn" is the first single and the seventh track of the album. The song was inspired by the abortion provider David Gunn who was killed in Florida by a self-proclaimed pro-life activist. The frontman later described his murder as "the ultimate hypocrisy I witnessed growing up: that these people killed someone in the name of being 'pro-life'".
"Wrapped in Plastic" is the eighth track on the album. The earliest recording of this song dates back to the band's Refrigerator cassette tape, released in 1993. It recycles lyrics from an earlier Spooky Kids song, "I.V.-T.V.". The frontman has stated that "Wrapped in Plastic" is about his past at his grandfather's basement. The version on The Family Jams cassette gives the listener better detail of this fact.
"Sweet Tooth" is the tenth song on the album, and the only song that former bassist Gidget Gein wrote both guitar and bass parts for. However, of all the album tracks, "Sweet Tooth" was the only one not regularly played live.
"Snake Eyes and Sissies" is the eleventh track on the album. Though "Snake Eyes and Sissies" was once considered important enough to be a potential single, it was never given a proper release and has not been played by the band since the Smells Like Children Tour in 1995/1996.
"My Monkey" is the twelfth track on the album. Several verses were taken from "Mechanical Man" written and performed by Charles Manson in 1968; the lyrics of "My Monkey" are credited simply to "Manson". The earliest recording of this song dates back to the band's The Beaver Meat Cleaver Beat cassette tape, released in 1990.
"Misery Machine" is the thirteenth and final track on the album, and is a direct reference to the Mystery Machine from the animated television series Scooby-Doo. Imagery from the cartoon was prevalent in the early years of the band, having been used in various flyers among other similar cartoon characters.
Portrait of an American Family contains an especially wide array of cultural references:The poem recited in "Prelude (The Family Trip)" comes from Roald Dahl's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Also, the printing of the Marilyn Manson logo on various promotional items during this time, the opening titles of the "Dope Hat" music video, and the remix album Smells Like Children resemble the printing of the title to the 1971 film version of the novel.
The words "Go on and smile, you cunt!" at the beginning of "Cake and Sodomy" are spoken by Marlon Brando in the film Last Tango in Paris.
"Cake And Sodomy" contains a clip of Mink Stole saying "white trash" taken from the film Desperate Living.
"Lunchbox" contains the sample "I bring you fire!" from the song "Fire" by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
"Organ Grinder" features the sample "Lollipops for the kiddie winkies," spoken by the Child Catcher from the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
At the start of "Cyclops" there is a very slowed down and distorted sample of the preacher from Poltergeist II: The Other Side singing "God is in His holy temple".
"Dope Hat" contains the samples "The great Hoodoo!", and "Prepare to meet your doom" taken from the Sid and Marty Krofft cult television series Lidsville. These words are spoken by the actor Charles Nelson Reilly.
After the third verse of "Get Your Gunn", there is a sample of a crowd murmuring and a gunshot. This is the audio from the press conference in which Budd Dwyer committed suicide in front of a live audience.
"Wrapped in Plastic" is influenced by the pilot episode of David Lynch's television series Twin Peaks, referencing the image of character Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic, which was one of the show's most enduring images. It also featured the distorted words "Hallelujah", "Come here, Laura", and "Meanwhile" from the scenes with The Man from Another Place in the Black and White Lodge. This is followed by Palmer's distinctive scream.
In the song "Dogma", there is a sample from the John Waters film Pink Flamingos, when Mink Stole's character says "Burn, you fucker!" before setting fire to a trailer. Although the clip from Desperate Living is credited in the liner notes, this audio clip is not. Furthermore, Waters was thanked in the liner notes.
"Killing is killing, whether done for duty, profit or fun" is a quote by Richard Ramirez taken from a court appearance that is an audio clip at the start of "Snake Eyes and Sissies".
The introduction to "My Monkey" contains multiple Charles Manson interview audio clips. The first of these is "Why are the children doing what they're doing? Why does a child reach up and kill his mom and dad and murder his two little sisters and then cut his throat?" in the beginning, and both "Raise up children, kill your moms and dads?" and "Where nothing is real but the medication and their numbers and then they cut their wrists and write 'I love you God' all over the walls and hang themselves on the ventilators." during the song's ending.
The phrase "We're gonna ride to the Abbey of Thelema" in the song "Misery Machine" is a reference to Aleister Crowley's Abbey of Thelema, which was used as the Headquarters from which the doctrines of Thelema would be spread throughout the world. The song also contains a sample from "Beep Beep" by The Playmates. A few seconds after the track, begins an untitled hidden track: the sample, "Go home to your mother! Doesn't she ever watch you!? Tell her this isn't some Communist daycare center! Tell your mother I hate her! Tell your mother I hate you!" is spoken by Stole from the Waters film Desperate Living. After this, a telephone can be heard ringing very quietly for several minutes, which is then followed by an irate answering machine message, presumably from a mother of a Manson fan.
To promote the album, Interscope held two separate release parties for music journalists and fan club members – the first of these was held less than a month before its commercial release in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on June 29, 1994, whilst the second took place a day before the record's scheduled date in Plantation, Florida on July 18, 1994.
In March 1995, the band began its first national headlining tour, a two-month outing with Monster Voodoo Machine as support; this would be drummer Sara Lee Lucas' last tour with the band. Tension between Lucas and Manson grew as the tour wore on and, on the next-to-last night of the tour, Manson secretly decided to end the show with a flourish: during a performance of the then-current single, "Lunchbox", he doused Lucas' drum kit in lighter fluid and set it ablaze – with Lucas still attempting to play on behind it. (Manson apparently forgot that the band had one more date to play.) Lucas quit the band after the final gig the next night. Less than two weeks later his replacement, Kenneth Wilson, better known by his stage name Ginger Fish, joined the group. Marilyn Manson was touring again, this time on a bill with Danzig and Korn.
Portrait of an American Family was anchored by two singles, "Get Your Gunn" and "Lunchbox", along with "Dope Hat" which was issued to radio and music video channels without a commercial single release. A total of three singles were spawned from the album.
The music video for "Get Your Gunn", directed by Rod Chong, features the band performing in a damp "attic-like" scene, intertwined by footage of two feisty teenage girls. It did not receive much airplay.
The music video for "Lunchbox" directed by Richard Kern, features a boy being bullied by two older students. The boy goes home, fed up with the way he is treated, and shaves his head into a mohawk hairstyle and prepares for any future retaliation against the bullies with his metal lunchbox. The boy later goes to the rollerskating rink where the band is performing. The boy gives Manson his lunchbox, which Manson lights on fire and parades around. The video ends with the boy staring into the burning lunchbox. It is one of the few music videos with Manson performing without wearing makeup, alongside "Get Your Gunn" and "Tourniquet".
The music video for "Dope Hat", directed by Tom Stern, features the band riding a boat through a psychedelic tunnel directly inspired by the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, which happens to be one of Manson's favorite films. In the video, the band members perform with many children and people resembling the Oompa-Loompas from the film aboard the boat.
The album's original cover art featured no text, simply a painting of a clown by John Wayne Gacy. The interior photography included Polaroid pictures (faked by Manson and friends) apparently of a mutilated female body, and a photo of what Manson described as "one of those dolls from the '60s and you pull a string on the back of it and the eyes get really big and they change colors."
In the early stages of the album's conception, Manson intended to use a picture of himself as a child sitting nude on a couch in the album's interior artwork. Though no genitalia is shown in the picture, and it was taken by his own parents with no vulgar intent, the label rejected the idea on the grounds that it could constitute as child pornography, so Manson instead created the clay sculpture present on the final cover artwork of the album. On the table on this sculpture, there are little models of The Beatles next to the lamp. The boy in the photograph on the back cover is Ramirez's half-brother Wes Brown. He's holding an ear-piercing needle rather than a syringe. Portrait of an American Family is notable for being the band's only studio album not to feature an image of Manson on the cover. However, Manson did eventually use a nude photo of himself as an adult for the inside flap photo for the CD single for "Lunchbox" but did not expose his genitals.
By the time the album became Portrait of an American Family, the ideas of using Gacy's clown artwork and the nude photograph was dropped completely.
Upon its release, the album met with mixed reviews from music critics. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic gave the album a favorable review but noted that "even a few years on from its 1994 release, Portrait of an American Family began to sound a little dated, especially since its Nine Inch Nails-meets-W.A.S.P.-meets-Alice Cooper formula was fully realized on Manson's follow-up album, Antichrist Superstar. Here, it's in sketch form, and by the end of the album it's clear that Warner, Manson, whatever you want to call him, needs a full canvas to truly wreak havoc." Rolling Stone gave the album a negative review and said that "Manson's debut [...] isn't the sharply rendered cultural critique of America he'd like you to think it is. Most of the record comes off like some low-budget horror movie.
In July 2014, Guitar World ranked Portrait of an American Family at number 18 in their "Superunknown: 50 Iconic Albums That Defined 1994" list.
In late 2009, it was re-released by Interscope and sold through Hot Topic stores as a special edition boxset combination of a T-shirt bearing the album artwork and colored vinyl LP record of the album. The color of the disc is green, matching most of the bands fonts at the time of the albums original 1994 release, however this reissue featured some imagery from The High End of Low on its label, much to the dismay of fans.
Nine Inch Nails' Self Destruct Tour was the first tour Marilyn Manson embarked on, now under management of major record label Interscope Records. They were an opening act for Nine Inch Nails. The band was on the tour from April 24, 1994 until December 11, 1994.
The Portrait of an American Family Tour was the second tour Marilyn Manson embarked on. It was also the band's first headlining tour under a major label. The band was on the tour from December 27, 1994 until March 11, 1995. During these concerts, the stage usually was arranged like a living room, much like the one on the album cover artwork. A table with a lamp, candy canes and multiple six-sided dice were the most commonly seen props.
All lyrics written by Manson (except track one, "Prelude (The Family Trip)", taken from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory; track 12, "My Monkey" which contains lyrics written by Charles Manson; track 14, which was written by Gary Numan.