HEAVY METAL POLITICS
Vulgar Displays of Power
by T.K. McNeil
Many Heavy Metal artists have come to be associated with the right-wing in recent years, including Alice Cooper, who is an ardent Republican, and Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford. The situation is such that Antifa nearly made a successful attempt to get the Black Metal band Marduk banned from the United States. Based on the asinine assumption that because they are a Black Metal band they must be fascist because a few individuals in the genre have been associated with them. Misunderstandings about the politics of prominent genre figures like Varg Vikernes and Bard "Faust" Eithun not helping. This is despite the fact that members of Marduk are on record as stating that they do not care about politics and do not vote.
Heavy Metal is not known for being subtle or politically incorrect. The satirical depiction of Heavy Metal fans presented in films such as Wayne's World and FUBAR are depressingly accurate at least with regard to America in the 1980's and early-1990's. Heavy Metal was outside the mainstream and they knew it.
Though this does not mean those in the Metal scene did not care at all and some of their reputation, particularly in terms of homosexuals, has more to do with cultural misinterpretation. Metal fans do not tend to care about traditional gender tropes. It is one of many of the trappings of the society they rejected. Metal fans can be somewhat liberal in their use of the term "gay" as a negative and other, more pejorative terms. This is because they are immune to their power, having been called these and several other things for most of their youth. There are only so many times one can hear the same, uncreative, insults before the words lose their power and become a sort of inside joke within the culture. Itís like how Irish people will call each other "Paddy" in a playful way.
In addition to the female-associated elements of Glam Metal, even harder edged sounds had a devil-may-care attitude towards stigmatized cultural signifiers. Judas Priest, for example, got a lot of their esthetic from the "leather" sub-culture of the gay community, to which Rob Halford actually belongs. Throngs of allegedly homophobic Judas Priest fans literally dressing like gay bikers in reference to their cultural idol. In addition to being the originators of the Heavy Metal sound and the progenitors of the misunderstanding of the genre among the religious set, Black Sabbath were the first Heavy Metal band to make a clear statement against both war and government corruption with "War Pigs" in 1970.
A similar surprise came in 1992 when Ministry, a band mostly known for brain-rushing riffs and irreverent song titles like "Jesus Built My Hotrod" released the track "New World Order." Written in response to a statement by George H.W. Bush promoting the efficacy of a world government, both the lyrics and the video are clear in their anti-authoritarian messaging.
In recent years, since about the mid 1990's, there has been an increasing number of Metal bands with openly progressive politics. Rage Against the Machine being an obvious example. Less obvious but still clear, are the messages in some of the songs by System of A Down. Examples of this include "Toxicity" and "Deer Dance" which calls out police brutality against peaceful protesters. This is perhaps clearest in the lines: "Battalions of riot police/With rubber bullet kisses/Baton courtesy/Service with a smile" and "Beyond the Staples Center you can see America/With its tired poor avenging disgrace/Peaceful, loving youth against the brutality of plastic existence."
In 2016, Metallica released the album Hardwired...To Self-Destruct which addresses the sensitive subject of veterans and untreated PTSD. While carrying the more mainstream sound perfected on The Black Album, the lyrics are fairly cynical, such as in the chorus: "Confusion, all sanity is beyond me/Delusion, All sanity is but a memory/My life, the war that never ends!"
The British band Cradle of Filth are known for being intentionally offensive, at least this is what is usually assumed. While much of the imagery associated with the band comes from the darker reaches, this does not mean it is not meaningful. Everything about the band, from their costumes to their album art to the evocative and deeply creative tableaux-style visual design of their music videos are one part of a greater whole. The music is virtuosic in its technical complexity and frontman Dani Filth's lyrics border on the Shakespearian. He also clearly has very strong opinions when it comes to hypocrisy, particularly in terms of religion, and abuses of power.
A clear example of this is the track "Her Ghost In the Fog", which calls out violence against women and the often tacit societal response to it. Taking place in the 18th century, the narrative is about a beautiful young Pagan woman who is raped and murdered by five Christian men from her village, a fact made clear by the line: "the village mourned her by the by/For she'd been a witch their men had longed to try." The word "try" in this context has a deeply disturbing double meaning.
They do not get away with it though. The song's narrator who is the victim's husband finds the church key and exacts a terrible revenge: "So for her the breeze stank of sunset and camphor/My lantern chased her phantom and blew their chapel ablaze/ And all locked in to a pain/Best reserved for judgement their bible construed."
Korn are mostly known today for being one of the better bands in the much maligned "Nu Metal" genre invented in the 1990's, combining Metal with elements of Rap. While mostly forgotten today, Korn made one of the most wrenching statements on childhood sexual abuse ever recorded. The final track on their self-titled 1994 album, the song "Daddy," details the horrific abuse suffered by the band's frontman Jonathan Davis by a female baby-sitter who would tie him up and rape him and how his parents did not believe him. The most affecting part comes at the end when Davis goes into a profanity laden, weeping breakdown described by one reviewer as a "deep, should cry." This is not part of the song. The producer kept the tape running and Davis decided to leave it in. It would be over 20 years before he could perform the song live.
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