Sikh temple gunman Wade Michael Page performing with the white supremacist band End Apathy
Late last year, on December 9, Norman Brannon, a respected music writer and academic, formally hung up his pen and retired as a rock critic. He had many reasons for deciding to leave this particular form of writing behind, including professional ennui, a sense of stagnancy and frustration, a call to move on to new things. Most heart-wrenching, however, was his decision to leave music writing out of a crushing disappointment with his peers. Brannon writes of his frustration with “…a new generation of music writers who were given the opportunity – but declined – to write about misogyny and homophobia in music culture with the same kind of FUCK-NO ferociousness of Lester Bangs’ brilliant (and subjective) 1979 takedown on racism in rock…If you can listen to the word ‘faggot’ hundreds of times and enjoy it via dissociation, then have at it, Impenetrable Music Critic. Someday, I’ll let you know how it feels to be a closeted sixteen-year-old kid who just found out that some friends of a friend killed a gay man while shouting that word.”
I highly suggest that everyone read the Lester Bangs piece in question. It’s brilliant, articulate and awfully, painfully relevant 22 years later — and, perhaps, particularly poignant right now.
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I actually began writing this about six months ago, in response to Rhys Williams’ article “Aesthetics of Hate: Questioning the Role of Prejudices and Offense Within Extreme Metal,” which went up an internet lifetime ago on Invisible Oranges. At the time, IO agreed to publish my response to the piece, but after several version of the draft, going back and forth with the editors, we could not arrive on a final product that I felt was hard enough and they felt was forgiving enough, and eventually, I abandoned the piece. I pick it up again now.
Williams states his intent in writing this piece was “to spark an honest conversation”; he then proceeds to raise the spectres of racism, sexism, xenophobia, violence, homophobia and hate in extreme metal. He does not lay these ideas to rest once they are conjured, however, preferring instead to allow the conversation to take place in fractious skirmishes in the comments. Williams had a very particular motive for courting these difficult ideas: he’d recently reviewed the new Graveland album (founder Rob Darken is a notorious xenophobe) and experienced some backlash. He tried to write a piece that diffused some of the censure he received, to describe heavy metal as open-minded enough, permissive enough, to tolerate music that is “aesthetically astounding” despite being “morally repugnant.” He takes the position that criticism can be without moral stand or involve drawing ethical boundaries.
His article raised my hackles at the time, but the internet has a very short memory. I forgot about my initial disgust and moved on. But then, this week happened. And then, Gawker published this horrifying piece, “In Defence of Neo-Nazi Music,” which confuses creative license and artistic expression with real, active, violent hate groups.
Heavy music has a fraught relationship with hate. The sound itself, the aesthetic foundation of heavy metal, is rooted in aggression, cacophony, and aural violence. The subject matter is often challenging or combative, rejecting or subverting dominant cultural ideals, exploring the darker areas of human nature, drawing inspiration from historical or fictional horrors. The art is full of of spikes and pentagrams, blood and guts, mutilation and decay. While there are many subgenres that explore the tender, complex, intellectual side of heavy metal, the vast majority of the music produced under this banner positively revels in its own ugliness.
There is so much positivity possible within heavy metal. It allows listeners to exorcise their inner demons, vent their aggression and frustration, safely indulge in their darker impulses. The community can be as open and welcoming as the music can be forbidding and challenging to the uninitiated.
But it is a mistake to ignore the fact that, despite same positive, ultimately cleansing things that draw most people to heavy metal, for all of the vast majority looking to explore their darker natures in the most open and healthy way possible, heavy metal also has the capacity to attract terrible people. There are people who are looking for a safe haven to nurse and nurture their hate, who are on the lookout for others like them. That as much as heavy music has the capacity for an intense amount of good, it can draw out racists and fascists and homophobes as surely as a dish of blood attracts vampire bats.
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On Sunday, August 5th, Wade Page walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire. He murdered six people and wounded three others before being killed by police. As the community and media struggled to understand what had driven Page to commit this act of hate and violence, the picture that began to emerge was extremely troubling to members of the heavy metal, punk and hard rock community. Page was not only a member of white supremacist organizations, but also played in the white power band End Apathy.
This awful tragedy has again thrown light on the fact that racist, fascist bands with ties to the white supremacist movement do, in fact, exist. That there are underground labels that specialize in making and distributing music that spreads hate. That there are show and festivals that honour hate. That there are fans of this music, and musicians who devote their talents to making it. And that, for many of us, this hate, and the people who practice it, are far too close for comfort.
It’s easy to forget that it happens, especially at most shows, when I am standing shoulder to shoulder with literally hundreds of the most positive and passionate fans I have ever had the pleasure of sharing a floor with. But then I remember those few uncomfortable shows, in small dingy clubs, when I left early as a group of jackbooted thugs chanted “Sieg Heil,” led by the singer on stage. And I remember, even more uncomfortably, that I was there to see a friend’s band play, a friend who was the opposite of hateful, but who still somehow found themselves on the same stage as these young men with swastikas and eagles tattooed on their necks.
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As easy as it is to dismiss cases like this as isolated, extreme incidents, in no way tied to the heavy music community in general, the truth is that racism can hit closer to home, and closer to mainstream metal, that most of us would like to admit.
The very next day after the Wisconsin shooting, Frankie Palmeri, front man for the metalcore band Emmure, had the online store for his line of Cold Soul merchandise shut down by host and service provider Allinmerch.com, who later confirmed that the reason they closed the online store was because of the offensive, unacceptable nature of the designs. The PRP broke the story and preserved several screenshots of the shirts in question. One shirt features Arabic lettering on the front, above the the words “I Am A National Threat.” Another includes a still from American History X, showing a white character blowing smoke into a black character’s face, and the phrase “Violence As A Way Of Life” on the back. Another shirt displayed an image of security cam footage from the Columbine shooting.
Palmeri has yet to respond directly to the shutdown of the online store, but has taken to Twitter to retweet messages of support from fans, messages like: “These metal websites that went after @FrankiePalmeri‘s clothing line are a bunch of crybaby assholes. When did metalheads become so PC?”
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So it’s serious talk time now, I suppose. This is something that I have tried to put into words, and into print, for a long time. It’s taken me a while because it is a difficult subject, daunting to tackle; and also because the challenge that I am about to lay out is not easy.
Listeners, you are responsible for the music you choose to listen to. Music vital, powerful, an art form that I love and spend a considerable amount of time thinking about, writing about, and working with. Metalheads are among the most dedicated, energetic, loyal fans of any form of art in the entire world, going through incredible feats to see and support their favourite bands. I have often said that heavy metal saved my life. I came to it during the darkest moment of my young adulthood and the power, emotion, aggression, passion and sheer love in heavy metal played a huge role in giving me the strength to rebuild my life.
With that in mind, and with the absolute love I have for this music set firmly in place, when it comes to real hate: it does not matter if an album is good. If it is hateful, the product of violence and prejudice, created by someone who spreads both in their personal and professional lives, then I will not listen to it. And you, fellow metalheads, my sisters and brothers in arms, should not listen to it either.
There are a million other bands producing great albums in the genres that we love. For every racist asshole making music you might enjoy if not for the content and context, there are numerous equally good, if not better, albums being produced by decent people. There is absolutely no excuse for listening to music that promotes and glorifies hate, that endorses racism, sexism or homophobia. There is a surfeit of positivity and musical excellence. I have no time for discriminatory, hateful music created by discriminatory, hateful people. There is too much great music to waste time on hate.
As a listener, a consumer, a metalhead and a human being, I believe that we all have the absolute responsibility to be active, aware and engaged fans. This means looking carefully at the music we consume and deciding if it is something we can responsibly support. Metalheads are smart. We are used to rejecting the status quo. They are free and critical thinkers. It only makes sense that this remarkable capacity for independent thought be directed towards rejecting genuine, repulsive hate whenever it appears.
I say this carefully, of course. There are moments when overzealous attempts to root out and expunge racism wherever it appears have gone wrong, and good bands who do not promote hate in their word and deed have been caught in the crossfire. Sometimes this happens because of the intensity of the reaction. I think of bands who have been forced off of tours and major concerts because someone reported tenuous or non-existent ties to the National Socialist metal scene. Or, more recently when the band Hatebreed were included on a poorly researched and alarmist piece by CNN on bands that promote hate speech — ostensibly because they have the word “hate” in their band name.
It’s also important to understand the difference between difficult content, work that intelligently engages with ugly, problematic and challenging subjects, and work that glorifies something hateful. Embrace the difficult, the challenging, the ugly and the strange. Engage with the hardest and often repellent topics in the name of expression. I challenge metal listeners, the intelligent and compassionate metal community that we are, to each draw our own boundaries and be active, aware and engaged listeners. These boundaries should not come from higher powers or moral absolutes, just our hearts, guts and minds, and a refusal to blandly, placidly accept violence and hate. Artists can and should engage any topic from whatever position they wish as a form of valid artistic expression and cultural criticism.
Heavy metal often tackles the most difficult aspects of culture, exposing the ugliness of the world. “Angel of Death,” by Slayer, off the iconic Reign In Blood album, is one of the most recognized and beloved songs in the history of the genre; it addresses the work of Dr. Josef Mengele, a Nazi who performed horrific medical experiments on prisoners during the Holocaust. This kind of material is something many other art forms shy away from, and is one of the most powerful and refreshing things about heavy metal. Just as the music is complex and challenging, so too is the lyrical content often grotesque.
Cannibal Corpse are another excellent example. Their music has been often vilified. Conservative politicians and pundits in the United States have targeted the band’s records, decrying their offensive content. Specific albums, images and songs have been banned at various times in Australia and Germany. The band members themselves, however, insist that their work is the musical equivalent of gory horror movies, nothing more, often based on actual historical atrocities committed by the Catholic Church and other ruling parties. The band members decry actual violence and instead actively promote aggressive music as a positive outlet, a safe way to disperse and express negative energy. This makes their music an entirely valid form of artistic expression.
If an artist, in contrast, were a violent asshole that genuinely advocated the horrendous acts their music depicts, then that would be another matter entirely. It is always integral to look at someone’s work in context, to see if this is an extension of real violence and hatred that they express outside of their art or a form of valid artistic engagement by a critically thoughtful, ethically aware human being.
It’s important to remember that hate speech is different from protected speech. Rejecting hate speech is not an act of censorship, but a rejection of an act of real violence. Hate speech is internationally prohibited, and is defined as any communication that advocates genocide, encourages violence or incites hatred against an identifiable group. Anything that falls into this category is not art; it is violence.
Artists can make mistakes too, of course. People often make statements they later regret and reject when they are young or impressionable. People shift politics and allegiances, they grow and change, and part of being an engaged listener can mean forgiving an artist that changes for the better. Bad Brains, the pioneering hardcore punk band, came under fire for the overtly homophobic lyrics in the song “Don’t Blow Bubbles,” off Quickness. Years later, when asked about it, band members have, together and separately, expressed regret and acknowledged their misplaced anger, calling their previous homophobia “ignorant.” They have grown as artists and human beings, and that deserves to be acknowledged.
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Coming back to where I started, with the Gawker article and the events in Wisconsin: it is not okay to simply say that sometimes terrible people make good music, and that as listeners and critics we can separate the art from the artist, or the art from its message. It is not permissible to say that we are somehow above and beyond racism in heavy metal culture, when ugly pockets of it continue to fester at the corners of our communities. It’s not acceptable to allow Nazi black metal bands to perform at our shows next to the apolitical ones. It’s not about being politically correct.
As critics and consumers of culture, we need to stop supporting racist, fascist and genuinely violent musicians. We need to stop wearing Burzum shirts and interviewing Varg Vikernes. We need to stop excusing the awful, sexist, xenophobic comments of our musicians because they happen to create music that we enjoy. We need to stop allowing terrible behaviour to go unpunished just because we like the songs.
I’m not guiltless in this. I’ve reviewed albums, only later to find out that the band in question has said awful things about a race or class or culture of people. In those moments, I’ve felt profoundly betrayed by the band, and resolved to do more research, be a more active and aware listener, and not waste any more words or space in my mind on hateful people. I encourage everyone else to do the same. There is too much excellent music that is not steeped in hate, too many excellent musicians who don’t spread ugliness. As the events in Wisconsin have just proved, vividly and awfully, hate is not an aesthetic choice. It is real causes real, devastating violence. As metal heads, as music fans, and as human being, it is out absolute responsibility to reject everything that hate and hateful music stands for, to be smart and aware as we embrace difficult music, and above all to choose to be better. To choose love.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.