Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dealing with Racism in Metal

I’ve been motivated to write something about this topic basically since I pissed off a few facebook friends by declaring the works of Burzum to be unlistenable garbage. Most of that declaration has to do with the low-fi quality of Burzum’s recordings and generally poor musicianship (a subjective opinion I hold) that I observe. Yet nevertheless I am unable to excuse Varg’s stated nazi-symptathy and racist viewpoints. This puts me in a strange position since I’m quite tolerant of the expression of similar viewpoints by other musicians; rather than finding myself offended by the members of Malevolent Creation, I double over laughing at Phil Fascima’s infamous interviews with Bill Zebub. I don’t let Jon Nodtveidt’s bizarre philosophy or the fact he was an accomplice to the murder of a gay immigrant stop me from enjoying the first two Dissection albums. Yet when it comes to their viewpoints, I am certainly appalled and in no way endorse or condone them.

Yet the fact remains that there’s obviously a segment of the metal scene that DOES support these view points. Fascima aptly notes that artists may shy away from being overtly racist, but it doesn’t stop them from speaking in coded language; he specifically cites the term “Odinism” as a polite manner of saying “white power”. It creates a rather interesting circumstance; certainly Norse Mythology is a tradition of Scandinavian people, and I don’t think it’s inherently fair to assume that every Swede or Norwegian who has a Thor’s Hammer necklace is in any way racist. Yet at the same time, it can’t be discarded that a large number of people who are drawn to ancient European paganism find the unspoken appeal to be the way it elevates their sense of ethnicity (re: being white) and justifies a sense of superiority over other (non-pagan, non-white) people.

I think as anyone who ever got into metal music can relate to, the appeal of metal is in its rejection of ALL SOCIAL NORMS. Especially in its more extreme sounding subgenres, it’s the music of rebellion, the logical extreme of the tradition of rock n’ roll. Accordingly, this isn’t a kind of music that’s inherently appealing to people who fit in society, or come from stable households. It’s the music of the loner kids, of the ones who don’t fit in, of people who don’t lead easy lives. At the early impressionable ages at which most of us as fans get into it, the idea of the total rejection of EVERYTHING makes sense. After all, when you grow up in a broken household, or poor, or around substance abuse, etc…if that’s the world you’re living in, why wouldn’t you reject everything? 

I think to some degree, this results in the expression of anti-PC ideas. I’m certainly guilty of doing it myself. The media, and schools, for the most part espouse ideas of multicultural tolerance and equality. Accordingly, since metal is the rejection of everything, it by its nature rejects these ideas, even though I for one embrace them. Thus, while I don’t accept racism as a serious belief system, I didn’t let it stop me from conjuring up some of the worst possible things my imagination could create in internet chatrooms or among people who I “thought” could distinguish between metal rebellion and humorous misanthropy and actual genuine xenophobia. Rebellion is freedom, and freedom means doing and saying whatever you want, and proving this idea meant testing boundaries and crossing lines, just for the sake of doing so. Thus ideas of homophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and racism have evolved into punchlines and jokes; where stereotypes are constructed and ridiculed. Perhaps no artist understood this better than Anal Cunt; whose song titles were so over the top extreme and whose cultural references were so absurd that it had to be asked if Seth Putnam legitimately wanted to punch women in the stomach or invent time machines to vote for Hitler. My personal belief is that Putnam was an asshole with an asshole sense of humor, but in fact was not a staunch racist (without a question, he WAS a misanthrope, however).

With age and perspective, I don’t find Anal Cunt any less funny. I still listen to Malevolent Creation and Dissection. I still think Disma “Towards the Megalith” was one of the best things to come out in 2011, even though Craig Pillard (vocalist, ex-Incantation) is a known neo-Nazi sympathizer with disgusting personal views. Yet I have begun to find the nuance in separating comedic hate from actually held viewpoints increasingly uncomfortable. Truth is that what for so long that I have found to be humor is NOT humor for many people in the underground scene. It creates an awkward situation; metal is in fact about the freedom to say and think whatever you want; Dave Mustaine’s expression of conservative political viewpoints in recent years isn’t unmetal in the least. Even his evangelical Christian viewpoints aren’t unmetal; they represent a going against the grain. That doesn’t make me think he’s any less of a douchebag or that his band is somehow less overrated, but it does create a troubling scenario. 

Several of metal’s prominent and outspoken figures and artists openly state reprehensible viewpoints. Many of them even contain these viewpoints within their music. How does one wrestle with this reality? To silence them would be censorship; something metal has always and should always be against. At the same time, to not offer a counter argument or resistance to ideology that one disagrees with enables that ideology to become the face of the genre.
I’m not sure how to reconcile this one. Personally, I’ve toned down most of the more unsavory rhetoric in my own expression. Not because I don’t still find it funny, but because I consciously recognize that not everyone else I encounter will, and I don’t want the perception of me to be someone who is a homophobe, racist, anti-Semite, etc. At the same time I don’t want to open myself up to association with people who ARE those things. In a way, this has occurred at the same time as my personal life has stabilized and I’ve become different in many ways from the angry teenager and twenty-something I was, which is perfectly normal; people grow. At the same time, I still reject political correctness, or the idea that certain things are off limits. I think anything, including norms of social acceptability, is open to ridicule.

It’s a messy subject, and I’m not sure if I did a very good job of articulating my thoughts, but I do think it’s a worthwhile topic to address.

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