Friday, December 17, 2010

Totalitarianism in Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal music has been often accused of promoting such naughty ideals. I've briefly touched on why Heavy Metal as ideology and ideology in Heavy Metal are problematic, but this is of a slightly different focus. Let's say Heavy Metal indeed can carry the weight of an ideological system and communicate it succinctly and attractively to the impressionable public, like propaganda. Does Heavy Metal promote Fascism, Nazism or other Totalitarian-regime ideas?

Heavy Metal indeed speaks often of willpower and personal triumph. Misconstruing slightly Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical output, most of (especially '80s) Heavy Metal seems to promote a 'Noble Savage' ideal, where a man may achieve grace unhindered by the moral dictum of society, somehow inside it (sometimes) but above it (always). Heavy Metal loathes the idea that society must be obeyed, that the Other should be the master. One should burn themselves pure and strong as steel and withstand the outside forces of the world. Anyone introverted enough, and anyone with romance beating in their hearts finds that conception pleasing on some level regardless of its practical impossibility.

Yes, Heavy Metal, in its ignorance, crowns willpower as the prime mover of history. The strong individuals do, the weak are crushed, the world keeps on turning. This is very close to the practical center of many totalitarian social regimes where the privileged classes profit and the underprivileged one suffers. However most Heavy Metal music doesn't go into detail on where will this mysterious willpower come from that will push the strong to be strong and is curiously lacking in the weak that are to be crushed. This is key in understanding the appeal of Fascism and Nazism. The magic organon that explains willpower in those systems is pure blood and biological predestination. You are strong because you are a true German, not an inferior mudblood. And the true Germans must come together and create a society where the weak shall be in the service of the strong, forever. The favoured class of citizen is stroked by this premise because they do not have to do anything to be the chosen ones. They were such just by being born with a specific of genes.

Heavy Metal scoffs at the idea of society and predestination. Heavy Metal sees teliosis as the product of intense hard work. The reader will find very little of this music (especially in the naive '80s) promoting socialism of any sort, Communism or Fascism, wide-set social change and organized movement. For all its talk of internal willpower and becoming strong and defeating weakness, it doesn't get to how that would change and reshape society and how class-based society would take these ubermen, were they to exist. Nor does it explain where this willpower come from, it presupposes that the listener will conjure it somehow out of thin air. This is both the draw of HM music for teenagers, who feel perpetually powerless, and also the explanation on why its listeners are a curious breed of masochists.

The center of Heavy Metal's fascination with power is not relevant to the actual, real-life practical applications of power. Heavy Metal loves the psychological idea of power, the premise of external control being the mirror of internal control. Heavy Metal loves power because the people that write Heavy Metal are not powerful. It is an ode to a god, so to speak. When Heavy Metal goes on about being strong and crushing the weak, it is not describing the reality of the world's strongest men, it's not metal made for Conglomerate super-Companies and world leaders. It is instead negotiating a method for purging internal weakness and achieving total control, for the small fries that are enamored with the idea of self-actualization.

However, as I've gone on about before, total internal control can be actualized only in death; for one to be perfect, they must be ended. The psychological weight of this realization is what pushes Heavy Metal music to conceptualize its inner ambition as outer force: since we do not want to kill our own selves to be in absolute control, we shall slay the Other, pacify the plains and with a commanding gaze, survey all that is around us as static, ended, complete. The death of the outer to appease the fear of inner death, hail satan! In this way, Heavy Metal appears scary to the outsider. However the theater is easily exposed when the outsider realizes that the only action the small fry enamored with Heavy Metal usually takes towards that 'death of the outer', is to print a fanzine, make a small record label or record its own Heavy Metal.

Furthermore the hopelessness of the idea that for one to be complete they must die is what causes revolt, the draw towards chaos, improbability and randomness. Perhaps if we were to turn our gazes away from the headless, perfect statue, given that all is possible in quantum probability, we may turn our gaze on it again and chaos will have altered reality, given it back its head. A way to have everything and still exist, Heavy Metal pulls towards the impossible. That pull is creative however and also feeds back into the creation of more Heavy Metal artifacts. Every record made with this intent is a small chaos probability field, a magical grimoire that may or may not give life in death.

Heavy Metal has endured a brief cultural heyday in the end run of the '80s that brought it to the attention of teenagers of every stripe. Jocks listened to Judas Priest and beat up the nerds in school that Judas Priest's music was intended for. At that curious peak of its popularity, perhaps it had under its wings believers of every sort of ideology who then fervently tried to bend metal to support them (and this explains progressive metal and its modernist/humanist conception as well). However soon after this sort of music was forgotten for other more pliable forms of pop and the demagogues and ideologues fled, those that remained with it (and still remain) are the wimps and nerds and shy introverts (with sometimes big internet mouths) who harbor said desires for control and self-actualization. They are harmless. At worst they shall concoct further dark magic of world destruction that will manifest itself with... yet another black metal cd. Heavy Metal doesn't lead anyone to congregate with like-minded bigots and go on rampages against the weak. The skinheads and other neo-nazis that do that sort of thing and also listen to metal music would do it without metal music as well. Hitler would look at the National Socialist Black Metal bigots screaming in the woods about a 'purer race' and send them panda face-first into the crematoriums.

Heavy Metal is psychotherapy for introverted teenagers, it's not a means for social change. It holds its own dangers and rewards for the individual. Those that are afraid or hostile towards Heavy Metal for ideological issues misunderstand it, either due to not being familiarized with it or willingly doing so, and with some directed malice at that. It is especially curious how proponents of other musical subcultures like indie rock and punk are so scathing in their critique of Heavy Metal as ideology while at the same time are so enamored with its sonic attack, which they have in recent years thoroughly appropriated. There is now a great plethora of post-metal releases in which there is no exaltation towards willpower, no individualism, no romantic poetry of any kind. Instead they are characterized by either oblique and sometimes completely obfuscated lyrics coupled with natural-neutral iconography and aesthetics, or straight-up teenage anger and angst without any higher direction. If Heavy Metal music is socially relatively harmless as I suggest, then these post-metal mixed strands of it are instead safe for it. Heavy Metal music has had its kitty claws removed and those that are the most upset from this are fashioning their scathing retorts to society in the form of jewel cases and cds, with which you cannot seriously wound or maim anyone, as far as I know. The intended audience doesn't care. Instead eager metalhead masochists lap up these odes to world destruction are the proverbial converted choir and the cacophonous feedback-choral that is their aggregate quantity is what we call 'the underground'.


  1. addendum: where "totalitarianism" also try it with "sexual intercourse". Metal at its heyday was criticized for its sexualized/sexist lyrics whereas the nerds in the bands that were writing that stuff were getting laid very seldom.

  2. always enjoy your writing, thanks again for the thought provoking commentary. just curious, i know you do visual art, but do you also compose and record your own HM music?

  3. I think it is correct that sometimes we express artistically that which is lacking from us, like trying to make an invocation of some kind, to convince ourselves first and foremost that we can change, we can get what should be rightfully ours, go forward in life and seize our dreams. Have any of you as teenagers spoken aloud your convictions with the stars as audience, written notes to yourselves, contracts of self-discipline, and hid them somewhere into the dark corners of your room? I think it's the same kind of psychology that motivates the composition of a self-transcendant heavy metal album, one which might intersect with the themes of power and conflict. The problem of course is that there needs to be something to be surpassed, an object, for the individual to assert his transcendance upon. And when the context is placed on society, fantastical, historical, or "real", well, for simple minded metallists grown up with medieval war films and pulp fiction, the object becomes the Other indeed, and the most innocent thing you get is viking metal praising ancient warriors battling against "the" enemies (undefined, obviously evil, or ug, christians). And how further is the vilest? As far as demonizing a real group of people in real life, putting them horns and calling them your obviously evil, christian (um, jewish) adversaries. Of course, the heavy metaller is not fixed on the conflict itself but with a fantastical and passive metaphorical side of it, and most of the times has the intelligence to deny an easy personalization of obstacles and threats. But it's still a thin line to tread, between iron determination and tyrrany, between rising above and trampling those below, between heavy metal and NSBM. You seem to think that in reality, none of these concern us because most of us heavy metallers are wimps and nerds. Yet, I know or have heard of so many cases where soft spoken black metallers ended up to become cops or Golden Dawn members. And sometimes even both, by the way.

    thanks for another excellent article, man.

  4. Interesting read as usual.

    "However the theater is easily exposed when the outsider realizes that the only action the small fry enamored with Heavy Metal usually takes towards that 'death of the outer', is to print a fanzine, make a small record label or record its own Heavy Metal."

    I was left wondering how you view the notorious exceptions to this rule like Varg and rest of the Black Metal musicians linked to the various church arsons because I am sure someone will eventually use them as an counterargument against yours. I don't know all the details but I think it's very likely that the actions were connected to other causes than mere romanticism taken as far as it goes but I'm interested to read your thoughts about it.

  5. Nekromantis, as I've written before, I think that the happenings in Norway were the result of teenager anxiety over not being perceived as 'true' enough being pushed to the extreme in a subculture insular enough that drifted outside of society. The catalysts for what happened are very delicate and not easy to reproduce, then. The way Norwegian society works has something to do with it, that people in that scene lived in isolation in the countryside often has something to do with it, and so on. The biggest catalyst of all was that of innocence: such a thing (widespread illegal activity connected to extreme metal) had not happened before and people could not have easily predicted the slippery slope it would become.

    That it happened then means that it's doubly difficult for it to happen again because the innocence is lost. It'd be almost a cliche to burn down a church now. Perhaps some people will do an arson here an arson there but there won't be another movement of this magnitude any time soon.

    Besides, nobody wants to kill and die for metal music anymore. That Euronymous died is enough for everybody, he is their jesus, they can capitalize on what happened for decades more to come, blood has been spilt, the ritual sacrifice is done, the gods are appeased and the small fry can celebrate the 'seriousness' of their cult for as long as they've got the free time to.

    And finally, even if such happenings were to occur again, I do not think a few burnt churches and then an inter-scene murder are the work of organized totalitarian proponents, more like the debris of teenager scene drama most of all. The outcome of one year's worth of neo-nazi activity is far worse than a dude stabbing his friend, and much more importantly that outcome is ideologically placed at the apex of the neo-nazi machine, it's not a defect, it's the rightful product of the movement. I do not think there'd be many metalheads that would crown the burning of some Norwegian churches and the death of Euronymous as the apex of what Heavy Metal stands for.

    Noir Hiver: I stand by my belief that the people that went on to become cops or neo-nazis, would have gravitated towards such positions of authority and violence without metal music. It might suit some of their tendencies, but it also suits my decidedly not-nazi tendencies. If an art form is so malleable as to allow for such contrasting worldviews, then I do not think it's easy to pin anything on it definitively ideological.

    I have written many a contract of self-discipline as you call them, every song and lyric remains forever a monument to what I had at times desired to be. Many of them speak as strongly to me now as they ever did.

    Thank you both for your comments.

  6. "Heavy Metal is psychotherapy for introverted teenagers, it's not a means for social change."

    Coming back to this, I do recall having the exact same thought/realisation of heavy metal as introspection for introverted youths. However I do believe HM has capacity for inflicting change on society as much as any other art, and probably has done so disproportionately to it's exposure and fan-base. The obvious example being BM, which attempted to fuse music with terrorism and could arguably be said as having given Norway's it's cultural significance through the 90's/00's and probably an increase in tourism. Another example/function being when metal acts as psychoanalysis for the dark side of humanity, such as Slayer, oh whom I believe do a fairly good job of unmasking the destructive and manipulative forces humanity has to deal with both as individuals and institutions.

  7. I do not think any art has affected social change, actually. Not just Heavy Metal. The outrage concerning the moral result of x type of art is a middle-class vice ("oh think of the children!!") that is a diversion from what really shapes society, to which (that included, as with everything else human )the arts are but a mirror.