Sunday, January 23, 2011
How can you climb a mountain to kill a God?
Why do you cross unknown lands, to kill our Gods?
Why do you build walls to starve our Gods?
Is it for the same reason you blind us?
Is this way you punish our children?
And rape our sisters?
When will we drown?
When will we burn?
Will you die with us? I think so
You are slicing your own wrists
You are tearing your own hearts
And you are drowning your own children
So you can end it... or we will
We are telling them the truth
And revealing all your lies
We do not need to climb a mountain
Or to cross unknown lands
Because we are Gods
And we will drown you
We will burn your homes
We the people, we the spirits, we the Gods
There's this complaint leveled against some Heavy Metal music that it is pretentious. Against actual human beings, it is a very winning strategy because we are all internally unsure of ourselves to various degrees. We assume roles we hope will win us various social benefits and it's a tell that we won't be getting what we need when we are exposed for 'trying too hard'. That's what pretension means, on the inter-personal level: you're trying too hard to act like a grown-up and I can tell, little boy. It's a very cutting critique because everyone is trying too hard. It's like the loser with no life that always jumps at the chance to berate others for being losers with no life. If we focus on the other guy, we're safe for the time being, right? Everybody's playing a game of hide and seek with each other, exposing as little of themselves as they can while still pursuing their social agenda, and always on the lookout to point at and laugh with the next-door emperor with no clothes.
I have problems with the term when used interpersonally not only because it presupposes generally unfair expectations, but because more importantly, it fails in describing the psychodynamics involved in social transactions. Nobody that talks to you is telling you anything real, even if they think it's real anyway. In the space where what they want and what you want interject, there's nothing real there, there's just pleasing congruity. Cries of pretension are a cheap description of something complex and they're used as weapon. However in the context of art it's worse, it becomes a really baffling critique that shows a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the listener as to the inherent qualities of art.
All art is pretension. The very essence of art-making involves reaching outside the mundane and the expected. If there's a piece of music that has ever touched the reader and inspired them, chances are it wasn't made with any humility. With romantic art (the most naive type of art, perhaps) and Heavy Metal foremost (the naivest of the naive), this centered desire for teliosis, this death fascination, goes well beyond reason and 'realism'. Humility is for the living. It's really baffling that anyone would buy a record with a memento mori skull gazing back at them on the cover and expect anything mundane and humble.
What I get from this critique of metal music is that some listeners go to it thinking that it isn't romantic at all. It's a band, let's say, Mercyful Fate, who perhaps play some cool-ass riffs and have nice singalong songs, they're primarily a bunch of guys making entertainment. So if these guys are pretending to be something else than base level entertainers, then the entity of Mercyful Fate is pretentious, it's trying too hard, it's embarrassing. This is perhaps the mindset of the scene socialite; the social gamer that is trying to play angles to make friends and win status. They will side with the more honest artists whose art they think more realistically depicts their lives because that's who they want to make friends with, these people are the most useful (this is also the reason punk and hardcore scenes are still, and will always remain, the more active). I never wanted to make friends with Mercyful Fate -- as drawn as I am to that entity, I also fear it, I am surprised at what it can do. I feel reverence towards it. I may come to be entertained by their riffs and melodies, but I stay for something else entirely.
That may sound very basic to some of you, you might be baffled by what these people are trying to do to themselves with Heavy Metal. How can today's metal listeners be now leveling critique of pretension towards this type of music? It's because they think they're metalheads but they're really punkers.
Punk rock scenes often operate under the assumption that the musicians are true to a credo of beliefs and that these beliefs will factor into their every action, both artistic and mundane. Using this system, the scene will gage how 'down to earth' and 'real' the musicians are at any time. However, Heavy Metal music is very solipsist, it is impossible to judge the artist's ideology through the movement of the band itself... romantic art doesn't care about you and your friends. The only way for punker to gage Heavy Metal music is for how entertaining it is. Though metal musicians operate inside a society (the low level economics behind putting out records are certainly social) they're doing their hardest on the higher level to disregard those inherent modernist charges. The end result is that although punkers and metalheads, their scenes and their methods are (now, or perhaps always were?) very alike, their artistic product is variable in its resistance to social critique and scrutiny. Punk music (especially hardcore punk of the American variety) goes out of its way to be a transparent conduit to the belief sets of the individuals that make up the band, to be a reflection of 'real life' (whether it achieves that or if this is achievable anyway is a different discussion) whereas metal music goes out of its way to obscure the faulty individuals behind the music, instead to summon an entity as ancient as it is inscrutable with our modern tools of logic and dialectics. To look into a Heavy Metal record and comment on how pretentious is it is akin to looking inside a natural chasm or fountain spring and doing the same. That level of critique does nothing to the art - and it gives no tools for the critic to understand it either. Only disappointment can be found there for the listener. And then the natural question is, what are punk rockers doing in Heavy Metal scenes? Do they need it so much, to be disappointed? Is some existential belief in them hinged on finding pretenders and outing them? "Everyone is a liar", that sort of thing?
I believe the answer may be that after metal music's stab at the mainstream circa 1988-90 and the resulting commercial disaster, it went underground by necessity, to survive. There it met other debris of the same process like punk rock and gothic rock and whatnot, and these scenes cross-polinated with metal-curious punks leaving their ideological mark on (most of all) the then-nascent extreme types of metal. But that's a different post for a different time.
To offer a counterpoint to my position above, however, let's say that calling a piece of romantic art pretentious can also mean that the art is failing in its romantic intent even for the romantically-inclined critic. Though such theoretical entities should know better than to use that language, let's go with it. It is very embarrassing to be exposed to failing romantic art because it's an acute and unflattering reflection on us and how we spend our time to be caught up with such bullshit. So, effectively, when someone positively inclined toward romance, critiques a Heavy Metal record on grounds of pretension, what they might be really saying is "it doesn't capture me, it's transparent and I can see through it, to the people behind it and they're just people after all". Whereas calling something pretentious is a communication shutdown if there ever was one (and tellingly, the best invitation for flames), the above breakdown of the same accusation is perhaps braver and promotes further discussion.
Why do we feel let down when we can see that people are people after all? Is it that the stronger the spell may be, the worse it is when we realize what imperfect beings can temporarily summon such power over us? Is it the inevitable fallout of any masochism to be disenchanted when the one-who-hurts is demystified? Is this why some of us move towards auto-gratification (making our own Heavy Metal) instead?