Metal and the Discomforting Reality of the Human Socio-Political Condition
I have prepared a small mental exploration I would like to share with the finest and bravest denizens of the web, and though the topic may appear as dismal and dry as an improperly oiled leather ottoman, it is ultimately meant as a celebration of that strange beast we have come to know and depend on: Metal.
As I am sure you noticed, the previous year seemed to be dominated by the most flagrant exposures of humanity’s worst impulses and rife with the greedy plots of the criminally short-sighted and proudly uninformed, both in the US and abroad.
Many of those moral failures (sexism, racism, priapism, etc) have existed throughout society for a dismally long time, often in varying stages of public acceptance and/or denial, but 2017 seemed unique in the way it dragged a huge portion of the metal community directly into the riotous debate, sometimes even kicking and screaming like
outlaw metal alpha warriors children.
Specifically, the events and social backlash around the rallies of Charlottesville, Virginia left us at an unclear crossroads littered with sharp and uncomfortable questions: does metal have an inherent political stance? Does it have a social responsibility as Art? Is it harmless meaningless entertainment? Did Marilyn Manson remove Alice Cooper’s rib so that he could throw chickens farther? Should metal have a moral stance at all? Did it ever?
But in spite of the slippery nature of these questions, I believe it is possible to whittle the topic down to some key points and so I invite you, o brave toileteer, to join me on my journey down the ever-spiraling bowl and into the sewer of Truth!
Our astute readers will recall that in the late 60’s a blues band by the name of Earth played in pubs in England while the world at large trembled before the prospect of nuclear annihilation at the hands of itchy-fingered bureaucrats. The faces of the planetary population twisted in horror as an endless proxy war continued to grind young human beings into a pulp in a jungle quagmire on the other side of the globe.
Yet there was a powerful counter-current of positivity among young people at the same time, manifested in the civil rights movement in the US and the then-recent Summer of Love; there was a strong and pervasive sense of cultural optimism which Hunter S. Thompson described as “…a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…”
Indeed, it seemed that everlasting Peace was surely only a few long-hairs and flower-powers away from being forever realized.
But in much the same way the groovy revolution was a reaction to an atmosphere of international military tension, Black Sabbath was born as a reaction to that brimming new-age of boundless and interconnected positivity.
They had turned up the distortion on their guitars just as they turned their lyrics downward into darker topics that churned in the conceptual depths well below those bathed in eternal summer and beach rays, having long grown tired of being talked over and ignored in those grimy blues bars. Instead, their words embraced the spirit of those who were left behind by The Further Bus, and those who were too poor and uneducated to be truly Hip.
And in Black Sabbath Metal was born in both sound and spirit.
That spirit was of confrontation, but not just the shallow confrontations of fashion and social taboo, but a genuine sense of confronting the discomforts of reality, no matter how ugly and no matter how murky the moral gray area.
Even to this day many people seem to be content with the superficial observation that the spirit of metal is simply in being counter-culture, transgressive, shocking and offensive, but those simple statements fail to account for the reason those rebellions occurred in the first place and outright ignore the human impulse to forge a genuine connection with Reality. Ultimately, metal is far more than a group of loud contrarians; it is a conceptual embrace of That Which We Try to Ignore. It is an exposure of That Which We Fear. It is an acceptance of That Which Is and Will Be and Cannot Be Changed. It is acknowledgment that sometimes There Are No Answers. Metal is the reality that we all live in once the trappings, hopes, cultural norms, propaganda, biases, advertising, and fears that all bounce around our heads are silenced and stripped away.
No doubt our alert readers are wondering at this point, ‘did Black Sabbath really design it that way? Did they intend to create a sociocultural mirror that would reflect back the world as it truly was after all the makeup was removed and the wrinkles exposed?’ Of course I cannot hope to fully speak for them, but I am willing to wager that they did not fully realize it at the time, and like anyone their age, they were simply full of energy and frustrations, and probably more short-sighted than they knew.
But out of their keen youthful perception and energetic inspiration emerged something much bigger than themselves, just as Neil Armstrong’s simple and relatively uninteresting 12-inch step out of the moon lander carried a much larger significance than that of the step itself, Black Sabbath’s bald appraisal of the underlying darkness of their era was also much more than just an amplifier turned to 11 and a spooky album cover.
In that unexpected way Black Sabbath had delivered a particular type of artistic and musical antidote to what was becoming an increasingly confusing and deceptive world of misinformation. Their anthems ‘War Pigs’, ‘Paranoid’, ‘Black Sabbath’ and many others delivered a message that contained no conventional pleasantness, hope or salvation, but instead simply offered a respite from the deluge of continuous cultural and government propaganda and nauseatingly shallow hippie platitudes.
In so doing, Black Sabbath became a reliable place where someone could go and listen with certainty that they were not being lied to or sold on some ideal of infinite smiles or as an ulterior motive for someone else’s benefit. And even though they did not have nor claim to contain any true answers to any problems either large or small, what Black Sabbath said felt like The Truth, and still does to this day.
This broad-scale sociocultural artistic function continued growing slowly through the 70’s and spread to other musical and artistic groups, when hip hop and punk also began to make similar cultural waves in reflecting and highlighting different aspects of the Uncomfortable Facts of Real Human Life.
Without realizing it, society as a whole had developed a need for a counter-narrative, free of white lies and dumbing down, and that was shown in the near simultaneous explosion of all three genres.
As the 80’s arrived, the broad fears and sense of dismal economy of the 70’s were swept away for many and replaced with a sense of renewed optimism, which hinged on the rapidly accelerating and still mysterious technological revolution. It seemed that the magical promise of technology would certainly end all major world problems within the next 20 to 40 years: the whales were being saved, the rain-forests were being protected and trash was being recycled. Technology could do no harm and popular musical entertainment was brimming with light-up drums, electronic beats and synthesizers from the mysterious and alluring future just beyond our comprehension. But Metal would not let the world forget the ugly truths lurking underneath all of the glitz and glamour.
Slayer were relentless in their examination of the crimes of humanity against itself, Metallica would harp on a variety of man-made horrors, religious, criminal and military, and Megadeth would lament the nature of people being ultimately expendable in the face of modern nation-states. Many others would do the same in as many ways.
As we passed into the 90’s, the cultural optimism continued to broaden as the Iron Curtain fell and rapidly advancing computers were the newest shiny toy that would surely deliver humanity from all manner of ills. Yet bands such as Obituary, Death and Carcass would remind us that no matter what trappings we surrounded ourselves with and no matter how many hair products we purchased in pursuit of perfection, we were still only bags of meat ultimately destined to rot.
Society at large tried to ignore many other discomforts that Metal did not allow to be swept under the collective rug: the nature and ugliness of violence and death, the spiritual anxiety and darkness inside us all, the individual succumbing to the power of nameless corporate entities, mental instability and mistreatment, cruelties of the modern food supply, dehumanization of urban living, uncertain future of technology, cyclical nature of violence and abuse, and onward into countless sub-examples and sub-styles.
And those topics are all indeed very Metal, but not because they are merely offensive or culturally transgressive; they are Metal because they confront the truth that we are told to ignore, and that we had once tried to forget. And it is in that sense that Metal is political.
Because Metal is the awareness and acceptance of our own greatest Discomforts; our poor behavior as a species by even our own standards, our failures and crimes as individuals, our failures and crimes as society and government, our failure to live up to our own sense of good will, our spiritual bleakness in spite of our seemingly boundless talent for irrational hope, and of course our own inevitable mortality. These are all confrontations of truth, and it is on the side of Truth that Metal always resides.
And that is how it becomes political, not because one political affiliation or another has a monopoly on the truth, far from it, but because the immediate irrefutable Truth is inevitably an adversary to the lingering elements of the receding Status Quo, desperate to remain relevant and retain power.
By pushing those topical boundaries in their pursuit of the extreme and the taboo and in offering no disingenuous answers, metal bands all over the world have comforted the sick, relieved the worried, appeased the anxious, sympathized with the angry, commiserated with the frustrated and given voice to the depressed.
So while Metal takes no stance with a particular political party or affiliation, it does conceptually stand firmly alongside the disaffected people of the world and just as firmly against deception, lies, and deceit for any kind of short-sighted profit.
As such, Metal can never be apolitical, and the idea that it is somehow merely a safe space for people to vent random extreme thoughts and frustrations, no matter how adolescent or intentionally ignorant, is itself a disingenuous and simplistically short-sighted appraisal of Metal and what it stands for on a cultural level.
But where does that leave us today? Are we still in need of such a valuable source of sociocultural perspective with which to view our lives and our place in the context of human history? It is my contention that, in spite of the fact that a lot of the topics that were once shunned in the 90’s and 00’s are now being publicly acknowledged and discussed, indeed we still are.
But as always, the social context has changed in the modern world, and so too must Metal if it is to remain as vital and necessary to its emergent social function as both a source of fresh perspective and a respite for the wayward and mentally weary.
What do you think, dear readers? You courageous heroes of the commode, who have daringly sailed into this squall of unknown writing, knowing not what manner of foul half-floating content would await you! Are my perceptions entirely skewed and laughable? Do you think my monocle requires a fresh polish to restore my obscured vision? Or have we found ourselves a little something to ponder, perhaps a small kernel of knowledge to ruminate upon?
Regardless, I salute each and every one of you! Even those whose boats capsized in my ocean of text and were forced to turn back, I hope that your journey still ends in treasure…and may it be covered in as much caked slime and boiled ooze as the rest of us! Cheerio!