The Sound of Courage, part 1

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Courage. It’s a word we all know, a concept that we feel is intuitively familiar, comforting in its conceptual concreteness. It’s engraved at the heart of modern mythology, repeatedly told and retold with the highest glorification in our movies, video games, magazines and TV shows. Even historical analyses are often recontextualized to tell an easily relatable tale of a courageous hero.

But what is it, really?

Wikipedia defines courage as: “… the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation” and the examples that we are constantly bombarded by featuring chiseled men loudly wielding all manner of firearms seems to fit the bill. But how does such an idea of courage apply to our daily lives? Our lives where our greatest challenges are the doldrums of unstimulating repetition found within our relatively comfortable and safe jobs, interacting with a host of strangers and coworkers in the safest period of all of human history? Do we secretly long for the zombie apocalypse so that we too can be courageous, or are there small hidden opportunities in our lives for us to become the hero that we all already imagine ourselves to be?

As previously discussed, Metal is a strong artistic contender when it comes to confronting ugly topics and unsavory truths: it does not allow the hideous to go unseen, or the hypocrite to go unscathed nor cowardly traditions to remain sacred, and in that sense Metal has always been a genre of courage.

It always discarded the predictable and the safe in favor of the bold, the daring and the uncertain, even when it knew full well it was most likely sacrificing its own public credibility and any chances at personal stardom and financial success.

But Metal is leaning close to being 50 years old now, and even the darkest recesses of extreme metal are creeping towards the ripe middle age of 40 years, and as with many things, the courageous and reckless willingness to throw caution to the wind in search of a greater meaning has begun to wane. As it recedes it is slowly and surely replaced by a looming sense of tradition, like black roots gnarling their way into dead soil or moss upon a stone, now resting at the bottom of a comfortable stream instead of thundering down the mountainside.

At one point in time invoking the great lyrical Satan was a dangerous act of thumbing one’s nose at the old guard of public decency, and quick to label the band as a moral hazard to society.

At one point in time exploring the depths and gruesome detail of death and decay was an uncomfortable truth left hushed and unspoken by a collective desire for a simple life of perpetual comfort and all of the naiveté it entailed.

And so I confess that I simply cannot ignore the uncomfortable elephant of truth in the room of 2018 which underpins much of the Metal we see and hear around us: the topics of yore are simply not courageous anymore. Zombies, Satan, evil, simplified physical conflict, purity of nature, the end of the world, and dragon-slaying have all been broached, applauded, imitated and copied so many times that they now exist not as confrontations, but as well-defined conventions. They each have their own rules, trends, traditions, trappings, and in short: they are safe.

What’s more, one could even say that the most powerful statements being made are in what bands are choosing not to say, and willfully electing not to address in favor of their trope of choice. For when we live in a world where a full 50% of the world population are still not treated fairly, where pollution and climactic change will soon be disproportionately endangering the livelihood of the already beaten-down poor, where the greatest informational and technological advancements of civilization are tools used to perpetuate ignorance and mindless entertainment, where a world is full of ugliness and untold number of self-made horrors in desperate need of genuine conceptual confrontation, that metal band after metal band instead choose to focus on pretending to be glorious warriors or powerful agents of darkness speaks volumes on the state of genuine artistic courage.

And all this in a genre that repeatedly prides itself on being extreme, uncomfortable and confrontational.

But fear ye not gentle reader! We will take a more celebratory exploration through some of the highlights in modern Metal next time in Part 2, but until then I would like us to ponder the following excellent example and possibly high-water mark of moral courage in music and art from the last century.

A single poem and song makes the rounds in the late 30s, inspired by this photograph. KKK membership is down to only 30,000 but their ideals live on in the wider disorganized public. New York, the great metropolitan hub of the future and well-to-do urban society, has only a single integrated nightclub. As a regular set-ending song for the evening, Billie Holiday would perform this haunting piece despite her explicit fear of retaliation against her person. Both her label and producer refused to record the song at all, citing the same concerns.

In 1939, this was The Devil’s Music.

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