A Very Dirty Lens: How Can We Listen to Offensive Metal?

“To break the necks of young women, their cunts my pus will fill. Acid burning through her crotch, I baptize her face with my rot. Then venom foams from her throat, on my discharge she will choke.”

Cannibal Corpse — “Post Mortal Ejaculation”

The lyrics above are from Cannibal Corpse’s 1992 album, Tomb of the Mutilated, which features cover art depicting a rotting skeleton indulging in cunnilingus with a decomposing corpse, and contains charming ditties like “Necropedophile” and “Entrails Ripped from a Virgin’s Cunt”. Unsurprisingly, some folks have taken exception to Cannibal Corpse’s brutal and bestial imagery over the years, but the band has always maintained that it’s simply following a long tradition of providing horror-show theatrics.

Of course, you don’t write a song like “Post Mortal Ejaculation” without knowing it’s going to be offensive to some–that’s the point. There’s a ready and willing market out there for extreme content, and these days, Cannibal Corpse’s grisly oeuvre is fairly demure in comparison to some metal bands’ murderous musings.

Within metal circles, you’ll find those who think songs like “Post Mortal Ejaculation” are sickening in their depiction of sexualized violence, but you’ll also find fans who not only adore but require an abrasive and bloodthirsty mix of music and lyrics. Those fans will tell you that it’s all just harmless fantasy, an über-grotesque reflection of the world at large, and they’d be appalled if you suggested metal should alter its content to suit any notion of what’s ‘acceptable’.

That’s how it goes in metal. There are howling sonics and ferocious, rabble-rousing content galore, but the genre also overflows with fierce opinions about the role of offensiveness. While the mainstream view is often that provocative content is proof that metal’s a club for unthinking or insensitive Neanderthals, the scene itself is full of discussion about what’s controversial or not.

This month’s Ragnarök takes a look at those conversations, delving into the ways metal fans choose to accept, reject, or ignore provocative material. I’ve sought out the views of a few metal writers and fans along the way, and set opinion against counter-opinion.

So, let’s kick open the crypt, drag out the corpse of controversy, and dice it up good and proper.

Ye Olde Butt-Plugs

Since day one, heavy metal’s been hell bent on breaking taboos and inciting debate with its confronting music, themes, and imagery. That’s an inherent part of its creative culture, and intrinsic to its attraction and success.

Over the years, metal has indulged plenty of perspectives. Hammy, hurtful, heinous and horrific ideas have been delivered by showoffs, eccentrics, and/or creative geniuses, and the array of spandex, studs, back-patches and spike-gauntlets has resulted in a hugely diverse cross-section of fans. However, what’s been interpreted as offensive in metal has always been tied to a specific point in time.

In the ’80s, at the height of the Western world’s moral panic around metal, the genre was seen by nervous parents and politicians as a fast track to damnation. Today, with most crusades against metal far in the past (at least for most Western nations), younger metal fans might find it hard to believe that listening to Ozzy Osbourne, W.A.S.P, or Twisted Sister was ever considered controversial or morally hazardous.

That’s because cultural climates shift and social mores adjust, and we now live in an age where extreme expression has voyeuristic currency, and is wholly democratized. We’re surrounded 24/7 by a multi-platform, multi-media market of outrageousness, and while metal is still touted as enduringly dangerous, its controversy has been diluted.

These days, a Satan-praising band like Ghost can sell Pope-shaped dildos and crucifix-embossed butt-plugs without raising any eyebrows. Bands splatter their fans in blood, give ultra-chest-beating interviews and shove sheep heads onto spikes at gigs in the attempt to demarcate themselves from the mainstream. However, such provocative poses can also be seen as calculated attempts to grab attention in a world already overflowing with shocking spectacles.

When a gore-grind band sings about dismembering school kids, or Rammstein ends a music video with ejaculate flung all over the place, it’s no surprise that many metal fans simply shrug it off as ‘entertainment’. Some would argue that the provocative content you might encounter in metal these days evokes more of a ye olde metal charm than any actual offense.

You can’t deny that a lot of metal strives for offensiveness for the simple pleasure of misadventure, but then, who’d want to deny that? Plenty of mind-bending, degenerate, and wonderfully hostile musical journeys have come from that misadventure, and in the end, metal’s all about the purge and release that comes from those emotional voyages.

Of course, there’s still abundant potentially offensive material to be found in metal. One person’s theatrics are, of course, another person’s nightmare, particularly when provocative material is directly targeted at a certain section of society.

Bitches ‘n’ Brutality

It’d be fair to say that metal fans tend to have a high tolerance for unsavory material, but each is an individual too, with different ideas about what’s desirable or not. Opinions clash loudly, and debate around the recent release of Conceived in Sewage, by gore-obsessed death metal band Devourment, is a prime example.

Devourment’s label, Relapse Records, initially promoted Conceived in Sewage with a pre-order package entitled the Bitches ‘n’ Brutality pack, which contained a few risqué items of female attire. As soon it was advertised, heated online debate began. Some metal fans took issue with the derogatory term ‘bitches’. Add to that Devourment’s lyrics (which are filled with atrocities committed against women) and the resulting mix was seen as blatantly sexist by those concerned about women being demeaned and denigrated in the metal scene.

Relapse subsequently changed the pre-order pack title, but the argument ultimately boiled down to issues of equality and respect. No one can seriously deny the widespread harm of sexism and misogyny, yet respect for our fellow human beings is deliberately fed into the shredder in the gorier corners of metal. Many fans tune in specifically to enjoy the pulverization of all forms of egalitarianism, which is wrapped in fittingly monstrous and confrontational music.

On the other side of the argument, fans reactions were equally strong, ranging from “I see your point, but what did you expect?” to “bitches always be complaining”–and some wondered why Devourment was singled out when abundant other bands include the abuse of women as thematic mainstays. As Australia-based music critic Leticia Supple points out, the debate even came with its share of personal conflicts, too: “I have to say that while people got riled about that Relapse package, because it’s sexist, I thought that’s fucking brilliant because nobody produces shit for chicks like this. But I also had that grown-up part of my brain saying, yeah but the greater public relations point of this is…”

The debate around the Bitches ‘n’ Brutality pack was just one of many multisided arguments about the role of offensiveness in metal. The various perspectives on each issue often come from firmly entrenched ideological positions, but they’re played out on a much wider battlefield framed by metal’s inherently transgressive nature.

I’m Not a Neo-Nazi, but…

Metal undoubtedly promotes transgressive themes, that’s a given, but while the scene has experienced its share of physically and/or criminally transgressive acts, mostly it explores those themes symbolically. It can’t avoid offending someone as it tramples over boundaries, but, like any artform where transgression serves as a primary tool of expression, opinions are diverse about what is or isn’t transgressive.

A track like Cemetery Rapist’s “It’s Not Rape if She’s a Stripper”, will be repulsive and definitely transgressive to some, for entirely understandable reasons. But given it’s from the same artist that released Filthy Psychotropic Children of the Non-Consensual Ovary Pounding Prison Factory Fuck Porn, others will point out that its gore/pornogrind gratuitousness is supposed to be nauseating, and no one is going to take its message seriously.

Some fans might have no issue with enjoying death metal’s endless make-believe mutilations, or think that burning down a church is just an excellent place to start, while others refuse to listen to an artist who has been convicted, or even accused, of a disturbing crime. Fans have many ways of construing boundary-trampling material and opinions, and black metal’s sinister scoundrels present plenty of opportunities in that regard.

Corpse-painted villains built up clear aesthetic expectations in black metal’s early history, and at its best the sub-genre challenges the herd mentality while offering a savage and uncompromising critique of modernity. Confronting content is an expected component in black metal, even when it’s represented sonically rather than thematically. However, while Satan and misanthropy have been feasted upon and enjoyed by many, some bands have brought more controversial far-right political opinions to the table too.

Many black metal fans consider issues around bands with far-right ideologies as dead and buried. That’s understandable, as overt neo-Nazi bands are less prevalent than they were, and these days black metal is stylistically and thematically diverse. The sub-genre is often excessively sensationalized in mainstream media, which is to be expected, because controversy always makes good copy, and plenty of black metal bands gorge upon hyperbole and histrionics.

Of course, some of that drama is based on actual fact, because a significant amount of intolerant material is found in black metal. However, while some still love to suggest that black metal is wholly a haven for objectionable content and repellent personalities, its a far more nuanced sub-genre than that.

For black metal fans wishing to avoid far-right ideologies, there are abundant anarchist, eco-minded, city-dwelling, and blackened shoegaze acts to enjoy–and plenty of lo-fi misanthropes and Satan-lovin’ bands also see far-right ideologies as incompatible with their own philosophic views.

Still, for fans who do choose to negotiate troubling content, the rise in ultranationalist black metal is a good example of where decisions become blurred, and even problematic. Ultranationalist black metal bands concentrate on themes of culture and heritage, but often with an inward and reflective viewpoint rather than any outwardly antagonistic neo-Nazism. However, both ultranationalist and neo-Nazi bands have had a profound musical influence on black metal, and many fans who wouldn’t support such views do listen to bands informed by such ideologies.

There are a number of ways they rationalize doing so.

For some fans, indulging in works linked to far-right ideologies clearly provides a cheap thrill. More generally, however, in a sub-genre predisposed to provocation, there’s also a degree of acceptance that problematic opinions are expected. Fans might not necessarily support, excuse or condone those opinions, but if challenged would point out that black metal is supposed to attack established social structures.

Fans use this explanation to justify listening to a range of bands that might well have clashing ideologies. Many fans would see no contradiction in enjoying bands linked to ultra-nationalism (such as Satanic Warmaster, Peste Noire, Kroda, or Ygg), unrepentant elitists (like Mgla), or contentious heathens (like Astrofaes), as well as anarchist works (Iskra and Panopticon), or eco-friendly tunes (Skagos or Wolves in the Throne Room). While they’re all offering very different messages, they’re all, in their own way, pouring scorn on modernity.

Some of these bands might promote a romanticized cultural heritage, others a return to the primal, or some may be arguing for social justice. There are conflicting messages to be found, for sure, but some fans consider any inflammatory content somewhat irrelevant when it’s offset by music that’s so meritorious.

They might argue that it doesn’t matter when you can’t decipher the lyrics anyway… it’s simply about the stirring sounds. Putting aside the contentious to enjoy the transcendence from the mundane that black metal provides is a stance taken by many, but it’s also a position that others would see as weak, and there’s an entire red and anarchist black metal scene backing that view. However, when you’re a fan who cares about issues of intolerance mixing with theatrical transgression, nothing is simple in black metal.

Contradictions arise because black metal is listened to and created by unpredictable and capricious creatures – human beings. You’ll find metal fans who found Devourment’s Bitches ‘n’ Brutality pack bigoted, but happily listen to bands with other narrow-minded social views. Some might argue that’s hypocritical, but you could just as easily say it’s a reflection of people’s often conflicted motivations, and that it illustrates the complexities of humanity (and black metal) as a whole.

Black metal is murky enough to begin with, and there are often layers of background detail about bands and their members that make listening to it a tricky proposition–if you actually care about such things. Admittedly, many fans simply don’t, they might demand confronting opinion, or they might have no motivation to dig for information because they enjoy the music for music’s sake. Alternatively, some fans might recognize that doing so might unearth a conundrum or two, so they don’t want to know.

For example, Ukrainian band Drudkh crafts sublime black metal that is rich in poetic and culturally specific elements, and the band claims to be apolitical. However, the group has released works on labels linked to far-right metal in the past, features former members of Hate Forest (a band with unequivocal links to the neo-Nazi black metal scene) as well as current members of Astrofaes, and deals in the same topical sphere that many overtly far-right bands do. Similarly, UK-based bands Wodensthrone and Winterfylleth have both been accused of using themes of heritage, heathenism, and ancient cultural pride to push a political agenda.

All those bands claim such allegations are meritless, and depending on which angle you approach them from, various conclusions can be drawn. Some see evidence of intolerance, while others would argue it’s impossible to assign any universal meaning to a song that honors one’s own culture and mythologies, because celebrating culture doesn’t necessarily imply any discrimination at all.

For many fans it’s the paganism and dark poetry that attracts them to black metal bands that celebrate their heritage, not any supposed (or actual) subtextual political message. Fans who choose to think hard about such issues, and listen to bands that could be construed in a number of ways, do point out that truth is often an indistinct concept in black metal–shrouded in the rumor, speculation, and false trails the sub-genre so ably provides.

After all, black metal is just as given to promoting complex and conflicting messages, and using exaggerated propaganda, as any other confrontational form of art. Abundant evil bands bring the Hellfire to concert halls, then take the money home to spend on swing-sets for the kids–while other bands are clearly set on purchasing daggers and grimoires. It’s hard to look at a number of big budget black metallers these days and believe they’re committed to anything, apart from making sure the accountant’s tallying the figures correctly, or ensuring all those multi-platform marketing plans deals are signed off.

Again, fans can and do point out that truth is a nebulous concept in black metal.

Plenty of bands have hyped the heinousness to ridiculous heights in interviews, only to adjust the angle of critique as time has gone on, or claimed that any actual xenophobia is all in the past. What you believe is all in the interpretation of the facts, and how far you want to dig.

Plenty of fans gush over the work of Alcest, praising frontman Neige for his winsome and fairytale metallic shoegaze. “Sure,” they say, “he flirted with far-right politics when he played in Peste Noire, but he’s changed.” (Just like a lot of other black metal artists have done, as the prospect of greater commercial success beckons.) I’m not suggesting Neige’s distancing himself from his past is disingenuous, but fans can point to such artists to highlight that it’s no wonder decisions about who to listen to can be contradictory, when artists themselves are contradictory characters.

Obviously, some black metal fans spend their time lurking on obscure distros, buying Graveland or Nokturnal Mortum CDs because they’re simply bigots. However, to paint all black metal fans with that brush is to entirely misrepresent the scene. It can be challenging, but that challenge isn’t always directed outward. Often it’s about challenging fans personally, and fans look to that as an opportunity for personal growth through the exploration, rejection, or acclimatization of transgressive ideas.

If black metal underscores one crucial fact, it’s that transgression rules supreme in metal. Whether it’s practically enacted or, as in the majority of cases, symbolically suggested, transgression can make for a serpentine web to unravel. Still, transgression serves a healthy purpose, and that purpose operates in a sphere where fans have to deal with plenty of political considerations too.

He’s Not Odin, He’s Just a Very Naughty Boy

“Listening to music is listening to all noise, realizing that its appropriation and control is a reflection of power, that it is essentially political.”

– Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music

Most music fans enjoy the work of artists who also happen to say outlandish things about a raft of social topics. One way metal fans work around that is to say “I don’t get into politics, man.” That’s a perfectly understandable–or at least logical–argument. It grants us with a simple justification for enjoying the music of artists who are either painfully ignorant, or arrogant idiots.

We all do that, but the metal scene is oozing with political concerns, and we really can’t remove ourselves from those. Some fans suggest they’re apolitical. That’s convenient when they’re challenged for supporting a politically incendiary band, but contradictory when they go on to argue about which band is false or authentic, or to moan about who’s allowed to write about which band where, as that’s all scene politics in action.

Certainly, listening to an album involves a complex chain of social, political, cultural, and economic events; metal’s seen its share of politically driven censorship, and if metal’s empowered or tormented you, that’s political too. You could argue that politics is inherent in every metal band’s message–whether it’s one of liberation from totalitarianism, an aching for primitivism, a little chest-beating patriotism, sexual politics, or fervent environmentalism and anti-humanism. Political elements are tied into everything with metal–the sonics, the lyrics, the art. Take your pick of any band, or any song; it’s all politics.

The simple fact that metal’s understood as an outsider or counter cultural genre is because it critiques mainstream political and social mores. So, while it’s easy to say “I don’t get into politics, man,” in the end you might well argue that as metal fans we don’t get to choose.

When it comes to writing about metal, a few obvious political issues rear their heads. Writers critiquing an album on its standalone merit is based, in part, on the notion of artistic freedom–a longstanding politically driven concern. Covering controversial work to provoke a reaction requires a corresponding social climate, fueled by the social politics of the day. And of course when writers choose not to write about artists whose views they disagree with, that’s a political statement too.

Those three examples certainly swirl around Varg Vikernes, Burzum founder and metal’s poster-boy of naughtiness. He’s a convicted murderer and arsonist, and he promotes a European national-paganist (ie, white-supremacist and anti-Semitic) ideology. Some see him as a shameless promoter of controversy (that’s certainly true), but it’s not as if the metal media hasn’t helped him on his quest. While Vikernes’s personal views might have an infinitesimal degree of support in the metal world, Burzum still enjoys a wide audience. That’s because Burzum’s early albums are classic black metal releases, and Vikernes maintains that his musical works have no political content.

However, some metal fans, like Auckland University academic Dr. Owain Smolović Jones, would argue “Even if the music isn’t lyrically, explicitly racist, even if it is entirely instrumental, it may be that the musician has specifically stated racist ideology as inspiration.” You can’t remove the ideology from the music, he argues. Especially given Vikernes’s profile, and the sheer amount of hate he has preached online.

Still, many tolerant folks do listen to Burzum, and they can justify why it’s entirely okay to do so.

As Guido Segers (who wrote his master’s thesis on Vikernes) points out in Anthony Pappalardo’s recent article, Accidental Racists: Why Fans Give Black Metal Murderer Varg Vikernes a Pass , many fans see Vikernes looking like a “cozy, happy Viking… which we tend to find silly”. Vikernes is certainly seen by many as a harmless conspiracy theorist with a penchant for playing dress-up, but, as Segers also mentions, in doing that we tend to forget that he “wrote pages full of material that would make Hitler blush.”

For Smolović Jones, the solution for writing about controversial figures like Vikernes is easy: “If you feel you have to carry a review, you have an obligation to include in that review a critique of the ideology which informs the music.” Or, as an alternative, “Simply don’t cover them. They’re dangerous idiots. We already know this. There’s no need to draw more attention to the fact.”

Smolović Jones is far from alone in that opinion. Back in 2011, The Quietus writer Gary Suarez laid out a clear-cut argument on website MetalSucks as to why we shouldn’t cover Vikernes: “Do we really want to associate with someone whose opinions are so intolerant and vile simply because he can write a tune? That’s indefensible without making shameful apologies and excuses.” It’s not as if Suarez needed to hunt down any evidence on why we shouldn’t support Vikernes either, because Vikernes has been happy to provide endless intolerant commentary online.

The comment box underneath Suarez’s article spilled over with personal attacks on him for his completely understandable and valid opinion about someone who touts an extremely hateful agenda; but then, that’s the fiery politics of metal for you.

Suggesting that Vikernes’s voice should be muted in any way is immediately countered by accusations that you’re attempting to smother freedom of speech or choice. That same argument is of course used for many artists whose personal views might well be vile, but whose musical legacy means a great deal to their fans. What’s interesting about those counter-opinions is that many come from fans who claim that politics don’t matter, yet there they are, having an intensely political discussion.

There are a number of reasons for that, but the main one is that metal’s politics come in varying degrees. As we’ve seen, fans often make choices about what’s offensive by ignoring one provocative element while attacking another, or perhaps simply welcoming all. You only need look at the reaction every time Vikernes’s face turns up in a magazine or online to see heated opinions of all hues clashing about whether it’s acceptable to feature him or not. Often, those views are not about Vikernes’s opinions per se, simply about the freedom to choose.

Reviewing Burzum albums adds another dimension to that. Promoting Vikernes as an artist (even if the review is bad), potentially grants space for his wider views to be disseminated, and can put coins in his pocket, which he may use to fund his distasteful ventures. Some writers don’t review Burzum albums for those reasons, but there are others who choose to, and they have their own considered reasons for doing just that.

UK-based writer Cheryl Prime praised Burzum’s latest album in long-running UK magazine Metal Hammer, and her reasoning shows the multi-viewpoint complexity of choosing to cover Burzum. “The relationship I have with Burzum as a musical project and with Varg as a human being is complicated.

I enjoy, for the most part, Burzum’s output yet I find Varg to be an abhorrent, unrepentant person. In choosing to write about his work I don’t feel as though I’m promoting his character, rather I’m talking about his music with a critical eye, and during the recent Metal Hammer review, I made no mention of his awful actions. I’ve given both good and bad reviews of Burzum’s latest records and as a non-white (also complicated) female, I’m not really his target audience, and as such I don’t allow my perception of his life to color my judgment of his artistic work. His politics don’t cross over into the music so it’s easier to separate the two aspects of his character.”

What Prime’s argument exhibits best is how fans and writers choose to separate the artist from the art. That’s the default setting for many when deciding who to listen to, and while you can argue about whether that’s a valid choice or not, we’ve been doing that as a species since Ugh the cave dweller thumped his rudimentary drum and someone in the dark whispered “That dude can jam, but he’s still a fucking arsehole.”

We all listen to works by artists with problematic personalities, and choosing to separate them from their art is simply a way of deciding what’s more important: the artist or the art. Obviously, there’s plenty of hot-blooded opinion about the rationality or responsibility of doing so.

Some see the decision to separate the artist from the art as cowardly reluctance to take a stand against grievous offenses; granting an excuse for artists to carry on making intolerant works unchallenged. For Smolović Jones, in the case of Burzum, “There is no separating the ideology which informs the music from the music itself, [so to claim that] you are removed from politics is perhaps the most insidious, ideological position of them all. Life is politics.” Suarez sees things similarly in Burzum’s case, arguing that “No amount of pseudo-philosophy or separating-the-music-from-the-man is going to make it okay [to write about him].”

Other metal fans, such as Canadian writer Natalie Zed, choose not to publicize objectionable opinion. “I try to make a constant, conscious and ever-growing effort not to give hate a platform. It can be a difficult and amorphous position to take, but generally speaking I prefer to err on the side of caution.” Many writers hold a similar view to Zed’s, and like her they choose to focus their attention on music that’s not inherently controversial, because, as Zed states, there’s “so much mind-blowing material that has no connections to hate speech.”

Understandably, the issue of separating the artist from the art isn’t always black or white for fans, or for metal writers. For Dean Brown, contributing editor at PopMatters and metal scribe for a number of other sites, when it comes to Burzum, “I don’t have a problem separating the reprehensible turd from his music. The guy wrote some of the best black metal ever, and nobody can take his artistic impact on the history of black metal away from him, no matter what horrendous bullshit he says and does.” However, Brown notes that there are further elements to the argument, and he also recognizes that “Vikernes is probably the most controversial musician out there, and there’s plenty of merit in saying he’s received enough publicity at this stage.”

For Adrien Begrand (see his articles on PopMatters here), writer for MSN, Decibel, and Terrorizer, it can be easy to separate the artist from the art (“Personally, I have no problem with that.”) but he acknowledges it can also be a process of ongoing evaluation.

“As a writer, it gets thorny, and you have to be a lot more careful. Dealing with Leviathan’s 2011 album True Traitor, True Whore, which clearly referenced the violent allegations against band founder Jef Whitehead, and which came out before the trial even happened, was a challenge. The music was phenomenal, but the anger in it was disturbing. I was the subject of some hateful words by several women via Twitter–how quick some people are to condemn–but in writing about the music I tried hard not to take sides, to not ignore the back story, and to explain the merit of that music that was created amidst such controversy. Indeed, all sexual assault charges against Whitehead were dropped and he was slapped with domestic battery (clearly, the guy has issues) and I was left with a valuable lesson in how to write about a polarizing artist, as both a writer and critic.”

Separating the artist from the art is something many music fans claim to do, but we also fuse the two closer when necessary. Watain wouldn’t be fun without the devilish reputation and dead crows stuffed in the suitcase. Folks aren’t listening to Gwar for the music alone (they want the obscenity, too), and GG Allin wouldn’t be a legendary anti-authoritarian hero to many if it weren’t for the self-mutilation and all the bananas he shoved up his ass.

On the face of it, it might seem simple to dump the politics when dealing with controversial issues and artists. But if we’re discussing any aspect of metal, that’s a conversation framed by our expectations of metal’s content, and the political dimensions of the scene as a whole. There’s no escaping that.

Again, there’s nothing elementary about offensiveness’s role in metal, or how fans deal with it.

Positively/Negatively Hateful

In metal’s incessant toying with transgressive topics, it demolishes a raft of sincerely held beliefs. Some bands back that up with perceptive communiqués, while others set out to rouse an impassioned reaction. Both options have produced great metal bands, and it makes for a combustible scene.

As mentioned, you’ll find sexism and misogyny in metal, as well as racism, homophobia and elitism. However, the genre also clearly empowers women, and people of all ethnicities, sexualities, and classes the world over. For every smoked-out, hippie lovin’, pro-animal, anti-war or eco-friendly band, there’s a Satanic, gun-toting, warmongering, meat eatin’ crew to match. (And for every beautifully existential or melancholic song, there’s one praising revenge and gutter-bound debauchery.)

Metal can be a lot of things, and some of those will be offensive to someone. However, as fans we’re utterly committed to metal because there’s a voice somewhere in the genre that represents our own views on life. Much of the ear-splitting noise we listen to might be seen as challenging, especially when it’s used to attack stale social norms. However, it’s gratifying to raise the finger to the world via metal because, in the end, it’s a fantastically visceral vent for dealing with the day-to-day grind of life, and wider societal frustrations.

San Francisco-based journalist Beth Winegarner has written extensively about media misrepresentations of metal, and the positive role it has as a medium for discussing dark ideas. Her explanation of that would resonate with many fans.

“Metal has never been a ‘polite’ kind of music. While some bands go for shock value on purpose, others are genuinely trying to give voice to the not-very-pleasant feelings we all have. There are times when we hate everyone, hate the opposite gender, or fantasize about killing our bosses–we’ve all had that kind of day. Suppressing those feelings is one way to cope, but listening to a song that validates those feelings can help us move on to more positive ones. It’s a form of theater, a form of that old dramatic-arts concept called catharsis, and it’s perfectly healthy as long as you don’t let it overtake you. Sure, there are people who will find those messages upsetting and offensive. That’s okay; find something that provides you catharsis.” 

If we extend Winegarner’s argument, we come to a very important point about metal. In granting space to explore dark thoughts, the genre also allows us construct notions of identity free from guilt, or at least sheltered from the disapproval of the mainstream. That’s a crucial aspect of metal; it’s a counter cultural community after all, and while fans might encounter thorny issues, they do so willingly because the payoff is so rewarding.

However, all that potentially offensive material eventually lands somewhere. Some fans might be able to laugh it off as imaginary tales, but for others it’s not make-believe; especially when they experience the harm of it themselves.

It might seem ridiculous to suggest that any actual harm can come from discussing dark thoughts; after all, it’s all just fantasy, right? But in Laina Dawes’ book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, she powerfully documented how she and others have had to negotiate intolerant attitudes and content in metal.

South African metal fan and writer Lav Nandlall has also experienced sexism and racism in the metal scene. “I’m half Arabic and half Asian. I have experienced the ‘What are you doing here?’ expression at gigs and have been asked on several occasions ‘Which band is your boyfriend in?’ I’ve been bounced at venues and told ‘Go home, Sweetheart, this isn’t for you!’ But, I still endure… for something that ignites a visceral fire inside of me.”

For many fans, that ‘visceral fire’ drives them to continually search for meaning within the genre, even if they have to confront intolerance and offensiveness along the way.

As far as intolerance goes, if there’s one thing metal does exceedingly well, it’s seek out every possible avenue to assault religion. Metal bands can and do eruditely lambaste religious hypocrisy, some call for the annihilation of (primarily) Abrahamic faiths, while others slap “Jesus is a Cunt” on a T-shirt or provide illustrations of religious figures being assailed (in a number of confronting and creative ways) by demonic figures.

All of that content ceaselessly and remorselessly attacks religion, and the biggest target for metal’s vitriol is Christianity. Metal’s never been short on blasphemous content, but there are still plenty of Christian metal fans. Obviously, there’s a Christian metal scene catering to the faith, but it’s mostly filled with tedious metalcore bands, so it’s no surprise many Christian fans seek their metal in the muddier, and perhaps nastier, end of the pool. That can no doubt lead to some confusing conflicts of faith, but as we’ve seen, things are never straightforward in metal.

PopMatters writer and columnist Brice Ezell is a metal fan and a Christian, and his views on the genre show the diversity of opinion that comes from negotiating what could be deemed as offensive. “My theistic beliefs are, in some metal circles, laughable, or at the very least unpopular. Yet, aside from when people degrade or murder people for ideological reasons, I not only invite but demand opinions different from mine. Those who disagree with me aren’t enemies to conquer, they’re brothers and sisters in arms. I become a better thinker, and subsequently a better person, when I’m challenged by the beautiful brutality of metal in all its voices. When it comes to controversy, I like it as downtuned as possible.”

Some fans do have to find ways to balance the benefits of being a metal fan with material or attitudes they find problematic. They don’t simply reject offensiveness, nor do they passively accept it, but they use it as a springboard to wider discussions about its role, both good and bad. This brings to light the decisions we all make as metal fans, and illuminates a word that many might find a little ludicrous in discussions about metal: ethics.

A Very Dirty Word

What we’ve seen so far is that metal’s history of in-built transgression and controversy has caused fans to make deeply personal decisions on how to conceptualize offensiveness, even if that’s simply to say “More entrails, please.” That doesn’t mean people who enjoy music and imagery that others find offensive are morally reprehensible, nor does it mean those who call out misogyny, racism or homophobia are killjoys. We’re all just trying to make sense of a broken world.

For some, offensiveness is a serious business, and they seek out the most extreme material they can find. Others might despise one element (say sexism) but choose to accept another (like hints of ultra-nationalism). Yet others might think socially conscious metal is a ridiculous notion, but happily spin their Napalm Death CDs. The point is that every fan chooses their own path, and that’s a bearing grounded in ethical choices.

We make choices every day using our internal moral compass, whether our direction finders favor Satan and his minions or any other religious or secular orientation. I’d argue that metal fans do exactly the same when choosing who to listen to, or deciding where to draw the line. In fact, I’d argue that ultimately, ethics is what it all comes down to.

That’s How Kids Die writer Josh Haun has a straight-forward counter-argument to that premise, and it’s one that would resonate with many metal fans.

“I don’t think ethics have anything to do with it. Reason being is that metal lyrics are pure fantasy. Take something like older Cannibal Corpse lyrics; how is listening to “Entrails Ripped from a Virgin’s Cunt” any different than watching a splatter or torture porn film? Some would probably argue both this song and these films are misogynistic and glorify violence, but both are so over-the-top that there’s just no way that anyone could possibly take them seriously. Even these bands with members that espouse reprehensible social/political beliefs are living in a fantasy world; Varg Vikernes and Rob Darken can blog and play dress up all they want, but last time I checked their ideology had already failed miserably as of about seventy years ago.”

Haun’s argument is compelling, especially in these days of exaggerated iniquity and brutishness. However, I’d still contend that rejecting the place of ethics in metal is an ethical decision, and that metal’s been having one long ethical debate with the mainstream since day one.

Choosing to listen to potentially offensive material has an ethical component because it requires a justification measured against your own values, even if that’s simply saying to yourself “This is fine, this is just fantasy.” So while some may argue that ethics have no place in metal, or that immorality is the key, I’d argue that even the most anti-intellectual and nihilistic band plants its flag in soil fertilized by its own moral code–even if it’s soaked in loathing for the rest of humanity. 

As metal fans, we make decisions on what we listen to by determining what we inherently feel is right or wrong, evaluating that against what we think is a valid artistic expression. For some fans, like Leticia Supple, metal sits outside mainstream ethical concerns, and its non-normative culture has a different set of shared values. “Metal is not now, and has never been, about complying to social standards; metal (and its fans) have always existed in line with a ‘stand on your own feet’ creed. Therefore, I don’t believe that usual considerations apply. Ethics to metalheads is about what is truly correct in terms of humanity, not what is correct in terms of social mores, rules, or political correctness of any kind.”

For other metal fans, such as Gavin Russell, curator of the blog Tight to the Nail, there’s a clear, personal, ethical line: “It is post-millennial metalcore and its splinter genres’ apparent obsession with the punishment of women that I find worrying, and it is where I completely draw the line. The genre’s need to showcase sexism and justify outright violent misogyny in its videos and lyrics is regressive, stomach turning, and potentially damaging. Violence against women is abhorrent, adding a backing track somehow makes it even worse.”

Dean Brown sees it somewhat differently. “To me, metal is about pushing the limits of good taste, but there are limits and the music has to be worthwhile enough to back up the bad taste. I guess the question is where do you draw the line? It’s down to the individual who makes himself/herself a vessel to spread the word about controversial artists to decide. It’s a decision that should be considered at length and not taken lightly, because whether it be positive or negative commentary it’s still stoking a fire that the majority might wish was extinguished, and probably for good reason.”

That’s just a handful of opinions on ethics and metal, and there are probably a million others (including whether ethics play a role at all). However, tune in to any debate in the metal scene, and you’ll see fans using ethical determinations as the basis of their arguments. It doesn’t have to be about offensiveness either; it might well be about underground DIY ethics versus corporate metal concerns, the price of T-shirts, or even whether labels releasing works in multiple formats is a way of milking the last pennies from fans.

Ethics might not leap to mind as fans’ main tool for making decisions about any element of the metal scene. But I’d argue that every one of those decisions is governed by individual fans asking themselves a very simple question, “How do I feel about this?” That’s a question bound to one’s ethical base, and whether the answer is “I think all this needs is a touch more of Satan’s sacred vomit,” “Power ballads cross the line for me,” “Dave Mustaine’s a jackass, but Rust in Peace is fantastic,” or “Nothing is ever too offensive; humanity is a steaming pile of feces anyway,” those are all ethical choices.

Fuck You

If things have gone well, this month’s column has underscored that there are as many different arguments about the role offensiveness plays in metal as there are ways to deal with the implications. That’s my individual perspective, backed by my experience of 30 years of listening to metal, but what’s truly great about the metal scene is that there’s always an alternate viewpoint out there that simply says: fuck you.

Fuck you for presuming you can explain how I feel about metal.

Fuck you for even thinking that metal needs explaining.

And fuck you for thinking anyone’s remotely interested in your opinion.

All valid points.

Metal’s a passionate, antagonistic, exuberant, surly, empowering and messed up scene. Just like life. That’s why we dig it, and that’s why offensiveness plays such an important role.

Metal deals in uncomfortable propositions, and yeah, some of those are offensive to someone, but that helps us organize the architecture of the world into something more realistic. Metal doesn’t presume our futures will be filled with hope and advancement, and the best metal bands aren’t interested in selling us an unobtainable dream with an accompanying cell phone plan to cope with that news.

Metal’s musically, lyrically, and aesthetically challenging, and unlike the bland music clogging up the charts, metal forces us to consider contentious issues. The world is offensive and grotesque on so many levels, and if we’re using metal as a conduit to explore that truth, or wrest some control over our lives, then it opens the opportunity for us to debate ideologies and ideas that we should be arguing about anyway.

The purpose of art is to inspire discussion, and metal provides content and opinions that are unquestionably thought provoking. Some people might think that metal’s too filthy or too distorted a lens to gaze at the world through, but the bulk of us fans don’t care who finds metal lewd, crude, or otherwise. The story metal tells us simply rings true in our lives, offensive or not. Rather that than the banal bullshit the mainstream tries to sell us every day.