Music

Black Mass Murder: Extreme Metal and the PMRC

Image from the cover of Everblack (2013)

A mainstream metal band like The Black Dahlia Murder is more explicit than anything the Parents Music Resource Center sought to regulate in 1985.

"The recording industry today agreed to place warning labels or print lyrics on album covers to aid parents who want to know if their children are buying songs with explicit references to sex or violence.

The inscription will read -Explicit Lyrics -- Parental Advisory.'"

-- Associated Press, 1 November 1985

Three decades have passed since record companies agreed to self-regulate by placing parental guidance/advisory labels on music releases that contained explicitly sexual and/or violent lyrics. In September of 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) joined politicians, musicians, and various experts in a hearing before the United States Senate. At issue was material perceived to have a negative influence on young listeners.

PMRC co-founder Susan Baker, wife of then-Treasury Secretary James Baker, spoke of the “epidemic proportions” of suicide, rape, and pregnancy rates among teenagers. Baker observed, “There certainly are many causes for these ills in our society, but it is our contention that the pervasive messages aimed at children which promote and glorify suicide, rape, sadomasochism, and so on, have to be numbered among the contributing factors.”

Musicians from seemingly disparate corners of the industry appeared to oppose the rating of content. John Denver voiced his opposition to censorship. Frank Zappa opined about the futility of the PMRC’s efforts and questioned possible ulterior motives. A common concern of the musicians who testified was the likelihood that content would be (or had already been) misinterpreted as offensive in nature.

In hindsight, much of the content under review in 1985 seems tame by 2015 standards. The “Filthy Fifteen” list of most offensive songs included risqué tunes by Sheena Easton and Cyndi Lauper; songs that would not cause the faintest of stirs in today’s pop music marketplace that celebrates Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus. Twisted Sister’s aggressive “We’re Not Gonna Take It”m another of the “Filthy Fifteen”, is now so innocuous that it's played at campaign events of mainstream political aspirants, most recently by presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Furthermore, as music consumption has trended away from store-bought physical copies and toward downloading and streaming of legal and illegal varieties, the very presence of the advisory has also eroded. In 2005, with CD sales already in decline, a Gallup Youth Survey revealed that “the vast majority of teens, 74%, said warning labels on CDs do not affect their purchase decisions either way” and “that only 3% of teen respondents said the warning label makes them more likely to buy the music CD, and 23% said that a label makes them less likely to buy the CD.”

Ten years on from that poll, the discs have disappeared; never mind the labels. In the past year, the label’s presence in the culture was extended through the memetic marketing of the film Straight Outta Compton, which used the label design as its logo. But movie posters aside, three decades of cultural and commercial shifts have offered compelling evidence that this particular form of self-regulation has lost its place and purpose. In this anniversary year of a watershed moment in popular culture, it's worth considering those principles of the advisory that (should) have remained relevant or grown in relevancy. Nowhere is this conversation more necessary than in the world of extreme metal music.

Metal dates back to the '60s, and its history is much broader than any single controversy might suggest to casual listeners or horrified observers like the PMRC. However, the genre’s inherent envelope-pushing with regard to explicit content gives it a unique status among other types of music and their associated functions. While any individual listener’s relationship to music is subjective, and total devotion to or immersion in any type of music is probably not healthy, heavy metal contains certain properties that increase the likelihood for a dangerous “close identification”, as described by Dr. Paul King, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who spoke at the Senate hearing in September 1985.

Discussing the correlation between convicted or accused killers and heavy metal listening, Dr. King testified, “This is not to say that the music made them into killers, but that in their insane, drug-crazed thinking, identification strongly with the lyrics of songs. I see the same process in my work with chemically dependent and hateful teenagers. Every teenager who listens to heavy metal certainly does not become a killer. Young people who are seeking power over others through identification with the power of evil find a close identification. The lyrics become a philosophy of life. It becomes a religion.”

The songbook of this religion is very much in demand. Heavy metal fans have long been known as reliable consumers for metal merchandise of all types. If a musician wants to sell CDs, t-shirts, patches, and any number of other products, heavy metal is a good storefront. Data from streaming services substantiates the reputation of heavy metal fans as ravenous, repeat devourers of content.

Earlier this year, Spotify/Insights published "Which Music Genres Have the Loyalest Fans?", the results of a global study of “genre loyalty”. The methodology involved “[dividing] the number of streams each core artist had by their number of listeners,” with “all of the charts ... normalized against the genre with the loyalest fans.” Through this process, Spotify concluded, “Metal fans are the world’s loyalest listeners.”

As the move to streaming platforms has sustained and further popularized the core artists of a genre that was once perceived as subversive, one might conclude that the PMRC lost the war; that its objections were simply the complaints of a group of people that would never choose to be the audience for such music in the first place. Indeed, Spotify’s numbers suggest that the once-loud voice of the PMRC contingent represents not only a minority of music listeners, but also an increasingly distant one.

However, I would argue that other developments in heavy metal have validated the PMRC’s concerns. Viewed this way, the PMRC is not behind the times. In some ways, those calling for regulation and advisories in 1985 were ahead of their time. The “religion” Dr. King described, involving music that extols the power of evil, is itself more visible than ever. Interest in black metal, death metal, and countless sub-genres and variations thereof, has proliferated in recent years, thanks in part to online accessibility and popularization.

Murder, church burning, and National Socialism form the origin stories of early-'90s black metal artists whose cultural influence is immense despite the "evil" of their ideology. Until the Light Takes Us, a 2009 documentary I reviewed for PopMatters, uncritically tells the story of a few key figures of the period. That documentary, like so many other contexts and commentaries that keep black metal alive, exhibits a blind or ironic detachment from the anti-life, pro-murder philosophy at the core of the scene.

Perhaps the most glaring paradox of subsequent generations of “outsider” black metal-influenced artists is their wholesale acceptance or apparent acceptability within popular culture, to degrees the PMRC could not have imagined in 1985. One group that is most emblematic of this new reality is the Black Dahlia Murder. While not a black metal group, the Black Dahlia Murder is band that has subsumed decades of extreme metal into a highly successful product, apparently malleable enough to feature at venues as dissimilar as Wacken Open Air and Warped Tour and points between.

What is the message that the Black Dahlia Murder promotes to its listenership that spans from tweens to heavy metal lifers? A journey through new album Abysmal tells the tale. Opening track and single “Receipt” is a paean to suicide. Lyrics include the phrases “My conscience has begged me to end this horrendousness / Wrap rope so tightly ‘round my neck and twist / Suicide be my guide / The only thing I will get right in this life”. Whereas critics of metal controversies past sometimes saw subliminal boogeymen that weren’t actually there, the Black Dahlia Murder’s lyrics read as manuals of destruction.

In addition to suicide, Abysmal also instructs in the torture and murder of victims beyond the self. In “Re-Faced”, singer and lyricist Trevor Strnad sings “It’ll be our little secret / There’s not a soul that has to know / I prefer to leave the victim living so the show they may endure / Hours moaning, slowly bleeding / Chained unto the cellar floor”.

Christians are singled out for death, for example in “Advent”: “The advent is here dawn of the Antichrist / They tread our world on borrowed time / Pushed back amongst the shadows / Disguised for centuries / The time is now to rise and crush our Christian enemies down”. These lyric selections are just a few of the incitements, threats, and dark ponderings to be found in the worldview of the Black Dahlia Murder, whose merchandise is readily available to young people at music festivals, at shopping malls, and of course online, where everything is "free".

On iTunes, the Abysmal page is emblazoned with a traditional “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker image as well as “Explicit” markers next to each track. However, on label Metal Blade’s online storefront, no advisory appears on the product page for the album. Likewise, none of the formats of the album offered on Amazon (CD, mp3, or vinyl) are accompanied by an advisory.

Amazon’s position on the advisory appears to be inconsistent, as veteran metal band Slayer’s new album Repentless is marked as explicit on track after track. Repentless is full of Satanic iconography and was provocatively released on 11 September 2015 in order to double down on the desecration of having released God Hates Us All on 11 September 2001. But the album is arguably no worse than Abysmal in its power to negatively influence the listener. Yet Abysmal escapes the advisory that Repentless receives. One could spend years comparing the different editions of these sorts of albums and their inconsistent labeling by record labels and retailers, but there is a bigger picture to explore.

A band like the Black Dahlia Murder has entered the mainstream by going even deeper into explicit content than their forbears, who were considered taboo in their time. When I was growing up in the '90s, Cannibal Corpse was the band most popularly associated with death metal. While they occasionally popped up in mainstream outlets like MTV or, bizarrely, in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the content was edited to an arguably age-appropriate form. To get the full Cannibal Corpse experience would require being an adult willing and able to purchase the album from a brick and mortar retailer. Furthermore, the full Cannibal Corpse experience wasn’t always available to even these adult consumers, as the band’s album artwork was censored or banned in various places around the world.

The concurrent Norwegian black metal scene was relatively localized and contained in its day. When the media spotlight shone on the scene, the reasons for coverage were real-life crimes and acts of violence like church arsons, suicide, and murder; acts that could not be defended as the free expressions of artists. Yet the present, Internet-fueled popular culture canonization of artists like Varg Vikernes of Burzum seems to have occurred because of his criminal infamy, not in spite of it. Vikernes’ legacy will not be primarily a musical one.

The men of the Black Dahlia Murder were once young guys whose tastes and skills were indebted to the histories of death metal and black metal, including and far surpassing Cannibal Corpse and Burzum. As active heirs to those musical thrones, they have consumed music endlessly, worked tirelessly to tour, and built a brand. Their brand combines the gore of death metal with the Satanism and nihilism of black metal, and the world is their stage. Considering as much partying as they seem to do on the road, the ritual of spreading this sort of message must drain a person after a while. The band’s revolving door of very talented musicians in the past decade is possibly, on some unspoken level, a sign of that physical and spiritual weariness.

Last year, Michael Kiske (formerly of metal band Helloween) wrote an opinion piece for Metal Blast. In the article, “The Worship of Evil in the Heavy Metal Scene”, Kiske states, “The metal-scene needs to understand that there is absolutely nothing cool, sexy, free or individual about evil. If your sister or your brother gets murdered by an evil soul, what is cool about that? If you experience evil yourself, you will learn its moral reality. Some people really need to go through hell before they really understand that evil is NOT a quality, but a horrible weakness; it’s the absence of light and heart, it’s the death of the soul!”

In 1985, the year Kiske joined Helloween, it would have been hard to imagine the singer of a metal band using nearly the exact same language as Dr. Paul King did in his testimony warning of “identification with the power of evil”. To this day, the metal moment from those hearings is the sight of Dee Snider asserting his right not to take it anymore. That Kiske, a respected metal figure, feels moved to publicly take metal to task for promoting evil is another sign that the PMRC was prescient.

Kiske is not alone. Several of metal and rock music’s most visible participants have calmed, slowed down, or otherwise lightened up, escaping their “city of woe”. Ozzy Osbourne was refashioned into a sitcom Dad. The members of Metallica went through several makeovers and put their therapy sessions on display. Alice Cooper is a Christian.

In all likelihood, the members of the Black Dahlia Murder would not declare an identification with evil. In fact, a song like “Asylum”, also on Abysmal, attests to the value of life by bemoaning the poor conditions of mental health institutions. Strnad sings, “Out of our sight, out of our minds / Where is the kindness in our humankind?” It’s only one song, but compared to the malevolence of the album as a whole, the sentiment is as penetrating as that of 1967's Titicut Follies. So these guys do know better, but they choose to promote evil because that is the winning formula.

The particular Faustian bargain of a life in metal, and one’s chances of escape, is not the central matter here. Ultimately, the effect of music that worships evil is that immersed listeners could begin to worship evil without even knowing it. On this, Dr. King and Kiske agree. Present-day concerns of school shootings, terrorism, suicide rates, depression, and other negative realities should include conversation about all potentially contributing factors, including music.

On the subject of the arts, when moral panic appears to guide a cultural response, it's useful to separate the facts from the hype. Is there causality? Do the effects justify the claims? In cases such as this one, time does tell. Thirty years have passed since the PMRC officially initiated the conversation, and we have 30 years of evidence to weigh against the allegations of the hearings. As advisories have become increasingly unenforceable or irrelevant, explicit content has gone so unchecked that lyric booklets are literally instruction sheets for suicide, rape and murder.

To read the 1985 testimony in 2015 is to realize that what once seemed like overstated alarmism now describes the status quo. Is that not cause for alarm?

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