Opinionated art

Diane,

A friend of mine recently told me the story of how he logged into his neighbor’s network through their unprotected wireless router.  He found their music library, an oddly assorted collection of Britney Spears pop and Burzum black metal and all points in between (which I guess is all the points there are).  Browsing over the black metal, he found a lot of so-called NSBM (national socialist black metal), which basically means racist Satanists from Norway.  He may or may not have deleted some of it.

This is interesting to me because of my recent insider/outsider status in the online metal community.  I occasionally post on a couple different forums, mainly to gather death metal recommendations from people who’ve been listening to the stuff for two decades more than I have.  On that front I’ve done extremely well.  I don’t listen to black metal*, but one can’t participate in that kind of forum without at least skimming over some of the black metal-oriented conversations.

Now, there is definitely such a thing as racist death metal.  Arghoslent is probably the best-known proponent of growly singing about flogging a particular kind of now-illegal cargo.**  But they don’t represent a very large trend.  NSBM, on the other hand, is widespread enough to have earned itself a genre name, albeit one that rarely appears in Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly’s music section. 

The people who listen to this music are in some unmeasurable percentage not racists, though, and that is what fascinates me.  If you ask them about it, the general theory goes like this:

1. It doesn’t really matter what they’re singing about if the music is good.

2. Besides, you can’t understand them most of the time anyway.

3. I have a black friend.

4. Wagner hated Jews, so, y’know, wtf.

I haven’t had to indulge in this exact rationalization myself, because I don’t listen to NSBM.  I don’t listen to black metal in general – most of it strikes me as juvenile, talentless, and ridiculous.  If death metal is a cousin to good horror movies (as I’ve argued previously), most black metal reminds me of those Italian cannibal movies where they stage gruesome scenes designed to look like no-budget snuff flicks, and sprinkle on some actual animal killing for flavor.  I don’t watch Italian cannibal movies from the seventies, and I don’t listen to black metal.  And even if I was going to listen to black metal, I doubt I’d be deep enough into it to have exhausted all the good bands and need to move on to shitty racist ones.

But the basic concepts here should be familiar to fans of several other kinds of music – most notably hip hop and dancehall.  And indeed, Diane, I listen to both. 

Hip hop ran into a lot of trouble in its early days by damning homosexuals (Brand Nubian, 2Pac, lots of other guys) and Jews (Public Enemy’s Prof. Griff, Ice Cube).  After a few public relations disasters, it seems like most rap artists – or maybe their record labels – learned not to cross those lines.  You still can hear some homophobic and anti-Semitic rants on hip hop records, but they’re buried a little deeper and scattered a little wider.  Certainly not a lot of major label releases are going out with this kind of rhetoric embedded in them.  Where they still venture though (and problematically for the enlightened listener) is into the dark waters of misogyny, as well as anti-white racism.  The former is more common – so common, in fact, that I think the average gangsta rap listener long ago stopped being shocked or surprised by songs that refer to bitches and hos, and in what capacity said bitches and hos are best used.***  Anti-white racism is fading out, especially now that MC Ren is off the scene and Ice Cube is making kiddie movies in exchange for what must be fifty zillion dollars and all the free handjobs he wants, but it still carries an aura of acceptability.  In fact, most white listeners I’ve spoken with about this type of lyric have shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess that’s fair.”  The spectre of slavery and segregation have created a free pass for this kind of subject matter.  You’re more likely to get in trouble in the media for a gay slur in your rap song than for calling whites “devils” or talking about shooting up a white suburb.  (To be honest, if anybody wants to go shoot up Carmel, IN this weekend, I’m available and would be happy to drive.)

Dancehall has an even bigger PR problem than hip hop nowadays.  To give some background, Jamaica is a pretty homophobic island.  Homophobia is deeply ingrained in both the culture and the most well-known (though far from statistically dominant) religion, Rastafarianism.  A lot of Jamaicans in general are prejudiced against gays, and an even larger proportion of rastas are.  I don’t know for sure, but it would not surprise me if the likes of Bob Marley and Winston Rodney (a.k.a. Burning Spear) were homophobic to some degree.  However, they didn’t sing about it.+  But as reggae has evolved into the more aggressive digital styles of ragga and dancehall, homophobia has jumped to the forefront.

Roots reggae was always infused with rasta spirituality – one love and all that.  As such there was a certain amount of anti-Babylon polemicism, a degree of condemnation of us American sodomites (not necessarily meaning “one who practices sodomy,” but rather a latter-day resident of a metaphorical Sodom and Gomorrah).  Dancehall has evolved that into a full-on battle against homosexuality.  Slack artistes++ like Bounty Killer will use some unfortunate gay slurs and insult an opponent by saying he’s homosexual, but it’s really the rastas in dancehall who sling the most anti-gay fire.  Capleton and Sizzla, two singers whose music I enjoy, have been banned from performing in certain venues (and even whole countries) because of some of their lyrics.  Partly this is because the rasta way of speaking sounds more violent than it is.  A singer condemning the gay lifestyle will “bun [burn] it out” or throw “fire pon dem,” which is not intended to describe a literal torching of gay people, but rather a spiritual fire that cleanses sin.  In the same manner, for instance, a rasta would sing about burning down Babylon, which just means me and most of my friends (small comfort, eh? Enjoy another day of sin, fellow Babylonian).  Where the trouble comes in is in the more literal violence of songs like Buju Banton’s notorious “Boom Bye Bye,” or Sizzla’s “Gunshot.”  It may be a lot of big talk or it may not – Banton was recently charged with attacking some men who were believed to be homosexual – but either way it’s a troubling tendency.  More difficult for the listener is that your average Capleton or Sizzla album tends more toward roots reggae and milder lyrical themes; it’s usually on the single-only, aggressive dancehall tracks that they cut loose and really burn out the sodomites (this time meaning exactly “one who practices sodomy”).  So if I buy the latest by one of these guys, am I supporting their hidden agenda?  Should I wait for them to stop releasing anti-gay singles before I spend money on their gay-neutral (or non-gay-mentioning) albums?

I don’t have a good answer for this; it’s just a dilemma I have been thinking about.  My conscience is clear when it comes to NSBM and Arghoslent, because I don’t like either one.  But I do buy a lot of hip hop and dancehall, and I’m sure some of the artists I’m supporting are harboring some not-really-concealed homophobic and misogynistic and possibly racist agendas.  (Note: just to pre-empt any accusations of racism on MY part, I am going to point out that I also own three Eminem albums, and he is square in the center of this discussion as well, considering tracks like the infamous “97 Bonnie and Clyde” and his pre-Elton John lyrics about gays.  Intolerance and prejudice is by no means a black or Jamaican province; I just happen to listen to a lot of black and Jamaican music.)  Am I obligated as a consumer to only support artists whose politics and opinions I agree with?  Or at least not support the ones whose politics and opinions I strongly DISAGREE with?

Would I buy a Ku Klux Klan monthly calendar?  Even if it had Jessica Alba in various stages of partial nakedness on every page?  No, I wouldn’t.  (Uh, probably.)  So maybe I shouldn’t be buying music by anyone who sings about hitting women or gays.  There is one difference, though, which is that the Klan primarily exist to further prejudice; artists primarily exist to create art.  Even politicized art is mainly intended to entertain and stimulate the mind+++, which is very different from an organization holding racist rallies and trying to get affirmative action laws overturned.  And unlike your standard skinhead punk band, most of the artists we’re discussing here sing about things other than their unfortunate prejudices.  Eminem rapped about killing his bitch wife (a few times) – but mostly he raps about killing everybody else, plus doing drugs, trading letters with Stan, and losing himself in the moment.  I don’t feel like the money I give to Eminem is going into his “Kill All The Bitches legislation” fund.  I’m guessing (hoping) he doesn’t have one.  More likely it’s funding his pot-buying and his next “Rocky” remake.  Mostly it allows him to continue to exist as an artist.

The difficulty re-enters here though: if an artist is encouraging people who aren’t very good at thinking for themselves to have intolerant, prejudiced attitudes, should I oppose the art?  A lot of Eminem fans are young and stupid.  They absorb anything you put in front of them – and then spit it back out like parrots.  And regardless of the fact that Eminem hasn’t made me cut your head off and stuff you in my trunk, Diane, it’s possible that he might be gently enticing some other dumbass out there to do so.

It’s a question that I’m not going to answer now.  I’ve babbled on for far too long already, and besides, it should be obvious to you that at this point I don’t really have an answer.  It’s just something for all us hip hop, dancehall, national socialist black metal, and racist polka fans to consider.  And to my friend browsing his neighbor’s music collection: don’t delete their shitty black metal collection.  Maybe eventually they’ll decide to do that on their own.  Maybe not.  Or maybe they’re actually a bunch of racist assbags – but hey, even racists are entitled to their bizarre, completely wrong-headed opinions, and their Britney Spears albums.

* For those of you out there wondering, death metal and black metal are not the same thing – no matter what allmusic.com tells you.  Death metal is an outgrowth of thrash (e.g. Metallica, Slayer) that places a high value on technical skill, and utilizes a lot of twisted guitar riffs, low-pitched vocals, and precise drumming to get its point across.  Lyrics can be about almost anything (though mostly they are about mortality and sub-horror movie gore descriptions).  Black metal is defined as much by ideology (“we love Satan!”) as music (“we like singing in a high-pitched rasp that sounds eeeeevil… to high school students!”).

** Meaning slaves.  Seriously, they have a song called “Flogging The Cargo,” and that’s exactly what it’s about.  They also titled one of their albums “Incorrigibly Bigotry.”  For some reason, these guys get a lot of hate mail.  For some other reason that is a lot less clear, the metal community is generally accepting and borderline-worshipful of this band.  Maybe they’re just stunned that a bunch of racist dickwipes playing metal don’t sound like a pig with its foot in a blender.  I’ve spoken with a guy who describes himself as mixed Puerto Rican and Spanish; he listens to Arghoslent, and commented that he didn’t feel bad about listening to them because he’s “not a jew and not a full spic.”

*** Sperm receptacle, punching bag.

+ Burning Spear is actually still alive and active in reggae, but sorting out the tense changes in these two sentences was too irritating to finish.  My apologies to Mr. Spear.

++ Being “slack” in Jamaica is the equivalent of being a gangsta thug in America; slackness is the same as hooliganism, but the word is a lot less hilarious.  “Artiste” is how they refer to musical artists – I wasn’t just spelling it that way to be annoying.

+++ This is what differentiates art from propaganda, and “Birth Of A Nation” from “Triumph Of The Will.”

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15 Responses to Opinionated art

  1. Shae says:

    The difficult part is that art (especially good art) is almost always a purging of some kind of ugliness.

    You could shun expressions of racism and homophobia fairly easily. Misogyny would be a little more challenging — it isn’t always as obvious as “Smack my bitch up.”

    Then you’d have to consider expressions of other impulses that are wrong. Like several awesome songs about lying, cheating, revenge, abandoning one’s wife and kids, running from the law, and killing people (Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, $1.99 Millers.)

    It wouldn’t be possible, and it would leave us with Wilson Philips and Thomas Kincaid.

    Often the distinction is that good art presents sin with irony or self reflection, but sometimes there’s a fine line. And many a truth is spoken in jest.

  2. William Tell says:

    I don’t know, Dale, I just don’t know.

    Now hold still while I try to shoot this apple off of your head.

  3. specialagentdalecooper says:

    Damn, William, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t.

  4. William Tell says:

    Hell I was just kidding. The old crossbow arm isn’t what it used to be.

    I mostly prefer anarchist punk – but then again I made my name by fighting the man. Ha ha. I’m really not particularly violent. I’m not above rocking it pretty hard periodically… but I’m a pretty even tempered guy, and I’m a good dad.

  5. kit-chen says:

    Well there just isn’t an answer to the question. Obviously neither of us think people should be prevented from thinking and saying pretty much anything.

    But clearly neither of us really buy into the idea that media intake has no effect on people’s behavior.

    I guess we live in a world where a large number of people have the outlook of: well if you don’t approve of something that someone does their entire being is thrown into question somehow. We do it to politicians and historical figures too.

    So it just comes down to… what am I willing to overlook and what does that say about me?

    i think mostly i’m pretty comfortable with just about everything being part of a big fuzzy center. i don’t mind making those kinda judgments arbitrarily.

    i do wish hip hop would try to be a little more socially self-aware and a little less macho. i still like it though.

  6. Jen Fu says:

    I think you should just illegally download stuff you don’t approve of morally, even though you morally disapprove of illegal downloading. Sometimes two wrongs DO make a right.

  7. specialagentdalecooper says:

    Jen – that was succinct and succulent. I’m definitely going to consider that.

  8. gb says:

    Actually, I think you’ve solved this one.

  9. Gin Rickey says:

    I think this becomes either a non-issue or something pretty troublesome depending on which side of the “how influenced are people by entertainment” argument you’re on. You truly could be financially supporting negative stereotypes and making the world a little worse too boot, or just “listening to the beat.”
    Another tragedy of the commons, right?

  10. fyah says:

    Good article. I am an avid dancehall fan and I spend a lot of time in Jamaica. It is difficult for me to balance my love of the music (even songs that are blatently homophobic) with my liberal views. However, I balance and communicate with friends, co-workers, and society in general who all have different beliefs than I may hold. Live and let live. As long as you do contribute to the hatred. Furthermore, these songs can be used as a barometer of discontent and a spring board to address these issues.

  11. alex r says:

    I’m a fan of both death and black metal. I find your characterization of black metal off. Comparing it to “those Italian cannibal movies where they stage gruesome scenes designed to look like no-budget snuff flicks” isn’t really accurate; that sounds more like a description of grindcore.

    Black Metal at its best isn’t about brutality, it’s about atmosphere. A lot of music in the genre is suffused with melancholy and dread in a way that thrash, death metal and grindcore are generally not. An album like Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse isn’t exactly some poorly recorded tribute to girls getting eaten by zombies.

    As for politics, there’s no denying the questionable views of many involved with the genre. Convicted murderer Varg Vikernes of Burzum, one of the founders of the modern black metal sound, is a pretty blatant racist asshole, for example.

    However, NSBM as a genre is fairly marginal within the scene and most black metal bands profess to be apolitical, preferring to sing about more generalized subject matter such as evil, misanthropy, cold freezing pagan moons and the like;-)

  12. Alex – thanks for the comment. I almost never go back and respond to old posts, but this one time I will.

    I was definitely unfair in my characterization of black metal, and largely because I thought I could get a little humor out of being an intolerant bastard. Hopefully the BM fans out there won’t take too much offense. Today I do actually own and listen to a couple dozen black metal albums. It’s still not my favorite metal genre at all (I prefer death, thrash, and doom) but there are artists I do quite admire – off the top of my head, Mortuary Drape, Necromass, Varathron, Root, Aeternus, Ulver, and even Beherit. The genre has a lot to offer but for me I had to look past the lo fi, endless-blasting stuff that is so predominant in Sweden and Norway. It also helps if the vocalist doesn’t sound like Gollum – I can’t get over feeling like that sounds hilarious rather than scary or evil in any way.

  13. alex r says:

    Thanks for responding!

    I (usually) don’t mind the gollum/troll style vocals that some bands use, but yeah, in the end it’s just a matter of taste.

    I like what I’ve read of this blog so far, I’m definitely adding it to my bookmarks!

  14. David Bettino says:

    I have to take issue with the author’s characterization of black metal in general. The opinion that it’s ‘shitty’ is actually a pretty common one amongst people who don’t really listen to metal – which is how he strikes me. I know maybe I’m stuck in my ways, but I haven’t met too many people who listen to death metal AND dancehall and hip hop. Anyway, when you actually listen carefully to some of the music, you discover that although its aesthetic is raw and minimalistic, the musicianship is generally quite good, for the better bands and auteurs. Burzum is minimalistic music but there is a great deal of sophistication and emotional depth to the arrangements (listen to Filosofem). Darkthrone were a technical death metal band before adopting the black metal style, and those guys have always been able to stop on a dime. Early Immortal and Emperor are absolutely as technically proficient as early Death or whatever.

    Now, as far as NSBM goes, it’s usually a label that doesn’t apply. There’s a bit of guilt by association going on. For example, many people consider Drudkh to be a NSBM band. Of course, there’s not a gish of politics in their music, nor have they ever expressed any racist ideologies. But they are Ukrainian, and it’s pretty much assumed among fans of black metal that any black metal that comes from the Ukraine is NS. Most ‘NSBM’ has nothing to do with National Socialism. Most of it just expresses atavistic, pagan beliefs, and it is usually nationalistic, in an apolitical sense. Temnozor is not the slightest bit political, nor are they racist as far as I can tell. But they do express Slavic pride. So they’re called ‘NSBM’.

    Another factor in the labeling of black metal as ‘NSBM’ has to do with a popular belief in an objective morality spanning nations and cultures, as opposed to a concept of moral relativism that can often blur the lines between what is and is not acceptable. What I mean is that here in the United States we tend to believe that racism and intolerance are the gravest of all offenses, that essentially the worst offense is to be offensive. Metal rejects this outrightly. Plenty of metal artists have adopted very taboo and racist lyrical themes when it was well understood that the band members personally did not have such beliefs (Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’). And the idea behind that was, of course, rejecting polite society. And that means something here in the States because we have among the most religiously fundamentalist populations in the world. Our metal tends to be quite offensive. Nonetheless, we Americans are born with a certain liberal sensibility with regard to cultural infusion. We are, after all, an immigrant nation. We’re born into this heterogenous culture (even if we forget this sometimes, ahem Republican anti-immigration reformists ahem), and that’s reflected in most Americans’ spirit of tolerance and acceptance. That is not to say that in Russia and the Ukraine they have no tolerance for outsiders, but we should also respect the fact that these people were not born in a country where ‘give us your tired and your poor’ is seen as a national ethos. They have a different understanding of these issues because, by and large, their populations are a great deal more homogenous. So, when their artists talk about defending ‘national pride’ or ‘national identity’ or even ‘racial pride’ we would do well not to apply the same moral standards to them that we would apply to one of our own citizens who expressed such ideas. In other words, our assumptions may be inaccurate. It is possible that Slavs or Scandinavians who talk about ‘racial identity’ may not carry in their hearts the same level of xenophobia and intolerance that we’d come to expect from fringe Republicans here in the States who use that same language. Here, it would be considered very taboo because this is a heterogenous society, so these opinions are regarded as anti-social. That may not be the case elsewhere. I think it’s possible that an absolutist moral perspective might play a hand in the labeling of bands as ‘NSBM’, since I think the label tends to originate from the West and is generally applied to Slavic and central European bands.

  15. David,

    This blog is abandoned and largely unmonitored, but I got an e-mail notice to moderate your comment and thought it was worth responding to in full.

    First, understand that this post represents my opinions from more than four years ago. I actually do listen to a modicum of black metal now, though I still am not very into the style on an aesthetic level and tend to prefer death, thrash and doom metal, plus a few random sub-genre-busting outliers. When I do listen to black metal, it tends to be from one of the unconventional smaller scenes like Greece rather than the dominant Norwegian or US depressive strains. Also understand that even when I wrote this, I did actually listen to a LITTLE bit of black metal. I was writing glibly because the post was long enough without lots of caveats and, y’know, nuances and shit.

    Second, know that my characterization of black metal as “shitty” was referring to specific bands or subsets of bands rather than black metal as a whole. I do know there are plenty of talented black metal bands that play pretty complex music, sometimes even in a studio that doesn’t sound like a shoebox buried in a shallow grave, and I also know that other bands are more talented than they let on (in other words, I’ve heard “Soulside Journey” and you’re not fooling me, Darkthrone). My general experience at that time was that most black metal bands that characterized themselves (unlike Drudkh) as NSBM were pretty much awful, and I haven’t encountered much since then to dissuade me from that view – though admittedly, I don’t spend a lot of time seeking out and sampling NSBM bands. There’s plenty else to listen to first.

    One last comment on myself before we move on to the meat of your argument. You imply that I don’t really listen to metal. My girlfriend would beg to differ and would prefer if I’d stop filling our house with CDs and records that frighten her. I can’t totally vouch for myself in 2007 – I was (as mentioned in the post) just returning to metal at that point and had only really been actively listening to it again for a couple of years, after nearly a decade obsessing on other things. But it certainly was something I spent more time listening to than any other genre, even then. Now in 2012 I do CD layouts for a metal record label, I draw cover art for bands occasionally, and my metal library is well past ten thousand tracks deep (all of which I paid for, thank you – it was a hard-earned milestone!). Believe me, you’re definitely talking to someone who has heard some metal.

    Now on to your arguments (at last… sorry!). First, you mention Drudkh and Temnozor as a route to suggest that the NSBM label is somehow unfair. I find this to be a weird tactic. You can argue that those specific bands and perhaps plenty of others are just Ukrainian pagan nationalists, or what have you. You can point out that other bands like Infester get perhaps a bum rap because of youthful impertinence with swastika imagery (that’s up for debate), or that the zeal of anti-NSBM forces has led to demonstrably innocent acts like Skyforger getting labeled as political simply because someone misunderstood the origins of a symbol in their art or on their logo. All that and more is true. But there is a busy, loud, very proud NSBM scene, and you don’t have to look far to find it. We can toss aside the likes of Drudkh and just focus on the bands that proclaim themselves racist/racialist/anti-Semitic/NS/whatever else. I have no problem with that. The point is, NSBM isn’t a ghost that anyone invented. It’s a very real thing that a large number of bands are proud to participate in, and not all of them are simply misunderstood nationalists from Eastern Europe.

    About moral relativism: that’s a fair point, or at least one worth engaging in in greater depth than I have time for on a defunct blog. I tend to invoke this point a little bit when it comes to dancehall, because a white, liberal, secular American simply cannot understand the cultural and religious factors that lead to so many Jamaican artists being opposed to the homosexual lifestyle. I don’t condone anti-gay lyrics from anyone, but I think the natural moral indignation it provokes in your average white American should be at least partly tempered by the realization that Jamaica is a very different place from Los Angeles or New York. They are on their own journey, and it’s not reasonable to expect them to match ours stride for stride, or even to think they’ll necessarily end up in the same place – though I think with the increasing globalization of everything (media, commerce, communications – all of it facilitated by the internet) it might be more inevitable today than it was thirty years ago. Dancehall fans in Jamaica are already complaining that their music is turning into a hybrid of itself and hip hop/R&B – how long until their culture does likewise, for better or worse? We better get used to being part of an ever-widening melting pot. It takes cussed determination to maintain a separate culture and morality from the dominant global one initiated by Western technology and democracy. (No value judgments intended in any of the preceding words.)

    I have a hard time applying that same logic to the Ukraine or Poland because, bluntly, I know fuck-all about it. I have read several books on Jamaica and posted on a forum dominated by Jamaicans for years, but I don’t have such a degree of familiarity with every other non-US country out there. (Too busy listening to music, perhaps. And writing 50,000 word responses to shit on the internet!) Basically, what I’m saying is, I will kind of take your word for it in lieu of having time and energy to research it in depth. I do feel though that there’s nothing wrong with exerting a general, low-level-but-insistent pressure across cultures to try to change attitudes abroad. I’m not even talking about boycotts or canceling visas, but just trying to open dialogue with the artists and culture leaders, and ask questions like, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t kill all the Jews or gays? Whaddaya think?”

    There’s also something to be said for metal’s intent to offend. Certainly a lot of bands play with imagery and ideas just to shock and break taboos. Slayer’s a perfect example. On the other hand, I would argue that nobody would confuse the clear storytelling of “Angel of Death” with, say, the cover art of Thor’s Hammer’s “The Fate Worse Than Death” (Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about). One is intended to make a direct political statement and is in no way distanced through narrative or any other device, and I think it’s pretty clear which is which.

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