Musings on metal and its evolving demography

Does the underground metal scene really have a social justice warrior problem?

So, yesterday, Decibel magazine published an article called “Does the underground metal scene really have a social justice warrior problem?” Its a guest-piece from Jeffrey Podoshen, a Ph.D. from Franklin and Marshall College. In the article, Podoshen writes about the black metal film documentary Until the Light Takes Us, which the wife & I saw at least a few years ago. He highlights a scene in the film in which Frost (Satyricon, 1349) demolishes a set and cuts himself, finally revealing to the audience, “I have no problems being self-destructive if the whole thing is something that I like.” Podoshen uses this scene in a course that he teaches called “Evil, Death and Dystopia”, as it sparks discussion.

Frost cutting himself

He continues with the idea that extreme metal is art – which I agree with. He explains that its dangerous art, which is part of its draw. I look at it as outsider music, but not necessarily dangerous – its not quite the same as taking action against social or political strife and being killed or jailed for it. It can be, depending on the material and circumstances, but its not necessarily on the same game board much of the time. Podoshen says that “Most art that provokes and challenges the individual isn’t safe. This is deliberate in artistic formulation.” Although its a generalization, I think he’s right about that. We’re challenged when we step out of our comfort zones. Its where we grow. However, his buildup about individualism, enlightenment and art takes an odd turn:

In recent months, however, a number of members of the scene, often described as Social Justice Warriors (or SJWs), have infiltrated extreme music to push self-serving agendas under the banner of “inclusion” and “safety” going so far to call out those they oppose with the use of incessant signal boosting in social media in order to slam the door on free artistic expression. Many of these folks fall into the “scene tourist” category, merely moving from scene to scene with the stated goal of increasing diversity—yet are closely appended to a myriad of politicking activities. The ultimate goal for many of these individuals is to cleanse the scene of the aspects they find objectionable, congratulate themselves and move on… with a maybe a promotion or three towards their blogs, zines, books, politics and events.

That’s an interesting vantage for a Ph.D. who (I think) teaches a class about business, organization and society. I disagree with his assertion almost entirely. I first became aware of the term “social justice warrior” or “SJW” late last year. From what I’ve seen, its an attack term used mainly by people who are trying to defend hateful or unethical positions when they come under fire from people who they perceive as threatening to their stances. I most often see it used to defend racism, bigotry and sexism, and other such niceties. Basically, if someone stands up to rhetoric about hate, they’re labeled a SJW and often attacked by supporters of hate speech. These attackers seem to believe that racism towards minorities, misogyny and attacks against LGBTQ people are the norm, particularly in the extreme metal “community” and that the status quo needs to be maintained in order for their “freedom of speech” to be relevant.

They’re wrong, and I think that the backlash that they receive when they take their stance – although its their right to do so – is met with opposition because of an important understanding: Oppression of others is not one of the pillars of extreme metal. Freedom is.

I’ve been a fan of extreme metal for at least 25 years, and I got into metal relatively late in comparison to other fans – in my late teens. I’ve never been a proponent of hate. There are bands who are iconic to extreme metal, like Napalm Death, that are political and who take stances squarely against the propaganda that Podoshen speaks about. The demographics of the metal “community” worldwide is changing. Its no longer something that can be accepted as white, male and hetero to the exclusion of everyone else. There are metal acts – and of particular interest to me, extreme metal acts – all over the world now, made up of both women and men and people from different gender norms, and from just about every ethnic background imaginable. I think that these people who feel compelled to rail against “SJW’s” are reacting to the realization that their safe-place is open to the masses. The sounds and feelings that drove them outside to extreme metal brought others too, and just as their idealized status quo compels them to marginalize and alienate people who are different from them, another ideal compels others to call them out on it and fight back. Attacks from people like Podoshen are a pitiful defense mechanism to defend the idea that metal is a white male art form. I don’t know if he’s going to try to distance himself from that reality with wordplay, but his own words, above, target “inclusion” and seem to treat it as a code-word for covering something else up. Its not.

I agree with his thought that artistic expression should be free, but in tandem with that, people must react to that art, and if the reaction is opposition, its still a perfectly legitimate response. The world is broadening. Metal is too. There are definitely places where tormenting people who are different is accepted – we see incidents on the news every day – but the internet exposes those zones and lets the rest of the world voice their support for or opposition to injustice. SJW’s aren’t infiltrating extreme music – people are just more willing to call out idiocy where they see it, and there’s definitely a segment of people who listen to extreme metal that need to be called out.

Internal Bleeding had a song on Voracious Contempt called Reflection of Ignorance. Its about racism. I used to think about the last verses a lot, years ago:

Freedom of expression,
Freedom of thought,
Freedom to hate,
Is that what we’ve been taught?

Reflection of Ignorance

To my mind, these people who are labeled as SJW’s are acting on the thoughts from that verse. They’ve gone from questioning and a position of relative passivity to uncovering and actively standing in the way of ignorance. Podoshen says that there is “a serious problem we have in extreme music scenes and that is the growing clamor for the end to free speech and free expression.” I don’t hear a clamor for anything of the sort. What I hear are two competing voices. One wants to scream hate with no repercussion. Its loud and aggressive but only wants to be heard if listeners react in fear. The other isn’t impressed and isn’t afraid to say so. Its a threat to the first voice, which is acting like a child being slapped for acting out.

I don’t know why Podoshen doesn’t seem to take issue with the idea that misogyny and bigotry are perfect candidates for free speech and expression, but inclusivity isn’t. I also haven’t followed the black metal act he references, Taake. He claims that SJW’s have attempted to “shutdown shows, boycott bands and record companies, and besmirch artists,” but doesn’t seem to acknowledge that this actually – and ironically – falls under that same free expression. If Taake want to wear a swastika or spout anti-Muslim speech, that’s their right, but its also the right of other people to try and shut them down. They have to find a venue willing to give them their soapbox. Its not an entitlement. Expression works both ways. Music about hate exists because there’s an audience for it. But there’s also an audience who stand against it. Yin and yang. Its apparently not a problem to Podoshen for hate to be spread through metal, but “inclusion” and “safety” are. So, women and people of color and LGBTQ fans of extreme metal shouldn’t necessarily have a voice or be able to attend shows in relative safety, but people who want to alienate them, and possibly do more, are fine.

I’m not calling for a complete ban on hateful or alienating lyrics. If that’s really what a person wants to express, then go for it – but those aren’t bands that I’d follow. I don’t see the creativity in it. Its old hat, and not in the “classic” sense. Its just tired and we should move on. There’s a lot more to write about in the world. If all a person can find to write about is a rehash of female genital mutilation or ethnically cleansing four blocks of Brooklyn, then I think someone else in the band needs to pen lyrics.

Those who have been in the extreme music scene (short of NSBM and the like) for the past number of decades know much of the criticism of extreme music being “closed off” to particular groups of people is simply neither an accurate nor fair representation.

I don’t know if this statement is made out of ignorance of facts or if it was said to simply be misleading. There are numerous accounts of shows being unwelcoming to fans who aren’t hetero white males. There are bands who aren’t NSBM (Nazi black metal) who promote hate – remember the guy from Malevolent Creation? Remember Phil Anselmo? I think one of the reasons that Podoshen was able to write that is that he’s a hetero white male. He’s only ever experienced metal through those eyes, and because of that, he’s either dismissive of the experiences of others or is supportive of the actions and stances of people like him. News flash: women, non-whites and non-hetero people don’t necessarily experience the world in the same way as “normalized” white male hetero’s – even if the “average Joe” doesn’t acknowledge it.

The extreme metal scene must continue to challenge, push boundaries and promote itself organically lest it become a sanitized relic of a more expressive age in the self-promoting fascism of the new hard left.

I actually agree with most of this sentence, but not with the end bit about fascism and the left – and not just about metal. Evolution relies on the expansion of boundaries and fusion with new ideas. In the case of metal, inclusivity is a natural fit for this. Bringing new fans, new musicians, new views and essentially new blood can only invigorate the art form. Its already doing so all over the world. There will always be people afraid to let go of what they have, but ultimately, we’re all getting left behind. In 100 years, if there still is extreme metal, there will only be more women and ethnicities and persuasions in the mix. Its not because of social justice. Its because metal reaches across the globe and catches the ears of people who are listening for it for whatever their reasons are.


5 responses

  1. vishalicious

    For those of you who are interested, I first read the Decibel article through a link on the Metal Music Librarians group on FB, which my wife runs. Podoshen joined and contributed to the conversation there, but there was ultimately no resolution. You can read it yourself using this link, but you can’t comment unless you join the FB group – which is primarily directed towards librarians who are metal fans (and all that entails, like conferences, collections development, etc.). Others who are interested in the academic side of metal (like myself) are also free to join the group.


    June 23, 2016 at 5:31 pm

  2. vishalicious

    Metalsucks published a piece about the Decibel article:


    June 23, 2016 at 5:36 pm

  3. vishalicious

    And now, Metal Injection:


    June 23, 2016 at 5:37 pm

  4. vishalicious

    Decibel has a lot of commentary/discussion about the article on their FB page as well:


    June 23, 2016 at 5:48 pm

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