Editorial: Should Metal Be Held Accountable For Its Symbolism?
This week, I wrote about various metal musicians’ reactions to the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag. Many commenters responded with these eye-rolling over-it remarks, especially in my indictment of those musicians supporting the flag. Why’s everyone so butthurt? It’s just a flag. So by hiding the symbol, the pain goes away? Come on. But if the Rebel flag is just an image, how can it be important enough to defend? The Rebel flag stood for a group of people who seceded from our country partly so they could continue a lifestyle in which slavery would not be abolished.This shit hurts someone. How can you use that symbol to support one of its aspects while ignoring the other? Doesn’t that make the symbol unimportant? If so, isn’t using it just a marketing ploy, and if that’s the case, aren’t these guys the type of money-grubbing dickheads we fucking hate?
Modern-day metalheads like being above symbolism. Scrawling an inverted cross is more about honoring the dangerous vibe that metal used to have and the scared expressions on the faces of squares than any supernatural force. But when their symbolism is decried, misappropriated, or worst of all ignored, metalheads get defensive. But why, if the imagery and symbols of metal are just about having a good time? Why even use these symbols if they have no meaning? Metal has always been about theatricality, about image and presentation having an impact—why honor that when the symbols themselves are just a bunch of window dressing?
Sure, it’s easy to be blasé about a pentagram these days. The upside-down star in a circle has been drawn on so many album covers and scrawled in so many notebooks that it has just come to stand for ‘metal’ or ‘metalhead’. But during the dawn of metal, that star was no joke. It loudly proclaimed an allegiance to black magic and the Devil. The fact that few of the people using it were practicing Satanists didn’t matter—it contained a meaning, and that meaning was dark.
In that respect, one thing I detest is LaVeyan Satanism. So often it feels like an excuse to be a rude hippie. LaVey used all the trappings of the Devil — the sigil of Baphomet, the hedonistic black mass, the horns and beard—but retreated to the pagan concept of natural magic and honest bestial urges. But by supporting something, you give power to its opposite. Declaring yourself a Satanist means you’re on the Christian payroll, no matter how nice you are, because they own the rights to that IP. Loving Satan as a character is a different matter — Paradise Lost rules, armored bipedal goats have a ton of charm, and hey, Dracula’s cool, too. Satanic symbols can be interesting in the same way that Christian or Buddhist ones can. But the minute you rock that imagery, you are making a statement. And if you do the former without the latter, you’re a fucking poser.
So how much can be re-appropriated? Can a band’s past still be called into play if they no longer wear the symbols and imagery of a contemptuous ideology? Were the guys in Inquisition and Dragonforce just a bunch of dumb kids having a laugh now that they’ve grown out of the shock value that Nazi references bring? Is Burzum’s music reprehensible because it was made by a racist, even though it seems to all be about a bunch of goblins and pagan nymphs?
Metal will always have an issue with Nazi symbols. We like evil stuff taken to a stylistic extreme, and the Nazi’s did that well; as Lemmy states in defense of his Nazi paraphernalia collection, the bad guys always look the coolest. It’s Panzer Division Marduk and the Slaytanic Wehrmacht. Even outside of direct references, we love some sharp-shouldered full-length leather and black caps with Totenkopfs at their center. But we also hate Nazis, Nazi-ism, and all the government-sanctioned bigotry and murder that the Third Reich stood for. Sure, the swastika was once a symbol for auspiciousness in several ancient cultures, but given what it was later used for, it’s impossible to display it for the one meaning and not the other. Whenever I meet someone who gets an “apolitical” swastika tattoo, I think, Oh, an attention whore who wants the world to hear their pre-rehearsed explanation.
Context is key when it comes to symbols. Whenever some band is called bigoted, plenty of people run to their aid wondering why all the metal acts singing about demons killing Christians aren’t taken to task. But hellfire razing the planet is the stuff of myth and folklore, and the vicious persecution of Christians is at very best the kind of thing that happened thousands of years ago. Meanwhile, the subjugation and bigoted murder of black and Jewish people has occurred within recent memory. The symbols of these mindsets aren’t ancient representations used by cultures long since buried. They’re recent. They are still deeply imbued with their terrible contexts.
The silliness of outrage is usually the excuse we jump to. We use this symbol for shock value. If I piss you off, I win. That’s understandable. Nothing’s more pitiful than someone who’s deeply offended rather than disgusted, who scoffs and blinks too hard and takes to their Facebook to display their overwhelming concern about the world at large. But a line has to be drawn somewhere, right? If it’s all about us baiting the bear, does it mean our message is hollow? Brandishing blasphemy just to hear the outcry of the devout means we don’t give a fuck about anything other than feeling cool. In which case, fuck us
That nihilistic attitude seems too easy, though, especially within a subculture so devoted to personal philosophy and spiritual belief. And at the end of the day, yeah, the music is what matters. Metalheads are good about finally devoting themselves to the art itself. But while that’s at metal’s core, there’s a lot of cultural baggage surrounding it. Metal will always offend someone, and we have to be ready to own every bit of that. And if we use symbols to represent our culture, we can’t blow them off at our own convenience without compromising our beliefs. A representation is either superficial or important. I’m not sure you can have both.
This is a really complicated issue, so hit us up in the comments section and let us know what you think.