Editorial: Where Does Music End and Politics Begin?
Iron Maiden’s “Run To The Hills” is a political song. It details the destruction and slaughter of Native American tribes at the hands of European settlers and American frontiersmen who brought terror and death in the form of guns, liquor, and disease. As much fun as it may be to scream the chorus of this track while seeing Maiden live, it’s willfully ignorant to forget that the song has a dark historical issue at its heart, that it’s a horror story about “the white man.” And I love that. Fuck Christopher Columbus.
Whenever we post about a political issue within metal, dozens of commenters question our need to “make metal political.” They claim that you don’t need to buy into someone’s message to love their music, that in fact it displays greater strength as a thinker and listener to enjoy someone’s work while ignoring his or her politics. But that feels like wishful thinking to me. How can you truly love a song despite its political message? How can you rally behind a musician whose beliefs are actively at odds with your own?
The easy way out is to qualify music by inches, cherry-picking songs and albums that are “safe.” We only like the Burzum tracks that are undeniably about goblins and Lovecraft, and most definitely not about white pride. Every metalhead has done it; even I have the prepared statement on hand about how Slayer’s music only describes WWII, but doesn’t condone what went on therein.
We also quantify our amount of interest, so that we can dismiss the material that makes us uncomfortable. Whatever our favorite artists did doesn’t interest us, because whatever that band was isn’t what we’re listening to now; these days, all of their music is about zombies, or spiritual consciousness, or video games. We do this because metal is often so confrontational and dark that we sometimes don’t notice the questionable politics within a band’s music until after we’ve gotten deep into it. And can anyone unlike a song?
Singers get it the worst, of course, because their meaning is at least somewhat clear from the outset. You can’t necessarily write a bigoted riff, and it’s hard to be a politically-loaded instrumental band outside of song titles (unless you’re playing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” or whatever). So as long as they’re low-key about it, guitarists and drummers can forget their pasts a little more easily, because there isn’t an actual sound bite of them saying something decidedly racist. But is that right? Being in a band is a collaborative process, and even if you want to just write some thrash riffs and it’s your singer with the political agenda, are you blameless for helping to make music with that agenda behind it? Is it fair to give Dr. Know a pass even though he played guitar behind H.R.’s lyrics on “Don’t Blow Bubbles”?
What defines a song as “political” is definitely up for grabs. In the modern age, religion can’t be separated from politics; metal’s horror-drenched devilry is often defined as spiritual subject matter, but if you’re standing against Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or religion in general, you are defining yourself politically. And what about personal philosophy—isn’t that just your unique basis for your politics? So often, we think of political issues as these looming, clinical apparatii, but behind them all is the beliefs of a group of people. These issues are reflections of the hearts and minds of those involved in them.
What’s especially interesting about many of our commenters is how dismissive they are of political issues (which I understand to a certain extant—I refuse to talk about religion or politics at the bar, where it should all be about the laffs), but how ready they are to snap back with their own politics when the time is right. One minute, they’re sick of people discussing politics rather than music—Ugh, are we still talking about this?—but the next they come flying back with their own political argument–What, so he can’t condemn Muslims, but all these black metal bands can talk about killing Christians? That’s counting beers–acting as though you’re just chilling but secretly keeping score. It implies that the politics behind the music are important, but should only come out when we feel cornered.
When I pitched this piece to Axl, he told me he believes all art is political—that is, that no piece of art can be entirely divorced from the personal stance or philosophy of the artist who created it. In considering that, I mentally tallied pieces of art I would consider apolitical (paintings people hang in hotel bars, certain Buckcherry songs, et cetera), and noticed a trend throughout all of these pieces of art: they suck. Their lack of message made them easy to not give a fuck about, and therefore lesser as works of art. Maybe that says more about me than anything else, given that taste is subjective. But I can’t imagine a song someone likes despite its message is as important and powerful to them as a song that gets at what they’re about, that makes them feel less alone.
In many ways, this piece is similar to my editorial on symbolism in metal. The different is that symbols stand in for meaning, whereas one’s political views are the meaning itself being expressed. So while enjoying the music aesthetically is fine and all, it’s also not enough for me. I want that music that hits me right in the heart, that speaks to me about my own love and hates (even if that love is for, say, vampires, or swords). It’s a nice idea that we can enjoy art without a stance behind it, but I don’t believe we can truly love that art, because it’s shitty and empty. It means less to us, and for those of us who live and die by art, meaning is everything.