Saturday, May 09, 2009

Harbinger of Democracy?

In Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Canadian anthropoligist Sam Dunn traces the history of heavy metal music and compares its historical cultural overtones to the outrage expressed against it by those who consider themselves a cultural elite.

In Global Metal Dunn takes his studies to the rest of the world and uncovers a startling and intriguing motif: heavy metal as a force for democracy.

In Brazil, Carlos Lopes of Dorsal Atlantica provides an intriguing thesis -- of heavy metal as a sound of Brazilian democracy. He relates the tale of how Brazil emerged from under the dictatorship of Marshal Emilio Garrastazu M├ędici and embraced heavy metal as a symbol that Brazil had finally become a free country. He and others treat the staging of a massive heavy metal festival in Rio Di Janeiro featuring Iron Maiden helped symbolize the arrival of freedom and democracy there.

Like democracy, heavy metal can be a potent vehicle for mobilizing nationalisms. In Brazil, Sepultura has become "the flag of Brazilian heavy metal". They accomplished this partially by embracing tradition Brazilian culture within their music. On Roots, Sepultura incorporated tribal Brazilian drumming into their music, coagulating specifically Brazilian cultural passions within their fan base.

Just as politicians can endear themselves to voters by embracing tenets of traditionalized culture -- or, in the case of multicultural Canada, cultures -- musicians can endear themselves to their fans by embracing their traditional culture.

Few things are as democratic as an icon. By nature of the mass embrace of the populace, individuals can become larger than life, and begin to represent more than even their music may symbolize.

In Jamaica, Bob Marley is precisely such an icon. Marley was already beloved by the Jamaican populace before 1976 due to his strict adherence to Rastafarian culture. However, Marley ascended to icon status when he appeared at the Smile Jamaica concert even after having been shot by extremists who opposed an end to the violence between factions from Edward Seaga's Jamaican Labour Party and Michael Manley's People's National Party.

By agreeing to play the concert, factions from the JLP believed Marley was siding with the PNP in a forthcoming election Manley and the PNP would win. (However, in 1980 Seaga and the JLP would win government.)

Two days before the concert PNP gunmen attacked Marley at his home. Legend has it that Marley was shot in the chest and survived, giving rise to his iconic status. In actuality, a bullet grazed his chest, coming within inches of his heart. While Marley never in his life formally declared support for the PNP or any other political party -- he rejected politics as not part of Rastafarian culture -- many credit the Smile Jamaica concert with helping the PNP win the 1976 election.

Marley's true purpose in playing the Smile Jamaica concert was in uniting the Jamaican people. Marley succeeded in bringing Jamaica together, but the concert did not overhwelmingly unite the country under one political flag. The margin of victory for the PNP in the 1976 election was 13% -- far from a political single-mindedness.

The character of Marley's music certainly helps account for its power as a force of unity.

Sepultura has rarely addressed politics as part of its music, but one particular song - "Refuse/Resist" speaks distinctly about Brazil under the military regime, and cements it as a voice for democracy in Brazil.

In China, meanwhile, heavy metal represents an intriguing break toward broader democratization. In the film, the proprietors of a shop in China that sells heavy metal music and T-shirts explains that traditionally, Chinese people have a tendency to listen to what they are told. But heavy metal provides those who feel so inclined with an opportunity to actually speak.

Considering the central importance of freedom of speech to democracy, the democratic significance of heavy metal in China cannot be overlooked.

In Indonesia, a country formally governed by an Islamic theocracy, heavy metal serves to highlight many of the injustices of their society.

Former Sepultura lead singer Max Cavalera (now of Soulfly) remarks about the brutality of the Indonesian regime, and about how seeing it first-hand surprised even him -- someone who had lived under a military dictatorship.

At a Metallica concert in Jakarta, a riot broke out when police confronted heavy metal listeners, whom they denounced as "communists". The government would respond to the riot by banning all heavy metal concerts in Indonesia, judging them to be far too much like political rallies for their liking.

The denial of freedom of assembly -- even for something as mundane as a rock concert -- seems to underscore precisely how threatening the theocracy finds the music. Indonesian heavy metal bands sing about political and social issues.

Not all bands are explicitly critical of the theocracy.

One band, Tengkorak, criticizes capitalism and Indonesia's treatment by the rest of the world. They even play a song entitled "Destroy Zionism", in which they insist that the goal of the Jewish people is to destroy Islam, and so Zionism must be destroyed. Many Indonesian metalheads interviewed seem reluctant to embrace Tengkorak's message.

While this may seem to be at odds with the argued democratizing motifs of heavy metal, one has to also remember that the right to agree with the government -- even undemocratic governments -- is actually a democratic right.

In Israel, some heavy metal bands fuse traditional Jewish instruments with Muslim vocal stylings. According to one metal musician interviewed, this is intended to represent Israel -- and Jarusalem -- in terms of cultural harmony, even as the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues to rage around them.

Many Israeli metal musicians play their music as a refusal to conform to, and participate in, this ongoing conflict. They demand a peaceful resolution to the conflict -- the peaceful resolution of conflicts (wherever possible) is the ultimate democratic demand.

They can also challenge perceptions of what is and is not acceptable speech. Salem, an Israeli metal band, drew criticisms from a member of the Knesset because they played a song about the Holocaust, which that individual argued is "sacred", and so cannot be played about in a heavy metal song. Fortunately, a Knesset colleague disagreed, and appreciated heavy metal as a vehicle for teaching about the Holocaust.

The same band nearly received a mail bomb from Vark Vikernes -- the famed murderer and church burner in Norway -- took issue with Salem for playing a song about the Holocaust. Sadly, heavy metal can become a vehicle for undemocratic political violence as well as democracy. As Vikernes demonstrates, heavy metal can become a vehicle for bigotry as well.

Iran is another country where the democratic motifs of heavy metal has found itself at odds with a theocracy. The Iranian regime will not allow heavy metal CDs or T-shirts to be sold in the country. Even merely having long hair can attract the attention of police. In many cases, fans have to travel to places like Dubai and Turkey in order to listen to the music they enjoy.

As one listener notes, the Iranian regime considers heavy metal to be anti-moralistic -- the same charge levelled against the music by Tipper Gore and the PMRC.

Heavy metal isn't the only genre of music oppressed in Iran. All forms of western music are outlawed in Iran. Dubai, marketing itself as one of the world's top tourist destinations, has embraced heavy metal as a tourist industry. Through concerts in places like Dubai -- one place to which many Iranians are allowed to travel freely -- heavy metal is slowly seeping into Iran.

When considering that downloading is the only method of receiving heavy metal music in places like Iran, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich actually becomes quite supportive. Downloading heavy metal in a country where it's forbidden is certainly an act of political resistance. Iranian fans find in metal an opportunity to speak out in a country that offers very few opportunities for them to do so.

One has to wonder how Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would react to an Iranian metalhead listening to Salem.

Heavy music has brought together millions of people -- not just within countries, but internationally as well. Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickenson notes that he shouldn't be surprised at this, but admits to often being astonished at the ability of his music to unite diverse groups of people.

In an increasingly globalized work, using tools such as the internet and export music catalogues, heavy metal can disseminate its democratizing message across the world and across varying cultures.

Heavy metal may only be one sound of democracy, but it is rapidly becoming part of a global rumble toward this noble ideal. This, in defiance of the music's reputation of being "unsophisticated" and "stupid".

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