Saturday, May 02, 2009

Heavy Metal and the Culture of Censorship

In Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Canadian film maker Sam Dunne traces the historical development of heavy metal music. Applying the discipline of anthropology to heavy metal, Dunne turns up some intriguing elements to this music long wrongfully written off as "unsophisticated" and "stupid".

While its amusing to hear Dunne describe Val Halen as metal, and even more amusing for Dunne to treat Victoria, BC as some kind of musical backwater, Dunne turns up intriguing links with more standard "sophisticated" fare like Wagner or Beethoven.

Considering the nature of heavy metal, the film should also provoke deep questions about the nature of the censorship directed at it.

Many would have people believe that conservatives are the driving force behind censorship. But the involvement of Tipper Gore -- while her husband, future Vice President and future Democratic Presidential nominee, Al stood quietly by -- puts the lie to this.

In fact, the Parents' Music Resource Centre, the group under which Gore organized her famed campaign against heavy metal -- which, interestingly enough, drew the ire of John Denver of all people -- was formed by Tipper Gore, Susan Baker (wife of Reagan-era Republican James Baker), Pam Howar and Sally Nevius.

The PMRC was largely a non-partisan affair. And while conservatives would later target artists like the Dixie Chicks for political purposes, and liberal activists would frequently target Ted Nugent, Gore made it apparent that it isn't merely conservative partisans who raise the flag of family values.

It can even be said that the moral panic that Tipper Gore raised over heavy metal staged something of a prequel for the moralization of the climate change panic that her husband would later promote.

Unlike the targeting of musicians like Ted Nugent and the Dixie Chicks was based on issue politics -- the Dixie Chicks drew ire for appealing to the anti-war movement, and Nugent continues to draw ire for his opposition to gun control -- the censorship directed at heavy metal must go deeper. This is because heavy metal is more than just music -- for many people it's a lifestyle. In countless ways the music is almost cult-like. More than a mere subculture, heavy metal is a culture all its own.

Because the subject matter of heavy metal is so intense and so extreme, it's simultaneously incomprehensible and threatening to people who don't share that intensity. When heavy metal bands make political statements, they make them in terms so extreme that the message can often be lost. Few individuals who aren't frequent listeners of Metallica recognize the anti-war message at the heart of "One". If not for the music video, featuring clips from Johnny Got His Gun, even some regular listeners may have missed the message. Many may still.

Not that the stereotypes don't have any credibility. Many of the bands featured in Headbanger's Journey play directly into the sterotypes that characterize shows like Metalocalypse, such as Mayhem, who wear necklaces made of skull fragments from their former lead singer, who killed himself with a shotgun.

Certainly, these bands do appear to lend credence to the condemnation of reactionaries. But to judge an entire culture based on its most extreme few examples always leads to the folly of narrow profiling.

Censorship is always based on whatever culture aspires to dominance, and is an effort to try to enforce those values on other cultures that don't share them. It's the last sad act of reactionaries who cannot tolerate cultural dissent.

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