A lot of people think of heavy metal as kid’s noise, the dystopian chainsaw soundtrack to teen angst alone. Just guys being angry. Nothing else. Well, Sunday I’ll be delivering my TEDxPSU Talk saying, “Not so!” Heavy metal is really good at telling us about social problems. I’ve written here previously about nuclear annihilation and the plight of soldiers and unjust invasions and will continue later this week on a couple of other topics.
Why? Because it kicks ass. But back to being reasonable and smart.
For now, I’m going to take a few minutes to write about metal’s spirit with thrash metal in mind. If metal is made of anything and is about anything, it’s POWER. As I wrote in the metal entry in Music and American Life
Heavy metal’s defining characteristic is power expressed through extremes. The genre presents the loudest, fastest, most dynamic, most technically virtuosic, and some of the most offensive content in all of music. Band names, lyrics, album cover art, and even font design conveys power by questioning authority, focusing on socially unpopular beliefs, and invoking images of strength. These tendencies can be seen for metal’s 40+ years – on Black Sabbath’s 1970 album Black Sabbath, Megadeth’s 1990 release Rust in Peace, and the 2010 Tryptikon album Eparista Daimones.
Power is never easy or cute in real metal. You go to a show and it’s so damn loud your ears ring into the next day (unless you wear ear plugs…which you should) and the crowd is a surging mob united in chaos. The artwork of any band worth their salt signals danger and darkness. And the lyrics are constantly calling some exercise of power into question: war, drug addiction, evil urges, Satan, abusive parents or relationships, unexplainable or supernatural forces, crime, or corrupt societies, governments, sexual desires, speed, or religious institutions. Sometimes we unite against them. Other times we are helpless to them. Then we become them by picking up a guitar, grabbing drumsticks, growling into a mic, doing it yourself, and sticking it to the man. You resist. You fight power with power and by any means.
Thrash is especially tuned into social problems, resistance, and the danger of acquiescence. It attacks the status quo and the elite as corrupt and abusive regardless political position or politics. Weak and poor? Fight. Imprisoned and helpless? Fight. Look back at more than two decades of thrash and you’ll hear it. Metallica’s 1984 album Ride the Lightning has songs on nuclear war (“Fight Fire with Fire”), the death penalty (“Ride the Lightning”), and soldiers dying with their only friend as alone they clench their gun (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”). Last year Revocation released Great is Our Sin with songs on the suppression of knowledge (“Monolithic Ignorance” and “Copernican Heresy”), political corruption (“Only the Spineless Survive”), and the human-caused climate catastrophe (“Cleaving Giants of Ice”). Across all those songs someone or lots of people are victimized by the system whether religious, judicial, military, or environmental. And it’s not baseless as any good reporting (Trump and alternative facts aside because it’s nonsense) will show. Embedded in them is a question about what should be. That makes it metal a great tool for social criticism. But that’s not where most of us start.
The first thing thrash does is excite our bodies and our feelings by just overwhelming and electrifying us. It turns up and we turn up. There’s a reason it’s the best workout music in the world, especially if you’re doing MMA. “Look how totally f***ed up this world is! Get it out!” The second thing thrash does is bring us together with others who are excited and agree. We form a big tribe with norms and mores that signal who’s in and who’s out. “We all know it’s totally f***ed up! Let’s all scream and get it out together!” Horns raise and we mosh together. Some of us will join the great metalhead tribe because “it feels right” while many folks will not because they don’t want to be attacked by music. I get it. Music that’s made by better musicians than most of us AND tell us we’re bad people may not be pleasant. But whether we are in or out the visceral response can prevent us from slowing down, listening, and reflecting. Let’s back out and slow down.
Simply hearing metal is easy. It’s loud and in your face and blocking out vibrations in the atmosphere is next to impossible. But hearing is not listening. Listening requires that you open yourselves up to the potential truth in another person’s point of view and recognize their feelings, beliefs, expectations, and thoughts as valid. Not perfect. But valid. Then the actual listening needs to be followed by an intentional practice that makes you mindful of the other’s experience, hears it, and makes a relationship between you and them. You have to remove defensiveness and initiate a dialogue. If you can do that with metal, you’ll exercise your “imaginative empathy.”
Since I’m a teacher, I’ll just ask you to do something pretty simple.
- Pull up a song or an album I mentioned above and listen to it at least once the whole way through.
- Now find the lyrics and read them independent of the music. You can note the turns of phrase, the word choices, and style. Ask yourself how the words interact with the music? What is it saying and how is it saying it?
- Ask about what issue or issues they are writing about. Then, take some time to learn about the issue by reading or watching some news. It’s all about perspective building.
- While you do that, and definitely after that, ask yourself how you feel about the issue? Is it good, bad, or something in between? Why you feel and believe what you do? What do you think and feel about the risks it presents? Is there something you and others ought to do about it?
- Now get into a conversation with someone about what you’ve discovered.
What did you find out?
Thrash prompts me to feel and think about myself in relationships. In my last post I wrote briefly on the soldier in Metallica’s “One” and linked to Heathen’s “Dying Season.” We can also identify with whole groups of people. Maybe it’s soldiers carrying out shock and awe and the people of Iraq who were on the receiving end of the invasion, all put into music by Lamb of God on Ashes of the Wake. Or maybe it’s those who’ve been duped by politicians, the people under the spell of Obama’s “Hopenosis” or the pied piper in Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction.” And we can even come to look at the effects of our anti-environmental decisions and what they mean for us as individuals, as all of humanity, or as the Earth or her systems. Kreator, Testament, and Annihilator have done that on the toxification of the environment (“Toxic Trace”), the greenhouse effect (“Greenhouse Effect”), and on depletion of the ozone layer (“No Zone”).
Metal has given me another way to ask questions of my own politics and ethics and my nation’s politics and ethics and given me another language to carry on the conversation. It might not work for everyone but it can’t hurt to give it a shot. Maybe it can do something like that for you too.