It’s taken a couple of weeks to articulate the sour taste left after reading another article from The Guardian on metal’s onward push to diversify. I certainly don’t bear any of the bands featured in this article any ill will, or their fans for that matter. Despite the important message behind these artists’ work, their music is all predictably terrible, but that’s a discussion for another day. And it also goes without saying (in that it needs explicitly stating in the bluntest language possible) that greater diversity and inclusion within metal should be championed and celebrated.
But the tone of this article is not one of championing diversity, it’s one of pushing brands to consumers. It’s the tone of a child justifying why it’s okay to eat the ice cream with a clear conscience. It pushes the art of society’s marginalised to a (usually) white (usually) middle class readership in order to soothe their bruised and guilt-ridden egos. It’s as if these artists are being presented in a furniture catalogue. “The latest in ethical consumption in our cultural range. Tired of metal refusing to capitulate to progressive politics? Here are the latest products you can buy to alleviate your shame.” All the while hardcore analysis of structural inequality will be shelved for another day. Values become individualised, reduced to the level of consumer products. Thus segmented from their systematic context, the important messages behind the music of acts like Nova Twins featured in said article become nothing more than a function of buying power, which continues to extend its tentacles, dictating how ethical integrity is actualised.
Let’s take a step back and flesh out this point, because it is important. We live in a capitalist society. As a result, if you trace the supply chain back far enough, every product, service, and cultural artefact you interact with will be tainted by grave injustice somewhere along the way. Whether it’s the exploitation of a precariously employed workforce, environmental destruction, or mass animal slaughter, we as individuals can never act with a clear conscience. Moreover, the society we move through and existence we sustain, is institutionally racist, sexist, homophobic, and ambleist.
For (usually) white, (usually) middle class progressives, this is a cause of deep upset. Whiteness and affluence are still the surest means of coming out on top in this system. Its power is still divided along lines of race and gender as much as it is economic. This provokes a kind of white guilt arms race. A quest for a degree of moral purity that can never be achieved. There is a baseline of anxiety present in the purchase of every orangutan killing vegan sausage roll stuffed with palm oil.
But the fact is, understanding the morality of the products we buy is much simpler than many claim. There is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism. Use your buying power in whatever way eases your conscience. But the real change – if it ever comes – must be systematic, it must be at a macro level, and it must ask why the individual was forced to live in a system where the so-called supremacy of the free market was reduced to a series of individual and ultimately pointless moral dilemmas. Instead of asking what products we should buy in order to reduce our negative impact on the world, we should ask why every product sold to us is so morally tainted in the first place.
But when it comes to the arts, things are far more complicated. We simultaneously want art to be dangerous, revolutionary, challenging, yet we keep insisting that it conform to a very narrow set of moral parameters, largely dependent on an individual’s personal comfort zone. Good art is complex, ambiguous, produced by complex people who are more than the sum of one or two flashpoint interactions.
The internalised anxiety produced by considering where our rubbish goes or how much tax Amazon paid this year is quickly turned outwards when it comes to the arts. Every social media frenzy brought on by the latest revelations of pop star misdemeanours brings the progressive agenda closer to eating itself, entirely consumed by its compulsion for moral purity. White guilt paralyses, leading to an utter inability to build a workable alternative to capitalist dogmas.
We are all complicit in societal injustice. But white people – not satisfied with their centuries of hegemony over the corridors of power – now claim a monopoly over guilt and shame. As a way to deal with this unending self-flagellation, they turn their bitterness outwards, pointing the finger at others who may be more complicit, less morally pure. The penance of other white people more guilty than ourselves will never be enough however, no apology could ever be worded strongly enough, no Twitter storm ever severe enough to pay for the crimes of white people fallen out of the favour with progressive ideals.
Even those considered champions of the progressive agenda are not spared from being torn down for the slightest misstep or ill-judged remark; forever banished from Fort Woke. This is internalised (usually) white, (usually) middle class guilt finding a collective outlet. A lightning rod for our fear of complicity in a morally bankrupt capitalist system that sustains itself on an endless policy of divide and conquer. Because of the fact that (usually) white (usually) middle class people continue to disproportionately benefit from this system, their shame in being complicit in capitalism’s ubiquity finds its outlet in futile so called “culture wars”. A villain of the week is thus selected and crucified to atone for the sins of us all.
But we must go on living with our original sin. No matter who is punished and how severely, we must make choices about how to live with ourselves in a system of totalitarian consumption.
This brings us back to that Guardian article. It claims to be celebrating the music of society’s marginal groups, holding it up as a sign of things to come for metal. But in reality it is simply declaring to (usually) white (usually) middle class fans that there is a way to listen to the dangerous metal music without all that inconvenient guilt. Turn away from the complexity of the world, turn away from metal’s fraught declarations on how ambiguous, dangerous, violent, and finite our reality is, and simply listen to this list of products we have for you, good for one diversity quota and a peaceful night’s sleep. I hesitate to declare what art could or should be in concrete terms, but here it is being asked to simultaneously validate a worldview, ease one’s conscience, educate on social injustices, form one’s identity, perform like a consumer product, and resonate as a piece of lasting culture.
If what you require from art is the same as a meat free burger, i.e. to reflect your own view of how the world should be, then there’s really nothing more to discuss. Cock on. But if you want to interact with dangerous, subversive, anti-life art that genuinely doesn’t like your existence, maybe it’s time to stop concocting complex frameworks of art/artist separation and simply find a way to live with yourself. Because ultimately, living with yourself is all that matters in the face of the macro level injustices of capitalism.
This is why progressives who want to be a part of metal are forever lashing out at metal’s shady history. Metal wears its warts on its sleave for all to see. Historically it has embodied the worst aspects of modern society. But in doing so it reaches for truths inaccessible to other art forms. For that reason there’s a sense in which it can never be reformed into something that progressives will be comfortable engaging with.
For example, the moment Faust and Varg reached for the knife, black metal crossed the Rubicon. From then on it was, by definition, not compatible with the values of Western democracy. For it to continue to exist as a serious artform (not a corporate circus in corpse paint), black metal has either had to pay penance and reform into music that tallies with progressive values (so called hipster black metal for example), or present neutered and toothless facsimiles of itself, copies of copies of copies of a time when black metal was a real danger, now only performatively so (see DSBM or endless Darkthrone cloning). The only other route available for black metal, a route horrific in its sincerity, has been to embrace the proto eco-fascism espoused by many of the original artists, and thus link up with modern Nazism (NSBM).
The modern progressive fan who still chooses to be a fan will forever be caught in a vortex, demanding that metal reform, and demanding the same fealty to the progressive agenda from other fans. This is a form of fandom that assimilates cultural artefacts as a way of constructing an identity. Art becomes a product we consume, and just like any other product under the tenants of ethical consumption, we demand that it reflect our moral as well as our personal identity.
The ultimate and horrifying ambiguity at the core of existence – life’s end, the reality of violence, the amorality of nature – is jettisoned as an artistic endeavour. We have flipped the purpose and meaning behind art on its head. We demand that it reflect our world, rather than letting it open up new worlds, dangerous worlds. Rather than accepting life’s ambiguities and acknowledging our complicity in a system that perpetuates global injustices, we lash out at artists and fans for not living up to our own standards of moral cleanliness. A form of morality that is nothing more than self-imposed restrictions concocted to help us sleep at night.
Ihsahn, in an interview given to Metal Sucks in 2018, can offer some insight here. When asked a question on why he performed with Faust for the anniversary tour of ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’ despite the fact that Faust never apologised for murdering Magne Andreassen, he had this to say:
But we got some criticism, especially for bringing Faust with us on stage. People thought that by us doing that, we were condoning the actions he did in the past, and the potential audience would be condoning it by watching the show with him on stage. But my reply to that was ‘Okay, we can all have individual souls and ideas about what is the right penance for a crime.’ Some think the death penalty is okay, some think it should be milder, but in Europe we don’t have the death penalty. We have a justice system that says for this crime, you serve that amount of time. Once you’ve done your time, you can start over. You can have your individual perceptions of whether that is fair or not, but if it’s morally okay for the bureaucratic legal system, and it’s still not morally right enough for you, or politically correct enough for you, maybe black metal isn’t for you.
When people decided we were crap, they treated us as such, and when they decided we were successful, they wanted to be a part of it. People aren’t going to say ‘Oh, it’s so nice now that you’ve regretted everything and you’ve changed your ways.’ Of course I’ve changed as a person, but my intentions and my reasons for doing the music that I do, dealing with the existential questions that I write about, is very much the same as when I started out. It’s just that everybody around it have changed how they want to relate to it.
Faust committed a heinous act. He paid the price. If it’s not good enough for you, then take the progressive way out, read The Guardian and find music you enjoy that keeps your conscience clear. But don’t demand an apology of black metal from yesteryear. It exists to challenge the very precepts that progressive politics are built on. There is no one-size-fits all way to morally satisfy everybody. It is something we renegotiate every day. Stop demanding one thing of the bands you like one day only to renege on your fandom the next because of a grievance specific to you. Art is more complex than this, and so is life.
If you come to the realisation that the art you consume and base your identity on is hateful, misanthropic, adversarial, don’t demand that reality change for you, create a new reality. I’m no fan of what bands like Liturgy represent for metal as a musical or philosophical doctrine, but fair to play to them and their fans. They took what they liked about black metal, and discarded the parts they found distasteful.
If we begin legislating art and all who interact with it on the basis of a personal moral agenda, it will only ever end in progressives constantly eating their young, throwing futile accusations around to no other end than a “purer than thou” circle jerk. And this, ultimately, is why the forces of global capital keep winning. Its champions will continue to throw out culture war baiting for us to chew on, laughing all the way to the bank as we twist ourselves into ever more complex minutia on what counts as permissible action. Meanwhile the populous, seeing these tediously complex morality plays spiral endlessly out of control, will turn away and vote once again for the political wing of the establishment (i.e. the fucking Tory party), who continue to serve only the interests of capital, whilst throwing out performative pledges of redistribution to solidify their position further.
So thank you for the article on some z-tier metal acts who fulfil your diversity quota for the month. Now let’s all go out for a vegan burger from globalist demons like KFC.