Metal is (good) conservative art

On the left, it’s a generally accepted norm that small-c conservatives do not produce good art. This refrain is regularly trotted out to demonstrate not only the moral bankruptcy of conservatives, but also their cultural bankruptcy. To be conservative is to live without the ability for self-critique, vulnerability, or creativity. The ultimate “gotcha”.

The analysis runs thus. The conservative disposition is either expressed through “bad” art (bro-country), or forced to reappropriate the message of progressive or left leaning artists, most infamously in recent years with red-pilling Matrixisms entering alt-right discourse. In the so called higher reaches of culture this appropriation has been going on for centuries. A space dominated by white affluence, where new works are in short supply, has left its champions tightening their grip on a dusty canon that we are meant to take as self-evidently superior. Whilst the actual artists that make up this benchmark of quality were in their day considered average or populist (Shakespeare), rebellious or anti-establishment (Mozart, Beethoven), or were completely misunderstood and ignored (Van Gogh).

Given all this, we are left wondering what the conservative disposition actually is, beyond a resounding “not that” to any move toward a more inclusive, equitable society. Many turn to the idea of conflict to explain why narrative arcs just don’t work from a conservative perspective. Conflict implies change, and more often than not in the language of film change is cast as a good thing. Perhaps the most obvious exception that proves the rule is also the most contested, ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Every attempt to recast it as a tale of rural folk respecting traditional hierarchies of blood and kin, battling against the forces of industrialisation and urbanism is met with a resounding “Tolkien was an apolitical author” or with counterfactuals that claim it was all an allegory for World War II. The point is, the politics of Middle Earth is so intentionally open ended that people from all manner of political persuasions can find what they want to within its many interweaving stories. And it is precisely these open ended works that tend to be the only widely known cultural artefacts that conservatives are able to cite as chiming with their worldview.

Similarly, in comedy, the root of most humour is fundamentally about poking fun at a status quo. Jokes defending a status quo rarely hold up structurally or artistically. The ideology of the right is a celebration of self-reliance, of winning, of coming out on top. Jokes that celebrate such things either result in crass bragging or churlish mockery of those less fortunate. Of course lots of right wing comedy does precisely that, and often hits its mark, but it rarely resonates beyond those of the same political persuasion as a result, unlike a lot of art produced by broadly left-leaning individuals.

Such a reading of conservative culture, whilst unfair, is understandable. Conservativism is – in its current iteration – a confused cluster of panicked responses to various social and economic upheavals. An ideology that will reliably come down in favour of whatever outcome upholds white capitalist hegemony. Its most successful exploits of the last decade have also exposed these inner conflicts. For the right, Brexit was chiefly a reckoning between the globalist neoliberal ideology of Cameron era Conservativism with a nostalgic conservatism that values localism and community based self-determination.

But if we take a more generalist view, segmenting conservatism off from the guns ‘n’ money variety currently practiced in the US, white supremacy in all but name, or the bizarre Fisher-Price my-first-free-market-policy currently being thrown around by Thatcher’s neglected children in the UK, aspects of conservate ideology have value, and not just for those on the right.

It’s not hard to make the case that metal as a form of music is conservative. Having its roots in white working class masculinity, it has always been practiced by those that favour self-reliance, it emphasises deep ties to history, both toward its own internal musical lineage and macro civilisational vintage, it values permanence, hierarchies, strength, but it also has a deep sense of its own community at the local level, pivoting on a pronounced “us and them” attitude born of both decades of ridicule and self-imposed libertarian isolation from the world around it.

It is also deeply contradictory. Baked within its apparently radical rejection of societal norms is a pronounced respect for authority and rules, whether this be reverence for a given artist, an agreed canon, the opinions of eminent tastemakers, or rigid compositional frameworks. The aesthetic transgressions it engages with – either through dress codes, artwork, or stage shows etc. – are also subject to heavily policed metrics of quality control and a strong sense of internal tradition. Add to that the fact that many of its most prominent figures are – if not vocally right wing – then socially conservative, or else claim their art to be apolitical (usually a right-wing dog whistle). 

The case for metal’s conservatism is not hard to make. The case for metal being “good” art is something you’ll have to take our word for. What is perhaps trickier to justify and understand, is the fact that metal is good because it is conservative. Or at the very least aligns with many broadly conservative values, and it is precisely this alignment that us on the left find appealing.

A couple of caveats are in order here. Firstly, #notallmetal. Those genres of metal more closely associated with external subcultures are likely to be more left leaning. Thrash and grindcore have close links with punk, and will often tie into radical or generic single issue social causes. Stoner doom and psychedelia, with its close links to retro rock movements well beyond metal’s borders tends to be populated by a broadly liberal – if politically incoherent – populace. And metal’s various “post” iterations are perhaps by definition an attempt to shed what are perceived to be metal’s toxic elements. This occurs both sonically by dumbing down metal’s more adventurous yet vulgar aspects, and philosophically by shedding its ties to small-p political grandstanding (to put it another way, “post” metal is art about nothing. There, I said it).

The second caveat is that metal is a complex, multifaceted cultural phenomena with no single coherent political manifesto. When we talk of politics within metal we are speaking in broad brushstrokes, which, although conceptually fascinating, lack precision. A strong case can and should be made for metal as a potentially radical and deeply unconservative artform. And there is enough space within the metal tent to make room for these competing theoretical frameworks.

So much for caveats, what of metal’s appeal to leftists qua conservative art? Metal’s contrarian and often violent history presents those on the left who are drawn to its waters with a series of dilemmas, although they may not be as willing or aware of this as they would like to admit. Ultimately it comes down to the layers at which we politicise our decisions.

The left are very good at exposing the political dimension to the most trivial everyday occurrence, thus building on our perception of the world around us and creating space for new frameworks of analysis. Alarm bells ring whenever we are told that something is not subject to political analysis. This is often a right-wing dog whistle. Those on the right generally like the established order and don’t want it to change all that much, and the surest way to do that is to deny that the mechanics propping up the status quo even exist, or else claim they are non-negotiable laws of nature.

But in politicising every aspect of our lives, the left are sometimes in danger of denying the plot holes or thrillingly dangerous ambiguities to our political beliefs, and how these trade-off against our intuitions and actions. No one is morally pure, and embracing the darker or more problematic elements of our moral compass can be a useful and instructive exercise. But instead we all too often turn to complex and convoluted justifications for art/artist separation or unhelpfully particularist ethical codes surrounding consumption of “dangerous” art. Or we champion subpar work because the individuals that made it are of leftie political stock (Napalm Death, Lamb of God). Or we reappropriate metal styles, aesthetics, timbres, and forms into more agreeable and politically aligned shapes (post metal, Liturgy, RABM).

What goes unquestioned is our motivation for turning to art in the first place. Do we expect it to echo our beliefs back to us, or do we expect it to challenge us? Is the consumption of art a moral choice that reaffirms our values, or is it subject to different, perhaps more dangerous metrics? Both the left and the right are guilty of this within metal. More often than not it will play out as proxy wars couched in the language of “true” and “false” metal, elitism vs. inclusivity, traditionalism vs. progressivism. The best metal is often produced at the flashpoint between these competing worldviews. And I’d argue that the reason for this is precisely because metal is so comfortable engaging with an explicit and sophisticated form of conservativism rarely seen in contemporary artforms. Certainly not within bro-country or the terrible edgelord comedy that so often gets wheeled out as examples of conservative art.

Metal guides us down hidden pathways and fantastical alleyways, both challenging individuals to do better whilst keeping us profoundly alive to humanity’s achingly limited position within the cosmos. It champions continuity. It is not afraid of change but asks questions of it. It mourns what is lost at the hands of progress but does not necessarily despair at the future. It faces the emptiness and finitude waiting for us at life’s core head on, finding cause for joy even here.   

But metal is not just a positive example of conservative creativity by virtue of this vague rhetoric. We also need to address the whiteness of it all. Metal grew out of white working class communities in Europe and the US in the 1970s, and by the late 1980s had also been adopted by a large swathe of white middle class youth. The number of dicks in this history is a fact often lamented today, having brought with it an overwhelming amount of racist, sexist, and homophobic baggage.

The more damaging aspects of this dirty laundry are rightly being aired out today. Metal’s increasingly diverse populace is something to be celebrated. One of the beauties of it as a form of music is its ability to meld with a plethora of regional styles and traditions and still present as something recognisably metal, allowing different groups, cultures, and communities to express their cultural heritage through an artistic language with a global reach.

But it shouldn’t be too controversial to point out that metal remains a white male artform, even when practiced by those outside this category. More controversially, I would say that this is not inherently a bad thing. Metal is one of the few globally popular modern art forms that makes white maleness “strange”. It problematises an identity that is so often treated as a default. The most obvious example of this is the unintentional homoeroticism of metal. This is often wheeled out as another “gotcha” to throw at homophobes within the metal community, many of whom probably hang posters of a greased up Manowar in their front rooms. But more importantly, this is an example of traditional masculinity exploring itself in a positive and constructive way, as one identity amongst many and not just the default setting of humanity or the sole beneficiary of a racist colonial past.

When we say metal is a white male artform, we don’t mean it should be practiced by this group alone. Rather, it is an artform capable of putting whiteness front and centre and asking us to consider what it means to be white outside of antagonism with other ethnic groups. It is of course overly naïve to couch it in these terms, the point is subtle enough to be completely flipped by actual white supremacists. But othering whiteness in this way is perhaps most effective when not explicit. Much like the unintentional biproducts of metal artistry over the years – campness, melodrama, homoeroticism, comedy, farse – it is best left unanalysed in any serious way if it is to retain its wonderfully transgressive power.

I’ve argued elsewhere that those on both the left and right that try to make politically explicit black metal misunderstand the true and more fundamentally radical potentials of the form. Here, we can add to the charge sheet against leftie metalheads that it is precisely those “forbidden” or contrary values of metal that they find so appealing. Time and again I hear leftist commentators speak of the absence of meaningful conservative art as if it’s a given. But from the perspective of left-leaning metal fans – those willing to indulge in contrarian art – the opposite is true, to only engage with art politically aligned with the left would be a deeply bland and unfulfilling experience. Sophisticated conservative art like metal that resonates well beyond a specific political node is necessary for a healthy and balanced diet.

It is these elements of mature conservativism that metal fans of all persuasions find appealing, even if they don’t consciously admit it. But the virtues of engaging with dangerous art are not exactly cryptic. Whilst art can and should challenge accepted norms, it should also challenge the sensibilities of we the individual. Change for its own sake, untethered from any context, risks absenting itself of purpose.

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