Discussion of personal politics, identity and/or sexuality in terms of music tends to have a way of ultimately subverting anecdotal experiences and only adds extra-cheapening labels to what could otherwise be empowerment for minorities. The easiest example of the reductive power that fans have over artists’ is certainly Dave Mustaine. His born-again Christian nonsense and Alex Jones‘-like libertarian insanity have long been more than enough reason for me personally to laugh off everything he’s produced since ‘Youthanasia’. To think Megadeth wouldn’t play a festival with Rotting Christ simply because he was at the peak of his geriatric crusading just showed an enfeebled mindset aging into rot. To brush off an artist’s religious or political beliefs feels incredibly safe and justified when the artist is openly speaking power to those eager gateways to fascism, paranoia, and xenophobia.
With nearly the entirety of music history now digitally available the only true fear that these judgments bring to me is that I might miss out on the fringes of music’s digital future because of censorship, social media mobbing, and the general content policing that folks do online in their free time. It is almost entirely at odds with my own beliefs outside of the single most important one that I cannot reconcile: I believe in free speech for all even if it is hate speech that targets me, a minority. To a thirty-five year old metal doofus who basically grew up getting picked on at punk and metal shows in the 90’s the internet was an incredible place to hide from the Slayer bros, the spitting mohawked crusties of Eugene, and the incredibly homophobic-but-curious Pantera crowd. I was a vampire white, red-haired dork-lookin’ gaywad with glasses then and I’m still one now.
Though I’m not here to talk about myself and how suffocating it was to be surrounded by the 18-25 metal fan crowd in the 90’s when groove metal was at it’s dumbest and metalcore began to explode, it is relevant. There were no role models for me in popular heavy metal that didn’t turn out to be disappointingly fascist, hateful, and generally fucking shit people. I wouldn’t know this if I didn’t spend time most every day in weird AOL chats about metal (Metal Mayhem, anyone?) or IRC channels and P2P clients devoted to anything and everything metal related. There is surely a place for everyone online even if they can’t find solace in the real world, right? Not back in 2001 and certainly not if you weren’t heterosexual or white and even then those things were jokingly questioned on a regular basis.
There is an underlying pressure that all minorities feel in groups of people to fit in and for many an online space is the perfect place to blend into a crowd and ride that wave towards acceptance. I found that if I kept my life and every aspect of my personality quiet besides just loving all forms of heavy metal, it was absolutely safe to co-exist with other metal fans online. We’d chat every day, make jokes, share a lot of music and compare notes while we explored metal’s history in semi-unison. Of course after a few years folk’s veneers began to crack: One has Asperger’s, another has chronic depression, several have alcoholism and others are on disability. I saw a group of about fifty people slowly accept each other for their issues until one person revealed their trans status. It blew up across a few channels and the person was ridiculed and spammed (IRC bots can be brutal) out of the metal themed channels.
It was relentless, savage and incredibly efficient to see that person not only shunned but completely doxed. This included her PC being hacked for personal photographs, Facebook friends contacted, parents called on the phone. For me it was a problem because my closest ‘friend’ on a dumb heavy metal chat had been smeared out of existence and didn’t trust me enough to stay friends. Even worse, I’d done some doxing of a Christian metal fan going as far as creating a blog with their personal photos and now saw the terrible hypocrisy of my own actions. To be true to myself and actually be myself I’d have to accept that being part of any fandom, any majority is too dangerous and that I’ll never be comfortable being represented by any number of people other than myself. It is the reason I exiled myself from online communities and created my own blog years ago and began writing about metal in reviews rather than with other people.
So, what has me pacing through anecdotes about participating in sub-culture grouping and looking back at my path to what I consider my own Sophocles-ian exile is reading through the first edition of Queerness in Heavy Metal Music: Metal Bent the fifth book the Routledge Studies in Popular Music series. The author Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone is an anthropologist out of University of Central Missouri and her look at the clashing of several points of culture evokes a lot of that suffocation I’d felt when not fitting in at metal shows as a kid. It is an expensive book but well worth it if you’re interested in cultural anthropology in terms of music sub-culture. Though her observations and case-studies are far more complex than my situation, combining modern Native American culture’s clash with metal fans who are also seen as troublesome for being homosexual as well. To be a minority, already one who doesn’t fit in, then to be a metal fan, and queer as well only adds layers of alienation. To think that any music fan would actively push out the alienated folks that it attracts in droves is certainly troublesome. Where can the alienated go without being objectified or subverted, if the collective pool of heavy metal fandom doesn’t feel safe?
This brings me loosely back to the double standards held within the deeper forum communities of folks who love and explore ‘old school’ heavy metal and have a pronounced undying love of 1969-1989 in Heavy Metal and very little else. I understand these people because this was a community I existed very comfortably in for the entirety of my 20’s. I had every thrash demo, every NWOBHM single cataloged, every unreleased 90’s death metal album, hell I even had that stupid Thrash Queen album folks pay hundreds for. The trouble soon became that in forum communities, as a moderator and writer, I became a voice for what were essentially heavy metal’s version of conservatives, the true metal police. No matter what I did, scorning those who disrespect metal’s history only ended up producing severe exclusion trauma for newer listeners. I mean, of course your Arsis album fucking sucks, have you not even bothered to listen to Eucharist‘s demos yet, pleb?
The journey to be politically correct, inclusive, and create a utopia for all human beings is a seemingly-naive lesson to be learned about one’s own futility in a crowd. You cannot have that utopia without flawed enforcers, corruption, and misrepresentation. To accept the chaos of being and to buffer the alienation of others by allowing every voice the strength and confidence to speak is the only real path away from fascist exclusion in any case. So, I’m not only suggesting inclusion and more importantly amplification of LGBTQ+ and other minority voices in ‘metal’ but also advocating the choice to boycott fascist music without erasing it from history.
2017 was a strange time for this: Bölzer were spammed with negative publicity because someone on Facebook said they’re Nazi based on the shape of the Z in their logo. Folks then called for a very unsuccessful boycott of Hell’s Headbangers until they remove all racist garbage tapes from their catalog (they offer distro for a small number of labels that deal with NSBM). These are the same people who like me, still jam Dissection even though their mastermind committed an anti-gay murder. Similarly the drummer on albums by Ulver, Emperor, and Zyklon also murdered a man for being gay. At the very least these unconscionable exceptions argue that music transcends the actions of those musicians in their personal lives. Should I burn my Arghoslent CDs because they’re incredibly racist? Should I stomp out my copy of Trelldom‘s ‘Til Evighet’ because Gaahl tortured and drank the blood of a gay man, or should I treasure it because he came out as gay himself? Obviously not, on both counts. Ultimately I couldn’t judge anyone’s choice either way when it comes to removing music, movies, art made my fallen or despicable idols. Because Ender’s Game changed my life in terms of reading as kid I can still love that book in spite of finding Orson Scott Card a detestable human being. Is that misplaced tolerance for the sake of nostalgia? Does that call for re-written history, censorship, boycotts? There are arguments to be made, for sure. Ultimately intolerance for intolerance is still somehow awkward to preach.
2018 is a different world than 1998, where being LGBT meant your only ‘heavy metal’ role model was likely the reluctant leather daddy Rob Halford and his hilarious Stabbing Westward-style industrial-rock band 2wo. The boys from Cynic, arguably the most important and distinctive progressive death metal band of the 90’s, have come out as gay and continued to produce world class progressive metal while being openly gay. Steve Brooks of incredible sludge/rock bands Torche and Floor is openly gay. Now trans folks have arguably even more open role models in metal and extreme metal than any other time in history. Cretin, an old school death/grind band featuring Exhumed and Repulsion alum, is fronted by trans woman Marissa Martinez. Kat Shevil, another trans woman currently fronts the brutal death/crust band Winds of Genocide as well as death/doom group Uncoffined. Hell, speaking of role models: You can listen to Danica Roem, current Virginia state legislator and trans woman, cover At The Gates‘ “Blinded By Fear” in her heavy/thrash metal band Cab Ride Home on YouTube. Mina Caputo of 90’s sludge/alternative metal band Life Of Agony was recently featured in Rolling Stone shocking me in the process as I had known her as Keith after not following the band since their third album. There are plenty of very public and very talented gay and trans folks in heavy metal music and there isn’t a better time for more folks in underground and smaller communities to speak up a bit about their experiences.
Though I can encourage greater diversity and louder voices for the underrepresented in heavy metal I know I cannot defeat the notion that: “It’s only rock ‘n roll.” or “It’s just music.” I know in the defeated millennial mindspace nothing is -really- worth caring about and outrage and action are both calculated with Twitter hearts and Facebook likes… but I will say that any musician who has the ability to use their voice and experiences to help the alienated become the empowered should be doing so with every free moment they can manage. Nothing brings truth to power better than rock music and, judging by the barely-political climate of modern thrash bands, heavy metal could use a new and bold sea of voices speaking up for their fellow rejects.