Metal’s Bleeding Edge

Heavy metal should not be ceded to its racist elements.

For Americans of a certain age, there was time when heavy metal was synonymous with Pantera. In the early 1990s, bands like Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax were playing in a more hard-rock, mainstream style. Slayer was just about the only of thrash’s “big four” adhering to some semblance of their original sound, and later in the decade, even they were for a time pulled into the embarrassment of “nu metal.”

There were groups like Helmet, Faith No More, and Tool mixing metal influences with everything from punk to prog rock, often with brilliant results. And of course there were the bleak calls of black metal from Scandinavia.

But if you wanted a metal sound that was un-diluted and un-nostalgic, music that could plumb the abyss of Clinton-era America, Pantera was essential.

That the group remains such a mainstay, such a central presence in popular music, reflects that there is something in the world maintaining its relevance, something well beyond the confines of heavy metal.

That is why the controversy around former front man Phil Anselmo has captured the attention of so many over the past two months. Fans and detractors alike have been debating Anselmo’s racism for two decades, and attempting to fix a meaning to his comments about “white culture” and other such dog whistles. Footage of the screamer sieg-heiling and bellowing “white power!” from the stage at a recent show doesn’t leave much room for interpretation though.

Anselmo eventually apologized after days of denying it was anything but a joke. His current band Down was disinvited from at least one festival, and the group’s “homecoming concert” in New Orleans was canceled. The damage has been done, but people will continue to excuse and justify Anselmo’s actions and listen to his music.

There is a certain kind of two-dimensional moralism that dictates we not appreciate art made by those who have done terrible things. It is a wooden, unhelpful way to look at the world, completely flattening the dynamic between art and politics. So let’s be clear: antiracist metal fans do not have to throw out their Pantera albums.

Far more important is that “antiracist metal fans” be acknowledged as a phenomenon. Metal may not be a mainstay on the Top 40, but it remains an indelible presence in contemporary popular music, reaching well beyond the borders of a single subculture.

A thousand pale imitations notwithstanding, metal has helped keep alive a certain musical virtuosity in rock and roll (dizzying guitar solos, more and more intricate drum beats, vocals that test the boundaries of the human voice), that in its best iterations manages to keep pretension and snobbery at bay.

More than that, metal has attracted such an ardent fan base because of its willingness to explore the grim psychological depths of those living under late capitalism. This, and not some cliché of the “social outcast,” can explain the style’s nearly fifty years of popularity though myriad ever-evolving subgenres and permutations.

Preconceived notions aside, metal’s following is diverse and international. As at least one terrifying, unfolding case in Iran reveals, metal remains very much “rebel music,” and has been shaped by countless nonwhite fans and musicians. Discontent knows no one identity.

Despite this, the stereotype of the metalhead as an angry white reactionary persists. It deserves to be put to rest, but that will only be possible if we acknowledge the actual reality underneath it. Both the caricature and its model reveal much about our political and cultural moment, far more than the contemptible actions of one musician long past his prime.

A White Thing?

Marxist critic Theodor Adorno would have likely hated metal. His work decries the regimentation and repetition of popular music, seeing both as indicative of music’s commodification by a culture industry that had monetized, and thus perverted, leisure time.

But one can agree with Adorno’s insistence that music must “resist . . . solely through artistic form, the course of the world” without sharing his narrow vision of what resistance might sound like.

What happens when musicians don’t avoid repetition, but embrace it, wind it up tighter, make it more aggressive, spin it into a vortex capable of stirring up all the detritus that respectable society would rather ignore? If the good Frankfurt professor warned us to steer clear of the void’s grip, then the best examples of metal dive in and intensify it, ultimately wielding the void for our own purposes.

In the early 1990s, it was easy to see that this is what made certain figures in the American political class wary of metal. These were the years of the Parental Music Resource Center, which saw Tipper Gore, Phyllis Schlafly, and other culture warriors more eager to shut the music out than face the deep social chasms it echoed. If their attacks on hip-hop were a stand-in for keeping blacks in their place, then heavy metal was a useful analogue (in their minds) for muffling the alienation of poor whites.

The case of the West Memphis Three confirmed that wearing black and listening to Metallica signaled disaffection in a manner intolerable to government officials eager to burnish their law-and-order credentials.

There was a broader social context to the scapegoating of youth culture: welfare reform, a coming explosion in America’s prison population, Clinton’s acceleration of the Reaganite attacks on New Deal and Great Society programs.

That the impacts of such legislation were disproportionately felt by people of color cannot be disputed, but there were millions of poor whites also caught in the net. And predictably, many of them were concentrated below the Mason-Dixon: North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and, in Pantera’s case, the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

It’s not difficult to see how this made the idea of “Cowboys from Hell” both fun and cathartic, the sound of a reckless rural dystopia lashing out from the largest metropolitan area in the American South. What made Pantera’s sound so attractive in their time and place was its sense of visceral refusal.

The band’s rage was not rooted in a dream of a better world so much as a rejection of the current one, in the voice of its most alienated and damaged subjects. It was beauty achieved through vulgar displays of its own ugliness, power that refused to come into its own unless the stink of the cesspool rose with it.

But of course, such a refusal of the world as it stands can be put to different political ends. As Pantera dove deeper and deeper into their sound, gave their anger ever-tighter and more extreme expressions, the band’s misanthropy also intensified. It manifested in rock and roll clichés that were well-worn and often deplorable: drug addiction, alcoholism, proudly ignorant machismo, violent misogyny in their lyrics.

And then there were the peculiarities of “Southern culture.” That Darrell Abbott was able to get such maniacal sounds out of a guitar painted with the Confederate flag was perverse but appropriate. At a 1995 concert, Anselmo declared from the stage that “tonight is a white thing”; an ominous sign of one scary direction in which his disaffection could go.

Crisis Music

When it comes to music, it is always worth distinguishing the reality from the possibilities that lurk within it. Heavy metal does not have “a racism problem” distinct from the larger American one.

What heavy metal has is a Phil Anselmo problem. Tolerance for Anselmo’s rants has long troubled a great many metalheads of color and antiracist fans of the genre, precisely because it has provided a cover for the seedier, more overtly fascist elements always lurking at the fringes of the scene.

That metal bands make up a sizable portion of the National Alliance’s white-supremacist Resistance Records imprint is fairly well known among antifascists. What’s less known is how many white-power metal bands are on streaming services like Spotify, Rhapsody, and Grooveshark.

With the contradictions of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years so much sharper, and amid an election season that has white supremacists celebrating, it is not difficult to imagine alienated white kids drawn toward the far right by the rhetoric of a musician they idolize.

But heavy metal’s cultural influence should not be ceded to those like Anselmo. To do so would be to reject the contributions of its multiracial following and give the narrative of an inherently reactionary “white working class” one more pillar on which to stand.

Metal’s dark and tortured sound is a unique outlet for expressing the pain inflicted by neoliberalism. Not only the thrashier subgenre that Pantera helped shape, but the manic hyper-technicalities of Dillinger Escape Plan, the foreboding intensity of Wolves in the Throne Room, the bleak and unrelenting soundscapes of Sunn O))), all reflect different ways in which the human being is twisted and distorted by neoliberalism’s cultural ethos. Fascism deserves a foothold in none of metal’s diverse creations.

The growing chorus of public denunciations against Anselmo coming from some of metal’s best-known figures is encouraging. Anthrax’s Scott Ian has stated that Anselmo’s apology should not be taken at face value, that he will have to “earn” any potential redemption. Machine Head’s vocalist Robb Flynn released a video calling Anselmo “a big bully,” and urging fans to start addressing racism in metal. Other musicians from bands have chimed in as well.

Anselmo’s racism is not new, but the refusal to accommodate it from key personalities in the wider metal scene is. It signifies that the polarization of American politics is radiating into metal, as it is into most other art and music genres. It also points to an opening for genuinely radical heavy-metal cultural politics.

The example of Rock Against Racism in 1970s United Kingdom may provide something of a rough blueprint. That campaign’s unapologetic embrace of youth culture on its own terms, its highlighting of the connections between punk and roots reggae, its insistence on viewing the struggle both inside and outside of the punk scene’s confines, and its willingness to shove fascist groups like the National Front off of whatever platform they sought and by any means necessary were all what made RAR and its alliance with the Anti-Nazi League ultimately effective.

The questions today are obviously very different, with their own peculiarities much bigger than one controversy-addicted musician screaming “white power.” What remains is the connection between the defense of music on its own terms and the need to face a world which, in Adorno’s words, “continues to hold a pistol to the heads of human beings.”

The abyss exists. We can either rule over it or be ruled by it. Phil Anselmo chose the latter.