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Heavy Metal and Christianity

All human social groups share certain characteristics – on a micro level (individual interactions) and on a macro level (large-scale group dynamics). For the purposes of this article, I could choose any large social group in the world – religious or otherwise. I chose to use Christianity for two reasons.

First, the rather tenuous relationship between Metal Culture and Christianity since February 13th, 1970, when Black Sabbath released their first album.

Second – heavy metal collectively has the largest and most loyal global fanbase of any style of music (at least according to statistics released by music streaming service Spotify). Considering Christianity has the largest following of any religion on earth, they’re probably the best point of comparison (i.e. the largest faith based and entertainment based communities in the world). And you might be shocked at the number of similarities between the two.

Please keep in mind this is an observational piece, and is by no means all-encompassing. On to the discussion.

Similarities:

Both are large-scale global “bricolage” cultures

Metal and Christianity are global phenomenons, with legions of dedicated fans/followers on every populated continent. Christianity and Heavy Metal transcend language and culture, as well as economic barriers.

Christianity broke off/fractured from it’s parent culture (Judaism) when the population base reached a critical mass. It later fractured into distinct branches (Orthodox, Catholic, then Protestant with Martin Luther), which have continued to splinter into smaller sub-groups. The sheer number of different denominations is staggering, but all of them fall under the larger umbrella term of Christianity.

Metal broke off/fractured from it’s parent culture (Rock and Roll) when the fan base reached a similar critical mass. It later fractured into two distinct branches (Mainstream and Underground/Extreme), which have continued to splinter into smaller sub-genres. The sheer number of different sub-genres is staggering, but all of them fall under the larger umbrella term of Heavy Metal.

Both Share Similar Spectrums of Adherence

In both Christian and Metal cultural groups there are spectrums of adherence that range from exclusive to inclusive (and everything inbetween). This is a natural occurrence – because as the population of a group increases, so does the number of different opinions within that group.

A good example would be the “real” or “true” member debates. Within Christianity, there is an ongoing discussion in terms of what constitutes a “real” or “true” Christian. A parallel can be seen in the whole “real” or “true” metalheads v.s. posers discussion. in other words, both cultures have their fair share of “infighting” over multiple definitions of adherence.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Why do we need all these subgenres? Why can’t we just call it all metal like we used to?” or something similar? Spend enough time on metal forums, Facebook groups, or with metalheads in general and you might notice it’s a rather common topic of discussion.

Interestingly enough, when discussing the relative diversity of Christianity with Christians I’ve heard similar sentiments (We don’t need all these different denominations/I don’t know why we can’t just call it all Christianity).

There is some merit to these arguments, because all sub-genres and scenes fall under the greater spectrum of Heavy Metal just like all protestant and catholic denominations fall under the greater spectrum of Christianity. So, they’re accurate – just not very specific.

Both are Historically Male-Dominated Cultures

Considering both Christian and Heavy Metal culture are derivatives of Western Culture (which is mostly male dominated) this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

There is a major difference here though – Christianity was systematically set up to exclude women from positions of power pretty much since it’s inception. A good example of that would be the taboo against female priests/pastors. Metal, however, is masculinist (as opposed to patriarchal).

So, while both social systems formed with predominantly male influence – in this instance the difference is a huge one. Within the church’s social structure – rules have to be changed to allow women to serve the culture in major roles such as a priest or pastor.

Heavy metal has no such restrictions. A women entering the metal scene simply has to navigate social norms that are traditionally considered to be masculine (I’m talking about the scene here, not the industry. All Western industry is patriarchal). The proof is in the pudding here, while the two systems may seem comparable, the end result(s) of the respective social structures for different genders can clearly be seen and differentiated.

Both Christianity and Heavy Metal Have Radical “Fringe Groups”

Both Christianity and Metal Culture have a few skeletons in the closet. Heavy Metal has such gems as National Socialist Black Metal and Hatecore (technically punk, like all of the “-core” derivations, but included here because of hardcore’s association with metal), while Christianity boasts the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and other Christian Identity groups.

“Fringe” hate groups in Metal

“Fringe” hate groups in Christianity

These fringe groups aren’t just about racism, anti-abortion violence in the United States and abroad generally has Christian undertones. And Heavy Metal has it’s own share of isolated, hate-filled violence. From the infamous church burnings and murders to instances of torture, it’s safe to say there are a few very seriously disturbed individuals on the fringes of the scene.

In both instances, the major block of the respective cultures renounce the violence of the fringe groups – but these events are so violent and atrocious it’s hard to separate them completely.

Both Have a “Ritual” Component

Sociologically speaking, a metal concert could be considered a ritual experience. Rituals aren’t limited to religious expression – for instance, shaking a person’s hand as a greeting is a common social ritual.

The metal concert is a ritual of heavy metal culture worldwide. Individual customs may vary based on location, for instance in the United States it’s generally considered taboo to wear the shirt of the band you’re going to see at a show (unless it’s a tour shirt purchased at the concert). However, in other areas of the globe this isn’t necessarily the case. Also, someone not familiar with the incredible variance of metal culture might not recognize that a Black Sabbath show and a Cannibal Corpse show are both considered to fall in the general realm of metal shows.

Likewise, a church sermon is a ritual of Christian culture worldwide. Traditions in American churches might seem foreign to those in Europe or elsewhere. Snake-handling is a tradition of some churches in the southern United States, while the custom wouldn’t be recognized anywhere else in the world. Someone not familiar with the relative diversity of Christianity might not recognize that a Russian Orthodox service and a Southern Baptist service both fall in the general realm of Christian ritual.

And in both cases, the end result of a successful “ritual” is the same – they solidify social bonds between participants.

Both Utilize an Atmosphere of Persecution to Solidify Their Respective Bases

This one’s kind of interesting – as both Heavy Metal and Christianity have a history of persecution. In fact, considering the universal symbol of Christianity is an instrument of torture used against the founder (the cross), one could argue that Christianity is based on a mindset of persecution. Likewise, the founder of heavy metal (Ozzy, through Black Sabbath) was publicly persecuted (granted, he wasn’t tortured and killed – once of the nice things about 2,000 years of cultural advancements, as an accusation of blasphemy has certainly led to public execution historically), most notably in his Suicide Solution trial in the 80’s.

Funny thing about a culture of persecution – it tends to solidify social bonds of the persecuted group and lend a universal sense of purpose through opposition of the invisible “other”. Metal bands and Priests/Pastors alike take advantage of this social mechanism rather liberally. I’m not saying it isn’t for good reason, in certain parts of the world Christians and Metalheads certainly are persecuted – and generally for the same reason. Because they both represent the spread of Western Culture in an area. Bearing this in mind, the tension between metal and christian cultures can be viewed in a different light.

Now, by definition these two groups aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be a christian (or a member of any other faith) and still be a metalhead. So, why is it that so many christian groups are against heavy metal? And why are so many metal artists and fans so vehemently against the christian church?

Short answer – on a macro level they’re after the same thing… membership. They might phrase it differently – Christianity generally says it’s around to “save people’s eternal souls”, while metal is generally there to “free people’s minds” and “promote individual thought”. But at the end of the day, the results are the same. A church saving a person’s soul generally implies participation in christian culture, and by inference the spread of that culture. Likewise, heavy metal grabbing a person’s attention and getting them to think for themselves usually includes participation and perpetuation of metal culture.

They Both Utilize Horror Themes

At first glance, this might seem ridiculous. But if you really break down the components of “Hellfire Preaching” and compare them to death metal lyrics, you’re likely to find a common denominator in horror themes.

In both instances, this is a manifestation of a culture catering to the morbid interests of their bases. Because at the end of the day, there isn’t that much difference between talking about people being tortured eternally in hell and singing about torture in any other medium. In this light heavy metal and hellfire sermons can both be viewed as extensions of horror themed entertainment. Because let’s face it, people like to be scared.

Also, there’s this.

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Women, Violence, Sexism, and Metal

 

Introduction

I’d like to start this by saying  that I do not believe that there is an inherent bias towards or against female listeners or performers in metal culture. I think that there is a gender gap/dynamic, but this is only a problem in as much as the gender demographics relate to music in general.

I’ve never heard anyone complain about the fact that pop artists discriminate against males by catering to a predominantly female audience.When’s the last time you read about misandry in a music scene? Or are songs about killing men and hiding their bodies, or committing felonious acts against personal property of men? Because country music has both of those – “Goodbye Earl” and “Before He Cheats”, respectively. Or how about just google searching “songs that bash men“?

I’m not saying “oh, poor men. we’re so oppressed” or anything of the sort. I’m saying that the people who cry misogyny  are just looking for an excuse to bash metal in the never-ending quest for political correctness. Or, at best, they’re looking at a small fraction of metal and spinning it to paint it in a negative context without taking time to understand the half century of culture surrounding the music (which, like with anything, provides the necessary context to bring clarity to the subject). Either way, it’s a ridiculous double standard – coming from people who say they’re trying to end double standards, I consider it hypocrisy at it’s best/worst.

Violence/Disturbing Material in Metal Lyrics

First and foremost – of fucking course there’s violence in metal lyrics. It’s aggressive music. If they were singing about love/flowers/hippie shit it wouldn’t work. Nobody ever accused Johnny Cash of inciting people to violence when he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” – and he sings about shooting a man just to watch him die.

The Beatles wrote “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” about a fictional character who kills people with a fucking hammer – granted they were a tad less graphic than, say, Cannibal Corpse’s song “Hammer Smashed Face”. But at the end of the day, they were singing about the same thing – fictional characters murdering people with fucking hammers. Oddly enough, you don’t really hear anyone saying “oh, shame on the Beatles”.

The Rolling Stones can sing a song about having sex with a dead man and people flock to see them – but when Slayer writes a song called “Necrophiliac” people get all up in arms about it.

These examples are being used to illustrate a greater point – in metal music, there are going to be songs about violence against women (and disturbing subject matter in general). Taken at face value, this seems like something to rally against. But it’s not advocating violence against specific women (or women in general), and (I would argue) there are more metal songs with lyrical content dealing with violence against men. As a matter of fact, there’s probably a metal song about violence against everything on earth it’s possible to commit an act of violence against. So, women aren’t being exclusively singled out here – metal is an equal opportunity genre when it comes to violent lyrics.

So, I can certainly see why a girl might feel a bit odd singing along with a Cannibal Corpse song like “Fucked with a Knife” – I totally fucking get it. But, like anyone who’s familiar with the music, I think it’s safe to say she should know these songs aren’t about her. I’ll take it one further – there has never been a Cannibal Corpse fan (in the history of ever) who has committed acts of violence against women as laid out in a Cannibal Corpse song. Quite the opposite, the reason the lyrics work in context of the music is because the audience members (male and female) find them disturbing.

Are there people who are fucked in the head and claim inspiration from music to commit atrocities? Sure. The best example I can think of is the Helter Skelter murders. And Helter Skelter is a song about a fucking slide in England. However, almost 50 years after the Tate/LaBianca murders, I don’t think a single person in their right mind would say that the Beatles should have been silenced (or the White Album banned).

Discrimination Against Women in Metal Culture

Now, this is a topic I think warrants a bit more discussion. People who participate in the metal subculture don’t exist in a vacuum – the very name “subculture” means it’s a piece of a larger culture. As such, it’s good to keep this in mind when you’re discussing a topic like the treatment of women. I’m not making excuses for the prevalence of misogynist material in metal (extreme metal in particular), I’m saying that if you cherry-pick an argument it doesn’t deserve serious consideration.

Now, in metal academia it was first observed/stated by Deena Weinstein ( a female sociologist from outside the metal scene)in her book, “Heavy Metal: The Music and it’s Culture” that heavy metal culture formed around groups of men shortly after the fracturing of “hippie” culture. The fanbase already existed, and it was predominantly working class white males in Western industrial countries (the US and UK). And as it was a culture that formed and “normed” around this particular group, it’s natural that certain subjects, behaviors, etc that appeal exclusively to this group would be incorporated into the culture.

This includes (but isn’t limited to) styles of clothing and behavior within the cultural setting. Considering the fact that metal culture started increasing at the same time as the feminist movement was gaining social momentum in the United States (also observed by Weinstein in her book) – it can be viewed as a reactionary movement in the sense that it is a space where masculine qualities are socially acceptable.

In the words of Corey Taylor (Slipknot/Stone Sour)

“heavy metal is the last bastion of real rebellion, real masculinity, real men basically getting together and beating their chests”

 

Now, I don’t think that anyone would argue that Heavy Metal is anything but masculinist (at least in terms of gender dynamics). But is Masculinist the same thing as misogynistic? Quite simply, the answer is no. Celebrating and encouraging patterns of behavior and social norms that have been denoted as masculine does not in any way, shape, or form promote a dislike of the feminine. Quite the opposite, I would argue that an appreciation of the feminine is an inherent part of traditional masculinity. And any attempt to correlate or confuse the two terms is quite simply yellow journalism – sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism.

On Discrimination Against Female Metal Artists and Fans

At face value, this seems like one of the stronger arguments that there is a good deal of discrimination in metal culture. There is certainly a notable gender gap when it comes to the proportion of male v.s. female metal artists. Just like the fanbase, the pool of metal artists is predominantly male. And as you traverse the spectrum of music from mainstream into extreme metal – the gap gets considerably larger.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to this – I would argue that the main factor is that metal music appeals to men as a demographic significantly more than it does to women. This isn’t groundbreaking or cause for alarm – as I mentioned before, there are plenty of musical markets and cultures that appeal almost exclusively to a female demographic. I have yet to see an article accusing Adele of hating men because her fanbase is predominantly female. In fact, it makes perfect sense that a woman who makes music that deals with feminine attitudes and issues and presents a very effeminate sonic format would appeal to women. Almost as much sense as music that deals with predominantly male attitudes, made by predominantly male artists, in a masculine sonic format will appeal to a predominantly male audience. Hmmmm….

And the biggest (or most visible) critics of masculine metal culture have no fucking clue about the music. For example, this article in the Houston Press was written by a girl who obviously isn’t very familiar with metal culture beyond dipping her toes in the mainstream. Articles like this couldn’t be further from the truth, and are reflective of a general trend among hipster “Social Justice Warriors” to see a problem where there isn’t one. For every woman who fails to gain popularity in the metal scene – there are probably 50-100 guys who fail as well. And it’s not because of what’s between their legs – it’s because their music probably sucks.

If she really wants to get mad about a legitimate problem – how about talking about living in a culture that denotes a possession/love of power with masculinity. Because that, more than anything, is the argument behind why there is so little female participation in metal. Heavy Metal is a music and culture that celebrate power in various forms.

Now – I’ve heard the argument that female metal artists have to (essentially) dress like sluts/groupies to get any attention in the metal community. I can think of a few women who break that mold…

As a matter of fact – the girls in Arch Enemy, Eluveitie, Unleash the Archers, Huntress, Kittie, Otep, The Agonist, Kittie (the list could go on all day) prove exactly the opposite is true. In fact, I would argue that women in metal have a LOT more credibility if they dress like fucking metalheads.

Now, let’s take a look at a few bands who perpetuate the “sex kitten” stereotype in metal.

Bands like “The Butcher Babies” and “In This Moment” certainly make it look like women have to use sex to make it big in the metal world. But, I would argue that they lack a certain degree of respect specifically because they do this. Sex obviously sells across genders, it’s kind of a mainstream “I win” button when it comes to selling albums. It’s what pop stars (and stars from every other mainstream genre) do, and quite frankly I consider the practice utter filth. So, this isn’t a problem with JUST metal – this is a problem in the record industry in general that translates to metal (as it relates to the music industry). So don’t blame fucking metal and it’s fanbase for a broader cultural problem.

I can’t think of a single metalhead male I’ve ever met who thinks that these acts (Butcher Babies, In This Moment, etc) are anything even close to credible – and they most likely wouldn’t buy their music. Not because they’re women in metal, because they’re women who are degrading themselves in metal to make a few bucks. If they had the musical talent necessary to make it in metal, skimpy clothing wouldn’t even be on the table. There’s a reason Doro is a fucking legend in metal – because she didn’t compromise herself.

So, we can kind of see a pattern here – the only female metalheads who use sex appeal over talent are the more mainstream bands. And I have a big problem with this. Not because I dislike the thought of women using any tools at their disposal to make it big – that’s fucking awesome. Not because I don’t like scantily clad women – because I fucking love that shit. I have a problem with it because mainstream metal is the gateway for people to get into some of the harder, underground stuff. And if the first thing girls see is a bunch of scantily clad female metal artists, they’re going think this is the way they need to dress when they go to a metal show.

Why it’s Good to Pay Attention to What You’re Wearing at a Metal Show

Now, there’s nothing wrong with women wearing scant clothing at a show. But, it’s good to keep in mind that there’s already a culture of women who go to shows in sexy clothing. They’re called groupies. And within groupie culture, dressing in a certain way signals that these girls are there specifically to try and have sex with the band. Not in a “they’re being taken advantage of” or a “this is the only way women can participate in the culture” sort of way. In an empowering, these girls are exactly where they want to be doing exactly what they want to do sort of way.

However, this does present a cultural problem. Girls that emulate a mainstream metal female (and decide to dress in a promiscuous fashion) are probably going to be mistaken as a groupie. Not because all men are pigs, but because their fellow females have participated in creating a groupie culture within metal and hard rock. A culture that’s so ingrained that there are typically three types of backstage passes – one for people who have paid, one for women who have performed sexual favors for the road crew, and one for women who have been selected to come backstage and have a chance at performing sexual favors for the band(s).

This isn’t based on any science – just simple observation. A very liberal estimate puts the ratio of guys to girls at a metal show at roughly 9/1. Meaning at least 90% of the crowd in at any given metal show is male. And out of the 10% that’s female, you’ve got enough groupies and tag-along girlfriends who don’t even really listen to metal where a certain amount of stereotyping is just going to happen.

Now, these numbers are changing (thank god, a few women certainly bring a breath of fresh air into the sausage party that is a metal show) – but the only real way to get rid of these negative stereotypes is for girls to go to metal shows. Not just as a tag-along girlfriend (there’s nothing wrong with this, but there’s a reason that stereotype exists), and not just to dress promiscuously with the hopes of hooking up with either the band or someone in the audience. The more genuine female metalheads there are at shows, the more that stereotype will disappear.

im-with-the-band-pamela-des-barrescover of “I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie”

And when I say “genuine female metalheads”, I mean girls who are fans of the music, participate in the culture, and are not there for the express purpose of finding a sexual partner. And unless you’re willing to dis-empower groupies, this is probably going to always be the case. Can groupies be genuine metal fans? Sure. Will they ever be viewed as anything other than a sex object by the majority of metal fans? Probably not – seeing as sex is part of the base on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, you’re never going to be able to compete with several millions years of instinct. So, for the same reason the guys in Magic Mike will never be viewed for their acting talent – groupies and those who dress like groupies will always be initially viewed as sex objects. I’m not trying to say men are blameless victims of evolution or something – but that’s pretty much the way humans (male and female) are wired.

groupies

Visual cues aren’t limited to groupie dress codes – when I talk about something like “unwritten rules of metal“, I’m referring to cultural norms, many of which are based on visual cues. Metal Culture relies heavily on visual cues 1) because humans are predominantly visual creatures and 2) because in many areas of the world metal is shunned. The easiest and fastest way to communicate your love of a particular band, or participation in metal culture generally, is through (what is commonly referred to as) ‘the uniform’.

types

Side note – this is why I make a big deal out of mainstream culture co-opting the metal uniform over the past few years. It’s sending false signals – there’s nothing quite as annoying as walking up to someone in a metal shirt and finding out they don’t listen to the band/album displayed on the shirt.

Dealing with Metal “Gatekeepers”

Women have a legitimate gripe in this area, and I’m 100% against someone coming up to another person at a show and quizzing them as a way of forcing them to display their “metal credibility”. And girls do get this a lot more than guys. But it’s not exclusively a female problem – in fact it’s such a widespread phenomenon that Brien Posehn made a music video/song about it…

So, even if we get to a point where this doesn’t happen to women more frequently than men, it’s still going to happen. Because assholes are everywhere.

Also, don’t call them elitists. Metal elitists are cool as fuck. People who do stuff like this are just plain assholes.

 

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