In 2020, how far is too far in “extreme” music?
Open-minded taste in music is a good thing, many people would agree. No one wants others to reject their personal favorites, and over time, people inevitably run into songs that make them reconsider a genre. I appreciate country, for instance, mostly because of songs by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams.
It’s just a minority of us though that pick artists and genres that make no pretense of wanting casual listeners, or even deliberately antagonize them. For myself, punk and death metal are just the beginning — some of my preferred styles include drone, black metal, digital hardcore, and even raw noise a la Merzbow.
With extreme music tends to come extreme ideas. Polish death metal giants Behemoth regularly use gore, nudity, and anti-Christian imagery in their videos and concerts. The Dead Kennedys punk anthem “Holiday in Cambodia” is about the Khmer Rouge. In the power electronics/death industrial camp, one of the better-known acts is called Genocide Organ.
Most of the time these ideas are just meant to shock, or be thought-provoking, which is no different from mainstream rap and rock. Behemoth’s duel with religion is about edginess and personal self-empowerment, not burning down churches (something that has happened in the black metal world, mind). Genocide Organ doesn’t advocate murder or ethnic cleansing. Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra is outspoken against social injustice.
I have the sense however that we’re once again nearing a critical threshold in what’s publicly acceptable. We may not be there yet — I haven’t witnessed any major backlashes, certainly nothing like the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s. But in the woke era, standards have evolved enough that a reckoning is due.
Consider one of my favorite industrial metal bands, Hanzel und Gretyl. While being from New York City, they don’t just play at being German — their slogan is “more German than German” — they sometimes drop cheeky Nazi references in their songs. Even if I had a good time, I’ve rarely felt so awkward as hearing “Third Reich From the Sun” performed in the heart of Berlin.
Those references seem to have diminished in newer tracks, perhaps because in 2020, Nazis are less a relic of the past and more a genuine threat. Far-right nationalism has been on the rise since 2016, not just in Germany but in regions like Hungary, Poland, and yes, the United States. Not only is the joke less funny, but H&G are probably eager to steer real neo-Nazis away from concerts.
Things get dicier still with genres like power electronics. Consider the 2017 Genocide Organ album Civilization, which includes tracks like “John Birch Society” and “Kill Useless Nations.” The band isn’t endorsing any of things, but rather embracing a pessimistic view of humanity and its capacity for hate. Or so it seems — the group is notoriously opposed to interviews, so mostly what we have to go on is their willingness to skewer anything and everything, such as bloody U.S. interventions in Central and South America.
I can get behind that kind of quasi-nihilistic outlook, which seems recurrent in the genre. Yet the difficulty of telling how serious some bands are reminds me that we should be paying more attention, and that fans may have a duty to say “enough” at some point soon.
I may have already reached that stage with another genre, martial industrial. I used to believe that acts like Sweden’s Arditi were just trying to be controversial when they evoked fascist symbols and ideologies. Subsequent interviews have exposed Arditi’s authentically nationalist beliefs however, and they’re not the only band I could point to. I think most martial bands are less objectionable — but it could be that I’m ignorantly tip-toeing a political minefield.
That’s the crux of my argument, really. Circa 2020 we need to do better, since we’re now awake to the dangerous political undercurrents in society. Even if artists don’t openly promote rotten views they can sometimes dogwhistle or perpetuate them. Extreme music fans as much as anyone have an obligation to shut that s**t down when they encounter it — it can’t automatically be dismissed as shock-rock anymore.
Note that I’m advocating for self-policing by fans, rather than government intervention. While I’m not a libertarian, I think we should reserve the brunt of the law for active threats — typically, that translates into people calling for real harm against specific groups or people. Slayer, in other words, is welcome to sing “I hate everyone equally” in their thrash metal anthem “Disciple,” without being rounded up by the same leaders who thought Twisted Sister was too much for the public to handle.