How Music Journalists Are Trying to Censor and Influence Art
It’s a long-standing battle that started way before I ever put pen to paper, and it will never ever stop: Where is the line between art and censorship, and whose job is it to make that call? In general, the CLRVYNT party line is that art comes before everything, except in the case where the “art” has only one aim: intentional harm upon the subject. Art is escapism, and as such, music should be given a bit of leniency to explore controversial themes and ideas. Everything in context.
That doesn’t mean that every person on this green earth isn’t entitled to their opinion, but it does mean that there is a line where individual opinion meets the general consensus of what is tolerable and what isn’t. Handshake, Inc. / Uneasy Sleeper honcho David Hall walks that line in his latest op-ed on the current state of journalism with respect to controversial art. — Fred Pessaro, EIC
Art and artists have a long, tangled history with outside interests that wish to censor, control and judge any creative endeavor that is interpreted as immoral, obscene, anti-state, antisocial, dangerous or hateful. Small “c” critics of perceived immoral elements in art are typically never artists themselves, and often take their cues from religious, political and social frameworks that have nothing to do with music. It is also common for the artist to find their work judged negatively by journalists and social media crusaders based on the political, social and/or religious beliefs, and/or history of the artist.
Freedom of expression in art is currently under attack by politically correct journalists who confuse artists with their art and artistic content with reality, and follow some self-appointed duty to obtain social justice and report on the actions and beliefs of musicians. These journalists are the new PMRC, the new “Satanic Panic,” and they are a threat to art.
First, a very brief history lesson for context so we’re all on the same page:
Satanic Panic: “In the 1980s, it seemed impossible to escape Satan’s supposed inﬂuence. Everywhere you turned, there were warnings about a widespread evil conspiracy to indoctrinate the vulnerable youth through the media they consumed. This percolating cultural hysteria, now known as the 'Satanic Panic,' not only sought to convince us of devils lurking behind the dials of our TVs and radios, and the hellﬁre that awaited on book and video store shelves; it also created its own fascinating cultural legacy of Satan-battling VHS tapes, audiocassettes and literature.” — Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, ed. Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe, FAB Press, 2016
Tipper Gore / PMRC: “The Parents Music Resource Center formed in 1984 around the collective outrage of four women known for their ties to Washington political life. Founding members Susan Baker (wife of then-Treasury Secretary James Baker), Tipper Gore (wife of senator and future Vice President Al Gore), Pam Howar (wife of Realtor Raymond Howar) and Sally Nevius (wife of Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius) had become disturbed by Prince, Madonna and other music their kids were listening to. And on September 19, 1985, the culture wars came to a head in a 'porn rock' Senate hearing featuring testimony from John Denver, Dee Snider and Frank Zappa. From this political fervor emerged the 'Parental Advisory' sticker that probably dots your CD collection today.” — Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek, “Parental Advisory Forever: An Oral History of the PMRC’s War on Dirty Lyrics,” 2015
The common traits linking the Satanic Panic, Tipper Gore and the PMRC are mass hysteria, paranoia and group action taken to silence, censor and punish perceived cultural threats to society (and ﬁt in with the morally correct group). In the case of the Satanic Panic and Tipper Gore, freedom of expression through art was the enemy — society’s ills were being blamed on art, and needed to be monitored and controlled by the state. I also want to identify the difference between the term “SJW” and what I refer to in this piece as “Social Media Crusaders.” SJW (Social Justice Warrior) is a term used to negatively describe a person who is interested in the ﬁght for equality and equal representation in society — something I can back. For me, a Social Media Crusader is a journalist who constantly uses their position to accuse, blame and attack musicians based on their actions and/or beliefs. Most times, these journalists do not even talk to the musician in question or provide a reason for the report. I’m not entirely sure what the point is of this crusading, but it has nothing to do with music. I’m not sure what you call “journalism” that reports on the behavior and beliefs of musicians — entertainment news?
The idea that metal music is a culture and/or community of racist, misogynistic bigots is not new, but for me, the journalistic movement to shine a light on the perceived social regressiveness of metalheads started to really emerge around 2011 or 2012.
(P.S. I don’t believe that listening to and purchasing music and attending shows constitutes a “community” at all. Far more people go to movies, buy DVDs and otherwise invest their time in ﬁlms, and yet these people — even those dedicated to one genre of ﬁlm — are not referred to as a community. They are called the audience. Why are people who merely listen to music — i.e., fans and journalists — de facto considered to be in a community with the musicians? Musicians may be considered a community unto themselves, and within certain geographical regions, fans may be considered their own community, but fans and musicians are on diﬀerent sides of an artistic framework.)
In the mid-2000s, various academics, music bloggers and writers started to express concern that the metal community was not inclusive, and quite a few blogs, forums, articles and books were produced with the purpose of exposing metal musicians who were female, PoC, homosexual, transgender and otherwise “non-traditional.” This was a very positive step in empowering “non-traditional” people who listened to and created metal. The point was to prove to the world that not only white men make valuable contributions to the scene, and many of these articles preached inclusiveness and aimed to “normalize” the presence of non-white males at shows and metal-related events. This was a very positive approach in trying to usher in a new era of inclusiveness in the underground. With this burgeoning and inclusive movement, however, came criticism aimed at the lyrical and artistic content that musicians were employing.
Criticism of musicians’ political and social views also became common. Again, I know this movement started long before 2011 / '12, but that was just when I started to become aware of it, as I was rapidly becoming involved in underground metal through the production of music videos and ﬁlms, as well as running a label. I remember the ﬁrst piece I read that went after the content of the music. “Do Not Betray a Metal Woman” is an article published on the site Invisible Oranges. The article is a critique of a song by metal band 3 Inches of Blood called “Metal Woman.” In the piece, Beth Winegarner bemoans the lyrical content in the song and video because “... to say only the leather-clad, menacingly sexual ladies qualify as a 'metal woman' is exclusionary to all the women who don’t meet those criteria. And metal is already exclusionary enough.”
Taking the intellectual stance that the lyrical content of a song can somehow directly inﬂuence a group of people who listen to it is quite bold. To suggest that lyrical content can aﬀect and control the way someone acts and behaves — in this case a generic metalhead, a white man who will choose to exclude women who aren’t sexed-out in leather — well, I’m sorry, but this is just terrible logic and exercises no degree of critical thinking. A woman in a song is not a real woman — she is a metaphor wrapped in the patina of the free, creative expression of the artist. A metaphor. The way a woman in a song is described can neither aﬀect, nor change, nor inﬂuence the way a person treats a woman in real life, because a song is an inanimate object, one-dimensional, written using musical and lyrical conventions to convey whatever it is the artist hopes to convey. But the song itself is passive. It has no more control over a person’s actions than the sound of a toilet ﬂushing. Any thoughts or actions that are the result of one person listening to a song belong to said person. On hearing a song, if they assume that all women should be leather babes, that’s on them; that’s their shitty deductive reasoning or impressionability.
Even if lyrics could inﬂuence the actions of the listener, is it at all reasonable to assume that the person in 3 Inches of Blood who wrote the song did so to ensure that the “metal community” would continue to be exclusive? As Judas Priest’s manager famously once quipped, when asked if the band put subliminal messages in their songs, “If we were going to do that, I’d be saying, ‘Buy seven copies,’ not telling a couple of screwed-up kids to kill themselves.” The temptation to blame lyrical content for the actions of human beings is great, but there is no logical or scientific proof that lyrical or artistic content can inﬂuence human activity. To suggest that a band’s lyrical content should reﬂect the ideals of anyone not writing the song (no matter how “right” or “good” those ideals are) is to suggest that a writer or musician censor themselves. Suggesting that a song be tailored to reﬂect the morals of a journalist is equivalent to Tipper Gore’s grandstanding during the PMRC Senate hearing. It is veiled censorship, and an attempt to inﬂuence freedom of expression.
Let me make something clear: I fully support the idea that concerts — and any social gathering — should be inclusive to all people. I personally ﬁnd racism and misogyny repugnant and hateful. I believe in equality for all people, and the pursuit to ensure that society upholds this equality is a noble one. Blaming art for society’s failures, however, is not something I can get behind, because it is a non sequitur. Art can not be judged by societal standards because art is art, not a member or institution of society. The only way to deal with art is through art and art criticism — censorship. You can ban it, or explain why it is bad art. “The 3 Inches of Blood song 'Metal Woman' is bad art because it employs tired cliches and tired riﬀs and imagines a world where women are merely sex toys.” Or “'Metal Woman' by 3 Inches of Blood is an awesome song because it imagines a sexy woman who loves metal, and I think that is hot.” Or “the lyrical content of 'Metal Woman' objectiﬁes women — BAN IT!” But to suggest that music is the cause of exclusionary social practices or violence? That dog don’t hunt.
Art can only be eﬀectively criticized within the framework of art theory and critique. Another popular (but misinformed) opinion that has recently reared its ugly head is the notion that metal is made by a bunch of Nazis, and metal (especially black metal) is an inherently racist genre of music. It used to be that the general public was scared of metal because its members were certiﬁed satanists (Venom and the Satanic Panic), but recently, journalists and political groups like ANTIFA have become said concerned citizens and replaced the fear of satanism with the fear of Nazism. Journalists engage in call-out culture regularly by examining lyrics and artwork of bands, and/or looking for episodes in various musicians’ pasts that they feel qualify as Nazi behavior. Fans and social media justice crusaders are encouraged to not support these bands, and to call them out on social media — whether or not there is any merit to said accusations seems to be irrelevant. The mere mention of black metal and Nazism is enough fuel to get journalists and fans alike whipped up into a hysterical mass. The outcome, one can assume, will be to publicly shame and isolate the band in question so they will either stop making music or be relegated to obscurity.
Take, for example, the article “Editorial: Regarding Euronymous’ Claim that “Almost ALL Norwegian Bands are More or Less Nazis,” published on MetalSucks. MetalSucks is an interesting site because, in the past 10 years, it has undergone a transformation from oﬀensive-on-purpose-style editorials like "Sergeant D and Jake from DEFILER have a song about yoga pants #butts” to a socially progressive site that even has a manifesto (the graphic for which is the Soviet sickle and hammer for some reason) outlying how the site will not promote or give coverage to any band that is racist, misogynist, transphobic, etc. The site’s self-grandiosity knows no bounds, including this tweet by co-founder Vince Neilstein: "Any metal bands turning down press requests to comment on Trump's bigotry should be ashamed of themselves.” Quite a turnaround in less than ﬁve years. At any rate, the article in question attempts to address a common concern that many inﬂuential Norwegian black metal bands are Nazis, or racist, or both.
The conclusion of this editorial is that Norwegian black metal bands are Nazis, or racist, or both. The piece claims that members of the band Emperor at one point held hateful views, and though there is no deﬁnitive proof of this, MetalSucks will no longer give Emperor a “free pass” — i.e., favorable coverage, or coverage without mentioning some of their members may or may not be racist. This article is based on the content of an anonymous letter apparently written by Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, a member of the inﬂuential band Mayhem and founder of Deathlike Silence Productions, Norway’s ﬁrst solely black metal label. This letter (which the reader is never shown) supposedly contains a claim by Euronymous himself that "[A]lmost ALL Norwegian bands are more less nazis [sic], Burzum, Mayhem, Emperor, Arcturus, Enslaved, you name them.” This claim is followed not by interviewing the bands themselves, or friends of the bands, or any actual Norwegians, but cherry-picking quotes from interviews with Norwegian bands published online. It’s shoddy and sensationalist journalism, to say the least. The end of the article concludes with, "As of this writing, we truly do not believe that the members of Enslaved are Vikernes-level scumbags … but we’re not afraid to admit when we’re wrong.” This article is fascinating because not only does it basically call all Norwegians Nazis, but it presents a challenge to readers to provide MetalSucks with evidence that Enslaved are Nazis. For what purpose? Well, to deny the band any coverage. To stiﬂe any mention of the band on their site. To eﬀectively censor Enslaved or any other band they suspect of being Nazis.
When did journalism get so lazy? Is it really acceptable to make unverified claims about an entire nation of people? An anonymous letter is not a valid source. How about real investigative journalism that provides FACTS instead of innuendo and conjecture. Like the PMRC and Satanic Panic, this type of “journalism” is based on sensationalized, unfounded claims and accomplishes nothing. It’s “where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire” reasoning and just bad journalism: clickbait delivered with self-righteous moral superiority.
This is a classic witch hunt and seeks to publicly shame and defame bands based on their (supposed) political beliefs. BELIEFS. Not actions, not artistic content, but beliefs. Again, this is a music site attempting to obtain social justice based on an unseen letter written over 20 years ago. This less-than-stellar investigative journalism proves nothing, and seeks to inﬂuence and censor bands based on rumors. This is the Satanic Panic all over again, with Nazism replacing Satanism. Even if black metal musicians are conﬁrmed racists (and there are some), can the beliefs of an artist somehow infect a listener? I don’t think so. There is no solid evidence or data to suggest that a person’s actions or beliefs can be controlled or inﬂuenced by artistic content OR any beliefs the musicians may possess. Also, has any of this morally-panicked “journalism” ever stopped one single person from being a racist? Has it ever protected the potential victims of racist beliefs? Or, like the Satanic Panic, does this style of journalism create taboos and make more racists and Nazis want to check them out? Or embolden current racists who like the music to act out? I think it is the latter.
If audiences could be swayed and inﬂuenced by “immoral” artistic content or immoral beliefs of a musician, then the opposite would also be true — audiences could be impacted by “moral” messages. Take, for example, Catholic priests. How many hours of hymns, psalms and religious music do priests listen to? How many hours do they spend reading the Bible? And has this swayed one priest from sexually abusing children? Not likely. The beliefs of an artist do not somehow transfer through the artist to the audience through their artwork. A Nazi who makes music can not — no matter how hard they try — convert listeners to their reprehensible worldviews. Suggesting so is to imply that art is some magic spell that is capable of mind control.
No, people with hateful worldviews should not be embraced or supported, but music journalism is hardly the platform to level such critiques, and it should not engage in shaming, censoring and inﬂuencing art. Suggesting that an artist be refused a platform to distribute their artwork based on their political views is to suggest that the band be censored, and this is wrong. The listening public should be left to decide on their own if they wish to listen to the music or not. Morally superior journalists act like white knights riding in to save music — but save it from what? Free thought?
By confusing art with artist, and inﬂating and overstating the real-world impact of artistic content, journalists are sensationalizing and exploiting important issues for clicks. The call-out culture of this witch hunt-like approach to reporting on music only serves to feed the journalist’s ego and supply them with feelings of moral superiority and social justice. In reality, however, these journalists are muddying the waters of freedom of expression and artistic license. No, immoral, unethical, and hateful opinions and actions should not be accepted or tolerated, but the recourse to counter-intolerance can not come from the ﬁnger-pointing and armchair psychology of puritanical journalists wishing to inﬂuence — and ultimately censor and control — art. In a free society, artists must remain unmolested in their eﬀorts and abilities to create. There are proper social frameworks to expose and consider the subjects artists are dealing with. Censoring these subjects — or disallowing artists to express themselves — only stands to serve the agendas of people outside the framework of art.