Metal’s fiercest critics have often been those who have completely misunderstood the playfulness and theatricality of its obsession with darkness; the human need to confront the forbidden. In the 1980s metal was beleaguered by Tipper Gore’s ‘Parental Advisory’ campaign, and court cases in which Black Sabbath and Judas Priest were accused of inciting fans to suicide. This sort of accusation reared its head even more prominently following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, when it was falsely reported that the two student killers were Marilyn Manson fans, and that they were dressed in trenchcoats which were similar to the shock-rocker’s typical attire.
Metal’s flirtation with Satanism may be ridiculous but its tendency towards right-wing views is not. Metal’s real dark side lies in its misogyny, which is endemic to the culture. Meanwhile racism, homophobia and even Nazism exist on the fringes.
There is a burgeoning academic field of heavy metal studies, with some surprisingly good writing, although the discipline does suffer from the inherent bias of most heavy metal scholars being metal fans themselves. A number of scholars have tried to explain why metal tolerates unpleasant views, and some of their arguments are disappointingly apologist. For example one female writer explained how women fans at a Cannibal Corpse concert voiced their offence at the lyrics to ‘Fucked With A Knife’ by ‘not singing along with that one’. Pretty pathetic really.
The sociologist Dr Keith Kahn-Harris, who wrote the excellent book ‘Extreme Metal’ and has some of the best and balanced writing on the subject, has coined a term he calls reflexive anti-reflexivity.
Reflexivity is a concept defined by eminent sociologist Anthony Giddens, referring to the way that humans continually monitor their own actions in order to shape their own personal narrative of their life.
Reflexive anti-reflexivity is the opposite; a sort of wilful ignoring of the facts, of the consequences of one’s actions, a conscious I know this is wrong, but because I’m doing it in full knowledge of the fact that it’s wrong, it makes it ok. It is actually quite a sophisticated concept, and provides a very convenient type of cynicism which allows people to embrace something despite its unpleasant aspects.
Of course, that doesn’t make any of it ok. Playing at sexism/racism/homophobia is just the same as actual sexism/racism/homophobia because it influences vulnerable young people. But it explains why a tacit acceptance of obnoxious beliefs and behaviour exists within metal. It explains why nutters like Varg Vikernes (aka Burzum), who murdered his bandmate, burned down several churches and sent a letter bomb to Israeli musicians, still continues to make music. It explains why people still listen to Pantera despite frontman Phil Anselmo making unmistakeable ‘white power’ gestures.
I realised that I was practising my own version of reflexive anti-reflexivity with my metal journey; I know this is absurd, juvenile, impractical and impossible, but since I am openly acknowledging these facts I can put them to one side and indulge myself.
This is a morally lazy but highly convenient way to live one’s life. And since someone has given it a fancy scholarly term, I am going to appropriate it, even if just for a while, to avoid acknowledging the ridiculousness of my behaviour.
Because I am playing at having a midlife crisis, I’m not really having one.