Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Unexpected Philosophical Positions in Metal

I ran across this bit at Agent Intellect when looking for (of all things) a post about religion and psychoanalysis. In it the author notes a surprising preponderance of Christians in metal. I was interested to find this because this is an observation I have also made. I should note that the blogger in question fills his blog(s) with an odd assortment of topics, among them metal and science fiction, a conjunction which may seem familiar. Consequently I emailed him to congratulate him on the obvious excellence of his character. I recommend you visit but don't stay too long, or the Christians will get you. (This is the kind of thing I plan to tell my children to make them do their homework.)

Mr. Intellect mostly discusses the curious case of Megadeth, and Dave Mustaine specifically. If I'm recalling my metal history correctly, just prior to Rust in Peace Mustaine went through rehab and not surprisingly produced his best album to date at that time (because the production budget didn't all go up his nose or into his veins; BTW, some of the best metal ever written is on that record and especially on Countdown to Extinction, Youthanasia, and Cryptic Writings.) Perhaps also not surprisingly, after his twelve-step program he found religion, which is controversially associated particularly with AA. You might imagine my chagrin when James Hetfield also went through rehab a few years ago. On that front, despite the influence of an infamously Cosby-sweater attired therapist on the lyrics, the give-it-up-to-a-higher-power kind of themes seem not to have unduly influenced later Metallica lyrics. Hetfield is still writing lyrics about Lovecraft stuff at least.

I had long thought that Mustaine's Christianity was common knowledge, especially since Megadeth fans have never tired of informing me of it, like the pleasant mob in the beer line I talked to at Gigantour in Sacramento in 2005, but particularly one Catholic metalhead college girlfriend (is there anything hotter than a smart female who's into metal? Yes, exactly one thing: a smart female who's into metal and went to Catholic school. Grrrr. I debate whether to include these little sexist comments but Zaphod told me I had to make my blogs more personality-driven. Yes, Zaphod is a real guy, not one of my voices. My voices give much better advice.) In any event, I would not have expected Mr. Intellect to be surprised by this.

The traditional lyrical subject matter of metal - the end of the world, taboo topics of violence and anger having to do with negative masculine emotions - would certainly seem on its face to put off modern Western Christians, who (even at the cynical reading many of us take) at least work hard to appear to eschew these associations. In fact I would argue there are underlying reasons why metal's draw to young Christian males should not be at all surprising. But before we worry too much about whether it's surprising that metalheads are ever or often Christian, first it's worth stepping back for some cultural criticism. Shouldn't it seem odd that we assume this kind of association between artists and any philosophy or religion? For example: are we concerned with Lawrence Welk's position on Zoroastrianism? Or Cezanne's position on the bimetallic standard? Or whether Mozart was an adherent of the phlogiston theory? I personally blame this association between musicians and pseudo-intellectual/supernatural belief-systems on the Beatles' going to India; that's really the first time you see it. No one especially cared whether Elvis read Nietzsche. At least this gives us a potential Monty Python sketch: imagine if surrealists and futurists developed certain hairstyles and styles of dress to mark themselves apart from the general public, and then they regularly got into fistfights at museums. Seriously: is that really any more ridiculous than punks and metalheads fighting at clubs in the 80s, identifying each other by short and long hair? The anesthesia of the familiar is powerful stuff.

A second observation is that we not only associate musicians with philosophy and religion at all, but we associate them with specific controversies in those realms, i.e. morality, theology, and eschatology. (Eschatology is the study of the end of the world. E-scat-ology is the study of the end of the world ending because of poop. HA! Get it? I try to keep things light.) That anyone, even young people, looks to musicians to explore these kinds of questions is weird, but metal isn't the only place where such an odd conjunction exists. To take two personal favorites, many libertarians assume implicitly that politics is largely the province of economists, and many atheists believe philosophy is the largely the province of biologists. Whether these arrangements are true and useful is a separate question - my point is that they're rarely recognized explicitly.

In my experience there are quite a few Christian metalheads, and this isn't strange at all. Why might this be? A large fraction if not the majority of metal lyrics take the form of moral outrage, either against some perceived moral infraction of a black-and-white moral principle, or regarding a specific abstract moral issue. There's very little real nihilism or amorality in metal. It's mostly angry idealists whining that the world and its inhabitants don't conform to their moral categories. Consider: how many metal songs take the form of second-person missives about some vague moral affront by a friend or ex that is clearly infuriating-to-the-singer, even if you don't really know what happened? It's no surprise that second person is so common in metal but not in other prose or verse: it's the most confrontational way of writing, and metal is largely a musical threat display, right down to reinventing war-paint. What's strange is that we pay for songs and concerts where the singer stands at the microphone telling us in second person he's angry at us and is going to hurt us. That said, second-person moral anger is more compelling art than nihilist shock-artists, be they in-jokes like GWAR or unfortunate souls like Seth Putnam; either way they're good for a laugh but that's about the end of it.

Considering all of this, some of metal's angry idealists, among both composers and consumers, are bound to be Christian. Any direct, simply-structured art form with a sense of clear moral principles and outrage at hypocrisy would likely be appealing to many young Christians - and young males in general. There is further theorizing to be had here, namely that the reason this kind of thing appeals to young males is that they are high-testosterone and this leads to underwired frontal lobes and temporal-lobe dominance resulting in quickness to anger as well as a more rule-based and less socialized understanding of morality. In even the most stunted males (like your blogger) by the late 20s the frontal lobes finally catch up and all the posturing and moral anger in the lyrics becomes harder to take seriously. Geschwind syndrome and autism can both be thought of as hyper-male personality phenotypes - and both are exhibited by strongly religious or anti-religious people. But now we're more in the domain of my atheist or cognitive science blogs, if you're interested in that sort of thing - I wrote there recently on many of the cognitive similarities between atheists and principle-oriented (rather than tribe-oriented) Christians.

I must confess I feel a little dirty after all that Christian talk. So this year, remember the reason for the season: Slayer!

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