“Apolitical” Metal? Whiteness in the Metal Community
From time to time, a debate about the political position of metal resurges, and in that context, usually at some point the argument appears that metal is, or should be apolitical.
I want to share some reflections about this debate. Someone once told me that when looking at societal events, one ought to ask ‘what story lies behind this?’ The kinds of questions this opens for, is of interest for this discussion: In what situations does the apolitical-argument appear? Who is it levelled at? What does it do to them? And what can it tell us about those who bring the argument to the fore?
My impression is that the apolitical-argument appears when someone in the metal community expresses support for everyone’s basic human rights and dignity, e.g. speaks out against racism, fascism, homophobia, transphobia or other hateful acts. Similarly, the argument appears when someone criticises a public person or venue for failing to take a stance in the face of such violations of people’s basic human rights and dignity.
The argument is levelled at people voicing support for everyone’s humanity, implying that they are making metal about something else than what it is supposed to be: ‘You bring politics into what is supposed to be apolitical’. This rhetorical move marks those in favour of everyone’s equal humanity as disruptors of the metal community. It is in its dynamic closely related with reactions of ‘being overly sensitive’ levelled against people voicing experiences with racism, ‘wanting attention’ levelled against people speaking out about sexual violence or bullying and cries about ‘cancel culture’ and ‘political correctness’ aimed at policies in support of everyone’s humanity or those who point out racist, fascist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or other positions and actions that question the assumption that everyone is equally human.
Interestingly, wishing for metal to be apolitical and criticising others for ‘making it political’ is logically only possible from a position that itself has no political alignment – some kind of neutral middle ground, or something entirely outside the sphere of politics. I am certain that at least some of the people bringing the apolitical-argument to the fore, actually believe that their relation to metal, and their position towards those they criticise, is neutral, or apolitical. After all, the concepts of a neutral middle ground and more importantly, the possibility of such a stance, are deeply enshrined in countless public institutions around the world, it is indeed a very powerful, if not hegemonic narrative. However, this position has huge blind spots that affect people who were not allowed at the table when the standards for neutrality were set. It is possible to get a glance at these standards by looking at situations where someone accuses another of making something about politics. Those bringing up the argument are within the standard of the neutral, apolitical. Those they level the criticism against, are outside it – therefore, their arguments do not appear as neutral and apolitical to those who are part of the standard.
Let me give some examples. Someone saying that there are not enough women in metal, is seen as bringing politics into metal, or being politically correct. [I still have great difficulties grasping how this concept can be seen as something negative nowadays; I do however understand how it helps the current power constellations stay in place.] What is the story behind this? The assumption of women in metal as something political, tells us that women in metal is not standard. One can clearly see this in labels such as ‘female-fronted metal band’ (I have never heard someone speak of a male-fronted metal band), ‘all-female metal band’ (unless in feminist critiques, I have hardly ever heard someone talk about ‘all-male metal bands’), ‘female guitarist’ (like really? I would love to see an interview introducing the “much appraised male guitarist X”). This is no coincidence. The same applies when race or world regions come into the picture. We can talk about black band members, but never ever have I heard someone say “yeah, band Y has a white singer”. Genre-wise, there is folk metal, but if the folk metal includes melodies or instruments from countries other than North Western Europe, it suddenly has to be called Oriental Metal. Outside of metal, the genre ‘World Music’ is particularly telling. Somehow, there is never a white musician included in this category. In that case we would have to state a more specific genre. But all the non-white people make one kind of music, world music, right? Again, this is no coincidence. And the problem is not the words for themselves, but what the words do with our view of the world and the people in it.
I think that describing this standard, this narrative of supposed neutrality, as whiteness, can greatly further our understanding. Whiteness is not about skin colour per se, it is rather about systems of power based on white skin colour, masculinity, heterosexuality, neurotypicality, middle class position and capitalism among others, as some kind of naturally given – neutral – standard. Everything within that standard is seen as normal and apolitical. Everything outside the standard is seen as different. When people in such non-standard positions voice concerns about threats to their humanity, it is seen as political, because it departs from the standard. Again, what is the story behind this? That within the system of whiteness, everyone who is not white, male, middle class, heterosexual etc., does not have per se status as fully human: they have to fight to achieve and maintain that status, and when they do, they get to hear ‘why do you have to bring politics into everything?’. People within the standard do not even have to think about whether they are afforded humanity, because it is taken for granted. It was after all their humanity that was the starting point for defining the standard of humanity. This is a huge privilege.
Take for example the indifference of big parts of the metal community at bands’ or band members’ sometimes covert, sometimes overtly racist or sexist actions, lyrics or stances. In cases where a band states that they are ‘politically neutral’, most people don’t even understand what this is a code word for, let alone care about the exclusion of so many people this stance brings with it. Just to give a hint: those ‘politically neutral’ bands have pictures of Tiger tanks on their website because they are ‘interested in history’, and they are against Islam because it is Black Metal to be against religion; however Christianity, the religion that is hegemonic in most Western European countries, doesn’t get mentioned even once. In more extreme cases, Hitler salutes are part of the show (outside of Germany, there is no such thing as Volksverhetzung, with everything that implies) there are swastikas on stage, purges against immigrants in the lyrics, and the crowd’s reaction is: meh, I like their music, I don’t care where they stand politically. What is the story behind this? It does not affect me personally, therefore, I don’t care. Who is this person not personally affected? In this case most definitely not an immigrant, not Jewish, neither Roma nor Sinti nor homosexual nor neurodivergent nor communist, and the list goes on. Most likely white, heterosexual etc., you know, standard. And the labels marketing these Hitler-saluting, swastika-wielding, immigrants-purging (‘they only say so, so that must be fine?’) bands seem to think that they are catering to exactly such a standard audience. Weirdly enough, it is the person raising her voice stating the problems with pushing such bands, who is accused of bringing politics into metal.
Another example is half naked or naked women as mere passive figures on album covers and on stages, strip shows involving only women at festivals or bands asking their fans to show their breasts at concerts. What is the story behind this? Somehow, I don’t think catering to lesbian audiences is the point here. In some people’s minds, metal seems to be a very male world. Therefore, it is the person addressing the issue that ‘brings politics into metal’, not the person suggesting a strip show at a festival, because the latter is part of the (male) standard, and the former is not.
At this point, a common misconception comes in. The argument about whiteness and privilege does not imply that every middle class, white, heterosexual, neurotypical man walks through his life without the slightest sorrow or problems. Of course, also this standard person can face (serious) problems and adversities. What makes up his privilege, is that his problems are not associated with his status. For example, if our standard white man is excluded from a part of the metal community because his music taste is not heavy enough, he can either start listening to heavier bands or try persuading the brutal elitists that the bands he likes, are heavy as well. If someone is excluded because of their skin colour, there is nothing they can do about it. Also, in the former case, our standard white man is excluded because of his taste, i.e. something he does, not because of his skin colour, i.e. who he is. This is a huge difference.
To sum up, I argue that just as most sectors of society, also the metal community is characterised by whiteness. It is whiteness that allows people to propose that metal is apolitical and to be taken seriously and supported by a large part of the community. It is whiteness that allows people to criticise support for everyone’s humanity as political – read: non-neutral – and themselves seem neutral, because whiteness claims basic humanity as an apolitical standard only for the above-mentioned white, male, heterosexual etc. person. In the metal context, add long hair, tattoos, beer-drinking and the occasional kilt to the mix – somehow we have to differentiate ourselves from mainstream whiteness to count as a subculture, after all.
For further reading and reflections:
- Reni Eddo-Lodge: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
- Ijeoma Oluo: So You Want to Talk About Race.
- Tristan Kennedy: Black metal not Black-metal: White privilege in online heavy metal spaces.
- Pauwke Berkers and Julian Schaap: Gender Inequality in Metal Music Production.
- Julian Schaap and Pauwke Berkers: Whiteness and the online critical and consumer reception of rock and heavy metal music.