THE METAL IMAGINATION
by Chris R. Morgan
In the 1980s, the longest and coldest of cold wars, that of adults against children, entered into a new and warmer phase. Before that time, it was waged beneath a veil of complacency. The “fronts” on which the “battles” were contested had an uneven advantage. The emergence in the postwar era of “popular culture” and “adolescence” created a youth consumer market that allowed people of college age and younger some sway in the direction of public taste and character. This was no threat to the adult authority, because it was a dominion of it. Narrow mediums through which to experience this new culture did little to fundamentally tilt the social balance. This was true even in the 1960s when youth revolt was still more or less underwritten by someone older, whether it was Herbert Marcuse or George Lois.
Though this did not change in any dramatic way in the 1980s, there were ominous signs that control could slip at any moment. The advent of MTV widened the framework through which youth could feel more in control of their cultural destiny. It made space, especially after David Bowie publicly shamed them, to cultural expressions that had been largely ignored outside the communities that created them. Hip-hop and less tuneful variants of rock music found their way into households that would have otherwise restricted them. The advent of the cassette tape perpetuated them further creating, in effect, a grey market of aesthetics. VHS tapes did the same for visual media, making “video nasties” and “creature features” more accessible.
The cold war had to be intensified. But rather than restrict the media innovations themselves, it focused on the expressions the innovations most encouraged. The most famous “campaign” of this new phase was the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Founded in 1985 by Tipper Gore and other wives of Washington, DC elites, the PMRC aimed to arbitrate, as best they could, the consumer content to which children were exposed. This included Senate hearings, which called Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver as witnesses, and the iconic “Parental Advisory” sticker. We all know how this all went down. The hearings fell apart when not even John Denver would concede the Boomer lawgivers their wholesome aims, and the sticker served more like a Pavlov’s bell to the young than as a warning to the ones doling out their allowances. To rehash this comical detour of history at all seems rather silly, but I do so with a concise purpose in mind: to vindicate Tipper Gore.
The victors of this campaign, like the victors of any war, are apt to see Mrs. Gore’s defeat as pre-ordained and cosmic. Wars are often absurd, even on the rare occasions when they are just, but never are they cosmic. Failures in battle are not of the heart, but of the nerve and of strategy. The PMRC and their Senatorial lackeys would never have fought if they didn’t see a worthy enemy: heavy metal. Heavy metal did, in fact, oppose the PMRC in everything it embodied. The trouble was that the PMRC failed to appreciate its enemy and therefore did not know how best to conquer it. They chose to confront it head-on, not realizing that defeat of metal meant first to defeat themselves.
To understand both metal and the PMRC, one must first understand the suburbs. We tend to think of the Clintons as the culmination of the modern suburbanization of society, but in fact the Gores were its true articulators. It was a perfection of American identity after more than a century of internal struggle and self-definition. Upon its careful grid, everything was in perfect balance. There was just enough prosperity and just enough morality. You could always see this arrangement when someone seemed out of place. Not just when a household was below average but when they were far above it: too ostentatious or too reverent for their liking. Not that they often did anything about it as such, doing anything directly went against the moral code. What, then, was the moral code?
Suburbanites learn the moral code as early as possible. Like the place it codifies, it is a stitching together of a bunch of things in perfect balance that, when looked at piece by piece, are incompatible. It is the morality of going to church every Sunday and of pledging allegiance to the flag every weekday. It is of living and letting live within each household but also of respecting the boundaries of civic order in the neighborhood. It is worldly and celestial; individual and communal; principled and pragmatic: the perfect recipe for American virtue. Seldom does this ever seem a problem. Most people who grow up in the suburbs have a desire to return to it sooner or later. They resolve the contradictions without much thought, and die contented. On the other hand, there are those with a certain ambient sensitivity who cannot reconcile the contradictions because there are none, just a fallacy of contradiction. The morals espoused in the suburbs, the more one tries to act on them or consider them, appear contingent when they are not fraudulent. Rather than equal with the prosperity, they are dependent upon it. When morals are just another consumer good, moralists go shopping.
No one asks to become a moralist. Who would want the kind of mind that looks at their peers and their families and says No? Moralists are always and everywhere finding reasons to say No to anything. It appears first as an impulse, but it can grow into something more elegant. Moralism is more than just determining which conduct is good and which is bad; it’s about seeing Person A in the mirror and thinking if and how they can become Person X, or Person 3. It is a creative vocation. No formal education can even hope to constrict it, let alone refine it. That is a journey the moralist must take in isolation; impulse must become instinct. It is a journey that in the present circumstances leads to metal. And like moralism, people think metal is easily understood.
The PMRC and its allies thought they could hector and shame metal out of existence, like spraying Raid on a hornet’s nest. Their brief and very public encounter with metal demonstrated that you cannot hector at something that loud, or shame something that flies far above common conceptions of guilt. They weren’t even attacking the really good metal. True, the hearings took place before Reign in Blood, From Enslavement to Obliteration, Scream Bloody Gore, Altars of Madness, Left Hand Path, Cowboys from Hell, or Van Halen III were released. So it was ill-advised but not unreasonable that Gore and company mistook Dee Snider to represent the full measure of metal at the time. Though if they’d waited, their defeat would have simply been more assured and more devastating.
The uncompromising nature of metal only calcifies when met with direct opposition. It feasts on the anger and unease of its declared enemies. Every note and sentiment of metal is a contrary expression of whatever its Other exalts or desires. When the suburbs are polite, repressed, and meticulous, metal is vulgar, combustive, and chaotic. This has long been the default divide of the conflict. It peaked in the mid-1990s when Marilyn Manson released Antichrist Superstar, which is not strictly a metal album so much as it is a deliberate curation of everything thought offensive by the suburbs at the time—even down to those weird rib-removal rumors. But not even Marilyn Manson could keep up with the metal imagination. In the late-1990s, the suburbs looked ostentatious, so metal, following Helmet and Godflesh, became ascetic. In the 2000s and the 2010s, the suburbs looked inert and monotonous, so metal shifted to elegance and eclecticism. It gave us the banshee shoegaze of Deafheaven, the hallucinatory adventure novels of Mastodon, and the hellfire operas of Lingua Ignota (presently humanity’s only redeeming quality). In this mode, even Low is as metal as Morbid Angel.
Youth has a most ingenious weapon in metal. One that is not only fierce and overwhelming but nuanced and unpredictably dexterous. Few adults are prepared for its arrival and even fewer can comprehend it when it does. Metal is a kind of mastery with its own vision of the sublime and its own standards of perfection. People respond to it without it having to explicitly call. There is, perhaps, an innate sensibility toward metal. Their imaginations and intellectual capacities are electrified like nothing else. It clarifies what once was obscure in the cerebral dungeons of the suburbs. Metal brings anything to the surface: a dream, a story, a philosophy, a doctrine, etc. Moreover, those who respond to metal never really stop being metal. Some claim to “mature” out of it; to set aside their studded jackets, Eddie the Head posters, and Megadeth patches. But there is little evidence to suggest that “maturity” is sustainable, assuming it exists.
What are the people of the suburbs—Tipper’s kids—supposed to do against this? I can think of two things. One is to take off the suburb’s mask of morality. Once done it will reveal its true character: something combining Robert Greene, Neil Strauss, Ragnar Redbeard, and what Jonathan Swift called “nominal” Christianity. This will not improve the reputation of the suburbs, which is not “realistic” as its dwellers like to see think of it, just cynical. But it will clarify what it is people are buying into. Even then it probably won’t change who remains and who leaves. It will just give those who leave a perspective that doesn’t automatically tilt towards metal, but one of the many things for which metal might have been a placeholder, such as what Swift called “real” Christianity. “To offer at the restoring of that, would indeed be a wild project,” Swift wrote:
it would be to dig up foundations; to destroy at one blow all the wit, and half the learning of the kingdom; to break the entire frame and constitution of things; to ruin trade, extinguish arts and sciences, with the professors of them; in short, to turn our courts, exchanges, and shops into deserts; and would be full as absurd as the proposal of Horace, where he advises the Romans, all in a body, to leave their city, and seek a new seat in some remote part of the world, by way of a cure for the corruption of their manners.
The second option is to uproot from the suburbs entirely, leave them to the ivy vines, the dandelions, the foxes, and the possums, and seek a new frontier. This notion that “pioneering” somehow ended with Levittown may be one of the greatest errors of the late-20th century. Surely the time to consider new, sustainable, and flexible means of shelter and communal existence is nigh if it is not already here. Of course the typical middle class drone is not going to do that free of compulsion, so it’s going to have to be the first option for the foreseeable future. But those are the stakes metal lays before any who choose to oppose it.
We mustn’t be too severe on metal’s already beleaguered challengers. After all, they are right about metal in one respect: it is Satanic. Not in the Rosemary’s Baby sense in that it delights in acts of evil, but in the Miltonic sense of finding freedom in its debasement and power in a polarized, adversarial order. Indeed, I can’t imagine anyone who can comprehend metal better than a Puritan who wrote epic poetry about rebelling against Heaven and advocated for the beheading of kings.