How heavy metal got woke

Metalheads have become the puritans they used to mock.

Vivek Rajkhowa

Metal once prided itself on defying the mainstream and sticking the finger up to respectability. Over the years, the metal scene has produced bands with names like Cannibal Corpse, Bathtub Shitter and The Child Molesters. But now, metal has embraced wokeness.

Respected metal magazines like Metal Hammer, Kerrang, Blabbermouth, Ultimate Guitar and Decibel have started talking about issues like the representation of women in the metal world and how to counter so-called systemic racism.

Dissent from woke orthodoxy is dismissed as ‘problematic’ by metal’s gatekeepers. In article after article, woke metal writers talk of ‘uplifting female voices’. Meanwhile, traditional fans who are not very bothered about the gender of their favourite performers are dismissed as ‘representing misogyny and sexism’ and told they are ‘invalidating others’ lived experience’.

Several years ago, a major sexism scandal rocked the metal community. Revolver magazine produced an annual issue devoted to the ‘Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock and Metal’. But in 2011, it started causing widespread outrage. Articles in Metal Hammer and Kerrang denounced the issue as sexist – as did a metal writer in the Atlantic. Of course, all of the women who got involved did so willingly, and used the issue to promote their bands. Initially, Revolver’s editor refused to cave to the mob, but the longer the saga dragged on the more his and the magazine’s reputation was tarnished. Eventually the regular feature was discontinued.

Race has also become a hot topic among woke metalheads. Bitch Media and Spin argue that metal is plagued with systemic racism. ‘It’s hard for men and women of colour to see themselves represented in metal bands…’, complains one writer in Bitch Media.

But the woke critics ignore prominent examples staring them right in the face. There are thriving metal scenes in South America, Asia and Africa, for instance. Bands such as Brazil’s Angra, India’s Demonic Resurrection and Kryptos, and Tunisia’s Myrath have huge followings both in their home nations and abroad. Ironically, Bitch Media, despite its apparent concern for ethnic diversity, has never interviewed any of these bands – nor have Metal Hammer and Kerrang. Perhaps doing so would go against the woke narrative.

Metal also has an honourable history of outraging religious pieties. During the 1970s and 1980s, bands like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Mercyful Fate drew the ire of the Christian right for ‘blasphemous’ songs like ‘Heaven and Hell’ and ‘Number of the Beast’. Satanic imagery has always been a part of metal’s aesthetic, particularly on album covers and posters. But with the emergence of wokeness, there is a reluctance to ruffle religious feathers – particularly when it comes to Islam.

Two prominent incidents involving Islam illustrate metalheads’ sensitivity to this religion. A few years ago, black metal performer Myrkur said in an interview that ‘Islam and Christianity are two religions which I find are problematic in terms of female empowerment’ – something that she said was very important to her and that she fought for every day of her life. As the interview progressed, she said she felt that an orthodox strain of Islam was ‘invading Europe’. This particular comment understandably drew criticism for comparing migrants to ‘invaders’.

Following the backlash, Myrkur addressed the controversy in an interview with Metal Hammer. She tried to explain that her views on Islam did not differ to her views on any other religion. It was only because ‘the more laws, more restrictions for women and LGBTQ people’, the less she felt ‘in common with a religion’. A writer in Metal Sucks rejected her explantation and denounced her as ‘xenophobic’. Other busybodies took to their blogs to claim she was perpetrating a dangerous ignorance that ‘underpinned Islamophobia’.

Contrast this to the total lack of interest from the woke metal brigade in the difficulties faced by Voice of Baceprot, a teenage, all-girl, Muslim metal band from Indonesia. The girls have gained an enormous audience but have had to deal with hundreds of death threats from hardline Muslims. For performing the music they love, the girls have been pelted with rocks wrapped in paper with profane messages. They have faced flak from family, neighbours and their school. This has largely been ignored by metal’s self-appointed lifters of women’s voices. It was left to mainstream outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian to draw attention to the story. Why were the woke metalheads silent?

Metalheads used to take pride in provoking outrage. Now they are just as easily outraged as their old targets. Metal is in a bad way.

Vivek Rajkhowa is a spiked intern.

Picture by: Getty.

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Panteleimon Chinelis

29th September 2019 at 9:57 am

Bring on MetalGate!!!

Ven Oods

19th September 2019 at 8:54 pm

I suppose the question must be asked: if Metal is now ‘woke’ (shudder), can it still be Heavy?

Lord Sathan

13th September 2019 at 9:33 pm

I demand more diverse metal bands. We need more membery of the LGBT community and POCs to start metal bands for proper represention. There’s too many racist, homophobic, cis, gender conforming, white men in the genre.

Rupert Shadow

13th September 2019 at 10:50 pm

Demand? Hahahaha, wow fuck you dude, start your own LGBT inclusive shitty band that nobody cares about, music first, why the fuck does any of that matter, go outside you leftist cuck, get a real job.

Ven Oods

18th September 2019 at 2:42 pm

I rather thought he(?) was being provocative, not serious.

Jack Ruby

13th September 2019 at 6:58 pm

Oh boy, where do we begin? Let’s first address the overarching message here, which is that a bunch of soyboys are destroying metal with their “wokeness” – something completely untrue if you look anywhere on Bandcamp. There are just as many offensive bands now as there ever were. Do you think people are cancelling Cannibal Corpse shows? I assure you, the only people being “cancelled” are folks who are either super racist (Horna, Goatmoon, Disma) or are crazy sexist/rapists (Meat S h*ts, Young and In The Way, Inquisition) and if you’re really upset that the times have changed and people can’t use music as a thinly veiled excuse to harass women and minorities anymore. That said, I assure you that nobody’s coming down on shocking metal. Just ask Pissgrave.

To address the repeated whataboutisms in the piece – constantly saying “well, they didn’t cover x, y, and z so they must not *really care*” – the bottom line is that many of the publications (Astral Noize, Kerrang, Revolver) have covered the world metal scenes – albeit not the bands you stated – however that’s not their primary subject as western publications tend to cover western artists. You want to know why Voice of Baceprot was covered by human interest outlets instead of music pubs? Because it was a human interest story. Need further explanation? Email their publicist.

Roger Bannister

13th September 2019 at 6:00 pm

Sir, your name is Vivel. If the ‘woke’ mentality (as YOU call it. it’s actually the true metal ethos of accepting all people irrespective of your origins) had not prevailed, the bigots triggered into fellating you for writing their prejudiced minds would actually be spitting their bile onto you. Shame, you deserve, Sir. Keep voting for pussy-grabbing wannabes…

Rupert Shadow

13th September 2019 at 10:50 pm

Wow, get a life.

Melissa Jackson

16th September 2019 at 2:33 pm

Everyone is the same in the mosh pit, dude.

Actually metal means no-one cares where you came from. Your band rocks or it doesn’t, on it’s own merits.

Metal is about aggressive individualism. “If you don’t like it, screw yourself”. The same message whether you are a woman or a black or of any other descent.

What matters is you, as a person, not you as a minority.

No-one ever cared that Max Cavalera or Slash weren’t white. The only thing that ever mattered was that they kicked butt.

Ed Turnbull

13th September 2019 at 8:40 am

I hope metal resists this onslaught from woke middle classes. It’s nice to have a musical sanctuary where men can be men and women can be admired for their magnificent breasts and shapely backsides, as well as for being top notch performers.

Melissa Jackson

16th September 2019 at 4:31 pm

It will do, or at least it has so far. The people getting “woke” are a tiny tiny tiny minority. The thing is that metal heads get angry and punch stuff. If you get all preachy (on any subject) you’ll get bottled off the stage. End of story. No-one in metal just quietly tolerates things.

The hardcore punk community is a whole other thing, and they have always been woke. But that’s a separate group entirely.

Terence Ballard

13th September 2019 at 12:43 am

Most of the remaining magazines aimed at younger people seem to have gone “woke”, Entertainment Weekly is now unreadable, Empire not quite as bad but there’s been a marked change. Is this what young people really want or are they leading them that way?

John Davies

12th September 2019 at 11:03 pm

I wouldn’t worry too much about us, we generally ignore music ‘journalists’ and think whatever the fuck we want to anyway. There is no woke metal brigade, just a few gobshites with loud voices that the majority simply ignore. Much like with all forms of journalism really….

Michael Lynch

12th September 2019 at 10:20 pm

Happens to them all I’m afraid. Take Geldof for instance, he grew up as a Catholic despising those who sat at the front of the Church looking down their noses at him and the rest of us. How ironic that he’s become one of them now with all his millions. Did rather well out of the misery of that famine didn’t he?

Rob Mallows

12th September 2019 at 7:22 pm

Lemmy must be spinning like a dynamo in his grave!

T Zazoo

13th September 2019 at 2:21 am

Possibly but Lemmy spent his life not giving a sh-t, so I imagine it’s the same here.

Ed Turnbull

13th September 2019 at 8:37 am

Actually, I think the sainted Mr Kilmister (Jack Daniels and speed be upon him) is probably pissing himself laughing. I recall, in the documentary about Lemmy, how he addressed criticism of his penchant for nazi regalia: he simply thought the nazis had the better looking uniforms, and if those of the Israeli army were better he’d choose them. He also pointed that he must be a pretty poor nazi as he’d had six black girlfriends.

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