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Hitting the right notes

At first sight, Ai Weiwei's announcement that he is making a heavy metal-influenced album seems little more than one of his impish jokes. How could heavy metal, the most notoriously Neanderthal and reactionary of genres, possibly offer any kind of challenge to the Chinese establishment?

india Updated: Mar 12, 2013 22:30 IST

At first sight, Ai Weiwei's announcement that he is making a heavy metal-influenced album seems little more than one of his impish jokes. How could heavy metal, the most notoriously Neanderthal and reactionary of genres, possibly offer any kind of challenge to the Chinese establishment?

Yet Ai has chosen his next project wisely. Metal, often derided and dismissed, is a rich resource for anyone who wants to transgress repressive norms.

It's certainly true that metal has often been sexist and deliberately dumb, particularly in its 1980s bouffant-haired pomp. It's also true, as my own research has shown, that most metallers consistently renounce any directly political intent. But we shouldn't take metal's renunciations of politics too literally. Even at its most "unpolitical", metal still offers a bracing confrontation with forces of power and control.

At its heart, metal is about transgression: transgression of standards of acceptable musicality; transgression of acceptable behaviour; transgression of standards of acceptable ideas and imagery. Metal offends those who loath its cacophony and distorted guitars, who disapprove of metallers' sometimes raucous bacchanalia, who are shocked by its use of the "dark side" symbolisms.

Metallers, on the other hand, find in this transgressive offensiveness an invigorating freedom. This isn't an uncontrolled freedom, though: Metal music wields harsh guitar noise but it never does so in an uncontrolled way. Metal may come close to pure noise but it backs away from the edge; guitar solos represent the glorious overcoming of the threat of sonic disillusion.

Metal's politics stems from its simultaneous embrace of transgressive freedom and resilient self-control. It offers an implicit challenge to oppressive regimes and repressive ideologies: we will embrace the freedom you despise, but we will do so without destroying ourselves; we will liberate ourselves and we will endure.

It's no wonder that oppressive regimes hate metal, and no surprise that metal is growing fast in some of the least-free societies on Earth. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and, of course, China, metal scenes are burgeoning. They often have to stay underground, and face a constant struggle with state censors and even the threat of arrest.

Most metal bands don't write explicitly political lyrics, but then again they don't need to - simply embracing metal's transgressive freedom is enough of a statement.

I suspect that Ai's album will probably draw only tentatively on the most well-known styles of metal. I hope though that he digs deeper into metal's more extreme side: he would bamboozle and challenge his western supporters, let alone the Chinese authorities.