Heavy Metal lyrics have got a bad name but could they help us stay sane?
Music critics have often deemed Metal lyrics juvenile and banal, and others have objected to what they see as advocacy of misogyny and the occult, how true is that?music Updated: Jun 20, 2017 20:19 IST
Just like it is with the accompanying instruments in the background or with the vocals or beat, lyrics too constitute an important part of a song. In Heavy Metal music, the style, which was rebellion against established norms and all that was popular, was both musically and lyrically the antithesis of pop music.
Whereas the latter focused on more upbeat topics such as romance and partying, Metal focused on topics such as war, violence, carnage, politics, drugs and sex.
Veteran American music critic had once commented: “Heavy Metal’s main subject matter is simple and virtually universal. With grunts, moans and sub-literary lyrics, it celebrates... a party without limits. The bulk of the music is stylized and formulaic.”
Music critics have often deemed Metal lyrics juvenile and banal, and others have objected to what they see as advocacy of misogyny and the occult.
During the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC) petitioned the US Congress to regulate the popular music industry due to what the group asserted were objectionable lyrics, particularly those in Heavy Metal songs. The PMRC used music professor Joe Stuessy to testify against Metal. Professor Stuessy alleged that these songs focused on violence, substance abuse, perversion, S&M, and Satanism.
American musicologist Robert Walser then analysed 88 Metal songs’ themes to determine if Stuessy’s claims were valid. In Walser’s analysis, the dominant theme in these songs was “longing for intensity”. He found that the negative themes described by Stuessy and the PMRC were uncommon.
Also, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett analysed the lyrics from 115 Metal songs. He found that the top three messages were about violence, angst and protest.
Metal artists have had to defend their lyrics in front of the US Senate and in courtrooms. In 1985, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider was asked to defend his song “Under the blade” at a US Senate hearing. In 1986, Ozzy Osbourne was sued because of the lyrics of his song “Suicide solution”.
In 1990, Judas Priest was sued in American court by the parents of two young men who had shot themselves five years earlier, allegedly after hearing the subliminal statement “do it” in a Priest song.
While the case attracted a great deal of media attention, it was ultimately dismissed.
In some predominantly Muslim countries, heavy Metal has been officially denounced as a threat to traditional values. In countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Malaysia, there have been incidents of heavy Metal musicians and fans being arrested and incarcerated.
Music critic Robert Christgau has called Metal “an expressive” mode. “It sometimes seems it will be with us for as long as ordinary white boys fear girls, pity themselves, and are permitted to rage against a world they’ll never beat,” Christgau had said.
Writer James Parker states that while the use of Hell-and underworld-oriented themes in Heavy Metal can be “dark and disturbing”, they are “honest about human nature”, and as such, listening to Metal lyrics can be beneficial for listeners’ mental health. Parker finds that such lyrics can “keep us sane”.
According to ethnographer Keith Kahn-Harris, the defining characteristics of extreme Metal can all be regarded as clearly transgressive: the “extreme” traits in Death Metal or Black Metal bands’ lyrics are all intended to violate or transgress given cultural, artistic, social or aesthetic boundaries.
Extreme Metal lyrics often describe Christianity as weak or submissive, and many songs express misanthropic views such as “kill every thing”. A small number of Extreme Metal bands and song lyrics make reference to far-right politics; for example, the Swedish Black Metal band Marduk has an obsession with the NaziPanzer tank, which can be seen in works such as Panzer Division Marduk.
The Swedish Power Metal band Sabaton’s writing is based on wars of the past. The German group Blind Guardian, looked on to as one of the earliest Power Metal bands that wrote fantasy-based lyrics, primarily based on the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. For example, “Nightfall in Middle Earth” is inspired by Tolkein’s “The Silmarillion”.
Overall, a band’s lyrics must be analysed in the wider context of their total sound and not just as an individual aspect. Contrary to what is believed, the negative attitude of lyrics in Metal is not glorification of anything, but in its totality, the music and the lyrics are simply an outlet for people to express their anger.
What marks majority of the Metal lyrics is that they are highly ‘symbolic’ and must not be interpreted literally.
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First Published: Jun 20, 2017 20:19 IST