Case Studies: Social Activism Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 22

napalm death


The heavy metal subculture is comprised of very individualistic, opinionated and passionate people.  It should come as no surprise, then, that song lyrics are full of equally impassioned messages, stories, and personal points of view.  One positive aspect of heavy metal music is that it provides a highly interactive forum for the mass dissemination and personal exchange of ideas regarding social problems, political viewpoints, and other global concerns like oppression, environmentalism and terrorism.  Haenfler (2007) states that subcultures of all types are political entities in themselves; and personal involvement within these small groups of like-minded people can also “serve as a bridge” for other political activities (p. 193).  Although political themes were rare in the nascent stages of rock ‘n’ roll, the progressive music movement during the 1960’s ushered in a wave of politically and socially conscious protest songs, many of which became successful on mainstream radio (Arnett, 1996).  The general rebelliousness that was inherent in the music was now being applied for social awareness in an “endless” list of songs attacking corruption in politics, the legal system, and religion, as well as in songs that censured the destruction of the environment, spoke out against war, criminality and injustice, and pronounced a “general defiance against the forces that might try to restrict or repress individuals” (Berger, 1999, p. 66; Arnett, 1996, p. 51).  Messages in songs had matured from stories about sock hops and teenage boredom into poignant socially conscious thoughts that finally became considered for “’serious’ academic research” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 132).  The overtly political voice of rock music has therefore, been exceptionally strong since the inception of heavy metal music in the late 1960s (Christenson & Roberts, 1998).

These metal songs with messages opposing social orders take the common conceptions of these organizations and reverse them by claiming that these “true… real” institutions are hypocritical, evil, “false [and], a lie” (Arnett, 1996, p. 51).  Walser (1993) even reported one heavy metal fan in particular who felt “paranoid” when listening to mainstream styles of music because the songs are so full of lies and fabrications about the world (p. 159).  Thus, unlike most easy listening or mainstream pop music, heavy metal is capable of “articulat[ing] the anxieties and discontinuities of the postmodern world,” and therefore suggests that, “disruptions, no matter how unsettling, can be ridden out and endured” (Walser, 1993, p. 159).  Purcell (2003) adds that the apparent aggression in the music should not be misinterpreted for “a total absence of meaningful and prescriptive sociopolitical messages in the lyrics” (p. 47).  In fact, these violent lyrics are often quite helpful for individuals who release their shared frustrations with these social orders in a non-violent way by listening to and enjoying the music (Purcell, 2003).  Further, the subjects of Arnett’s (1991) research stated that one of their main attractions to heavy metal music was indeed the presence of socially aware messages within the lyrics, and bands like Rush and Iron Maiden are especially revered for their “eloquent and meaning-charged lyrics” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 123).

Iron Maiden in particular provide numerous examples to disprove detractors of metal who say the genre is “monolithic… violent [and] unimaginative” (Walser, 1993, p. 152).  Walser (1993), Arnett (1991), Weinstein (1991), and many others speak at length about the seminal British band, referring to songs that address and condemn the horrors of the genocide of Native Americans (“Run to the Hills”), greedy televangelists (“Be Quick or Be Dead”), nuclear weapons (“2 Minutes To Midnight”), war (“The Trooper”), Satan (“The Number of the Beast”), and many other instances of social and political debate.  Iron Maiden’s song “The Number of the Beast” is a special and extreme case of conservative ignorance and misinterpretation; in that the lyrics incited anti-Satanist groups to defame rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal music in a “modern-day witch-hunt,” even though the song is actually a denunciation of Hell and the Devil (Bashe, 1985, p. 144).  Iron Maiden provides a paramount example of a group of artists using the platform of heavy metal music to broadcast worldly, intelligent interpretations of indispensable and controversial sociological activities (Bashe, 1985).  These conservatives, however, can be invalidated with many more examples than the monumentally influential Iron Maiden.

Among one of the most influential heavy metal songs ever written is Black Sabbath’s seminal “War Pigs” (1970), which was the “most vicious antiwar diatribes” of the time other than Bob Dylan’s vehement and “snarling” anthem,  “Masters of War” from 1962 (Bashe, 1985, p. 40).  More recently, numerous metal acts from the 1980s based their lyrics, album titles and even band names after the corruptions, injustices and social concerns they confronted, which resulted in a huge emergence of intellectually- and socially-based metal.  Bands provided copious amounts of music that dealt with pressing issues such as substance abuse and drinking and driving (Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution,” Annihilator’s “Road to Ruin”), war and the Holocaust (Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Civil War,” Slayer’s “Angel of Death”), the plight of Native Americans (Anthrax’s “Indians,” Testament’s “Trail of Tears”), political injustice (Metallica’s “… And Justice For All,” Slayer’s “Blood Red”), abortion and drug-addicted infants (Death’s “Living Monstrosity” and “Altering the Future”), environmental responsibility (Ozzy Osbourne’s “Revelation (Mother Earth),” Metallica’s “Blackened,” Testament’s “Greenhouse Effect”), and the killing of endangered species (Megadeth’s “Countdown to Extinction”) (Weinstein, 1991; Purcell, 2003; Walser, 1993; Arnett, 1996).  Some bands have made concept albums dealing with these issues, including Obituary’s 1994 recording, World Demise, which uses artwork of oil-covered ducks, dead seals and syringes on beaches to deplore pollution and environmental deterioration (Purcell, 2003).  Additionally, Megadeth’s music video for the 1986 song, “Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?” features a young metal enthusiast watching metal videos on television who is interrupted by his father who asks, “What is the garbage you are watching? I want to watch the news.”  The teenage metal fan tersely responds, “This is the news” (Walser, 199, p. 19).  Christenson and Roberts (1998) reveal that 20-25% of music videos feature themes of political or social commentary, and lyrics with these themes are much higher (p. 147). These songs continue to represent the same protest themes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but critics errantly dismiss heavy metal as unintelligent because of the extreme nature of the medium, the isolated incidents of violence that have maligned the entire culture, and the stereotype of lethargy and lassitude among fans.  This stereotype of metalhead inanity, however, is quite counterfactual.  Through their rejection of the “banality and narrow-mindedness” of popular genres, Berger (1999) has discovered that death metal and grindcore fans especially emphasize, “critical thinking and tolerance, [and] champion a broad social and aesthetic eclecticism” (p. 66).  Robust individualism, zealous personal motivation, inspired critical thinking and the “irreverent rejection of cultural norms,” are the most important themes in these marginalized subgenres (Purcell, 2003, p. 48; Berger, 1999), and several bands provide prime examples of the genre-sustaining activism of the subculture.

Historically speaking, British bands Napalm Death and Carcass originally pioneered the grindcore movement in the late 1980s.  Napalm Death’s first two albums, Scum, and From Enslavement to Obliteration featured furiously fast and short songs with guttural vocals, blasting drums, unrefined bass, simple, distorted guitars and lyrics with feverish “socio-political content and critical social commentary” (Purcell, 2003, p. 21).  Themes like racism, drug addiction, corporate exploitation, homophobia and “mindless conformity” were explored in the lyrics (Purcell, 2003, p. 47), although these issues are often overlooked due to the highly indecipherable nature of the vocal style.  Seminal death metal and grindcore bands like Napalm Death, Carcass and Obituary use these sociopolitical lyrics to describe their interpretations of reality, and numerous newer bands like Hatebreed, God Forbid, Remembering Never, Reflux, Haunted Life, Heaven Shall Burn and Phobia also “resuscitate such critical yet positive themes” like anti-racism, social injustice, brotherhood and community (Purcell, 2003, p. 48).

One particularly prominent example of political involvement death metal music is the work of Jason Netherton, who is the bassist, vocalist and lyricist from the bands Dying Fetus and Misery Index, who also has a graduate degree in International Communication from American University in Washington, DC (Netherton, personal communication, December, 4, 2007).  The lyrics on Dying Fetus’ 2000 album Destroy the Opposition “contain intelligent comments on the ills of capitalism and globalization,” and Netherton’s latest project is in fact named after economist Arthur Okun’s economic indicator, the misery index (Purcell, 2003, p. 121).  Netherton’s interest in “the effects of media and technology as liberating instruments of social consciousness” have also manifested a website,, that provides a forum to express political opinions and to “pose a general challenge to the extreme economic injustices that characterize the global political and economic order” (Netherton, personal communication, December, 4, 2007; Purcell, 2003, p. 121).  Netherton’s “discontent with the status quo” has been expressed through his music, lyrics, and website, which are “positive efforts to effect progressive change and to educate others about socially liberal ideology” with a death metal mindset (Purcell, 2003, p. 121).

Several more mainstream acts have also championed socially conscious lyrics and political involvement, including Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, and Biohazard.  The link between these more “alternative” groups is more anti-capitalistic in nature, and Wilson (2008) explains that these artists who voice their opinions against the status quo “are not representative of neo-Luddite protests against technology, but are against the technical, social and economic ‘machine’ of supercapitalism, particularly in its conjunction with American imperialism and war” (p.13).  Wilson (2008) reveals that artists like this use their music and lyrics to rage against the “machine,” which is “another word for the new world order of global capitalism that both dominates America and is dominated by American corporations, businesses and bureaucracies” (p. 143).  Rage Against the Machine’s opposition to the “machine” is thus built around a “socialist critique of capitalism, American imperialism, new-left activism and identity politics attacking both the hidden and formal curriculum of schools” (Wilson, 2008, p.144).  Biohazard is another genre defining band that used rap and hardcore vocal styles on albums like Urban Discipline (1992), and 1994’s State of the World Address to criticize nuclear power, greed, corruption, criminality, violence, politics, and as their band name suggests, pollution and prodigality with natural resources (Wilson, 2008).  Additionally, the Axis of Justice is a non-profit organization formed by Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and Serj Tankian (System of a Down) developed to “bring together musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organizations to fight for social justice” (Axis of Justice, 2009).  In addition to these socio-politically-minded artists and organizations, many heavy metal bands concentrate on spreading messages of health and well-being.


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