Identity is a funny thing. We’ve all got one and it’s usually made up of some combination of our gender, nationality, religion, political beliefs and social status. It’s also something that we often take way too seriously.
We let it drive our decisions in political elections. It dictates who we listen to, who we respect and whose thoughts and opinions are to be discarded. We surround ourselves with people we identify with. Our fashion, our cars, our houses are all impacted by our identities.
I recently saw Slayer at a gig in Dublin (see photo above). They played to a crowd of around 13,000 people at what was the first of 24 shows around Europe. This European leg of their tour accounted for about one third of what was their global farewell tour. Basically they’ve played to a lot of people and will play to a lot more.
Being a part of the crowd at the gig got me thinking about identity. As a fan of punk and heavy metal music, both have become a part of my identity. My wardrobe is mostly black, some of my t-shirts have pentagrams and severed goats heads on them and I have several tattoos of skulls.
For teenagers in particular music can form a significant part of one’s identity. It did for me anyway. I was into punk so my musical preferences also informed my political and social views. For many this part of their identity dwindles as they grow older and have to deal with real life. For metal it’s different. Go to any metal gig and you will find older metal heads, still wearing Metallica t-shirts, just like they were thirty years ago. They still sport long hair and biker style beards. Tattoos, piercings and skull rings are everywhere. Metal is very much still a part of their identity.
So with the concept of identity and Slayer occupying my mind I starting thinking, and as often happens I quickly got lost in my thoughts. What if different parts of our identities started to affect the political and social landscape? What might that look like?
It started with a man. Most Metalheads are men. He was smart and charismatic. His long hair and wizard's beard were home to a few wisps of grey but he still moved with youthful vibrancy.
Tattoos covered all but his face and neck. Mostly skulls and demons interspersed with band logos. Metallica, Sepultura, Sabbath. The metal gods. They were old and faded but they formed a sort of tapestry. Viewed in isolation you would think any one of them was ugly and amateurish. Like looking at a single jigsaw piece; you only saw the picture when you put them all together.
He was a producer for an underground but popular record label, meaning he knew a lot of bands personally. He had a legitimate connection to the music, to the entire scene. He had credibility and used it to establish a significant social media presence.
Most of his social media content consisted of inflammatory statements about 'shitty' pop music and how the music industry itself was a joke. Tens of thousands of metal heads world wide would share and retweet. Before long he had his own merchandise and a metal themed podcast. Every metal head knew his name. Not all of them liked him but they were at least aware of him.
Fast forward a couple of years and things had gotten a bit more political. His once comical demeanor now carried more weight. He made frequent appearances at festivals and did live podcasts to sold out venues. Half joking he would say things like:
We're the marginalized ones. When do you ever hear metal on the radio? How many of you would be less likely to get a job if you showed up in an offensive Slayer or Lamb of God t-shirt?
Words like 'offensive' would be accompanied by air quotes and a sarcastic tone of voice. This was a staple of every address. The establishment of a group mindset, and more importantly a concept of 'others'.
His social media following was in the millions now. It was time for him to run for some sort of political office. He encouraged others to do the same.
'Heavy metal' he would say at rallies, 'Is a way of life. It's about not shying away from dark subject matter. It's about facing your fears, about taking control.'
Thousands of people would cheer with devil horn hands thrown in the air.
How many of you got shit as a teenager just for being who you are? How many of you still get dirty looks because of the t-shirts you wear or the tattoos on your skin?
He often left long pauses between statements and their ‘punch line’.
Well not anymore.
People in the crowd would look around at each other and exchange firm nods of agreement. He was right. Most hadn't thought about it before but a lot of them had sufferred some sort of abuse in their lives, just for being themselves. For being a part of the metal community. For openly sharing that part of their identity.
We are real people and our perspectives deserve respect! We deserve respect!
He convinced these people that their rights were being impinged upon and many believe him, especially the younger people in the crowd. He sold them the idea that their very identity was under attack.
When was the last time you saw someone that looks and sounds like you actually representing you in this corrupt government?
The crowd jeered and then fell silent as a smug look crossed his face.
Tattoos, long hair and leather jackets need not apply…
He always made them laugh, relying heavily on sarcasm and degradation.
Politically his views were neither left or right. They were extreme and conservative in some ways, liberal in others. They were all encompassing. The specifics didn't matter because it was their identity that united them, and all he sought was power.
Every sentence was spoken with great care, though appeared casual. His words were controlled and calculated. His followers, however, were a different story. They grew more extreme as the movement progressed. Online trolls targeted pop culture icons, members of what he called the 'Popriarchy'. Organized campaigns sent black metal songs skyrocketing in online charts. They wanted to make their presence known. To get in the face of their supposed oppressors.
At this stage he was being ridiculed by the mainstream media. Politicians brushed him off as a cheap spectacle. Not a threat and certainly not worth wasting time or energy on… But this attitude simply served to further embolden his supporters.
Then the term 'Metalhead' started to appear in newspapers, usually accompanied by 'violent', 'dangerous' and 'movement'. The aggressive nature of the music lead many to assume that the culture was one of violence. This was an incorrect assumption, but that didn’t seem to matter as the media snowball grew.
Public awareness increased. As did resistance.
More and more outlets began to speak out against the Metalheads. The friction brought heat.
Now you see their true faces!
He yelled from the podium.
They're scared because we're different and we don't want to hide it anymore! We don't want to play along with their little fantasy.
The crowd roared.
The protesters outside the venue roared.
The police held the line.
Another rupture in the social fabric. Further we ventured into the fray.
Man, I kind of got myself all riled up there. I mean I was getting into that, the whole idea of a metal revolution.
I think I need to go get some air… identity politics really are dangerous, and kind of stupid.