One August afternoon when I was 19, I returned home sweating and exhausted from my summer job, hopped in the shower, and found a white cardboard box waiting for me on my bedspread. I opened it to discover a stack of crisp, preppy, neatly folded, diversely colored… polo shirts. I think one of them was Nantucket Red. Or, if you’re not a vacationing male WASP, “pink.”
Torn between feelings of awkward gratitude and slithering revulsion, I tracked down my Dad to inquire about the unsolicited gift. He replied with a knowing grin, “So you’ll stop wearing those black T-shirts.”
Sensing another opportunity for angst-ridden teenage martyrdom, I promptly engaged my Dad and stepmother in a fierce battle of wills that pitted the goofy attire of golf courses against the monochromatic uniform of heavy metal… and wound up kicked out of the house.
Silly as it all seems from the matured age of 27, this story is part of my own brush with that ongoing battle in our society, a battle whose lines have been drawn between the mainstream and the misfits, the orthodox and the outcasts – with presumptions and stereotypes aplenty on all sides. Occasionally, those stereotypes become scapegoats, and the results are sometimes uglier than an afternoon detention or a shouting match at the dinner table.
Consider the case of the fabled “West Memphis Three,” the trio of Arkansas teenagers convicted in 1994 of a brutal triple homicide. A topic already of considerable relevance and interest in these circles, I won’t bother to rehash the forensic details, but let’s break down the basics. Three young boys tortured and murdered in an alleged “Satanic ritual.” Disorganized police and politically motivated prosecutors in need of a suspect, and a grieving, culturally conservative community in need of a villain. Three teens whose attire, attitudes, and music tastes placed them outside the norm. Dubious rumors. Flimsy physical evidence. Guilt by association. All the reasonable doubt in the world couldn’t have stopped this runaway train once the brakes blew.
The Three’s recent DNA exoneration and subsequent release, for which they were STILL forced to plead guilty before they could continue to protest their innocence as free men, came too little, too late.
The media frenzy following the 1999 shooting rampage at Columbine High School is in a class all its own. The cluster of fingered culprits – violent video games, violent TV, violent films, and, of course, heavy metal music – reads like a laundry list of ‘90s boogeymen in American society. Even my own Mom was spooked enough to confiscate my copy of Rob Zombie’s “Hellbilly Deluxe” and burst into tears when she learned my Dad had taken me and my friends to see “The Matrix.”
The Columbus Dispatch ran a retrospective story two Decembers ago on the fifth anniversary of Dimebag Darrell’s murder at the Alrosa Villa. In the online comments section, one ignoramus professed sarcastic shock. He (or she) wanted to know what metalheads were so upset about. After all, we crave and promote violence… right?
I could fill an Apple account ledger with further examples of this kind of discrimination, some no more consequential than a dirty look or whispered rumor, some devastating. But suffice it to say that metal fans, by and large, are routinely held in some level of contempt by mainstream society.
But, to adapt a popular saying, it takes two (or more) to mosh. What came first, a barrage of irrational disdain from the orthodox, or some genuinely antisocial behavior from the outcasts? Who provoked the other into his respective societal role? The chicken or the egg?
That question can’t, and probably won’t ever, be answered here or anywhere. Over decades, this sprawling conflict has devolved into a vicious cycle, continually perpetuated by all “sides.” The biggest problem lies in groupthink – in this case, the presumption that those who share the same musical tastes must share the same beliefs, attitudes, attire, and behaviors. Sometimes the notion of “solidarity” is overrated, and metalheads are not entirely blameless.
Let’s look at the really bad apples first, the ones who take “metalness” to outrageous, cartoonish, and disturbing levels. I know a confused young woman who seems so desperate to belong to something greater – yet so determined to embody the “other” – that she has aggressively embraced LaVeyan Satanism, Theistic Satanism, Atheism, Mussolinian Fascism, and National Socialism. She even extolled Catholicism at one point, but that seemed to end when her relationship with her boyfriend did. There’s no order or logic to her chosen flavors of the week, just an underlying primal hostility toward society – and an overly enthusiastic obsession with black metal – that randomly generates them.
And the fact that coarse douchebaggery in the form of videos such as “Dimebag Deserved It” finds its way onto YouTube doesn’t exactly help the cause of metal, either. Nor do the ignorant comments from one unidentified half-wit beneath the ghastly footage of Dime’s murder: “I’ll bet the killer was a religious Christian!”
Way to fight discrimination.
Bizarre anomalies aside, let’s look in the mirror a moment. At a certain point (without any coaxing from my Dad), I stopped dressing in “metal gear” because it just started to feel silly, and this might seem a tad unrealistic, but I have to say it: even if you’re 17 and pissed, you don’t necessarily have to DRESS metal in order to BE metal. Getting decked out for a concert is one thing, but let’s face it: walking around in everyday public life looking like Kerry King’s biker assistant or a one-man Hot Topic stand doesn’t constitute a shock to the system any more than pouring a cup of water into the ocean does. Rather, most people just shrug sadly and think, “There goes a kid who really dresses like shit.”
And yet, all things being equal, enough poured cups will raise the water level. And the cycle of stereotypes continues in a flurry of sighs, shaking heads, rejected job applications, and tension within families and institutions.
I’m not suggesting that all metalheads bring discrimination upon themselves. Nor do I feel that mainstream society is entirely to blame. As I stated before, it takes two (or more) to mosh, and the answer lies somewhere in the middle, where people with differences face off, decide they don’t like each other, and form huddles with the like-minded, fantasizing about how the “other” is either out to persecute them, bent on corrupting society, or both of the above. “Us versus them.”
I have no clear-cut solutions, I’m afraid, nor do I presume to be within reach of them. What IS clear to me is the pressing need for all of us – metalheads or not – to rediscover the virtues of true individuality. Let’s approach and interact with others as individual human beings, each with a broad, complex spectrum of motivations and feelings. The actions of a wife-beating metalhead say no more about the metal community than the actions of a wife-imprisoning Mormon say about Christianity – as long as we hold the line by honestly evaluating our own behavior.
We are a society. Heavy metal has a place in it alongside every other institution. Let’s all do our part to get along, shall we?