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What Does Metal Say About Religion and State? August 3, 2012

Posted by akessler47 in Travel Log.
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What does metal say about religious attitude in Iberia and America? Not the material, the music; the aggressive, fast paced, rhythm crunching sounds of Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and more recent bands like Machine Head. Bands rarely heard on radio in the States or even raised in public discourse save for Fox News specials on troubled youth and moral decay. It was then to my great surprise that while wandering around a mall in the Chaido district of Lisbon I found a music section dedicated entirely to the genre. In all my years in the US I have yet to find more than the occasional Metallica or Judas Priest at smaller stores, and yet here was Portugal’s equivalent of Best Buy, a monolithic electronic and entertainment emporium, with stacks of obscure Norwegian Progressive Metal and American Thrash Metal bands. What was all this heretical music doing in a widely Catholic country?

                I have to set the story first, the argument for metal music’s treatment in America is largely one of censorship

Metal Section at a Mall

Metal Section at a Mall

. In the 1980’s a political lobbyist group called the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) led an outcry of conservative reaction to the rising popularity of metal bands.  Rising rates of teen violence and suicide were attributed, however loosely in a logical manner, to profanity and aggressive lyrics in the music. Their campaign successfully resulted in the introduction of the Parent Advisory warning stickers you see on albums in stores today. And now these metal bands are difficult to find commercially because stores such as Walmart have taken a vow to not sell any album with a Parental Advisory warning or “does not seem appropriate” (a quote taken from their site: http://www.walmart.com/cp/Music-Content-Policy/547092). In some cases Walmart requires editing of lyrics and the entire removal of profanity in order for an artist to have access to the largest CD market in the nation (80% of CD sales nation-wide come from Walmart). Though recent rap and R&B artists have had the same troubles, metal is singled out and excluded almost entirely because it is vulgar by nature and in that way the genre is more or less ignored by large chain stores. 

                Metal is not unique in its confrontation with American culture and legislature. In 1955 Congress made a serious attempt to pass a bill to ban Rock and Roll in the country. We also have a motion picture rating system so adverse to sexual imagery and suggestiveness that I needed to show an ID to see “Titanic”. Obviously there a pervasive cultural antagonism to sexuality and vulgarity in America, despite the very odd fact that uncensored violence is commonplace on TV’s “24” or Hollywood’s recent “Act of Valor”. Meanwhile, sitting in my apartment in Valencia, during soccer halftime a naked woman covering her breasts with her extended applies skin lotion to her shoulder in an advertisement

An Obscure Norwegian Progressive Death Metal Band

An Obscure Norwegian Progressive Death Metal Band

. And right across the street, I kid you not I took this photo from my balcony, is an vinyl record store when this old man is selling off original copies of Megadeth and Anthrax. Where does the disparity in these two cultures come from?

                Some could say (as I did in an earlier blog) the Franco and Salazar social oppression left the idea of censorship with a very poor image in people’s minds, and with the recent decades of freedom the explosion of cultural liberalism is an exorcism of half a century of repression. Sure, that may explain some recent issues, but ignores that fact that in the 1920’s while cinema was censored under the Hays Code in the US sexuality was being freely and frequently portrayed in European theaters. There are deeper underlying cultural institutions differentiating America from its neighbor across the Atlantic. 

                I would say the biggest reason is the ethnic composition of the state. America is a nation of settlers, constantly dubbed the great “melting-pot” of the world, and as such has extremely varied cultures with a variety of religious views. Though the New England colonies could unite under the banner of economic independence later states in the south and the west could not be found to align on similar interests. The young United States was widely divided on ethnic and economic backgrounds, the only common thread being Christianity. In the creation of nation-states in Europe no such internal fragmentation was present, Louis XIV’s France was Catholic, England and Holland were Protestant, and Spain and Portugal were Roman Catholic. A majority of monarchic wars revolved around religious pretenses for homogeny and continental influence. 

The Record Across the Street

The Record Across the Street

American were so diverse I argue they had almost nothing in common to unite the country except religion in general. Consequentially, while Europeans were separating churches from states and monarchs from parliaments, the US was embracing religious doctrine as a function of state policy, hence events such as White-man’s Burden against native Americans and Manifest Destiny. Unlike European colonizers, the Americans have continued to preserve the religious notion of “God’s country” and “one nation under God” to this day because it has become an extremely important part of our identity. It was essentially a survival mechanism turned cultural.

                Spain and Portugal had their fill of religious nationalism and the United States is still slowly opening up socially. It’s no wonder then why smart men and women can be so fervently opposed to metal music or sexuality, it’s a relic passed down from a more turbulent time, a tie to many generations of religiously motivated individuals and government. I don’t view it as Europe is more liberal than the United States but rather we are more conservative than Europe. To the Spanish and Portuguese profanity or general nudity is not an abnormality but an accepted fact of life, whereas conservative culture in the States views it as an affront the religious values of the country. The US is still behind Europe with regards to liberal reforms like gay marriage, censorship, and social openness, but I do not doubt that one day it will have caught up. Liberalism has been the all expansive ideology of the Western World since the Enlightenment, and I perceive it to continue to be the general vector of the West for the near future. 

So there, that is how Metal Music and a State’s Religion are related.

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