This article has been on the backburner for a while. It had several drafts and has been abandoned as many times. But thanks again to Metalsucks it is back. Well, a version of it anyway. Please note that I am referring to a news article that came out on June 25, 2013.
In my morning RSS feed reader scan (RIP google reader) I came across this week's NSFW version of Sh*t that comes out today (their asterisk, not mine). The NSFW portion of the posting was a single album artwork used just below the heading, Documentaries of Dementia by Necrotic Disgorgement. The album artwork features three naked, white zombie women in various states of mutilation. What makes this cover somewhat different to similar works is that it is photographic. Death metal art is frequently hand painted or more often than not these days digitally created. The controversy surrounding this image arises not from the article itself but from the comments that follow it, in particular an argument in the comments around the implied meanings of tortrure and gender relations.
The thread started by Igottawocket proclaimed:
Can metal, like, collectively agree to cool it with the album covers depicting tortured, naked women? Not really sure if it was ever "cool," but it most certainly isn't now. It kind of begs a lot of questions about what's going on in the heads of the band members, and, frankly, is kind of just fucked all around.
This is a sentiment to which I am mostly in agreement. The key word here is "mostly". As I have previously discussed grotesquerie in metal has a long tradition and is a complex discourse of aesthetics, shock tactics, subversiveness and misogyny. As a result it is difficult for me to condemn this particular (or most other similar) artwork out of hand. After all there are a range of contextual issues that the viewer may not be aware of that influence how the art is to be read. Did the women give consent to be protrayed in this way? Were they paid? Is there an attempt at subversiveness here? Is it an attempt to engage with the horror porn genre?
However, what we can say is that the artwork is clearly part of a broader metal aesthetic tradition in which violence is foregrounded and women are marginalised.
The thread continues with Hair Metal Police, Meh and Snobber McSnob providing fairly typical oppositional, adversarial replies:
So, according to your logic, anybody who directs a splatter film is a psychopath.
I personally don't see a difference between this and the flat-out misogyny of the lyrical content of bands that use picture of dogs eating kibble on their covers. In most cases it's VERY heavy satire.
There is a level of defensiveness in metal which is on one hand admirable, since it shows that metal heads have a passion for defending the genre but on the other hand it is somewhat worrying. When blanket statements incorporating socially accepted memes such including "freedom of expression" and "democracy", I start to worry. What these once subversive discourses do in the present is confine debate to the placard level:
"Naked, beaten women on record covers is bad!"
"Yeah well, opposing freedom of expression creates battered women".
Rinse and repeat all over the internet.
Interestingly, I would contrarily agree with Hair Metal Police's sarcasm in that I believe people who are enjoy creating violent artwork are psychopathic. However, where out opinions diverge is at the point where moral value is automatically accorded to the concept of psychopath. A psychopath need not be evil, nor is s/he required to actually enact/execute her psychopathic tendencies. Indeed as most people with some sort of secret desire, fetish or fantasy are aware, the consummation of the desire frequently results in its deflation, disappointment or even complete dissipation. It is the erotica in the mind, the exploration of taboo without risk to either one self or another party (consenting or in a worst case scenario, non-consenting).
Creating grotesque art can function in the same way especially with the consent of involved agents. It becomes a way for those with “psychopathic” non-vanilla, non-normal and potentially harmful tendencies to achieve a degree of satisfaction or consummation through the physical execution of their unique, personal eccentric world view without inflicting unnecessary, unjust, unethical and unwarranted harm on other, actual human beings.
The user known as Meh claims that it is very heavy satire. While I see a potential for satire even as a lifelong metal head I see very few identifiable clues as to the satirical function of this and many similar artwork in contemporary death metal. I would ask Meh; what exactly is the satire critiquing?
Similarly there are a number of writers who express opinions along the line of: "Well it's all just make believe, it's not serious". Like this entry by Sion Wyn Jones:
It's just an album cover. It's ingrained in the Death Metal or BDM culture. It's the norm, to depict something horrible and disgusting. Especially if that's what the lyrics are based on as well. And for the artist, their just artist. There's nothing wrong with them, their not actually promoting killing Women or any other person. It's just fiction, something that fits the music style. Dammit OP, don't take this stuff so seriously.
This is actually a fairly common opinion among metal heads. It also happens to be a line of reasoning that is dense with complexity. What I take issue with is "engrained in [...] culture. This is simply conservatism by another name. If the purpose of the cover is to be shocking/provoking/subversive yet is done so in a way consistent with engrained values, how does it actually achieve this purpose? I also wonder about the sentiment relating to the lyrics no "promoting killing women or any other person." The fact is that this is exactly what the lyrics do refer to. Again a key problem as I see it is with the application of default moral positions.
Meanwhile there is Robstermb's reply to Jones:
The largest issue with it, to me, is not that it's sexist or disturbed... but because it's just so done and boring now. It's no longer shocking and it just seems immature and forced now. It's been a long time since Tomb of the Mutilated.
This is consistent with my own thinking. Death metal in particular had a zeitgeist in the post-80s context of thrash and early death metal. There was a legitimate fight against censorship and many groups at the time sought to push the limits of erotic and violent expression. As with most contemporary expressions of a genre it is exceedingly common to see a historical disjunct a kind of hyper aware "today" cannibalising its "yesterday" with barely enough time to consider last week let alone twenty or thirty years ago.
Ultimately my problems with grotesquery and sex in metal can be distilled thus:
1. Shock for its own sake is an extremely limited intellectual framework from which to work these days. As I said in the original article on this topic, true shock/subversiveness should unseat us deeply. It should ask more questions than it answers. It should be unsettling. In the past, grotesquerie in metal achieved this. It rarely does so in the present.
2. Metal offers a space for the exploration of the grotesque, the profane, the ugly and the immoral. However, not all expression within its boundaries is self-reflexive. The failure to connect with the intellectual, ethical and moral frameworks of the past significantly influences the extent to which metal art can be considered legitimately "shocking". Is it just that now we live in an age of perfect, decontextualised appropriation? Personally I believe this to be both true and not. After all, when we underestimate the intelligence of others we underestimate our own. Thoughtful, reflexive people are born out of the strangest events, through effort and sometimes mere coincidence. There is no single, unbroken line that connects present visual aesthetics with the past and furthermore it is the social, cultural perspective of the viewer which plays an important role in determining the context of an artistic work.
3. Metal is still mostly a man's world. The objectification of women within the genre has yet to be fully dealt with. Coupled with the demographic context of metal makers in the west it is highly unlikely that this will change any time soon. However, it is already changing and a number of bands continue to push against, traverse and ignore boundaries. It is interesting to ponder just how acceptable, grotesque or titillating images of men being tortured and raped would be to men, especially given the still prevalent taboo of homosexuality in a lot of metal circles.