Tag Archives: Tipper Gore

Metal culture thriving in Botswana, Afghanistan

In Botswana, a generation of people taking classic heavy metal and making it their own. Photo by Frank Marshall.

When people think of heavy metal music, I think many still think of the United States in the 1980s: Tipper Gore, the PMRC, kids throwing the horns, bulldozers driving over CDs, sawblades on codpieces, pentagrams — all that business. Metal has come a long way since then, but it’s still the music of rebellion, wherever that rebellion happens to be.

Take, for example, Botswana, where South Africans have adopted the leather and studs. They’re listening to the classics, but also playing their own heavy metal.

For these folks, one thing that seems to appeal about heavy-metal culture is the unique combination of devoted tribalism and sanctioned aggression:

“There’s a strong sense of camaraderie amongst them. That’s the first thing you’ll notice about them as an outsider coming in. They’ve got a very strong bond and friendship with each other.

“They’re very physical. At the shows, you don’t just shake their hands. They’ll grab your hand and shake you around.

“They embody the very aggressive elements of metal. It’s an expression of power. Everything is an expression of power for them, from the clothes to the way they speak to the way they walk.”

Unlike the Hell’s Angels they are said to resemble, these rockers hang out on the streets of Botswana at night, making sure people get home safely and scaring away thugs. The music seems to give them hope, optimism, a sense of belonging.

In Afghanistan, it’s not all that different. There, young musicians are coping with the recent war and its aftermath by playing in bands with names such as District Unknown, and songs titled “Two Seconds After the Blast” and “The Beast.” It’s not so far from Leyton to Kabul.

District Unknown’s founding brothers, Qasem and Pedram Foushanji, discovered heavy metal by way of Metallica — and fell in love:

The brothers immediately took a liking to the fast-paced, aggressive sound, saying a childhood spent amid war and violence helped them to connect with the music.

“I feel most comfortable playing metal music because you go out there in everyday life and you get a lot of negative energy,” Pedram said. “Playing metal makes me feel better. It does for me what meditation does for others.”

The bandmates are part of a new rock-music school in Kabul, which would have been banned under the Taliban. Even now — as in many Middle Eastern countries — metal bands do not enjoy full freedom; the band frequently wears face masks to avoid persecution from religious conservatives.

Some people were never able to make sense of why metal fans love this noisy, angry, uncompromising music as much as they do. By looking at metal fans worldwide, we can gain a better sense of its appeal. It’s best loved among young men (though there are many female fans as well) who are experiencing a rift between their current reality and the one they believe is ideal. They’re undergoing stress, tension and alienation — and perhaps facing threats or violence. Whether that violence is taking place in a warzone or a city, or threatened at home or at school, or perceived from society at large, doesn’t matter. Metal provides a way of meeting the world’s aggression halfway, and making peace with it.

I watch the 20/20 special on heavy metal so you don’t have to (but you’ll probably want to anyway)

In 1987, after the press had exploded with freaked-out suggestions that heavy metal might be an easy scapegoat in the suicides of Ray Belknap and four teens in Bergenfield, NJ, 20/20 felt it was time to explain “the truth” behind heavy-metal music to unsuspecting parents.

It weaves a lot of sensationalism throughout — this type of broadcasting was particularly rampant in the 1980s, between 20/20 and Geraldo Rivera — but it also does a number of things right, including talking to metalheads, musicians (Bruce Dickinson is fantastic), and heavy-metal experts. It’s too bad it’s also full of misinformation and scaremongering, by Tipper Gore and others.

00:13: “When a form of music that our children like becomes linked with ghoulish images and violent theatrics, and even (sensitive but dramatic pause) … suicide…” Very objective, Barbara.
00:24: “So-called hea-vy-met-al music…” I love how she’s enunciating this like it’s the first time anyone’s heard it. Maybe then, it was.
00:45: Using sensationalized news reports on heavy metal to bolster your own sensationalized news report on heavy metal: Always a smart journalistic move.
1:00: Know how you can tell this reporter doesn’t understand music or metal? He calls Iron Maiden a “supergroup.”
1:18: “Screeching guitars, flamboyant bands, lyrics obsessed with sex, Satanism, and even suicide…” Several sociological surveys of themes in heavy-metal lyrics showed that these topics were in the minority. Mostly, it was the journalists who were “obsessed” with them.
1:33: “Togetherness!” The first metalhead quoted in the program says this is what metal is all about. If everyone listened to this kid, we could have all saved ourselves a lot of trouble.
1:47: “As Frank Zappa was saying, if your kid comes home with an album with a guy with a chainsaw between his legs, you’d better find out what that music is talking about.” That’s not exactly what Zappa said (during the PMRC hearings): “I would say that a buzzsaw blade between a guy’s legs on the album cover is a good indication that it is not for little Johnny.” He was referring to the cover for W.A.S.P.’s “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” single.
2:05: “Teenage suicides, like the ones in Bergenfield, New Jersey.” Yes, they were AC/DC fans. But they were also despondent about the death of a friend a few months earlier — not to mention the fact that adults viewed them as losers. Read Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland for the whole story.
2:30: Lyrics, badly quoted, from Metallica’s “Fade to Black.” People failed to recognize the difference between a song about suicide and a song encouraging suicide. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said, “We got hundreds of letters from kids telling us how they related to the song and that it made them feel better.”
2:45: I still encounter people, metalheads included, who think “Suicide Solution” is about suicide. It isn’t. It’s either about Ozzy’s unhappiness that his friend, Bon Scott, drank himself to death — or about Ozzy’s own struggles with alcoholism.
3:09: Record-burnings. Because that worked so well for the Nazis.
3:29: Tipper Gore: “We have explicit and graphic sex, extreme violence, suicide in lyrics, that is going to children that are sometimes not even teenagers yet…” Keep in mind, this is a woman who was embarrassed to discuss masturbation with her daughter. The poor girl had to find out about it in a Prince song.
3:40: Bruce Dickinson. Bless. It’s time someone said something sensible. “Who are the real people who are poisoning people’s minds, and why are they doing it?”
4:45: “Teaneck High has its own group of so-called tough kids, hoods, or burnouts.” Note the dire tone in his voice, like he’s talking about people who roast babies.
5:28: It’s great that 20/20 actually bothered to talk to some metalheads. And I love that these kids chose to play SOD for the reporter, who was never going to pick up on the satire.
5:35: “It calms me down.” LISTEN TO THESE KIDS, people.
5:44: “And you can sort of drown out the world that way,” says the reporter, putting words in his mouth.
6:05: Note how it transitions without warning from real-world scenes of kids hanging out to a dramatic, fictional clip from a Twisted Sister video.
6:31: “They spend their afternoons in the record shop…” A different reporter could have picked up on how metal serves as a lingua franca for these kids, a way of connecting. Instead he blows it off as though it were a waste of time compared to sports, clubs, etc. Kids who develop encyclopedic knowledge about any subject — and then use that knowledge to connect — are smart kids. Period.
7:11: And now, an interview with a preppie girl, who deeply understands these poor, troubled kids. “They need some support. They need some people to inspire them. Some people to look up to.” What, a fencer/pilot and a musician who overcame an industrial accident aren’t worth looking up to?
7:52: “This song is about nuclear war.” He’s talking about Megadeth’s “Peace Sells.” A song which actually challenges stereotypes about metalheads. Oops.
8:19: Tipper Gore quoting Motley Crue’s “Too Young to Fall in Love.” Because everyone knows all music lyrics are meant to be taken literally.

00:06: “They say parents pay more attention to the lyrics than they do.” I think there are plenty of kids who do pay attention to the lyrics (I’m one of them), but again, there’s a difference between a song being about something, and encouraging that something.
00:24: “You just avoid the music you don’t like, that’s all.” Kids know their limits. Really.
1:24: “Without heavy metal, there would probably be a lot more suicides.” It’s too bad they buried this halfway through the segment, because it really ought to be the headline.
2:00: Aw, little Jay in KISS/corpsepaint. His dad has the right approach: try to listen along, even if you don’t like it.
2:55: Ah, moshing. Great for some scary-looking video. “At times it looks more like a contact sport.” (Because contact sports are so wacky and unAmerican).
3:35: RULES TO DEMETAL KIDS. Didn’t anyone listen to the guy who said without metal, there would be more suicides? Why would anyone think this is a good idea? We can’t see all the rules, but the ones he reads off — tear down posters, impose a dress code — are more like a dictatorship than a parenting strategy.
3:45: This kid realizes it’s rude to talk back to his parents or take out his anger on them, and he’s found an appropriate and safe outlet. Some adults don’t know how to do this!
3:59: This kid’s dad threatens him. And people are worried about what music he listens to?
4:30: Tipper says, “I advocate a system where people can make up their own minds according to their own values and their own assessment of where their child is on a developmental spectrum.” It’s true, her book does that. It’s too bad the rest of it is filled with anti-metal propaganda designed to do the thinking for readers.
5:28: \m/
6:05: It was smart that Iron Maiden and Bruce Dickinson get to be the heavy-metal ambassadors in this program. I wonder if the producers realized that, or whether they thought they’d just get a bunch of Satanists talking about “the number of the beast” and were unpleasantly surprised to discover how thoughtful and forthright Dickinson is.
7:05: “This is hostile music.” Barbara was apparently watching a different program than the one the rest of us were watching.
7:18: “But it isn’t the music that does them harm.” “No.” Okay, maybe she was paying attention.
7:34: “The point is, tune in, and let it be known…” And there the video cuts off, so I guess we’ll never know what the point was, exactly.

The war against metal is still alive — in some minds

Did Rick Santorum declare war on heavy metal? No — but a hoax is making people think so. Santorum photo by Gage Skidmore.

These days, it can be doggedly difficult to tell truth from fiction. When some of the best news broadcasting comes from Comedy Central, and political candidates say things that seem straight out of The Onion, it takes a sharp eye to know what you’re seeing.

Last week, Tyranny of Tradition posted “Rick Santorum Declares War on Heavy Metal.” Tyranny of Tradition, written by Keith Spillett, is was created “in the hopes of working out some internal questions I have been struggling with in a public way so that those who wrestle with the same questions can have the opportunity to gain deeper insights to their meanings,” Spillett wrote. “There will be some inconsistencies, oversimplifications and illogical arguments in the posts ahead.”

But most people didn’t know that when they read the following:

“If you listen to the radio today, many of these brand new, so-called heavy metal music bands like Black Sabbath, Venom, The WASP and Iron Maiden use satanic imagery to corrupt the minds of young people,” announced Santorum at a 10,000 dollar a plate sock-hop in Valdosta, Georgia on Thursday.

Santorum’s popularity in the polls has grown substantially since he began speaking out against metal and its assault on traditional values. He has spent much of the past week in the Midwest encouraging young people to stay away from metal artists and listen to performers like Michael W. Smith and Pat Boone. In a recent Gallup Poll, 87 percent of Republican voters think that the biggest problem in America today is “the demented bloodlust of teenagers caused entirely by heavy metal music.”

Many blog commenters got the joke right away: “1984 called, they want their controversial topic back,” one quipped. But many others fell for it, believing that the conservative Santorum was reviving the PMRC’s crusade against metal — in fact, against the same metal bands (WASP, Venom) that stuck in Tipper Gore’s craw in 1985.

Apparently, the post went viral on Facebook and Twitter, with many metal fans outraged to be facing the same old moral panic.

What’s interesting to me is that a hoax like this can get so far before people catch on. It means a few things: one, that metalheads’ perception of Republicans is that they’re stuck in the past, ill-informed, and ready to go on the warpath against teen culture. Two, that the spectre of what the PMRC did in the 1980s has not completely gone away, even nearly 30 years later. And three, that the culture of heavy metal has not yet made peace with the dominant culture — and likely never will.

Letting teens confront their own fears

Geraldo Rivera did more than his fair share of fear-mongering, convincing parents that heavy metal would harm their kids. Photo by Flickr user John Brian Silverio.

Being a kid or a teenager today is, in some ways, very different than it was when I was growing up. Many fewer kids walk to school (or ride the bus) on their own. Eating, television, computers — every aspect of their lives are closely monitored. Instead of simply teaching kids not to give out personal information, we write software that does it for them. We read something in the paper or see it on TV and get scared. We stop trusting the world to keep our kids safe, and in turn we stop trusting our ability to teach our kids to navigate an unsafe world — and we stop trusting our kids’ ability to learn to navigate it independently.

But kids still pick up on the fact that it’s a scary world. STDs, gunfights, terrorism, war, dictatorships, massive fires and floods — you don’t arrive at adolescence without at least a vague awareness that the world is a pretty messed-up place. But if you’re shut off from the music and media that can help you process those impressions, then what happens? There’s little left to do but internalize it.

Fortunately, many teens find their way toward catharsis — even if it’s forbidden. Justin Norton wrote this piece for Invisible Oranges about heavy metal music and its role in helping him — and other teens — confront their fears.

The family across the street had a reputation for fighting and arguments that ended in screaming and door-slamming. While my parents were at work, the imposing live-in boyfriend slept through the day like Nosferatu (vicious hangovers were the likely culprit). A giant record store standee from Iron Maiden’s Killers dwarfed his window. The victim’s arms reached up at Eddie, but it was obviously too late. I looked up at Eddie every day, scared.

Everyone my parents wanted me to avoid seemed to have a tangential relationship with metal. The tough who flailed his nunchucks on the front lawn – he would have been perfect in a Mike Judge film – played Judas Priest on his boombox. Troublemakers had metal stickers on car bumpers. The music, while taboo, seemed a readily accessible way to enter a world that oozed strength and defiance.

The fear and power associated with metal became alluring. I was 13. Junior high was more brutal than elementary school, and I looked for ways to set myself apart. My bowl haircut damned me to comparisons to another nerd who had since left the school. I wanted to be something and someone else. I needed to change.

At the same time Justin was discovering heavy metal, television personalities like Geraldo Rivera and political influencers like Tipper Gore were telling parents to be afraid of this music. They said it caused children to become victims of Satanic plots, or caused them to become violent, even sexually violent. (We’ve since seen the same tactic applied to certain video games.) Teen metalheads were portrayed as the victims of a monstrous record industry who only wanted to prey on their curiosity and innocence, selling them toxic messages packaged as entertainment.

If you listen to metalheads, however, you discover that they were — and are — not unwitting victims. They know what they’re getting into with this music. They think a lot about the music and lyrics, and how those messages reflect against their own life experiences. They know when something in the music scares them. Sometimes they put it down, other times they investigate that fear until they conquer it. You can see that in Justin’s piece, which speaks for the experience of many teens who discovered metal in the 1980s, or who are discovering it now.

On the other hand, parents bought into the scary messages they heard:

Geraldo Rivera’s “Satanic panic” special was the worst. “This is not a Halloween fable, this a real life horror story”, Geraldo said before claiming teenagers could be “driven to commit terrible deeds”. The report immediately cut to video clips of Venom and Mötley Crüe, likely boosting record sales. Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” played in the background. Geraldo mentioned that most kids who listen to the music won’t end up killers, but the implication was clear: heavy metal will turn your kid into the equivalent of Jim Thompson’s sociopathic narrator Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me.

Watched decades later, the piece is laughable and frightening in a real way. These kinds of stories can ruin lives. Megadeth is called a Satanic band, despite never writing a Satanic song and the eventual conversion of their frontman to Christianity.

It’s hard to say for sure why so many parents fail to see through this kind of anti-metal propaganda, particularly when their kids — the very kids they assume are blank, undiscriminating slates — are the ones thinking hard about this music, its messages, and its relevance to their lives. It’s so important to trust kids, to trust their instincts when it comes to media. Sure, talk to them about it and make sure they’re actually listening to those instincts. But then let them explore. Take the training wheels off. Let them ride off on their own, fall down, pick themselves up again, and ride on.

Did your parents ever “protect” you from anything they thought was an unsafe influence — something that really enriched your life? Share your stories in the comments.

What if your favorite music could send you to jail?

Heavy metal and Egypt, hand in hand.

Even though plenty of Americans see heavy metal music as immoral, dangerous, violent music, there are are limits to what can happen to its listeners in this country. When Tipper Gore was waving her “filthy fifteen” flag at bands like Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P., and Venom, the worst would be that your parents might take your records away and break them or burn them.

Not so in Egypt. In 1997, police broke down the doors of some 70 homes and arrested the young men inside. Their crime? Being heavy metal fans. Some were released after two weeks. Others remained in jail in Cairo for a month and a half. The same happened in Morocco in 2003 — where 11 metalheads were acquitted and three were convicted of devil worship.

It was black T-shirts that seemed to cause the most offense. (“Normal people,” pronounced the judge in the case, “go to a concert in a shirt and tie.”)

Acrassicauda, the Iraqi band featured in Heavy Metal in Baghdad, was perhaps the only such band in that city — and ultimately fled, because their lives were in danger for playing and celebrating the music they loved.

It’s one thing to listen to this music in America, where doing so is an act of individualism, of rebellion. It’s another when you can be jailed or killed for it. Why would young men risk their lives just for a few heavy guitar riffs?

For Accrasicauda in Iraq, as it was for many in Egypt, metal is the only outlet available, and it becomes the only thing worth fighting for. These kids take serious personal risks in trying to put on shows, in identifying with anything “American”, in growing their hair.

“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” reminds us there are still real outsiders in the big wide world, and it is not an easy position to stake. The documentary depicts, among other things, Accrasicauda’s last Iraqi show in Baghdad’s Al Fanar Hotel – played to intermittent blackouts and the background accompaniment of gunfire – and how much the success of the show means to the participants. “If we cannot find some fun here,” asks one audience member, almost begging the camera, “then where?”

The devotion to metal in Muslim countries, where it is dangerous to listen or perform this music, can tell us something about why anyone, in any country, would do so. It’s more than just entertainment. Kids who listen to metal feel as though they’re part of a tribe, as though they’ve found kinship with music and musicians who understand how they truly feel inside. Taking the music away doesn’t kill those feelings. It makes them more painful.

Muslim countries aren’t the only place where rebellious music is suspect. In Uzbekistan, a state television documentary warned citizens that such music is “evil” and “Satanic.”

“This satanic music was created by evil forces to bring youth in Western countries to total moral degradation,” according to the documentary.

Thankfully, America left that sentiment behind (mostly) in the 1980s, though it still lingers in some parts of the country. It still brings doubt to parents’ minds when they see kids listening to, say, Slipknot or Dir En Grey.

However, this music doesn’t mean anything less to American fans than it does to Egyptian, Moroccan, Iraqi, or Uzbek fans. It’s a powerful outlet, one that many kids need. The fact that some fans are willing to endanger their lives for it only shows how important heavy metal is to all its listeners, in Cleveland and in Cairo.

What if your favorite music could send you to jail — or worse? Would you still listen to it?