February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
April 17, 2012
Just last week, I was reading Deena Weinstein’s landmark 1991 study Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology and I was nearly stopped in my tracks by the final chapter, which deals with metal’s “detractors” from across the political spectrum. While conservative criticisms of heavy metal are well-known through the work of groups like the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC)––most often centered on its lyrical proclivities for violence, sexuality, and images of Satanic ritual––the progressive critics are at least as numerous and equally vehement in their protests. In surprising solidarity with their conservative counterparts, leftist rock critics, many of whom cut their journalistic teeth during the progressive political era of the 1960s, decried heavy metal as just so much simple-minded noise.
In addition to much needed critiques of heavy metal’s tendencies towards sexism and xenophobia in its lyrics, these leftist critics pointed out that heavy metal did not properly conform to what they saw as the two most important characteristics of rock music: (1) demonstrating “artistic development” or “growth” from album to album, marked by increasing complexity and diversity of influences, and (2) furthering the agenda of sociopolitical change laid out by the counterculture of the 1960s. The fact that heavy metal music and the subculture it created was isolationist––drawing itself away from mainstream discourses around rock––and escapist––positing an alternative, sometimes metaphysical sphere that supersedes human political agency–– made it largely unpalatable to progressive critics.
As Weinstein was laying out this argument, I couldn’t help but be struck by fact that nearly every criticism of heavy metal outlined here could easily be applied to CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) during the same timeframe. The sheer fact that both genres are interested in positing an alternative sphere of reality in which human agency is somehow compromised––whether that sphere is governed by an all-loving Christian God or a dark, chaotic nihilism––creates a host of unexpected connections between these two genres. Below, I would like to consider several connections between two tracks released within months of each other in the mid 1980s. First, the title track from Metallica’s 1986 magnum opus Master of Puppets and second, Amy Grant’s song “Find a Way,” the lead-off single from her 1985 breakthrough album Unguarded. Both songs are embedded below.
Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” is a song about the dark spiral of drug addiction and how it controls the lives of its victims. The song speaks of the “veins that pump with fear” while you “chop your breakfast on a mirror,” clear references to heroin and cocaine respectively. The chorus makes this controlling relationship most explicit, saying:
Master of puppets, I’m pulling your strings
Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing
Just call my name, because I’ll hear you scream
Here James Hetfield and the band paint a vivid picture from the drug’s point of view, adopting a mocking sardonic tone to depict the inescapable fate that awaits the knowing victim.
Similar to Metallica, the protagonist of Grant’s “Find a Way” is an “angry young woman” who finds herself at the end of her rope. The first two verses tell the bulk of this story.
You tell me your friends are distant
You tell me your man’s untrue
You tell me that you’ve been walked on
And how you feel abused
So you stand here an angry young woman
Taking all the pain to heart
I hear you saying you want to see changes
But you don’t know how to start
The chorus then attempts to reassure the protagonist that “love will surely find a way,” emphasizing that she should “leave behind the doubt” because “love is the only out.”
Interestingly, despite their nearly opposite solutions, it seems as if these two songs communicate an almost identical message to their respective protagonists. In a time of most desperate need, when each of the protagonists find themselves at the end of their ropes, the speaker in the song seems to say, “Your fate is sealed and there is nothing you can do.” Obviously, in one story this fate involves a descent into despair and in the other it presents itself as redemptive, but in neither story is the protagonist granted any agency to change their situation. Rather the action is piped in from outside and is entirely predetermined prior to (and without regard for) the particularities of the protagonists’ situations. In this sense, these examples from CCM and heavy metal both evince the “escapism” identified by Weinstein above. Despite their opposing viewpoints on the intent and make-up of supernatural powers, CCM and heavy metal are committed to similar visions of the supernatural realm and how it relates to the material world. All of the fatalism and political impotence that is present in the music of Metallica is there just as powerfully in the songs of Amy Grant, and through a closer comparison, we see how the discourses of both songs are incapable of speaking truth to power because of their investment in powers which eliminate human agency.
Unfortunately, Amy Grant’s metaphysics is more common than we’d like to acknowledge. And Christian communities (particularly in the United States) are increasingly vulnerable to accusations of “isolationism” and “escapism,” largely due to a focus on eschatologies and theodicies that leave the future closed. If process theology has taught us anything, it is that the event of Christ should open up possibilities rather than closing them down. As John Cobb and David Griffin note in their Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition:
The fact that the future is truly open also means that self-destruction is not inevitable. God does act in and through the creatures. The openness of the future does not mean simply that it is now unpredictable because of the complexity of the factors or because an element of chance enters it. The future is much more radically open. That which has never been may yet be. What has been until now does not exhaust the realm of possibilities, and because of God some of these yet unrealized possibilities act as effective lures for their embodiment. God offers to us opportunities to break out of our ruts, to see all things differently, to imagine what has never yet been dreamed. God works to open others to respond to the new visions and to implement them. Insofar as we allow God to do so, God makes all things new. (157-58)
Only through recapturing a prophetic and imaginative vision of the future like the one described by Cobb and Griffin can Christian metaphysics be as robust and potent as rock and roll should be.