Being a good person is terribly hard. Trying not to directly or indirectly support certain businesses and therefore the people who make fortunes off those businesses is virtually impossible. A day in the life. I am writing these words on an Apple computer. Apple is of course well known for having a good bit of their products manufactured under terrible work conditions. They pay a ridiculously low amount of taxes. They always know where you are. And where you were five years ago. The list goes on. A quick Google search will help you feel really terrible about checking your iPhone every five minutes. Which makes me think. Google. I will certainly use Facebook and Instagram to promote this article and therefore my own little business (which I swear is too small to even have a chance to be evil). Do I have to go into the depths of evil surrounding Facebook? I may break for a second to eat a quick lunch that I bought at Walmart. Damn. Walmart. You catch my drift. There are pitfalls everywhere. Even in our beloved music. I am not talking about the evil empires that make the real money from music. Today, I want to boil it down to the artist. Is it ok to listen to music by bad people? And how bad do they have to be to stop listening?
I love me some heavy metal. And heavy metal surely doesn’t have the best reputation historically. It all started with Black Sabbath’s record company putting an inverted cross on their debut album. Satanists. The outrage paid off very well. Sabbath was a commercial force right of the start. All publicity is good, right? Later down the line there were mass burnings of Iron Maiden records by Christian groups which seems ironic since they had to buy the records somewhere. Or did they steal them? Would that have been ok since it was done to condemn the devil? Complicated. In retrospect, this seems silly. Sabbath, Maiden and a ton of other bands happily used devil or Satan related imagery without having anything to do with Satanism at all. For many metal bands it was a metaphor or if you don’t want to give them that much credit, a sales tactic. But then came black metal. Here’s the quick recap: a bunch of young – possibly a bit bored – Norwegians started forming countless black metal bands in the early 90’s trying to out-evil each other. They actually seemed serious. There were countless church burnings traced back to members of black metal bands. And it got worse. Several members of the scene were convicted for murders. This is where it gets complicated. To the vast majority of the population, the music these guys created resembles not much more than noise. It is an extreme version of music - an acquired taste you might say. But to some of us, they created something truly new and groundbreaking, something enjoyable. Discussing the artistic merits of black metal belongs somewhere else. The question is: is it wrong to listen to music that is made by people who are – for lack of a better term – evil?
Generalizations are a bad thing. Obviously, not all members of Norwegian black metal bands formed in the early 90’s are the same. Not all of them are murderers. Take Fenriz of Darkthrone: he actually appears to be a pretty funny – while very opiniated – dude whom I would love to have a few beers with one day. Instead of getting lost in the vastness of a loosely connected scene, let’s pick two examples. We’ll start with the big one: Burzum. There is probably no band in the world more notorious but still widely (weirdly) loved. Burzum is not actually a band. It’s a one-man project by a certain Varg Vikernes. Varg is a terrible man. Here’s the quick rundown: he murdered his bandmate. Stabbed him to death. He orchestrated and personally conducted several church burnings. He is openly racist, antisemitic and not shy about using every possible means to share his extreme views. Burzum is where I draw a line. I enjoy a lot of black metal and descriptions of Burzum’s music lead me to believe that I would probably like it a lot, but to this day I have not listened to any of their music. Example number two: Jon Nödtveidt. He is best known as the mastermind of Dissection, another seminal black metal band. He is unfortunately also known to be convicted of being an accessory to murder of a man. And he was a member of the Misanthropic Luciferian Order. He would normally be on the same side of that aforementioned line, wouldn’t there be one big difference: he is dead. Killed himself supposedly as part of his whole satanic world view. I am not saying this is right and writing this is part of coming to terms with the overarching question I am asking here myself, but somehow, the fact that he’s dead made it ok for me to check out Dissection. My logic doesn’t seem bullet-proof, but I figured with him being dead he wouldn’t actually benefit from me listening to his music and buying any of his albums. Turned out, Dissection was a great band. “Storm of the Light’s Bane” is definitely one of the 25 best metal albums of all time. It pretty much defined melodic black metal. Any band adding melody to icy tremolo riffs is still being measured against Dissection. But there is an uneasy feeling inside of me any time I listen to their records. I know that I’m listening to somebody who murdered another person.
The fascination with black metal raises another question. What if people don’t listen to some of those bands in spite of who the actual humans behind the creations are, but actually because of all that? There is no doubt in my mind that the notoriety actually helped put the spotlight on them and made some people check the music out. People are fascinated with True Crime. There are roughly a million True Crime podcasts out there. People listening to other people talking about what terrible things some people do. The obsession with the gore, with the details, with the minds responsible for heinous acts sometimes gets into questionable territory. I can’t help but think that certain people are deep down maybe a tad bit too fascinated, maybe even attracted to these guys (and it’s mostly guys who become serial killers. Whenever my wife and I watch “Criminal Minds” we wonder why they even add the description “white male” to their profile, it is basically a given. But that’s a different topic). Another musical genre not only filled but to a big degree defined by violence ascended in the early 90’s. And that was on a completely different level commercially. Gangsta rap. Comparing gangsta rap to black metal seems insane, so I’m not actually gonna do that. But you can’t deny that one big parallel. The music can’t be separated from the violence surrounding its creators. Unless we some day discover a parallel world exactly matching ours with the one big difference that 2Pac and Biggie were just real chill dudes living a peaceful existence, we will never know if they had become successful without all the shootings and all. But I will just venture out and say that it helped commercially. And the same goes for black metal. Without all the stories, many people would have never known about this scene. And it does something to the listening experience. Black metal is all about creating an atmosphere, much like horror movies. A certain discomfort is actually welcomed. Knowing that the people creating it really mean it, really live that lifestyle that’s being portrayed adds to that atmosphere. It’s not a joke. Knowing that makes it harder to argue that art should be separated from the artist if the experience of said art is actually amplified by the knowledge of its creator’s actions.
The Smith’s were once a beloved band by millions of mainly teenagers, specifically outcast teenagers. They then turned into a band that doesn’t exist anymore but was still beloved by millions of former teenagers and even some brand new ones. Now things are a bit more complicated. Turns out the guy that was able to express teenage angst, feeling lost and lonely better than most, relating to his fans on such a deep level, is a damn racist. There really doesn’t seem to be any doubt about it. Even some die-hard fans who have tried to deny it for many years, just can’t anymore. His support of far-right politicians and his many nationalistic or flat-out racists statements are well documented. The Morrissey many people thought they knew is no more – or possibly never was. This is a different situation. After all, Morrissey didn’t kill anybody. Especially no animals. Yet many people have stopped listening to his music. The reason why so many people fell in love with The Smiths is that they connected with his lyrics expressing loneliness in poetic ways. There weren’t any signs of fascist thoughts in those songs and they haven’t changed. The songs are still the same. Recorded music is a snapshot, setting a piece of art in stone. Does it matter then if the artist later turns out to have a worldview far removed from your own, even one that is filled with hate and driven by unwarranted feelings of superiority towards whole groups of people? What makes it so complicated is that many people feel very deep connections to the artists creating those songs. People felt connected to Morrissey personally – or at least they thought so –, because he made them feel like they weren’t alone. There is somebody else out there who feels the same. It transcends beyond the sheer sonic experience and becomes more personal. If that person turns out to be so vastly different than imagined, it might cut that personal connection and the music loses its emotional magic. Many people probably don’t feel guilty listening to The Smiths (and they shouldn’t), but they now might not feel that personal connection to the guy singing those songs anymore, unless you think of it as not being the same guy. The 80’s Morrissey isn’t the same person as the Morrissey of today. We can’t be sure about that, but at least we have reason to believe it. The questionable beliefs that Morrissey voices in interviews nowadays aren’t found in Smiths songs and this might be another way to address the art vs. artist issue. If the ideas that are in opposition to your own world view aren’t actually expressed or even thematized in the actual art, it would make it easier to separate it cleanly. Now, I do think it’s silly not to listen to music that you would actually like just because its creator shares a different political opinion, but I do think it is a different situation if said political opinion is outright hateful.
It gets extra complicated when we just can’t be sure what an artist was up to in their personal life. Let’s talk about Michael Jackson. There is hardly a person alive who hasn’t listened to his music. “Thriller” is to this day the best-selling album of all time in the US. Michael has never been convicted of any crimes, but the seeds of doubt are hard to shake off. What surely didn’t help is that he was – for lack of a better way to describe – super fucking weird. It is certainly not hard to imagine that many of the allegations against him are actually true. If we knew with absolute certainty that he molested children, we would probably immediately stop listening to his music, but a lot of people operate under the sacred “proven until guilty” premise in this case which seems appropriate given the importance of this principle for our justice system and therefore society as a whole. This just very often doesn’t happen. In our current cancel culture, we’ve seen people “cancelled” in a heartbeat based on accounts of individuals, allegations of much smaller magnitude than child molestation. Last Halloween, I played a Halloween playlist that inevitably had “Thriller” on it and my one-year old started dancing immediately. It shows how irresistible and primal music, this music, is. I love seeing him dance, seeing him enjoy music, but the thought that this music may have been made by a child molester leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth.
Freedom of speech and - as an extension to that - freedom of art are extremely important pillars of our society. Even in today’s very divided society, most people would agree with that, but once we’re faced with specific examples, things can get more complicated. We know how deeply music can affect us and what great impact it can have on us as individuals. For many of us, it has played or still plays an important role in shaping our personalities. Our musical tastes are often used as statements far beyond liking certain notes played in a certain order on a certain instrument in a certain arrangement. That is why I will always have that struggle to determine for myself where to draw the line and everybody will have to find that line for themselves. I think we are better served leaving this decision to everybody individually instead of banning art itself. If people commit crimes, there is a justice system that hopefully addresses that accordingly (obviously, this is a whole other problem outside of the scope of this article), but the art that these people create takes on a life of its own as soon as it’s released to others.