Analysis: Heavy Metal Music

The following essay was written while I was studying at University in 2014.

Heavy Metal music is often condemned by many as being satanic or propagating violence from the appearance of the artists and the sound of their music. Some artists have even been accused of instigating mass murders and suicides. Both Black Sabbath (in the 1970s) and Marilyn Manson (in the 1990s and 2000s) are heavy metal artists who have been accused of being satanic or propagating violence because of the way they express themselves through music. Nonetheless, to accurately judge whether the music is satanic or not, we must look deeper than the surface and consider the context in which it was created in. Artists commonly use music as a medium to express their concern for socio-political issues. This essay will critically discuss how heavy metal artists, Black Sabbath and Marilyn Manson use their musical expressions to address socio-political issues such as violence as well as religion.

Black Sabbath is an early heavy metal band that has been accused of following Satanism or occult practices but also addressed socio-political issues in their music. The misconception of Satanism comes from the music, lyrics and also the imagery they used. Machin (2010) says this of lyrical analysis, “…when we look more carefully we find much deeper meanings that tie them to particular times, places and ideas”. There are many songs which involve themes of evil including “Black Sabbath”, “War Pigs” and “Electric Funeral.” However, once you analyse the music you will see that it is more Christian than it is Satanic. The song “Black Sabbath” has been seen as controversial because it contains an ominous tritone also known as the “Devil’s interval” and mentions Satan in the lyrics. In the BBC documentary series Classic Albums (Black Sabbath 2010), the band explains that the riff was inspired by Gustav Holst’s The Planets and the lyrics were derived from an experience by the bassist Geezer Butler where he was deterred from occult practices. “War Pigs” is often misinterpreted as being satanic because it includes the line “Just like witches at black masses”. However, it is evidently an anti-war song if you consider the subsequent verses which include lines such as “Politicians hide themselves away, they only started the war” and “Making war just for fun, treating people just like pawns in chess.” According to Hatch and Millward (1987), Black Sabbath were the first heavy rock band to cover “dark and depressing subject matter” in the lyrics of their songs. All of this explains why some people would be concerned about the band’s music but it is precisely what made them different from everyone else.

Furthermore, during the 1960s and 1970s there was a lot happening, socially as well as politically especially with regard to war and religion. There was the Cold War, Vietnam War, the Second Vatican Council, recreational drug use and several social movements. Both Butler and Osbourne talk about the influence current events had on their music. In his autobiography I am Ozzy, Osbourne (2010) explains that Geezer liked to write lyrics which reflected on topical events into their songs like references to the Vietnam War. Butler clarifies this point in Classic Albums when he talks about how the song “War Pigs”, originally Walpurgis (Satanic version of Christmas), is about warmongers “That’s who the real Satanists are, all these people who are running the banks and the world and trying to get the working class to fight the wars for them (Black Sabbath 2010).” Black Sabbath was trying to do what Bob Dylan did with folk music in a unique way. Musicians like Bob Dylan used folk music as a way to express their political views. Redhead and Street (1989, 177-78) describe folk music as an “expression of the feelings and everyday reality”. I think Geezer Butler was inspired by Bob Dylan’s style to express his feelings about what was going on in the world at the time, in this instance the contradiction between warfare and religious beliefs, in a way that it had not been presented before.

Additionally, the 1970s was a period of time where many people, particularly youth, started to rebel against dominant ideologies in the Western world including Christianity. Although it may seem that Black Sabbath was rebelling against Christianity by incorporating dark themes, they used powerful lyrics because it suited the powerful music they were playing (Ley 2013). In actual fact they incorporated supportive Christian themes like in the song “After Forever”. After all, most of the band members had a Christian upbringing and identify themselves as Christian especially the lyricist, Geezer Butler, who is a Catholic (Iommi 2011). Despite the band’s denial that they were satanic, rumours persisted when a nurse was found to have committed suicide with the Paranoid album on her turntable (Iommi 2011). I do not think Black Sabbath could be classified as satanic or be held responsible for the person who committed suicide because it was not the artist’s intention to promote suicide as Weinstein (1991) and Stack (1998) discuss in their works. In fact, they were denouncing precisely what they were being accused of promoting. The accusations are likely to have come from misinterpretation of symbols such as the inverted cross (The Cross of St Peter) and parts of their lyrics. According to Stark (2012, 43) ‘Satanists describe true Satanism as “my will be done”. They rebuff notions of religion or group thought, instead focusing on ideals of independence and knowledge.’ and the way it is “defined by the general public and media is not true Satanism, but rather anti-Christianity”. This is why the assertion that Black Sabbath’s music is satanic, is simply erroneous.
On the other hand, the music of heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson can be considered to be satanic. While Black Sabbath’s members are Christian, Marilyn Manson is a member and an honorary priest of the Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan (Manson 1998). Anti-Christ Superstar is arguably the most satanic album in his discography. It is not only a parody of a dictatorship but also a mockery of Christian worship and evangelisation. In the spectacle of his stage shows he “engages in baptismal (life-giving, purifying, renewing) spitting at the audience from a profanely branded water bottle” (Halnon 2006, 37). It is a vile exhibition of all that is meant to be kept sacred or private such as the excretion of bodily fluids. Halnon (2006, 38) continues to describe Manson’s anti-Christ crusade, ‘There he tears up a Mormon bible and repeatedly flails his long, thin, and uniquely flaccid body over a huge pulpit as he demands that followers “repent” from conformity and declares the coming liberation from the fascism of “Christianity” and the “police state mentality”’. The parody or ritualised mockery of Christian worship is considered satanic because it is a key component of a satanic Black Mass. Stuckey (1995) describes the notion and style of the preacher as well as the “Prayer Meeting” in early jazz music. Manson has taken this notion and manipulated it into a theatrical performance for entertainment as well as a vehicle to express his political ideologies.

Moreover, Marilyn Manson seeks to make a political statement about violence and religion though his music. His stage name is derived from actress Marilyn Monroe and criminal Charles Manson to create a character combing two extremes. In his autobiography A Long Road From Hell, Manson (1998) writes about encounters with his Christian upbringing, education, abuse, early exposure to sex and how that contributed to him rebelling against what he sees as the oppression and hypocrisy of Christianity. He has used this as well as the androgyny and the shock rock of Alice Cooper as inspiration for his music. The artist’s music serves not only as a gimmick but also a social commentary or criticism of the hypocrisy in certain aspects of American culture, particularly Christianity and patriotism. In a Rolling Stone article he criticises the American culture which is rooted in Judeo-Christian values, “Christianity has given us an image of death and sexuality that we have based our culture around. A half-naked dead man hangs in most homes and around our necks, and we have just taken that for granted all our lives (Manson 1999).” Manson uses a lot of distorted Christian iconography and symbolism in albums such as “AntiChrist Superstar” and “Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death)” which is deliberately used to shock and point out a perceived hypocrisy in the way Christianity venerates the violent death of Jesus. He also makes reference to America’s gun culture in “The Love Song” and publicizing the murders of celebrities like John Lennon in the song “Lamb of God”. These songs were released as a response to unsubstantiated accusations that his music was responsible for the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999. This reveals that he uses his music to criticise other aspects of society other than religion.

Whilst Marilyn Manson does use anti-Christian themes in his musical expression, it is more closely related to nihilism than devil-worshipping Satanism. Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine similar to the description of Satanism in Stark (2012). It is the disbelief in all moral principles and obligations including religion, laws and institutions (Macquarie 2009). This variety of atheistic Satanism is different to the devil-worshipping theistic Satanism seen in Black Metal music. Although Manson is often condemned as a devil-worshipper and reveres Satan as a figure that represents rebellion, he is much more of a narcissistic character (DeCurtis 2011). This is evident in the way he presents himself as Marilyn Manson but also the authority figures he assumes on stage like the Anti-Christ and totalitarian dictator. According to Cordero (2009) this form of Satanism comes from the Satanic Bile’s Law of Thelema, ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ and describes the nihilistic view as “…anything created by humans, like religion, will limit human potential, and since life is short, enjoy it while you can.” Manson reveals his nihilistic world view in songs like “1996” and “I Want to Disappear”. Bostic and others (2003, 56) discuss how antiheroes like Marilyn Manson, “…frequently work through their own experiences, using their art as a tool to express overwhelming feelings” and provides adolescents struggling to find meaning in their lives with some level of comfort that they are not alone in their experiences. Manson’s musical expression is a method of catharsis for his displeasure of the world, just like many other Heavy Metal artists and artists of different genres, but does it in a grotesque manner which sets him apart from everybody else.

Therefore, it is clear that heavy metal artists, Black Sabbath and Marilyn Manson use their musical expressions to address socio-political issues such as violence as well as religion. It is also evident from deeper analysis that neither artist is truly satanic. Although it was found that Marilyn Manson’s music contains profound anti-Christian themes, making it partly satanic, it is more accurate to describe his musical expression as nihilistic. Black Sabbath’s music was revealed to contain more supportive Christian themes than satanic or anti-Christian sentiment. Finally, it was revealed that both artists used their musical expressions as way of catharsis, to comment on socio-political issues and in a way that makes them stand out from every other artist.

References

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Stack, S. 1998. “Heavy Metal, Religiosity, and Suicide Acceptability.” Suicide & Life – Threatening Behavior 28(4): 388-394.

Stuckey, S. 1995. “The Music That Is in One’s Soul: On the Sacred Origins of Jazz and the Blues.” Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry 1(1):73-88.

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