Monday, April 29, 2013

In art, nothing is as stupid as intelligence

So how stupid is Heavy Metal, really?

I've found that a key to understanding the perception of this genre of music rests on the public preconception of it as dumb or 'low' art. And to a degree the appropriation of Heavy Metal tropes by outsiders via 'post-metal' was an attempt to smarten up Heavy Metal so it can finally be appreciated by those who feel a magnetic pull to it but would rather not be seen in public with it.

(Oh, such malignant enjoyment I take from seeing them fumble about with instrumental post-shoegaze ambient black metal/indiecore to somehow reconcile their fascination with, say, Manowar.)

It took me this long to talk about this because, honestly, as an issue it has been invisible for me for the longest time. I grew up with Heavy Metal first and foremost, so aside from a few works of philosophy, I am exactly as smart/dumb as it is.

I've been confronted, over the years with variations of a piece of back-handed flattery I find especially tickling. I've been told that I am a metalhead 'unlike the others'. That though I do not try to distance myself from the perceptually lowest core of Heavy Metal (I proudly listen to Carnivore, say) I do not seem to fit the cliche of the vinyl-gatherer in arrested development they understand metalheads to be. I am kind and a good conversationalist (on other topics, even!) and seem centered. From the complement we can draw two conclusions.

1. Were a metalhead to be able to distance themselves from the idiocy in the core of Heavy Metal, they absolutely would. In effect they would stop being metalheads and become one of those ironic widowers who now listen to one of the various permutations of post-metal. Certainly, Heavy Metal has died, one has not to just remarry but also hastily bury the decomposing corpse.

2. That they do not do this is due to incapacity. Probably because of stupidity or some other sort of fundamental character flaw. It is impossible to take this music seriously without some defect fueling the interest.

I am not going to attempt to combat these assumptions as fervently as the reader might expect. I do believe - as I've written in the past - that Heavy Metal has died and we're just dressing up the corpse in cute ways, a little bit of neo-thrash, now an occult robe, oh how nice. Perhaps the corpse appears animated to a sixteen year old that just bought their first Municipal Waste album just yesterday. And I do think mine - or anyone else's - continued interest over decades betray a morbid fascination to say the least. You can do two things with a dead thing. One would be to cradle it nostalgically and mourn forever the crystallized past. The other is nekromantia - divination of the future in the innards of a gutted rat.

But the aspect of the above assumption I will challenge is that the defect that drives the metalhead is a lack of intelligence of some sort.

Heavy Metal is difficult to parse for many because it seems preoccupied with low drives. Death and butchery, hedonistic lust and driving motorcycles and/or dragons. Difficult topics to make a defense for. But then, why are people whose trajectory passed close to Heavy Metal still so compelled to even talk about it, even if it is in the most damning terms? There is something dark and strong in there and a surface read of dragons and motorcycles doesn't seem to diminish the allure.

The profundity in Heavy Metal lies in that it is dumb and smart at the same time. This happens in a startlingly simple way (and why it's difficult for us to come outside and look in to see it): take inherently sensitive and intelligent people and do not give them socially positive ways to express that intelligence. Supress them. Give them fifty pages from ten different philosophers, give them horror movies and dungeons and dragons and tell them that's their lot. The sort of intelligence they will develop will be somewhat dysfunctional and unrecognizable if held against the paradigm of intelligence as means of social success and upwards mobility. Heavy Metal is smart in the dumbest way possible, in the most useless way possible.

So the best Heavy Metal artifacts are monuments to that savant brilliance. Those that feel drawn to this but yet are disgusted by its low level are victims of an illusion that Heavy Metal willfully creates. They see before them an entity that burns darkly from inside, it has no outside activator. It did not go to college, it doesn't have many friends, it is mis-educated at best. Yet, somehow it can divine a future in the guts of a rat. It knows allll about you. The illusion is that Heavy Metal (and its people) seem to have been born this way, or if not, to have carved themselves in this image with pure willpower.

This is the great defense of Heavy Metal. How can a stupid record from the Czech Republic capture the ethos of Nietzschian thought without the people that made it having read any Nietzsche? And why does it still have a sacrificed goat on the cover? How can a stupid seven inch NWOBHM extrude an air of otherworldly dignity and strength when the title of the track is even misspelled? How can this black-clad longhair smile to me with such kindness? How can these people be everything I was told not to be and still function?

The illusion is that they function. Nobody functions, it is impossible to function in our modern world. But that's the spell that Heavy Metal casts, that's what metalheads gave their souls to buy, that disarming semblance of inner strength, conviction and drive.

Heavy Metal is dumb and yet ambitious. Never before have there been less equipped artists attempting more lofty artistic goals. Heavy Metal is uneducated and socially inept but with the very little that it knows it creates a world in itself. It is a self-sustaining system.

That is where it is dangerous. What Heavy Metal asks of you to give you this self-sustaining system is an impossible task: Destruction of the self, so that the self may live. The 'other' metalheads you know whom you find so easily dismissable and abhorrent, married to their leather jacket, who have a thousand words for riff but not one for pathos, they are the mutants of this chaos process. The 'almost got there's, they are the Renfields to Heavy Metal Dracula, eating vinyl insects to survive, wondering when their master will come to imbue in them eternal life.

And so Heavy Metal is dead. The Dying Bride has finally perished. The wedding dress is damp with old decay and red with rust. Why haven't these people (mutants all, successful or not) given up? Why do they still listen to a record from 1986 as if it's important? A corpse is a corpse and a corpse will not rise. The horrible craft left to us, those 'metalheads unlike the others' is just that of divination.