Black Vase: May 2012 Edition
Fascism in Extreme Music
This month I'd like to talk about politics in music. To most, that means a middle- aged lefty with a guitar, or Bono rimming every world leader he can get close to for world peace (but a tax break on his millions would be an acceptable second). No, I have a theory – it's a simple one – that there is a positive correlation between music and politics, in that the more extreme the music, the more extreme the political ideas and ideologies expressed within that music will be. Imagine an infinite line graph heading straight and true at a constant 45 degrees between the axes of 'muzik' and 'politik'. And, even though we're believed to live in an age of greater peace than ever before (no, seriously, someone said that) and it is supposedly a post- historical and post-ideological age, things remains to be a bit of a cluster fuck.
In certain areas of extreme music, there are artists who have flirted with ideas and imagery that are incredibly uncomfortable to most. Fascism, domination, totalitarian views and imagery have all been used by many in industrial, noise, neofolk, punk and metal circles. And it's because of the recent presence of fascism in Europe (okay, so it's not goose-stepping down your road this very minute, but it's there), that I think it's good time to discuss this.
Shock tactics in economics are old. In the modern sense, they stretch back to the free-market-is-god teachings of Milton Friedman in the 1970s. Shock tactics in art and culture go back way further. What both devices rely on is for the shock to put the sniveling serf/culture vulture into a state of submission so severe, that they might be more suggestible to things they were previously staunchly opposed to. Like, a Fascist dictatorship, say. Or Stockhausen.
And it's Fascism I want to talk about now. Or, more accurately, the role nationalist, racialist, homophobic and misogynist (basically all the abhorrent shit that comes under the umbrella of Fascist) ideas are used as elements of shock in music.
Recent European elections have seen a significant increase in the number of votes for ultra-right parties. In the first round of the French Presidential election, Marine La Pen of the Front National won 6.4 million votes – 17.9 per cent of the total turnout. It wasn't enough to see her through to the next round (which would see Socialist Francois Hollande win), but the sheer scale – nearly one-fifth of the voter turnout – putting their faith in her anti-Islam and anti-gay dogma is staggering. Almost more terrifying is the popularity of Golden Dawn in Greece. An openly neo-Nazi organization, who only allow those of Greek birth and 'Aryan blood' into their ranks (their logo looks hella like a Swastika too), they won 21 of the 300 seats that make up the Greek parliament, with 6.97 per cent of the vote. That's roughly what UKIP, the Green party and the BNP received in our last general election put together. Furthermore, you only need to see drunken skinheads treating Luton and Bradford's respective high streets as catwalks to see it in our green and pleasant land.
But what about those musicians who have used Fascist iconography? Looking at the mainstream end, an early incarnation of the Clash were called 'The London SS'. Sid Vicious once wore a t-shirt with a Swastika on it. Siouxsie Sioux was often seen with a Third-Reich armband, and the Banshees song 'Love in a Void' even had the line that there are 'Too many Jews for my liking'.
The shock was strong with these ones. All of these people grew up in a society that was irrevocably shaped by the Second World War. Anti-German sentiment was still very strong, and what better way to announce your rejection of a conservative society you don't belong in than to flaunt the one terror it still holds fresh in its mind? Anyway, Strummer was a rich hippy, Sioux is Jewish herself, and Vicious was just thick as pig shit.
No, what's more interesting are the bands that really took it to extremes. Musicians-cum-artists like Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse, Boyd Rice. The Industrial music scene pushed boundaries in many ways – the most obvious of which was sonically – ugly sounds; unlistenable, harsh electronics and clanging sheet metal. Discombobulated voices and formless, dirge-ridden soundscapes. Music that takes you from the Orwellian factory to the mass grave; through a mental labyrinth of creeping anxiety. Visually, iconography was rife. Whether suggested (TG's lyrics) or actual (Rice's Nazi regalia worn onstage and the Wolfsangel as his logo) – there's nothing Fascists like more than veneration of symbols.
But then you creep into less ambiguous territory. Oi!'s links to the far right, with Skrewdriver being arguably the UK's most famous Fascist band. Then there is the incredibly fucked up path some Norwegian black metal bands took, with white supremacist ideas being the catalyst for murder, church burnings, and gigs that resembled something akin to the Nuremberg rally.
But the question really is, what's the difference? On the surface of it, the ideas being put forward are the same. The general vibe is hatred and terror and suppression; and at their core, they are ideas put forward to illicit a response, to create a reaction and provoke; using music as a medium. There are more similarities too – fears are played on, the dark thoughts that people rarely admit to having are put out into the open – forcefully. Then there's the obvious sonic abrasion. It kinda goes without saying, but none of what I've mentioned is exactly… pretty.
So what I am proposing is that the difference be recognised between the provocative and the preposterous. And it's a semantically simple one; it is just the difference between shock, and shocking. Musicians using fascist themes to shock, and fascists making music whose ideas are shocking. And if there is no one there to shock you with that which you'd hope were no longer, it's easy to forget what shocking things can be done in the name of ideology.
And whereas the economic shock gives rise to the ideologically shocking, the artistic shock reminds us that it hasn't gone away – those things still exist, and people who are proud of believing them still exist; and looking at the Front National, Golden Dawn, and the EDL; they aren't just lurking in the closet anymore.
Now, as someone who could broadly be labeled as on the extreme of the left myself, it's hard to say these things. To defend (I'm not apologising for…) the use of Fascist ideas and imagery in music still causes massive reservations. Christ, sometimes it's hard to listen to. But if you do not keep an open dialogue, or effectively shun the notion of Fascism by refusing to accept the legitimacy of any artist that uses it (as opposed to promoting it), then it will not go away – it will not be ignored into submission. You are merely giving breathing space to those who want to use it to recruit, not repel.
Listen: gauge for yourself. Are you being asked to think? Or told what you should think? If it's the former, I think that's great. If it's the latter; the only way forward is to oppose.
"A big paradox I face over and over again when writing about the music I write about is a nagging sense of disparity. How can some genres, with a commonly agreed and shared ethos of egalitarianism and anti-oppression, be so... monolithic? It's not a new problem, but it seems to be one that isn't changing all that rapidly." Ben Martin is back with another edition of Black Vase. [read more]
Though the cyclical and ever-revolving discussions about allowing or denying a platform for the nasty bastard fash may long continue, the necessity of opposition rarely creates a schism. Apart from in noise, where the blurred lines of using iconography and actual ideology wouldn't get anyone's shit played within 30 miles of a Students' Union bar. [read more]