Last week, I caught up with associate professor Jeffrey S Podoshen, the author of the Decibel magazine article about metal’s Social Justice Warrior issue that set off a firestorm in the online metal community. We caught up with him about the reaction to the article, holocaust tourism, and what his thoughts on the future of the metal music industry are.
Your article in Decibel set off a bit of an internet firestorm. What were your thoughts on the reaction to the article?
I was surprised by a few of things. First, the article was submitted as a commentary piece (which was labeled as a Guest Editorial) to Decibel magazine. It was not a “news” article. It was not a research article. Many read it as a news article. Many didn’t read it all, just the headline and subheadline (which I didn’t write). I was not reporting on anything and did not take the role of a reporter or journalist. This was deliberate, as I’m not a metal journalist. Additionally, I did not submit this article with a byline of “Jeffrey Podoshen, PhD, Associate Professor, etc.” I wrote it as Jeff Podoshen. The bio note was included and written by Decibel. I was expressing a particular point of view; a series of remarks based on my observations and my thoughts. It was indeed intended to get a conversation started. It was not intended to be the gospel of the black metal scene or be universally regarded as fact. It was deliberately provocative and it addressed an issue that exists whether people want to actually admit it or not.
Second, I was disappointed in the amount of bizarre extrapolation and erroneous interpretation many engaged in, as if I was defending racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Nowhere in that article do I defend any of those things or even allude to their defense. I’m not going to defend those practices. That’s absurd. Additionally, nowhere in that piece do I say that people cannot legally protest against a band they perceive as racist, sexist, etc. I do, however, think protests should be done in good faith on the part of the protestors. People may disagree with that. That’s ok. Alarmingly, it seems that when one defends free speech and/or artistic expression, some people assume that the defender of the right to the speech automatically agrees with speaker or is pushing the speaker’s particular agenda.
There is a HUGE difference between defending the right to self-expression and agreeing with or championing the idea and/or expression being expressed. I might not like everything a band represents, I might find the lyrics offensive, but I believe the band still has the right to perform without illegal or unjust interference. Just because we don’t agree with something doesn’t mean we necessarily have the moral (or legal) right to engage in manipulative or violent tactics to quell it. For example, tear gassing an audience to shut down a legal performance is simply not ok. Secondly, creating an organized social media campaign or similar effort to deliberately mischaracterize a performer or speaker with an effort to quell their art, is not something that helps the scene at all. I was scheduled to speak at a panel this past Spring and there were indeed many individuals, in a coordinated effort, who attempted to get the panel cancelled because they didn’t like what they thought the make-up of the panel was in terms of race and gender. The interesting point, however, is that none of these individuals attempted to actually research the composition of the panel beyond, literally, face-value and a preliminary announcement. This resulted in a number of incorrect assumptions that manifested quickly into social media mayhem. My own ethnic background was labeled, erroneously, by many, and no one was interested in my own unique experiences or actual background. I found this both extremely short-sighted and ironic, because many of the most aggressive individuals, fighting for what they term as “social justice,” are clearly so concerned about identity yet would not allow me to actually have an identity of my own in the public sphere and share those experiences on a panel.
Third, I was surprised by the lack of research into black metal by many of the most vocal individuals. There were so many comments that began with, “I don’t know much about Taake but…” “I’ve never listened to Taake but…” Ok, well, maybe do a bit of research on Taake before automatically assuming they’re NSBM. Maybe Taake are trying to make a point that lies beneath the surface, beneath the obvious. Maybe they’re trying to make you think about something in a way you haven’t though about before? Maybe they’re trying to make a statement or forward a unique idea? I’d liken the reaction here to that of extreme horror films from decades past like Wes Craven’s original, Last House on the Left, or Der Todesking. Those films were written off as literal trash with no redeeming social value when they were released. The reality is that those films have strong messages about society and culture, yet they were originally labeled as mere shock horror and nothing else. In fact, the creator of Der Todesking had to, quite literally, run from the police.
You wrote a very interesting piece called The Trajectories in Holocaust Tourism. If I’m interpreting the abstract correctly, you’ve nailed an in-depth analysis on people who tour through an atrocity and then develop an opinion of things as featured on the surface. In other words, people who don’t look deeper into the story before forming an opinion. Is this correct?
I’m not sure if I’ve nailed it, I’m just one of many individuals who study dark tourism. Other scholars are likely going to have different interpretations, but that’s the nature of the social sciences and theory building. But yes, there are many who only skim the surface of an event, a place or a piece of literature and don’t really engage or grapple with it. This is maybe a result of the “Tweet first, ask questions later” society we currently find ourselves living in. It’s all about the sound bite and not about the context. One of the key things I’ve found about dark tourists is that many people judge the act of dark tourism itself as “deviant.” So, for example, tourists go to visit places associated with death and they are labeled as “morose” or dismissed as individuals merely engaged in schadenfreude when the reality of the tourism activity and its processing is much more complex. Many tourists tour dark places to learn about humanity and sometimes that desire to learn is discouraged. We have just scratched the surface in terms of understanding death consumption and dark tourism motivations. There is so much we still don’t know and the answers we seek can potentially help us understand the human condition so much more deeply than we do know. Right now we have death, terror and violence all around us but few actual answers and we collectively know only a few impactful steps we can take to minimize it.
But to answer your question, you are absolutely correct. On social media especially, very few people learn about the whole story or even a significant part of a historic event before forming an opinion. It’s more about expression for the mere sake of expression and the quest for “likes” in that albatross known as Facebook. Huge problem and, in my opinion, a key reason for this longstanding global stagnation we’ve been sitting in for years.
What do you think of some in the metal community being against black artists, like Kanye West, for their controversial expression? What do you think of our nation and its continued issues on race? And do you think we will ever overcome such a deeply embedded attitude when we have a hard enough time accepting other forms of art that aren’t our own?
I believe race relations in this country are generally poor and it saddens me greatly. Our government has failed at bringing people together, despite claims to the contrary. Instead, the government, media and other stakeholders have helped create a toxic environment in many communities. Inevitably, I don’t believe our government is going to solve our race problems; we’re going to have take these on ourselves. We can start by respecting one another and respecting individual rights and liberties. Without liberty any real positive change is going to be painfully remote at best.
I can’t imagine a person not being able to be with the one they love, regardless of race, class, gender, religion, etc. These are such important conversations we need to continue to have in America, but these conversations need to occur openly and honestly. With that being said, there are many in the extreme metal community who respect all types of fans and artists and welcome anyone with open arms. Dare I say that’s the majority of fans and artists I’ve encountered. Often extreme metal gets singled out for having “race” problems when the reality is nearly every genre has or had issues that involve race and gender. Metal is no different, it’s just an easy target and poorly understood.
In terms of people in the metal community accepting or not accepting artists like Kanye West, I think to dismiss an artist or genre of music simply because it’s not “your scene” is shortsighted. People from outside the world of metal dismiss metal all the time and those individuals are missing out on some incredible art and composition. The music is what’s important.
What are some of your favorite extreme metal bands?
Well, Taake (I guess that’s rather obvious at this point, haha). In regular rotation in my car these days: Enslaved, Watain, Gaahl’s Wyrd, Helheim, 1349, Misery Index, Behemoth, Sargeist, Trelldom, Triptykon, Valkyra, Tsjuder, Young and in the Way. I also love listening to the classic Florida death metal. And anything ever recorded by Peter Steele. I listen to something recorded by Peter almost every day of my life, it seems.
What do you think about the elimination of smaller local venues and the rise of festivals?
I completely understand the interest and desire in festivals. Economies of scale are key here and obviously promoters can reduce fixed costs by putting many bands on one bill in a large space as opposed to fewer bands on multiple bills at smaller venues. The sad part here is that smaller venues are suffering and will continue to suffer. Many of these venues are “second homes” for fans and artists and they help build a sense of community. Personally, I started going to the Trocadero in Philadelphia in 1992 when I moved to Philly from New York, and would you believe that some of the same staff members are still there today? Literally, they have worked shows for over two decades. I know every inch of that venue and what the sound is going to be like in every part of the room. I’m not necessarily going to get that same experience at festivals, though some festivals are large with a very local feel, such as Maryland Deathfest and Inferno because the events are broken up into a variety of venues and there are ample areas for interaction. At Inferno, for example, there’s about a 90% chance you’re going to run into Abbath having a beer in the hotel lobby even if he’s not performing and people just sit at the bar and hang with him for hours. I think there was one day a few years back when I ran into Noctorno Culto, Apollyon, Glenn Benton and Fenriz in a span of 45 minutes in three different bars at Inferno. That’s what Inferno does so well, they take something big, get that scale and then break it up and make it more intimate.
What do you think the future of the metal industry is going to be?
Bleak. First, consumers need to be willing to compensate the artist for creating the art they consume. While many do, so many still do not. Additionally, artists need to be compensated by streaming services at a much higher rate. Artists also need to be able to perform without fear of agendadriven unjust obstruction. The oligopoly in music venue ownership and promotion in many cities needs to be altered. There’s no real competition in many cities so artists and fans are forced to accept high ticket prices, ridiculously high concession fees and low compensation for performances.
Art itself is under attack and few are coming to its defense. Many who do come to the defense of art and free expression are written off as overly polemic or are merely dragged through the mud of the twitterverse. The attacks are generally person and not idea- driven. I want to live in a society where we can be free to consume and create, not one where a group of elitists dictate “what is” and “what is not” art and “what is” and “what is not acceptable” music and expression. Let’s not forget that years ago there was a fervent movement to, literally, ban artists like Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne from radio airplay and from public performances. People actually believed that Judas Priest’s music gave individuals suicidal tendencies and that listening to Slayer and/or Black Sabbath encouraged devil worship. That was in my lifetime; not that long ago really. Can you imagine what the music scene would be like today if we didn’t have Judas Priest and Slayer?
Additionally, those who support the control of art and its dissemination, the control of speech and the “virtues” of collective, command economies (which seems to be painfully intertwined these days) should research the rather quick and painful destruction of free expression in the dystopias of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc puppet regimes. Paradise it was not.
When I wrote my Decibel piece many were quick to dismiss black metal as “a joke” and as quickly label it as something that has little value in society – even some academics stated this. I found this painfully shortsighted and I feel bad for those who are so quick to dismiss an entire body of art. Extreme metal challenges boundaries and opens your eyes to experiences you never even knew existed. So many extreme metal artists are deeply insightful, extremely welltraveled and know more about cultural phenomena than their most ardent critics.
[Photo: Jill Colbert]
Tags: Decibel Magazine, Jeffrey S Podoshen, Taake
Categorised in: Interviews