Electoral Heshers: The Politics of Hardcore and Thrash Metal in the Age of Paul Ryan

Appropriated by rockers, this voice of rebellion, alienation and entitlement has become the national paradigm.  It is the narrative of the culture.   Everyone is an outsider (even the President), and everyone is proud of it.

— Ian Svenonius, The Psychic Soviet, 72

Ian Svenonius knows something about rebellion. As frontman for D.C. punk/hardcore stalwarts Nation of Ulysses (NOU), Svenonius believed NOU to be as much a “political party” as a band.   When describing the purpose of their second release Play Pretty for Me Baby, Svenonius told a reviewer rock ‘n roll had been infiltrated by Pig Parent Culture and the PTA.  “These are the three Ps that stand against power.”  Svenonius views “rock ‘n roll” as little more than vehicle for his larger politics/theater and treats it much like a tool for that end. NOU played the outsider’s outsider, mocking rock ‘n roll’s pretensions and their role outside of it, all while spouting revolution against its elders:

I’m not talking about a Beatles song/

Written 100 years before I was born/

100 flowers bloom, 100 schools of thought

C’mon baby, let’s hang around,

They’re talking about the round and round,

But who’s got the real anti-parent culture sound

— “N – Sub Ulysses,” NOU, Play Pretty for me Baby

Ultimately, NOU appropriated a paradigm that it argued was an appropriation in the first place. When Paul Ryan noted his affection for Rage Against the Machine to the media last week, he stood in an increasingly long line of electoral posturing by candidates.  As to Svenonius’s point about outsider status, Ryan stands as the shining paragon of Tea Party virtue.  Though the band’s message contradicts his own ethos, Ryan’s “love” for Rage further distinguished him in this way. Most conservatives, like columnist David Brooks, drool audibly at the opening chords of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” or wax on about the “Boss”’s American values, but Ryan’s choice made him the man apart from the man apart.

Of course, after Ryan’s confession, it proved relatively unsurprising that the band, notorious/famous for its political beliefs, responded with a none too friendly message. “I don’t care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage,” guitarist Tom Morello noted recently.   Morello continued, calling Ryan an “extreme fringe right wing nut job,” asking just how Rage’s message aligned with the Wisconsin Congressman’s vision of America.  The guitarist pointed to a truncated medley of the band’s subject matter from the genocide of Native Americans to Rage’s questioning of American imperialism to its support for the Occupy movement. “So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings,” Morello facetiously commented.

Morello’s op-ed for Rolling Stone stood as another example of musicians reacting negatively to political appropriations of their music. The aforementioned Springsteen called Ronald Reagan out on it in the 1980s and Don Henley sued a Republican candidate for a similar infraction. However, in many ways, Rage Against the Machine never really fit into the genre in which observers often categorized it.  Straddling the line between rap, hardcore, metal and punk, the band simultaneously fit none and all of these categorizations.  Ryan may be a right wing darling, but much like Rage he had to fight to get to this point of recognition.

One might ague Morello’s reaction seems to align neatly with Springsteen and Henley’s examples—except, in the arena of hard rock/metal/hardcore, political affiliations rarely prove so simple.  Left leaning bands like Rage Against the Machine, Against Me! and System of Down have not been the norm in this genre of music. Take for example thrash metal. Despite the “outlaw” image brandished by bands like Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer, several prominent members of each have revealed relatively conservative beliefs.

Even with metal’s more “intellectual” precursor, punk, conservative politics occasionally crept into the picture. Everyone knows that Johnny Ramone loved Nixon.  He loved W. too, even thanking the former president at the Ramones’ Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame induction speech. In the excellent documentary, The End of the Century, Johnny Ramone openly espouses his love for the New Right, professing his long undying affection for Tricky Dick Nixon.  When Joey Ramone wrote “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” the band’s lead singer aimed his sights squarely at Johnny. Joey may have been your traditional New York liberal but his fictitious brother certainly was not.  Dee Dee took way too many drugs to ever be political, so Joey and Johnny stood as bookends in a band that never openly touted any real political ideology, though undoubtedly the music and lyrics themselves provided a satirical political commentary for the age.

The hardcore scene of the 1980s demonstrates this kind of bifurcation. In his valuable documentation of the genre, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, writer Steven Blush notes that though many adherents of the movement adopted the skinhead look, beliefs remained far from uniform. “Politically speaking, many [Hardcore] kids leaned to the left, but the Right claimed its share of adherents,” Blush points out. According to Blush, the skinhead hardcore scene split two ways: “racist lunkheads and anti-racist lunkheads.” (31)


Even within this dichotomy, sometimes bands made radical shifts. The infamous New York hardcore group the Cro-Mags serve as a useful example. On their first album, the brutal Age of Quarrel, the Cro-Mags sung about the stupidity of world peace, street justice, societal break down, and conveyed a generally nihilistic world view combined with a pull your self up by the bootstraps (or in this case, leader Harley Flanagan’s skinhead suspenders) ethos.  Though the album can be listened to without a clear association to the burgeoning skinhead movements of the early 1980s, certainly it played a role in Flanagan’s outlook. The Dead Kennedys’ (DK) Jello Biafra (the man responsible for the satirical “Kill the Poor”) blamed bands like the Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, and “their corporate backers” for ruining the New York scene. “Any subculture with such a fiery reactionary feel is bound to attract reactionaries from all sides,” Biafra told Blush.  Others disagreed, noting the politics that surfaced had less to do with race and more to do with anti-social dysfunction common to many of the bands and fans in the movement. Anarchist activist (you read that correctly) Ted Kepley argued magazines like Maximum Rock N. Roll and the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” exaggerated the skinhead threat. For Kepley, Right Wing politics did creep into the scene in the mid-1980s, but early on the bigger threat remained “police … metalheads, and jocks.” (32)

Though the Cro-Mags’ interpretation of skinheads had less to do with racial conflict–in fact race never comes up on any of their albums and Flanagan hung out with the Dead Kennedys and the legendary Bad Brains—he and the Cro-Mags embraced the nihlistic outlook the movement promoted.  However, by the time of their second album Best Wishes (the excellent, more metalesque follow up to the Age of Quarrel even has a possible love song with “The Only One”), Flanagan had embraced Hari Krishna and now looked back on his past with a sense of regret and openly advocated fans and others to “open up their minds and be more aware.” Flanagan remained a sort of idiot but one that at least reflected on things.

Undeniably dominated by angry lower income and middle class white kids, several key figures of color exerted their own influence including the DK’s drummer D.H. Peligro and the Screams Skeeter Thompson. Foremost among them, D.C. legends and Rastafarians Bad Brains promoted a vision of a black diaspora and fought against racism in the scene.  Bad Brains served as a driving force for even the whitest of hardcore kids.  Their single “Pay for Cum” became the hottest cover in D.C as bands like Ian MacKaye’s Minor Threat scrambled to emulate them.  Of course, Bad Brains demonstrate the complexity of hardcore as well.  When they began denouncing homosexuals, they seemed less like visionaries and more like the status quo.

The Bad Brains

As the 1980s came to an end, hardcore began its slow demise, and though it remained relevant into the 1990s, metal had clearly replaced it among many music fans. Bands like Poison and RATT professed few political views and generally celebrated parties, women, and drinking. However, metal’s most direct connection to punk and hardcore, thrash, did traffic in political statements. More obscure bands like Sacred Reich put out EPs and albums like Surf Nicaragua – featuring the title song’s lampooning of US foreign policy in Latin America – while Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI) wrote songs like “Gun Control” and “Violent Pacification”– the former a demanding call for gun regulation and the latter a clever take on authoritarianism (“force you to be nice to each other/kill you before you kill each other”). D.R.I. played on the “Rock Against Reagan” tour with the DK’s and recorded the efficient 43 second not top twenty hit “Reaganomics.”

Reagonomics killing me/

Reaganonmics killing me/

Reaganomics killing me/

Reagonomics, killing you.

During this same period, the now behemoth Metallica released several albums consecutively that functioned as political statements – Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and Justice For All were rife with cryptic statements about death, obsession, capital punishment, war mongering, abortion, drug use, and conformity.  However, with the release of their controversial Black Album – a song like “Don’t Tread on Me” coming on the heels of the Iraq War sounded increasingly bellicose and militaristic. It stood in stark contrast to the seemingly anti-war message of “One” from Justice For All.

Even Metallica rejects like Dave Mustaine got in on the act when he formed Megadeth. Mustaine took shots at encroaching government control and mocked Cold War tropes about peace and nuclear war.  On their iconic Peace Sells but Who’s Buying, Megadeth suggested everything was a sham. On its third track, “Peace Sells,” Mustaine growls in his high pitched whine:

What do you mean, “I don’t believe in God”?
I talk to him every day.
What do you mean, “I don’t support your system”?
I go to court when I have to.
What do you mean, “I can’t get to work on time”?
I got nothing better to do
And, what do you mean, “I don’t pay my bills”?
Why do you think I’m broke? Huh?

Grantland’s Alex Pappademas pointed out that Mustaine had covered the 1992 Democratic Convention for MTV and that the band’s message did exhibit a political edge lacking from other bands in the genre. “Megadeth were always more “political” than their fellow headbangers, albeit in a fairly abstract, anti-authoritarian/Chaotic Neutral kind of way,” Pappademas argued.

Drink every time I say something stupid about Obama!

So when Mustaine recently blamed President Obama for the recent Colorado and Wisconsin shootings, suggested Michelle Obama’s sartorial choices were really encoded messages to some invisible other, and  busted out his support for Birtherism, it probably shouldn’t have seemed so surprising. After all, the message Megadeth peddled fits perfectly into the ideology of paranoid libertarians, or as the LA TimesAugust Brown commented, “Lately [he’s] implied an interest in a different kind of metal — namely tinfoil, for folding into hats, out of an escalating and bizarre far-right paranoia.” Add that to his endorsement of Rick Santorum some months ago and one can conclude we either misread Peace Sells’s libertarianism for something else or perhaps Mustaine’s politics have shifted. Of course, one need recall Mustaine’s  whining in the fascinating and unintentionally hysterical documentary Some Kind of Monster.  When Lars Ulrich apologizes to Mustaine for giving him a one-way bus ticket out of the band and back to LA two decades earlier, Mustaine prattles on and on about how hard his life has been. To be kicked out of Metallica for drinking, a band dubbed Alcoholica by fans, is well, not exactly Rick Santorum behavior.  At age 50, Mustaine’s new found born again Christianity and mid life crisis seem to be merging as one. He might be entering Nugent territory.

No conversation on thrash metal politics can exclude its darkest “mainstream” purveyor (we are NOT even going to address Black Metal, Grindcore, or Death Metal. Deicide anyone? Yeah, no need to go further).  Few bands inspire the fanaticism of Slayer. Albums like South of Heaven (criminally underrated though the band itself seems split on it), Dead Skin Mask, Christ Illusion, and God Hates Us All do give something away with the titles alone. Often praised as skilled and provocative musicians , some consider the four album arc of Hell Awaits, Reign in Blood, South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss to be the pure distillation of the thrash metal genre.

uhhh .. maybe

Despite the band’s lack of subtlety to this day they remain a critical darling. Critics greeted Christ Illusion with positive reviews.  The New Music Express argued Slayer sounded as “hideously vital” as ever.  The A.V. club called it “innovative” and praised its follow up, World Painted Blood. Both Greg Kot and Jim DeRogtis of Sound Opinions suggested in a September 2010 podcast that their last three albums – God Hates Us All, Christ Illusion, and World Painted Blood rivaled any of their previous work.  Even pitchfork gave the aging heshers an enthusiastic nod.

Despite their visions of a foreboding world defined by violence and control, fitting into a G.O.P. luncheon probably would not suit Slayer. At issue might be there views on faith. They might be one of the most anti-religious bands known to humanity.  One reviewer described Christ Illusion as “[a]n anti-Christian/anti-Islam/anti-Theocratic, anti-war album,”  so any truck with Santorum style candidates seems unlikely.  Yet when asked about Obama’s election in 2008, lead singer Tom Araya stumbled through a stream of consciousness response, calling Obama “a pretty smart guy,” but expressed confusion over the world’s celebration of his election. While he understood Obama’s ancestral Kenya’s joy, everyone else left Araya bewildered:

Can you explain to me why people here in Vienna would be happy that Barack won, that he won the presidency? Or what would give them reason to celebrate. Everybody around the world celebrated that he won, but nobody can tell you why they celebrated. You have to have a reason to celebrate something . . . I found that very strange. The whole world is celebrating [that] this guy [won], and nobody knows him.

However, when attacked by politicians and religious figures in 2006, Araya shot back at critics ”Slayer has yet to wage any illegal wars of empire, while its most hysterical critics, church and state, have somewhat bloodier hands.”  The always talkative guitarist Kerry King sounded less than enthused with W’s leadership: “Everyone in the world’s laughing at him. I don’t really pay too much attention to politics, but I do know that.”

Satan much?

Slayer probably does better when singing about religious war from the viewpoint of a terrorist or describes the inner feelings of a serial killer. The band caught flack for its song “Jihad” which told the story of religious conflict from the perspective of a radical Islamist.  King argued that had the same material been presented as a documentary on the Discovery Channel, people would be giving out awards, rather than chastising the band.  “Americon“, off of 2009’s World Painted Blood, could have been written by a bunch of aggro tree huggers.

Yet Slayer also displays some unnerving tendencies. In their 1996 album Undisputed Attitude, they chose to cover songs by influential hardcore bands including Minor Threat and D.R.I., two bands few would connect with the metal outfit.  Granted, Slayer’s excursion into punk was not in itself unique for thrash metal.  Metallica’s Garage Days Re-Revisited found the band regrouping after the death of popular bassist Cliff Burton by holing up with its newest member Jason Newsted and banging out evil punk covers like the Misfit’s “Last Caress/Green Hill” (“I got something to say/I killed your baby today/It doesn’t matter much to me as long as it’s dead.”) The difference might be that the Misfits and the persona of its most famous member Glenn Danzig somehow seem in line with Metallica’s general vibe.  The same cannot be said of Slayer, Minor Threat and D.R.I.

“We’re just a Minor Threat”

With this in mind, consider Slayer’s choice in Minor Threat covers. “Guilty of Being White” remains one of Minor Threat’s most misunderstood songs.  The standard bearer for straight edge hardcore, the song arguably remains its most controversial. Frontman Ian Mackaye has explained the song as a response to the bullying he endured growing up as a white minority in a predominantly Black and racially polarized Washington D.C. ”People were judging me on the color of my skin, so I wrote what I thought was a really direct anti-racist song – I wanted to say something radical,” the singer reflected years later. Still, Mackaye acknowledged the song on had taken on disturbing legacy. “It’s weird for me to go to Poland and hear kids, say, ‘Guilty of Being White is a very good song. We are White Power.’” He admitted. “It played totally different in other contexts.” Considering MacKaye’s history of leftist activism and anti-corporatism, his founding and stewardship of Dischord Records, his work with in the incredibly influential Fugazi, and his notable support for the Riot Grrl movement, the song sounds today like a youthful, naïve and ultimately misguided attempt to articulate a difficult adolescence—exactly the kind of moral quagmire in which Slayer enjoys operating. Their version replaced the song’s final line:

Guilty of being white

Guilty of being white

Guilty of being white,

Guilty of being right

Understandably criticism arose.  Mackaye described the cover as offensive and guitarist Kerry King dismissed allegations of white supremacy as ridiculous.  Whether Slayer was pushing buttons or expressing a latent racism remains hard to say, but they also changed the lyrics of Iggy Pop’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to “I Wanna Be Your God.”  As one reviewer noted, Slayer exhibited its long standing fetishization of control and dominance.  If they were to cover iconic artists that seemed almost antithetical to their music like Minor Threat and Pop,  tweaking the lyrics and thereby radically changing the meaning of each song reasserted their obsession with authority.  Then again maybe they are just not so closeted racists who harbor hostile views of church and state and are secretly preparing for the global end days.  In 2010, King told interviewers that he really does not care if people like him or not, but if Slayer “makes you question something you’ve never questioned before than I’ve done my job.”  Slayer’s grim subject matter shouldn’t indicate any particular political view, but am I wrong to feel nervous and uncomfortable about them or is that exactly what they hope for?

Sure, Anthrax’s collaboration with Public Enemy, especially considering the politics of Chuck D, designated them as more open minded than most.  Multi-racial and multi-ethnic Suicidal Tendencies and Brazil’s Sepultura stand as other influential non-white players.   Living Colour, though probably more hard rock than metal, cast a notable shadow as well, but non-whites remain a distinct minority in the scene both in terms of musicians and fans.  However, the new crop of “thrash” or its various derivatives does seem much more progressive than its predecessor. System of a Down (see “Prison Song” or “Toxicity”) the aforementioned Against Me! and a handful of others promote openly leftist agendas that feel different from their predecessors.  This seems especially true for Against Me! Though more recent songs like “I was a Teenage Anarchist” reflect warily on their past radicalism, the band always displayed both a deadly seriousness and at times a wicked sense of humor — witness songs like “Thrash Unreal” or “White People for Peace” and an album titled Re-Inventing Axl Rose. When lead singer Thomas Gabel recently became Laura Jane Grace, the band took its place at the forefront of transgender politics. Needless to say, Against Me! and to a lesser extent, System of a Down seem at odds with the Dave Mustaines and James Hetfields of the world.  Instead these bands have taken pieces of Megadeth, Slayer, and Metallica and melded them with the politics and fervor of Rage.

In the end, one might assume Morello’s position to be a standard cliché for a musician, but in this particular case, Rage Against the Machine stands as an outlier in a genre that despite its sense of outlandishness harbors some pretty conservative beliefs.  Then again when porn actress Jenna Jameson announced her full-throated support for Mitt Romney, who would have guessed that a leading figure in an industry abhorred by Romney and Ryan would openly shill for them.  In this case, Jameson’s endorsement seemed to make her more normal, just a voter concerned about her taxes, not a greedy porn star.  Being on the entertainment margins, albeit some profitable margins, is no guarantee of progressive beliefs, just like claiming a fervently political band like Rage failed to make Ryan any more likable.