There is an implicit sense in which metal artists have always acted as provocateurs, even from the genre’s earliest days. Metal’s birth, one could reasonably argue, was as much the invention of a visual and tonal aesthetic as it was of a sonic one: Black Sabbath’s prominent use of tritones was a deliberate choice to make their music sound evil, grim, menacing. Using “the Devil’s interval” was nothing if not a mission statement from the group that they would defy conventions and purposely violate the accepted rules of music and good taste.
While the role of provocateur has existed outside of metal – every genre has these figures – metal positions itself as a genre for and by these individuals. Metal is often referred to as a genre for outcasts and those who buck convention. Even today, it’s not uncommon to hear adult metalheads refer to themselves as the one who was “the weird kid” in high school, wearing as a badge of honor their time spent as a social reject. Metalheads, by and large, are proud to be misanthropic, asocial, nihilistic, threatening; metalheads are proud to be othered and take joy in knowing themselves by the rift between them and what is “accepted.”
It’s important to have this context of metal as inherently transgressive so that we can talk about the current issue with “True Norwegian” black metal band Taake. Metal is no stranger as a genre to controversies involving Nazism and white supremacy, but as our society moves towards a place where people feel more comfortable voicing their objections to bigotry and hateful ideologies, the reactions are starting to become a little different. With the resurfacing of a performance in 2007 where Taake used a swastika in order to shock and provoke concertgoers and the rest of the world, outcry from many has essentially forced the cancellation of their upcoming United States tour with King Dude. Anti-fascist groups around the country (contrary to what seems to be a fairly common misconception, antifa groups are not a unified organization and there is no singular “Antifa”), have, naturally, taken issue with the use of fascist imagery and threatened to protest or shut down shows if the venue doesn’t cancel them first.
Taake are upset with this reaction, of course. Previously, a show of theirs in Germany was canceled for the same reason, and I’m sure they’re angered by seeing this play out on a country-wide level, especially after, I can only assume, they sank a reasonable amount of their own finances and time into organizing this tour. In defending himself and his choice, Hoest, Taake’s de facto band leader, has repeatedly said that Taake are not Nazis, and that his use of the swastika in 2007 was merely for provoking and shocking their audience.
Here we come back to the metal artist as the sort of ultimate transgressor: Hoest commits himself to the violation of a strong, strong taboo and performs with a painted swastika on his chest. If one is to understand metal as nothing more than flaunting a total disregard for conventions for its own sake, then Hoest’s action is powerful indeed.
But – and this is a big but – there’s more to transgressive and provocative art than just being provocative for its own sake, and this is where the narrative becomes more complex. The purpose of provocative art and of the provocateur is to force people to think about their moral and aesthetic values and where they come from. Provocative works of art exist to start investigations for the audience, investigations where they think critically about why something is offensive to them. Transgressive and provocative art is valuable because it prompts discussions about commonly-held conventions of taste and morality.
For the most part, I think metal is actually fairly decent at this. Even on the immediate sonic level, the abrasion and standoffishness of the genre inflicts a sort of immediate investigation into what counts as “music.” The dark, often violent or brooding lyrical themes force confrontations with very real evils, and the giant proverbial middle finger the genre gives to conformity can often be comforting to those who feel like outcasts from “mainstream” society.
But there is nothing valuable in this way about the use of Nazi imagery. We don’t need to have moral or aesthetic investigations into why the Nazis were bad. We know exactly why the Nazis were bad. We know exactly why it’s shocking and threatening to our sensibilities to see someone paint a swastika on themselves. When Hoest, adorned with a swastika on his chest, shows himself to the world, he does not ask any questions about what we value or the origins of our aesthetic and moral sensibilities. He is using the symbol to shock, and nothing else. There is no meaning behind the transgression.
This use of a swastika becomes especially problematic considering Taake’s endorsement of various forms of bigotry in the past, which ranges from the tacit to the active. We are, after all, talking about Hoest, the same musician who wore an Iron Cross (another piece of Nazi regalia) and a shirt with a “No Muslims” sign on it during a performance, and who called the owner of a venue who cancelled their performance an “untermensch” – a term used by the Nazis for those who they wanted to exterminate – and, in the same sentence, told him to “go suck a Muslim.” Sure, Hoest may not be a Nazi in name, but it’s hard to look at his repeated endorsements of Nazism with what he wears and his blatant hatred for Muslims and not feel as though he is, perhaps, closer to agreeing with them than not. With all that in mind – the worthlessness of their transgression and their other bigoted tendencies – it’s not hard to see the justification for venues refusing to let Taake perform.
But even without bringing that into the picture, Taake has absolutely no right to be upset that their tour has been cancelled. Assuming the mantle of the provocateur is always a double-edged sword; when you provoke people you will inherently run the risk of backlash. Part and parcel with being transgressive is upsetting people, and herein lies the reason that Taake themselves have no reason to feel as though the cancellation of their tour is unjustified. The phrase “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” comes to mind here. You can’t do something specifically to get a rise out of people and then get upset yourself when people are (rightly, I might add) provoked by what you’ve done.
A big part of being a mature adult is realizing that your actions have consequences. There is nothing you can do in this life that will not ripple outwards in some way, shape, or form. What that means is that you always have to pay the price for your actions, and in Taake’s case, that means accepting the consequences of adorning themselves in symbols of bigotry and white pride, whether they truly believe in the messages they’re sending across or just want to make others angry. Shocking people always comes with a price, and the cancellation of their tour by those offended by their provocations is just that. And if Taake can’t accept that, they don’t deserve to be transgressive or provocateurs. More than that: they don’t want to be provocateurs. Taake’s indignant and angry reaction has proved this, too. They’re not transgressors or edgy outsider anti-heroes trying to shock people out of complacency. They’re bullies. They want to parade around symbols of hate and shove them in the face of others without any consequences.