Every once in a while, a scandal hits the musical world which reverberates well outside of the scene it occurs in, making national news and causing widespread consternation. Judas Priest’s famous court case based on the notion that they hid satanic messages in their music; the regular claims that gangsta rap promotes criminal behaviour; the list goes on. These kinds of issues often cause the uprising of defensive fans, trying to prove that their musical preferences don’t dictate that they become menaces to society. The arguments are often very public and very drawn out. However, sometimes a scandal is so outrageous that no one in their right mind would defend its protagonist, and rather than promoting potentially healthy social debate, unanimous disgust and shame is felt by fans and critics alike. Most recently, the arrest and prosecution of Lostprophets’ frontman Ian Watkins on several charges relating to sexual abuse of minors has had swathes of post-pubescent ex-fans denouncing their long-fringed former idol, destroying CDs and cutting all connection with an artist who was pivotal in their teenage development. At moments like this, difficult questions arise. Is it morally acceptable to listen to music which is created by humans who have done atrocious things? Can their actions and their musical output be separated? And what of those who don’t so much do horrific things, but who actively promote negative ideologies, either through or separate from their music? Does listening to them mean that the listener also bows to their philosophy?
The emerging Norwegian black metal scene of the early 90s spawned many a controversial character. This is perhaps unsurprising for a genre whose purpose was to oppose society and create fear, to paraphrase Ihsahn of Emperor, one of the most important bands of the scene. Probably the most notorious musicians to stand out from this grim and frostbitten landscape was Varg Vikernes of Burzum, who is still arguably more famous for his extra-curricular activity than his music. Involved in the many church burnings which defined this fiercely anti-Christian movement, Varg went on to murder his supposed friend Øystein Aarseth (a.k.a. Euronymous of Mayhem, another hugely influential band) by stabbing him 23 times. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison, during which time he continued to produce music, and yet more has come out since his parole release in 2009. However, he has not been a stranger to controversy since then, being convicted of inciting racial hatred earlier this year after an incident involving firearms suspected for terrorism use. At various points in his life, Varg has identified as neo-nazi, racist and a backer of eugenics. A sub-genre of black metal, ‘National Socialist Black Metal’ even came into being following Varg’s introduction of these ideals to the scene. Other prominent black metal musicians such as Hellhammer of Mayhem and Gaahl of Gorgoroth have expressed similarly racist comments, and then retracted them later. Gaahl was accused of torturing a man for six hours and threatening to force him to drink his own blood. Yet all of these artists remain huge figures in the black metal scene, still selling millions of albums and (with the exception of the studio-only Burzum) performing all over the world to endless adoring fans, skirting the controversy with smart legal moves and an increased wisdom in knowing what (not) to say; but their past actions still stand, and some of their worldviews are being propagated by new generations of bands. From Behemoth to Winterfylleth, accusations both founded and unfounded still fly at modern black metal bands; and yet the masses still pump money into their enterprises.
The fact is that by purchasing music created by Varg Vikernes, you are giving Varg Vikernes money, and therefore supporting him and his lifestyle. That fact cannot be ignored and stands true for all artists. This poses a problem for fans of the frosty timbres of the black metal sound, especially when some bands (Burzum included) actually leave their members’ socio-political commentary out of the songs themselves. It might be difficult to listen to an overtly lyrically racist track with a clear conscience, but it’s certainly quite easy to listen to a song about a snowy forest which happens to be created by a neo-nazi sympathiser – and yet in some ways, the outcome is the same.
The problems don’t stop at black metal, of course. Steel Panther are currently selling millions by way of a tongue-in-cheek, parody reminder of glam rocks’ 80s heyday, and being hugely sexist in the process. Should we be allowing people to become famous for shouting misogyny under the cover of comedy and some heavy metal riffs? The consternation caused when Metallica were announced as Glastonbury headliners last year after it became known that James Hetfield was a big fan of killing bears for sport exhibits another side of this many-headed beast of an issue; if I want to see the Four Horsemen gleefully crash a mainstream festival, does that mean I want to kill bears?
The simple answer here is that there is no answer. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice to listen or not to listen to something, even though the increased publicity linked to one’s musical taste through services like last.fm and Spotify may make it difficult to keep this a private matter. Ian Watkins is a special case – he is in jail, and no amount of albums bought or listened to will get him out. It can be argued that lots of people have somewhat dodgy social views that we may not know about, and as long as they aren’t hurting anyone then perhaps we should leave them be and enjoy their art for what it is. As for those who are hurting people… Maybe just borrow those Burzum albums from your mate.