Devil’s music

“Satanic Panic” still haunts heavy metal

On Pop

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

One tiny black and white sticker. That was what the Parents Music Resource Center eventually won in 1985 — after the congressional hearings about obscenity in pop music, after the back-and-forth about the first amendment and freedom of speech, after the women who founded the PMRC (including Tipper Gore, wife of Al) were attacked as “bored housewives” and authoritarian prudes. Just a little sticker with the words “PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT CONTENT”.

The PMRC’s 1980s crusade against lyrical filth looks, retrospectively, like one of the sillier episodes in the culture wars on both sides. The absurd naivety of the PMRC (Kandie Stroud, a journalist and a PMRC spokeswoman, spoke sorrowfully about how “it’s really changed since the days of the Beatles and Elvis”, apparently forgetting the moral panic both inspired; the borderline hysteria of their opponents (singer-songwriter John Denver compared the sticker to “Nazi book burnings”).

In the end, everyone lost. As musicians had feared, the parental advisory sticker did lead to some outlets refusing to stock the offending records, but it also acted as a badge of rebellion: eventually, some artists and labels would actively seek the sticker. Nonetheless, it had been a deadly serious battle for all involved — one that invoked the most elemental forces of good and evil. 

Lurid investigations treated the existence of America-wide Devil worship as a certainty

The inciting incident for the PMRC, according to co-founder Susan Baker, was her seven-year-old daughter demanding to know what a virgin was after listening to Madonna (never mind that this was a question a seven-year-old could just as easily have come up with from hearing Christmas carols). But mainstream pop made up only a small portion of the PMRC’s “Filthy 15”, a list of records it considered particularly objectionable. 

The majority of them were hard rock/heavy metal, and many of those were pulled up not for sex or violence, but for dabbling with the occult. Offending lyrics included “Come, come into my coven/And become Lucifer’s child” (from Danish band Merciful Fate’s “Into the Coven”), and “I drink the vomit of the priests/Make love with the dying whore/Satan, as my master incarnate/Hell, praise to the unholy host” (from Venom’s “Possessed”). 

It’s impossible to unpick the alarmism about this kind of thing from the “Satanic Panic” that raged in the 80s. Current affairs programmes ran lurid investigations which treated the existence of America-wide Devil worship as a certainty, complete with claims of ritual murders and suicides. And the most chilling part? The propaganda of hell was available in every mall in the USA: The Omen in the video store, The Exorcist in the bookshop, and heavy metal albums with inverted crosses on their sleeves.

“Satanic Panic” had bigger victims than heavy metal — the “West Memphis Three” spent 18 years in prison for the sacrificial killing of three eight-year-old boys, despite sparse physical evidence and improbable testimony extracted under pressure. The main reason they became suspects at all was an interest in wicca and the works of Stephen King. 

Still, the perception that metal was genuinely dangerous stuck. In the 1990s, one of my friends bought an album by the thrash metal band Slayer, then was forced by his mum to return it after she spotted a pentagram on the cover art. And this edge of menace was not necessarily all bad for a kind of music that teeters permanently on the edge of Hammer Horror camp. Swearing fealty to the Dark Lord and prannying about in makeup can look pretty silly if there isn’t someone to take it seriously. 

Right now, probably no one takes metal more seriously than the Polish government. In February last year, the singer of death metal band Behemoth — real name Adam Darski, but known as Nergal — found himself on the wrong end of his country’s stifling blasphemy laws after he posted a photo of himself treading on a picture of the Virgin Mary. It was his second run-in: in 2010, he was charged for desecrating a Bible on-stage. 

Nergal was exonerated in both cases, but had he been convicted, he would have faced far worse than a sticker: a fine, imprisonment and a criminal record that would have impeded his ability to tour. 

It’s very hard to twerk to. I guess the Devil just isn’t dirty enough for me

His dalliance with Satanism (choice Behemoth song titles include “O Father O Satan O Son!” and “God = Dog”) is totally serious, at least inasmuch as it’s a way to confront the Polish government’s imposition of traditional Catholicism. 

He took part in the protests against Poland’s ultra-restrictive abortion law. “Of course, I marched with all the women protesting, because we share the same fight,” he told the Telegraph. “My targets are somewhere else, but somehow we serve the same cause.” That cause is freedom, which he believes has to come with secularism. He’s also attacked radical Islam, but Christianity is his main target, because Christianity has the greatest power to oppress through the state.

After all this, I’d love it if I liked Behemoth. Regrettably, heavy metal rarely deals with the two emotions I most often seek out in music: fancying someone, and feeling heartbroken. And it’s very hard to twerk to. I guess the Devil just isn’t dirty enough for me. All the same, if you care about freedom of speech and have the slightest of interest in applying that value to music, there’s only one person you should bow down to. Hail Satan!

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