I hate it when bondage movies get in the way of my headbanging. I was listening to Emperor’s 1994 album In the Nightside Eclipse when, halfway through the song “The Burning Shadows of Silence,” my wife, sitting at her nearby desk, asked if I had seen the posts on Facebook about 50 Shades of Grey. With the movie’s release this weekend, the Internet was vibrating with commentary, so I clicked pause on Spotify.
I was listening to the Emperor album primarily for research purposes. Emperor is known as one of the preeminent purveyors of “black metal,” a sub-genre of heavy metal most associated with anti-Christian sentiment. I had read a lot about black metal but hadn’t heard much of the music. When I got a special edition of Decibel magazine for my birthday (thank you, Sean) that offered a list of the Top 100 Black Metal Albums of All Time, I figured this was a great opportunity to learn a bit about this sub-genre, so I dialed up number four on the list to give it a listen. But now my attention shifted to a movie about kinky sex.
I looked at my Facebook page and scanned the Grey-related posts. The one that grabbed my attention expressed a wish that we – America, that is – should follow Malaysia’s lead in banning the movie. If I could raise one eyebrow in a “Mr. Spock expressing consternation” fashion, it would have happened at that moment. I read the Malaysian government had decided to ban the film as it contained scenes that are “not of natural sexual content.” The assessment led me to two questions:
- What is “natural sexual content”?
- What is Malaysia’s human rights record?
I figured “natural sex” was a rather subjective term and decided not to bother with an Internet search on the topic. Instead, I googled “human rights issues in Malaysia” and found the following on the Human Rights Watch website:
A government crackdown on civil and political rights […] continued into 2015. The authorities employed the Peaceful Assembly Act both to prevent any demonstration questioning the results and to punish the organizers. In addition, the Sedition Act was used to prosecute those criticizing the government […] and for remarks the government considers derogatory toward Malaysia’s sultans or is disrespectful of Islam.
Further research pointed out that the Malaysian government barred Lamb of God, one of my favorite metal bands, from playing a gig in 2013 because they posed a threat to the morality, faith, and safety of the locals. I’m not sure I want to use Malaysia as a benchmark for the appropriate exercise of free speech.
I do understand why some people might be offended by 50 Shades of Grey. For example, I have a friend who works for an organization with a mission to eliminate sexual violence. She is not a fan of the book or movie. In fact, she doesn’t want anyone to read or see it. Based on her work, I get that, but I don’t think we should ban it.
Further, I understand why some people are deeply offended by Emperor. Their music can be inflammatory and members of the band have been imprisoned for crimes including church burnings and murder. These are not people I want to associate with. I hope it’s stating the obvious to say that I am opposed to church burning and murder. I am a fan of heavy metal music, however, and black metal bands like Emperor are important, if controversial, contributors to the genre. I don’t think black metal should be banned, no matter how awful the subject matter or the people who perform it.
I don’t take this lightly. I realize it may appear expedient for me to take an anti-censorship viewpoint as a way to justify listening to (or reading, or looking at) controversial art I happen to like. But I’ve given this a lot of thought, and here’s what I came up with…
As I said, I am opposed to sexual violence and church burning, and I support the prosecution of those who perpetrate such acts. In my opinion, those (and many other things) are deplorable behaviors. I do not, however, advocate stopping or prosecuting those who would write, make movies, or play (or listen to) music about sexual violence or church burning.
I admit, enjoying this stuff may not be harmless. It could influence some behavior. I went a little further in my Internet research, as I was curious about Norway’s official attitude towards black metal. The country experienced 50 arsons of Christian churches in the mid-1990s perpetrated by musicians and fans of black metal. Some of the churches were hundreds of years old. Heartbreaking devastation. Several people were incarcerated for the crimes. However, I can’t find any evidence that Norway tried to ban black metal music.
Outlawing artistic expression is complicated, as it requires making decisions about how to define “unnatural” sexual content, or sedition, or what constitutes a danger to morality, faith, and safety. To restrict art in that way requires drawing lines in the sand, but, in my experience, sand shifts quickly when the wind is blowing.
Instead of playing in the sand, I offer the following advice if you find yourself confronted by a controversial piece of art:
- Ignore it.
If it doesn’t appeal to you, don’t pay any attention to it. It might just go away. For example, if there weren’t so many people complaining about the movie, I don’t think I would have noticed that 50 Shades of Grey had been released. But now I’m interested, and I might even read the book, just to find out what all the hubbub is about. Which leads to step 2…
- Find out what it is.
Don’t make assumptions about it, and definitely don’t rely on Internet headlines. Get some objective information. Of course, that may require looking, listening, or reading a bit of source material. Or you can ignore it.
- Find out why it is.
If you’ve been unsuccessful in ignoring it, make some effort to discover the artist’s intent. I don’t think E.L. James is advocating “unnatural sex.” She is writing about sexual fantasy. Even though that kinky stuff exists in real life, she mostly thought it would be titillating and might sell some books. I think it’s o.k. to fantasize. For example, my wife loves the Outlander books, but she knows it’s very unlikely she will be time-warped into 18th century Scotland to cavort with hunky Scottish lairds, like the married lead character does. If a handsome Scottish laird shows up at my front door, I might ban him from my house, but the books can stay.
Rather than banning black metal, I chose to learn about it. Most of the musicians I read about in Decibel magazine seem most interested in challenging societal norms. Some are, in fact, consciously challenging religious institutions, but one would hope they could withstand a little scrutiny. The majority of black metallists are primarily interested in challenging musical conventions, and that’s what rock and roll has always been about.
For the record, I found Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse to be interesting, but not particularly exciting. I don’t think I’ll listen to the rest of their catalog, but that’s because I don’t think the music is particularly good, not because the band members are horrible people. After all, I still like Ted Nugent’s music, and I find him to be a deeply offensive person.
As my wife and I scrolled through our respective Facebook pages, she mentioned a friend’s teenage daughter who had started to read 50 Shades but decided not to finish. The girl was not offended by the subject matter. Rather, she was offended by the bad writing. Now that’s a good reason to complain.
I wonder if she’d be interested in reading a well-written memoir.