Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Odd Future and extreme metal

So I guess that's a distinct way to begin an entry to a metal blog, eh? Listen to the song even if you don't listen to hip-hop, as it provides some important context for the article here. Yes, I know, you don't get this hippity-hop the kids are listening to these days. Just suffer through it for me.

Unless you've been living under a rock and have absolutely no contact with mainstream culture (which for the average person reading this blog isn't especially unlikely), you'll have heard of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, a hip-hop collective from Los Angeles who have essentially becoming the biggest thing in hip-hop overnight. Each member is an extraordinarily talented MC, producer, or both- their style is unique and potent, with a superb ear for beats and an almost unparalleled lyricism. They are unique, independent, and incredibly rough around the edges, and despite everything against them in their sound, they've captured the attention of the just-outside-mainstream crowd through superb marketing and an unbelievable level of talent considering their age.

One of the things that makes the Odd Future collective unique in today's hip-hop scene, particularly in the music made by ringleader Tyler the Creator and mysteriously vanished member Earl Sweatshirt, is the nature of the lyrics: while hardly one-dimensional, both rappers have a tendency to write about extreme violence, serial murder, rape fantasies, sexual fetishes, and other extreme, deviant behavior. The delivery of these lyrics ranges anywhere from dryly tongue-in-cheek to deadly serious, and they always seem to want to keep the listener guessing as to what they mean exactly. They make no apologies or excuses for what they write about and tend to leave it up to the listener to interpret what the purpose of them is. Given the heavily emotional nature of much of their music, though, it seems fairly obvious to me that their lyrics aren't simply shock value and also not a display of sociopathy, but a metaphorical channeling of internal pain and rage in artistic form.

This, however, is not how the public and media tend to see it. It appears that those who are interested in Odd Future, be they fans or detractors, are divided into two extremist camps: either the lyrics are an absolute joke, simply put there for shock value and humor, or they're completely authentic displays of extreme misogyny, homophobia, and misanthropy. Very little writing on the collective has explored the vast ocean of grey between those two points, which, like in most cases, is where the artists likely reside.

At this point, how Odd Future and their media treatment relates to extreme metal should be fairly obvious. The parallel is clear: Odd Future makes songs about many of the same things that extreme metal bands do, and within the same range of interpretation. People alternately dismiss the lyrics of both Odd Future and metal bands as nothing more than immature posturing, or as evidence of mental illness and a lack of morals. And of course, between Odd Future and extreme metal, the greater culture's interpretation of the lyrics tends to be complete bullshit.

Honestly, Odd Future handle these sorts of accusations much better than most metal bands. The sheer amount of apologism in major death metal bands is nothing short of disgusting, with musician after musician falling all over themselves to talk about how they're just making entertainment, an audio horror film that shouldn't be taken seriously, or even worse, somehow suggesting that they're not like all those other metal bands out there. Insecure metal musicians tend to want to make their art appear as though it's a part of the mainstream culture- if we pretend enough, then perhaps Devourment isn't too far from Lady Gaga, right?

This is entirely ludicrous and goes against the very nature of heavy metal (and especially extreme metal) as a genre and a cultural force. Metal has at no point in its history been designed to be something displayed alongside anything else in popular culture. It has never aligned itself with pop music, art, or culture, and is very clearly, from how it sounds to its lyrics to the ideology it expresses, not something for everyone. Unfortunately, metalheads tend to be an insecure lot who really just want to be accepted by anyone, so if it means obliterating all personal credibility in order to get more hugs from people they wouldn't like to begin with, well by god give them a short haircut, a boring job, and a wife who will tolerate them.

Of course, a lot of this rests on the assumption that the mainstream culture IS particularly disturbed by any of these elements. While there's a grain of truth to it, it tends to be rather overblown. Odd Future managed to become titans and get signed to Sony (or, more precisely, a subsidiary label that was created for them alone) on a foundation of rape, cocaine, suicide, and absent fathers, so I wouldn't say it's a particular stretch to think that Cannibal Corpse probably doesn't faze anyone but the most sensitive and delicate folks among us. Then again, those sensitive folks are certainly out there- most of the non-metal friends and acquaintances I have tend to view my taste in music and other art as a curious idiosyncrasy, but there are the occasional shrinking violets who simply can't comprehend why I'd want to hear an album called 'Illuminations of Vile Engorgement'.

Why is it disturbing, though? Is it because they think the musicians are actually promoting the acts they speak of? That's an idea so absurd and ridiculous it barely deserves attention. The most obvious counterargument to this is the fact that the music sounds menacing; were I to make a genuine effort to encourage people to rape, I probably wouldn't do it through inhuman gurgles, guitars tuned to A#, blast beats, and obscene cover art. I'd likely try to portray it in a nicer manner; hey kids, try out rape! It's what everyone's doing and it's a cool thing! No, I don't think anyone is encouraged to rape by Odd Future or Devourment.

The more likely and common explanation is simply that they're offended by the idea that these unpleasant things are being willfully depicted in art. Well, whatever. I honestly can't imagine being offended by something that isn't real; the sheer amount of things in reality for me to be angry and sickened by make the very idea of being angry at art seem to be remarkably self-indulgent and short-sighted. I suppose this will never change- people are always looking for something to be offended by, but they prefer that that thing be something that can't actually fight back, like a CD, a book, an idea. Anger at something real and concrete is risky; better to whine about hip-hop and metal rather than confront some of the real evils that the world sees every day.

In the end, though, this isn't truly about the usual cast of characters complaining about how they're offended by whatever we're listening to. Your mom wondering why you listen to such angry music is entirely irrelevant; you do what you do. What's more irritating and more damaging to our culture are the fans of it who can't distinguish the grey area between joke and complete seriousness. I firmly believe that most people creating any sort of extreme art reside within this grey area, and it's a shame that more can't see it.

I'm forced to use myself as an example. I write a lot of music, and I write a lot of fiction. When I write music or fiction, I tend towards writing about extremely unpleasant topics. Murder, rape, pedophilia, suicide, torture, deviant sexuality and psychology, among a whole host of other, similarly distressing things. None of what I write is a joke, because I'm not attempting to make anyone laugh through my depiction of child rape and murder, and nor am I really intending to shock, because anyone listening to my music has probably been there, done that. I'm also not trying to endorse it or suggest that it's not such a bad thing- that's totally ludicrous. It comes between those two, and that's what I think extreme, morbid lyrics are expressing: we're angry, we're depressed, we're frustrated, we don't know about our own futures, we're afraid of death, we're afraid of harm coming to our loved ones, we hate others, we hate ourselves, and we're perpetually unsure of who we are.

And you know what? Sometimes a person doesn't want to channel those sorts of feelings into something acceptable to others. In modern Western society, we're at once taught to perpetually release our emotions and also keep them bottled up inside. We're allowed to express our feelings, and we're encouraged to make our big displays of weeping and get angry and shake our fists and do any sort of broad emotional display. But only if it's sanitized and edited for those who might be made uncomfortable by how you feel. You can talk about how angry you are at an ex-girlfriend, but don't talk about how you're so angry you want to split her open with an axe. Despite the fact that every person in the world thinks about the same things, we all adhere to a code which says it's not appropriate to think or feel that way.

And so extreme art is our outlet; it's our space to scream those thoughts and feelings into the night without worrying about what others think. To be angry, to be sad, to be frustrated, to be whatever we want to be without others telling us that the way we think or feel is inappropriate. With extreme metal, hip-hop, electronic music, or whatever your style of choice is, you're offered an opportunity to express exactly what you think and feel and nothing can stop you. This is what makes the extreme so appealing to everyone: in a world where we're constantly limited by the people around us, art is the one avenue in which we can be completely authentic.

And sometimes, when you're so angry you can barely stand to look at yourself in the mirror, you don't want to 'talk about your feelings'. You just want to watch a pig die.


  1. totally agree with you about the lyrical grey area thing. its interesting that your primary point of comparison was with gore lyrics in death/grind, because i think there's another parallel too. while these kids are not really interested in raping and murdering people, they are definitely down for some serious shit. pretty sure they'd love torching churches. Odd Future cultivate their own style of aestheticized extreme behavior, so i guess i see them as having a lot in common with the early Norwegian BM bands.

  2. i think there's historically been less of a gray area in black metal. certainly not all to be taken literally, but it's concerned with bringing "fantasy" and magic into the real world, with living something that other bands had only imagined. an interesting collision of metal theatricality and punk ethos. which i'm going to write about in an essay on the difference/parallels between metal and hardcore.

  3. Yeah, I've always considered myself a brutal death and grind person intrinsically more than black metal, despite how I love that style and have listened to a ton of it. I think there's just as much philosophically to discuss in those styles, it's just that black metal is a more obviously 'deep' and philosophical style in general. I think there's a ton expressed in goregrind and brutal death and other 'low' genres that people don't bother to talk about, and I've always felt like I'm one of the few people out there trying to stand up for those styles as being relevant and real.