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Why metal fans love band drama

The last week or so has been fairly heavy in metal drama. Deicide and Broken Hope had a dust-up over each other’s alleged tour misbehavior, which has since blown over. Meanwhile, Blake Judd (of Nachtmystium)’s prison storyline came to its end with his release. Judd took the opportunity to promise atonement for his much-publicized sins and to take a pot shot at Hells Headbangers for selling the t-shirt pictured above. He also announced that he is likely to fold his band after one more album, because it has been a “catalyst for chaos” in his life.

Now, aside from Judd announcing that Nachtmystium will probably end after another album, this kind of stuff does not strike me as especially meaty news. But I covered it, as did countless other metal writers, because we knew people would read it.

Whenever you write about such subject matter, you virtually ensure that at least one commenter will take you to task for running “click bait.” (Ironically, commenting on a blog post to call it “click bait” drives more traffic to it, which reinforces the incentive to write those posts in the first place.) These storylines indeed draw a lot of hits, which is why they’re covered so aggressively. I would nonetheless dispute the “click bait” characterization, as it implies that such material is either paid content or that it appeals to the readership’s basest instincts. The Deicide / Broken Hope / Nachtmystium affairs were real news, however silly or embarrassing they may be to the participants. And while they certainly appeal to readers’ instincts, those instincts are of the complex, social variety.

Metal is a stern genre. Its fans are generally far more interested in the music itself than in the personal lives of its musicians, which is a credit to its culture. But even here, we love band drama. Why?

As with most such social phenomena, the reasons are impossible to pin down conclusively, and they probably vary a lot from person to person. But here are a few that I think are fairly widespread. It’s an incomplete list, and it’s in no particular order; feel free to add to it in the comments.

1. Schadenfreude. The metal community is deeply supportive of its favored artists, but when a musician crosses the fanbase — artistically or otherwise — too many times, we like to see them publicly punished for it. It’s an ugly impulse, but an essentially human one; people intuitively equate retribution with justice. Thus MetalSucks’s relentless coverage of people like Dave Mustaine and Ted Nugent‘s many gaffes, and thus pretty much every metal publication’s occasional laugh at Metallica’s expense. All three have lost or betrayed their fans’ faith via their artistic decisions and public behavior, and so all three are considered fair targets for schadenfreude. The same could be said for Blake Judd, who has a long purported history of scamming fans and labels.

2. It’s funny. Sometimes metal drama is sad, but it’s quite often funny, too. Musicians in general tend to take themselves very seriously, and metal musicians doubly so. When we see extremely serious people get caught up in extremely silly situations, our brains go into a fire drill of sorts that ends up producing laughter. That’s why Metalocalypse is amusing, and that’s why the image of Glen Benton and Jeremy Wagner standing toe-to-toe and bickering over who deserves the best parking space in their death metal voices is amusing too.

3. Following drama creates a sense of community. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar famously proposed that humans evolved to live in socially cohesive groups of 100-200 individuals, in which each person knows each other person and in which interpersonal relationships are effectively common knowledge. If he was right, it stands to reason that we’re wired to care about other people’s business. People like Glen Benton and Blake Judd will never be part of most of our social circles, of course. But by talking about (and passing judgment on, all too frequently) their failings, fallings-out, and foibles, we can create the interior illusion that they are — or, at least, we can create another topic of mutual interest with the metal folk we actually know. Doing so makes the metal world feel a little smaller and more personal, which people seem to like.

4. Band drama has real-life consequences for fans. Not always, of course, but sometimes. Broken Hope was kicked off the last few dates of their tour with Deicide as a result of that whole kerfuffle. Nachtmystium had to cancel their appearance at Metal Insider’s CMJ showcase when Judd went to jail. Visa issues are almost certainly the leading cause of metal-band live cancellations, followed by illness, but member misbehavior and interpersonal disputes have to be in the top 10. That means they’re worth keeping tabs on.

5. Drama humanizes musicians. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once got into a 19th-century flame war with a satirical Copenhagen weekly called The Corsair. The experience eventually led him to write a tirade against then-modernity called The Present Age (excerpted in part here, if you’re into that kind of thing). A lot of The Present Age involves Kierkegaard railing against the way that the media discourages people from achieving greatness by subjecting those who do to the cruel scrutiny of an amorphous and envious public — a process he calls “leveling.” Perhaps metal musicians are subject to leveling too.

A more charitable way of looking at the scrutiny to which we expose these musicians is that while it makes them look like assholes individually, it humanizes them as a category. The best metal bands are larger than life, and those who aren’t often try to be anyway. But people like stories, and it’s easier to relate to a man than to a god. Judging by the popularity of both band drama coverage and internet-age band overshare, modern fans don’t really want metal bands to be untouchable giants. Instead, they want bands to consist of highly skilled humans with highly human flaws — humans who bicker amongst themselves, who make terrible financial decisions, who say impolitic things, and whose musical gifts do not spare them the humiliation of saying and doing the same dumb things as the rest of us.

— Doug Moore

(via Stereogum)

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