Editors’ Choice #2: Scared to Life
Are you afraid?
Fear binds us. Fear drives us. Fear defines us. Fear progenerates music. Fear progenerates art. And metal (as art) may very well be the music of fear itself. But the question of whether metal truly frightens us is deeper still. Of what are we afraid, exactly? Why do we so gleefully and joyfully connect with the music of the macabre, the tunes of terror? Are we celebrating death (humanity's profoundest fear), pedestaling it, or trying to destroy it? We're all destined to succumb to solemn and solitary silence -- are we engaging in Pure Irony by consuming that which creatively illustrates our definitive demise? An anxious unknown births and nurtures all of our fears: uncertainty, unpredictability, improbability. These fears, in turn, help shape the individuals we end up becoming. What we do not know procures the fuel for the furious fires raging beneath our pining souls. And while we strive to live for what we think we know to be right and true in this world, an everlasting void of all knowledge and consciousness defines the wellspring of our sometimes wavering will to exist at all. For something as certain as death itself, reactionary fear makes no goddamn sense. It's something as sure as sunlight, certainly more certain than our own happenstantial existences.
In fact, some of us feel the void already, as if we we'd been born halfway there.
Our contention is this: metal is not wasted effort with respect to understanding fear, especially the fear of death. We do not simply derive genuine enjoyment from consuming the echoes of entropy; metal appreciation is not a disorder. What's more important is that we, as metalheads, come face-to-face with death every time we crank the stereo, not necessarily because we want to, but because something inside tells us we have to. Likewise, metal musicians, as artists, unabashedly make bare their relationships with death every time they lay tunage to tape, not necessarily because they want to, but because something inside tells them they have to. That's the special power of fear: that of personal obligation, not necessarily to the self, but to the self's ultimate demise. We're bound to address fear somehow; certainly, in society at large, fear cannot be wholly ignored. Death cannot be ignored. It can only be revered.
This is exactly why we have Halloween, our very public celebration of the most taboo topic of them all: your own funeral. Through the human act of illustrative recreation -- we could even call it "play" -- we tease out the subtle nuances of our relationship with death, perhaps to aid our understanding of it, or perhaps to lubricate our sometimes tumultuous relationship with it. The partying and costumes act as an intermediary layer between our lives and our ends, ditto sick riffing and deft wailing on metal records. These things, as aesthetically pleasing as they are, function as throughputs for mental energy normally assigned to maintaining life. On Halloween, we redirect that energy entirely; when listening to metal, we redirect that energy entirely also. There an intensely fitting dark humor to the holiday nature of Halloween, and the same could be said for metal. Yet, seemingly conversely, it keeps us alive, and sometimes makes us feel more alive than we've ever felt before.
That's the magic of metal. It's the same as Halloween's dark and mysterious magic (once you strip away any consumerist trappings). By connecting with that which haunts us -- more importantly, sharing that connection with others -- we discover a type of solace much richer and realer than other forms. It's a solace lined with our own coagulated blood, constructed from our own decaying skeletons, woven from sinews of our own rotting bodies. It's something entirely personal while at the same time universally relatable. To illustrate death is to illuminate life, which is the process of death anyway. It bequeaths a shared understanding between many suffering souls who are each undertaking their own individual trials of tribulation and terror. Metal acts as that critical point of connection on a topic so irrevocably personal and therefore inexplicable. Metal may well be a language of death, then, and instead of simply succumbing to its almighty decree, we first learn and then utilize that language to speak to one another in detail about death's throes and terrifying inevitability.
Not all of us fear dying. That's not the point, and fear does not necessarily equal or result in the sensation of fright. Anyone who's thought deeply about what might follow the bitter end knows that whatever determination we arrive at will have a profound impact on the way we lead the remainder of our lives. That profundity is what we're after. Halloween, incidentally, offers us a viable channel to share those conclusions, symbolically of course. Metal does as well, only that metal is not confined to one day of the year or certain parts of the world. Metal is permanent but ever-shifting, global but local, infinite but ultimately limited to how much of it you can consume before silence reigns forever.
What makes music scary?
I wrote about creepy music a year ago today, and a friend sent me a brief message:
"Music isn't scary."
Even so, it is to me... but what does it mean?
I had to think about that for a while. I had always loved the unsettling, over-the-top nature of music meant to be distressing. Something about fear, or at least the stimuli which come from fear -- hair standing on end, shivers, and so on -- were so visceral, so true, that it became addicting.
I wrote a paper about emotion and music in the requisite Introduction to Psychology course everyone takes in their first year of college. Instead of trying to diagnose each and every person in my life, I, of course, wanted to dig into what we felt when we listened to music. In a very demystifying, depersonalizing manner, I learned about the miracle of the amygdala and how, as a means of survival, we developed emotions to decipher situations on a one-by-one basis. I learned that emotion is relative, and we relate our emotions and experiences to our listening habits. Simply put: we can find joy in terrifying things, just like how people can find sorrow in joy, and so on.
But you knew that, we listen to -- and love -- metal. People find it terrifying, off-putting, cartoonish. Heshers and horror movies galore, the uninitiated, for lack of a better, less condescending word, associate the sounds of metal with strife, leather, and violence. Again, we know this is different. After all, we find joy in these things without the horror, instead searching for magic.
I enjoyed writing that paper, but it sucked. I didn't like thinking about emotions like that -- something utilitarian. It explained a lot about relativity and why we each find things enjoyable on their own terms, but it took that magic away. I recalled the famous Nietzsche quote, "Without music, life would be meaningless," which offered some comfort, but to what degree? Meaningfulness is one thing, but the lifting of the veil in the way we understand and consume music, this thing we love, was terrifying in its own right. Do I really enjoy what I enjoy, or was this something nurtured?
Another quote brought clarity:
We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences -- be they positive or negative -- make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow.
B.J. Neblett definitely didn't have the emotional influence of metal, or any other style of music for that matter, in mind when he penned this quote. We are absolutely the sum of what we experienced, and what we know shapes what we enjoy. We know why we like things almost exactly -- we like things because we can relate to them on some primal level. That gut feeling which comes from hearing something wonderful comes from our own past and how it shaped us. It is our own emotional upbringing, our brokenness.
So, what makes music scary? At the risk of sounding contrived, we do. It is the totality of our experience which shapes how we react to and consume art. We all find beauty in horror and happiness in being terrified. It's kind of beautiful. In short, go listen to something really fucked up if it makes you happy. I know I will. Enjoy your Halloween.
I am afraid.
No metal frightens me; rather, metal translates my existing fears into a language I can actually understand and therefore synthesize. Raw emotional input, for me, always results in indecipherable brain fuzz and profuse sweating -- fear is disorienting and body-displacing in all of its terrible power. Metal bypasses these effects for something much more amenable: the sensation of triumph not over fear itself but rather the mental anguish it causes. It's more than mere relief, though; consuming metal (and writing about it) is ultimately a meaning-making process whereby I discover new truths about what dwells in the cavernous depths of my psyche.
But are there wicked monsters there? What if metal destroys me by revealing too much? How tight should my grip be on the fabrications which metal so effortlessly and beautifully obliterates? That's what I'm afraid of: not metal as my music, but metal as my identity. Metal's incredible power to alleviate my fears of death could, in turn, catalyze an intense fear of life -- imagine a Halloween which begins normally but fails to end, locking you indefinitely in an endless spiral away from the reality of existence toward the surreality of absence. I've found unusual comfort in experiencing the void through metal's trademarks: darkness, heaviness, extremity. I never want to go back, but the path ahead is echoless and shadowed in the pitchest of blacks.
I have no choice but to trust that metal's endgame for me will not involve complete self-annihilation. The only assurance I have comes from this all-important lesson that metal has taught since its inception (this, incidentally, also applies to Halloween): ugliness is beautiful. There's immense rapture to be uncovered in albums so viscerally vile as Reclusive Blasphemy, for instance, and repeat listens only increase the effect. Likewise, there's harrowing beauty inherent in a life rife with existential dirge despite any challenges; double likewise, there's something gorgeous about the grotesqueness involved in today's holiday. The point is to feel, and beauty can do that just as well as anything else.
The awe I feel in the midst of metal so downright pretty compares to few other feelings, honestly. And if anything, that should be my guide forward, not just simply relief from my fears. The same goes for Halloween: where many see the anti-humanity of the macabre, the gruesomeness of horror, and the purposelessness of suffering (all representational), some will find incredible meaning in symbolic horror. There actually is a reason to celebrate, despite how uncouth it might sound given the subject matter. This Halloween, don't run from your fears; instead, soak up all that is ghastly and terrifying as art itself.
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