Which Genre of Music is the Most Libertarian?
Some people minimize their exposure to music, either to reduce the effects of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), or due to a lack of interest. Others have no choice in the matter. Counter to the idea of thought-control through repetitive lyrics, some forms of Islam permit vocal music (halal), while instruments are forbidden (haram). Various countries, like Islamic regimes and the fascistic regimes of 20th century Japan took this a step further with legislated dancing bans. Such bans may have had good intentions behind them, but they are authoritarian in nature. In these environments, it is only natural for people to seek the opposite of that which they are permitted to hear and enjoy. This leaves one to wonder: is there a musical genre that is most conducive to the ideas of liberty?
The Heavy Metal Hypothesis
Libertarians who are also metalheads have expressed that heavy metal is one of the most compatible genres with the ideas of liberty. In 2017, Mason Mohon of 71 Republic explored heavy metal as a revolt against the status quo. In his article, Mohon asserted that the genre “seems to appeal in a few ways to the anti-government crowd” with lyrics that reflect anti-government and anti-authoritarian ideas. Mohon also suggested that contrary to popular beliefs, heavy metal music does not have a violent message or outcome, which would be incompatible with the Non-Aggression Principle of libertarian philosophy. Was he right?
Heavy Metal and the Status Quo of Music
We put together a round table of libertarian metalheads to explore this idea, including an author, a college professor, and a political strategist. Though their backgrounds are vastly different, they all agreed that heavy metal began as a break from the status quo.
Most popular songs we hear on the radio today are written by two men who use a formula that is known to have mass appeal, outlined in The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. The most obvious formulaic component of top songs today is the Millennial Whoop.
Formulaic music is nothing new. Over the past 50 years, themes fell into a small subset of categories. For example, hip hop songs tend to focus on sex, partying, dancing, drug use, and wealth. Further, most popular songs also recycle many of the same words. In the Millennium these words include: quantity, baby, girl, way, man, time, good, n*gga, love, and boy. Is heavy metal different?
H.A. Larson seems to think so. As a music columnist for Slime and Grime, she said that this is especially true in the Millennium, where heavy metal offshoots like grindcore, a fusion of heavy metal and punk, have a deep anti-authoritarian and anti-status quo message.
Dr. Mathias Nordvig, an expert in Nordic mythology agreed. Nordvig’s academic research includes the cultural aspects of heavy metal music as it relates to Scandanavian society. He saw this as especially true for the black metal scene in Norway in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where he described it as a rejection of the establishment with libertarian messaging.
Larson suggested that the differentiator for heavy metal is that its lyrics provide a framework for understanding the universal ideas of liberty and self-determination in a non-conformist framework.
Nordvig agreed. In his view, often white, middle-class men in the 70s, 80s, and 90s wanted to step out of their conformed roles. He also addressed some conformist tropes in heavy metal music.
Some bands have rediscovered cultural and mythological themes, such as the Scandinavian band Wardruna. Chinese, Mongolian, and Mexican bands have also adapted the mythology & history of their regions to heavy metal. Though these tropes conform with local cultures, Nordvig considers them to be a libertarian response to rising conformity in heavy metal seen in the 2000s, and its crossover with hip hop & techno.
Siobhán Patricia Lynch, a libertarian political strategist whose accomplishments include an emmy award for interactive TV as reported on LPedia, summarized the nonconformity of metalheads. In her view, metalheads in the US portrayed the image of burnouts in school, who experimented with alcohol and drugs. However, many of them outgrew their experimentation and became productive members of society, adept at emotional expression while maintaining their libertarian sense of individuality and non-aggression. Heavy metal bands like Rush, going back to the late 1960s, were representative of nonconformance and stood in opposition to the status quo.
The Anarchist Aspects of Heavy Metal
There are many heavy metal songs that have an anti-government, anti-authoritarian message. Lynch cited Rush as an example, with most lyrics written by Neil Ellwood Peart, an objectivist and Ayn Rand fan. While there is a clear distinction between objectivism and most flavors of libertarianism, there is a great deal of crossover in each philosophy’s emphasis on individualism.
Lynch, Nordvig, and Larson agreed that the heavy metal community is accepting of people from all backgrounds, even those who “don’t wear black.” This acceptance has led to experimentation with anarchist tropes without fear of rejection from an already outcast community. Lynch also pointed to bands from the 80s and 90s, like Queensreich, whose message was to distrust the government, with anarchist songs like Operation Mind Crime.
Nordvig considered some heavy metal bands to be more refined and ideological than others in a personalized social context, but concluded in agreement with Lynch and Larson that bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden were consistent in their libertarian messaging. Larson cited the Judas Priest song, Breaking the Law as highly representative of anarchist thinking.
According to Nordvig, the anarchist tropes in British heavy metal were derived from the punk rock scene, with songs that also spoke to personal freedom, anarchy, and self-reliance. The UK government was airing nuclear fallout preparation infomercials at the time, when the threat of nuclear war seemed imminent.
The fear of mutually assured destruction may have led to a decline in people’s belief that the government could save them from their impending doom. It could have served as the basis for such individualistic themes in music at the time as direct responses to the nuclear scare. Lynch gave the example of Iron Maiden’s song, Two Minutes to Midnight as a reference to the (albeit unscientific) Doomsday Clock.
Bands like Metallica that have crossed over to a more mainstream appeal have also taken on anarchist themes. It’s hard to find a more libertarian sounding song than Metallica’s memorialization of the Gadsden flag in Don’t Tread on Me. Metallica’s popular song, One, was based on a mix of experiences of soldiers in Vietnam and the controversial 1938 Dalton Trumbo book, Johnny Got His Gun.
Other tracks like Disposable Heroes and Master of Puppets cement Metallica as one of the most successful anti-government, anti-war bands in history, and while the music sounds violent, the rage and anger are directed entirely at establishment politics and its advocacy for war.
The Non-Violent Nature of Violent-Sounding Music
The heavy metal genre includes numerous songs with anti-war messaging, as well as historical tropes from before the nuclear age. For example, Iron Maiden’s Run for the Hills had an anti-colonial theme.
Larson described the death metal band, Job for a Cowboy as taking this anti-war message a step further. Their song, Nourishment Through Bloodshed directly called out what they portrayed as the evils of big government with its lyrics:
The core of corruption collects its nourishment through regurgitated war and bloodshed…Nourishment Through Bloodshed, Job for a Cowboy
The ever evolving military industrial complex is bleaker than any fabricated hallucination,
Opt for change? Complicated with this two party system spinning without Traction.
Lynch cited Iron Maiden’s song, Trooper as having an anti-war, anti-violence message. She also considers thrash, and bands like Metallica and Anthrax to be the music of the skater community, with clear messages not only of nonconformance, but nonviolence.
The bugle sounds as the charge beginsTrooper, Iron Maiden
But on this battlefield no one wins
The smell of acrid smoke and horses breath
As you plunge into a certain death
Nordvig referenced our recent interview with Larry Sharpe on happiness as a foundation for libertarian thought, and suggested that metalheads often grow up into happy, productive, and nonviolent adults, despite the violent aesthetics to heavy metal music. A study on death metal appears to support this idea. The study showed through an analysis of facial expressions that death metal fans were not desensitized to violent imagery. According to Professor Bill Thompson from the Australian university, “[Death metal] fans are nice people. They’re not going to go out and hurt someone.” The study included music by Bloodbath, whose lead singer Nick Holmes said, “The lyrics are harmless fun, as the study proved.” According to the full text of the study, two groups of music fans were tested: fans of aggressive or violent music, and people who reported not being fans of such genres.
The Verdict: Is Heavy Metal Libertarian?
There is ample evidence to suggest that there are strong libertarian ideas present in a variety of heavy metal music. Though segments of the genre have evolved into conformist and formulaic themes, heavy metal has roots that include a rebellion against the status quo, anarchy, and non-violence. In this way, liberty-minded people may find value in exploring this genre, even when concerned about the hidden messages that may be ingrained into one’s psyche from playing various tunes on loop.
For a deeper dive into these ideas about libertarianism and heavy metal music, listen to this series of round-table discussions on the subject, and be sure to subscribe to our Youtube channel: