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Gwar is over? The subcultural politics of thrash metal

Gwar frontman Oderus Urungus is dead. crazy bobbles

The singer of “extraterrestrial” thrash metal band, Gwar, was found dead on the weekend. Known as Oderus Urungus, Dave Brockie founded one of contemporary metal’s most controversial groups. Spanning the 1980s to the present, Gwar encapsulate some of the subcultural politics of a genre, which remains peripheral to popular music – rendered “evil” by puritanical parents and hopelessly “uncool” by hipsters.

Metal moral panic

Gwar, which Brockie formed in Virginia in the early 1980s, generated numerous moral panics.

The band’s image is premised on transgressing the boundaries of what is considered “tasteful” in polite society. Gwar’s obsession with the scatological and taboo manifests in song names such as “Baby Dick Fuck” and stage shows featuring simulations of all manner of bodily fluids.

Gwar meet their fans. Angela Doetsch

Such antics predictably led to media outrage, and the public display of containment by concerned citizens and MPs. In 1990, the band’s British tour was cancelled after MPs decided the simulation of bestiality in the Gwar show was offensive.

The hand wringing of moral boundary keepers with regards to metal is nothing new.

As early as Black Sabbath, metal and metalheads have been associated with deviance, delinquency and, especially in America, devil worship. The 1980s panics around metal were covered in Penelope Spheeris’s documentary The Decline of Western Civilisation Part 2: The Metal Years, which features a po-faced parole officer dubbing metal as a “satanic cult” whose members required “de-metalling”.

Such panics arise from outrage over metal’s gory lyrics and imagery. The handful of crimes committed by metalheads escalates and “proves” the panic’s validity.

Most infamous was serial killer Richard Ramirez, who was arrested in 1985 for a string of gruesome murders. Ramirez wore an AC/DC cap and claimed to be inspired by one of the band’s songs, Night Prowler. News reports emphasised the cap and many drew connections between Ramirez’s music taste and his crimes.

News report about Richard Ramirez and AC/DC from 1985.

Since then, there have been the church burnings and murders committed by members of Norway’s black metal scene, and the wrongful imprisonment of the “West Memphis Three”. The case against the latter hinged partly on the trio’s love of Metallica.

At various stages of their career, the media have trotted out Gwar as an example of obscene “shock rock”.

Gwar on a 2012 episode of the Jerry Springer Show devoted to shock rock.

But their appearances on programmes such as Jerry Springer and Joan Rivers indicates more than a simple “metal is evil” paradigm.

First, they demonstrate the final phase of the moral panic: the moment when the “folk devil” is incorporated and domesticated into dominant culture. On both programmes, Brockie and his bandmates are shown to be non-threatening, articulate and even funny.

Most telling, however, is the positioning of these “monsters” (they appeared in complete costume) within the sanitised space of the studio talk show. Unlike the reports on Ramirez – who was shown alternatively menacing the streets or in court – Gwar sit comfortably with Joan and Jerry. Even their massive phallic codpieces are neutered. They flop lamely onto the upholstery.

Gwar on the Joan Rivers Show in 2006.

Alongside demonstrating the conclusion of the moral panic, Gwar’s television appearances – indeed their entire public persona – show the ambivalence of metal signifiers. That is, there is a contradiction between the monstrous presence of Gwar’s bodies, vulgar lyrics and over the top simulations of violence, and the apparent self-awareness of Brockie.

In his book, Extreme Metal, metal scholar [Keith Kahn Harris](]( challenges the popular assumption that violent imagery begets violent acts from fans and musicians by suggesting that the theatricality of metal bands such as Gwar pushes the genre into the parodic. By presenting a caricature of seriousness and a humorous lack of self-awareness, Gwar undercut the presumption that metal can be taken at face value.

On Joan Rivers, Brockie-as-Oderus apes as a deep-voiced alien puzzling over why humanity seems to want to self-destruct and his bandmate tells Rivers that their stage show is in fact “a microcosm of the human condition”. This grandiosity is, of course, coupled with their over-the-top costumes and their ridiculous physical humour (prostrating themselves to Rivers, “giving her a [literal] hand”).

Camp metal

Gwar’s media image also indicates metal’s campness. Despite the aggressive hetero-sexism in much of metal’s lyrics (Gwar included) the excessiveness of metal – its costumes, concerts and sheer volume – regularly veers into the camp.

Gwar onstage. crazybobbles

This is obvious in the theatricality of metallers right back to pop metal acts such as KISS and Twisted Sister, but it is also an important aspect of extreme metal. Gwar sit in the generic category of thrash/ gore metal. While the leather chaps and abundant phalluses clearly ride the line between machismo and camp, Gwar’s fixation on excessive male bodies also troubles a “straight” image.

The repeated presentation of the aggressively male bodies as “leaky” – spewing forth fluids onto the audience – destabilises the assumption that masculinity is solid and fixed within the hard male body.

The genre’s over-the-topness has made it difficult for metal bands to find mainstream success. But it has also deterred alternative music fans and confused music critics.

Why metal confuses hipsters and journalists

Bands like Gwar have a strong fan following but occupy an ambiguous space in broader popular music.

Gwar tour poster. Miles Tsang

The valorisation, in alternative and indie music, of lyrical sincerity and artist authenticity renders metal uncool. While for academics and music critics, metal presents an ambiguous politics.

Always hovering is the declaration that metal is apolitical, or – worse – reactionary. This was particularly the case in the 1980s, when metal was framed as the music of alienated, apathetic petit-bourgeois youth. Unlike punk – with its ham-fisted working class image and politics – metal’s politics seemed obscured by its incoherent lyrics and the apparently educated background of some its musicians and fans.

Gwar fans soak it up. Mr Ashby

Even in the coverage of Brockie’s passing we see some of this played out in references to Gwar being formed at art school. It is almost as if the only way we can pin down Gwar – and metal – is through an understanding of its transgressions as some type of “avant garde”.

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