Back in 2008, I wrote a piece for Coilhouse on the heavy metal subcultures in the Middle East, and the amazing bravery of the young people participating in them. It was a trend that
As the protests, uprisings and revolutions have rocked that region this year, I wondered what happened to those same metalheads. It was their generation, after all, that forms the core of the protests, and given their fire for a different world, I figured many had to be involved.
In this piece from the Atlantic, I found my answer, or at least part of it:
MANY MEN HAVE psyched themselves up for war by listening to rock and roll or heavy metal. But how many have sung Pink Floyd’s “Mother” within earshot of the enemy in the dead of night? “When it got really quiet, we’d play guitar and sing ‘Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?’” said Abdulfatah Shaka, 22, his rocket-propelled-grenade launcher at his side. “The snipers would get furious and start shooting everywhere.”
Less than three months earlier, Shaka was an engineering student who had never even held a gun. Bassam Essraity, a handsome 23-year-old with gelled hair and a trim beard, who now sat opposite him cradling a Belgian-made assault rifle, was doing media studies. They would play guitar together, jamming on the beach or hanging out in parking lots at night in their cars, doors open, drinking strong coffee or bottles of non-alcoholic beer.
After asking me to sit on his left—firing RPGs had destroyed the hearing in his right ear—Shaka explained that his introduction to pop and rock, and to the English language, came via the Backstreet Boys. As he learned to play the guitar, and broadened his musical horizons through Internet downloads, his taste grew more refined. “Neil Young, Metallica, and Pink Floyd, especially Dark Side of the Moon,” he said. “Iron Maiden and Nirvana too,” Essraity added. “We were just young guys enjoying music, dreaming of freedom.”
Then, in the third week of February, the revolution began. Shaka stuck close to his uncle, who had fought in Libya’s war with Chad in the 1980s. His uncle grabbed an RPG launcher when Misurata’s armory was overrun. After blasting two of Qaddafi’s tanks, he was shot dead. His weapon, still stained with blood, was handed to Shaka. Essraity, whose house had been hit by a tank shell, joined him on the front line, as did Hazim “Haz” Bozaid, a powerfully built 29-year-old with a goatee, a stocking on his head, and a black Sepultura T-shirt. An import manager, he was also the lead vocalist and guitarist in a local thrash and death-metal band called Acacus. “I was inspired by Megadeth, Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, Chuck Schuldiner’s Death, that sort of stuff. It was not easy to find in Libya, so if you got something on tape, you guarded it like gold,” he told me.
The whole piece is emotionally wrenching, to say the least, and I was on the verge of tears by the finale.
Here's a country under the control of a psychopath for decades, with a radically different culture. But music is still music and humans are still human. It's spread past its original borders to something far more univesal. I don't know of any more potent symbol of a Breaking Time at its bravest than Libyan rebels goading a tyrant's snipers with Mother do you think they'll like this song? Another world is coming, bastards.
For the Heavy Metal East, it was just about living their lives and finding some expression for what they felt. But it wasn't that easy. The music was banned, but they listened to it anyway, and made their own. They wore the shirts and threw the horns, even if it meant a beating or jail. When they wanted their tyrants gone, they protested. When it was clear that wasn't enough, they picked up weapons and fought.
And here they are, a long long way from their smuggled tapes and garage bands, in a besieged, desperate city, many of their friends already dead, fighting. Singing "Mother" to taunt the snipers and "Wish you were here," well, just because.
Now, with Tripoli Street liberated, Shaka and his men were enjoying a day of rest before heading off to battle elsewhere. Bozaid talked about the metal festival he wanted to stage when Qaddafi was finally defeated. “It’s my dream—Hazfest,” he said. “It’s going to come true, if I’m still alive.”
I hope it will. The world, that world, is a fine place, and worth fighting for.
I'm a little late on this, but the above is DJ Earworm's United States of Pop 2008, a fascinating and beautiful mashup of Billboard's Top 25 songs from last year. It sparked off an equally fascinating Coilhouse discussion about the "legofication of pop music."
Not all cultural breakdown is bad. There is a growing mixing and matching with music that manages to take the slick but meager offerings of pop music and spin gold out of shit. Hell, sometimes this results in interesting hybrids out of songs that were already really good. Well, there's no Leonard Cohen/Pixies /Clash mashups yet, but a man can dream.
This is one area where a more globalized (but rapidly fracturing) world offers some unparalleled opportunities. An enterprising artist, writer, musician, thinker no longer has just a limited canon or a few schools of thought to choose between. There are now countless influences available and many, many more cultures open to draw strength from. The resulting hybrids (pure things are weak) can grow surprisingly quickly.
This is a good thing. Why then, do we have such block-like music?
To some degree that's a beast for another day. Because, like most things worth talking about, there isn't one single cause.
Keep in mind "pop" means popular and, as social animals, people get swept up very, very easily in prevailing trends. This is often deplored, but a better approach is to understand and find ways to use it. This is something would-be futurists, being from an intellectual background, usually ignore. That doesn't just apply to music.
In music, however, I'd wager that if you went back to 1998, or 1988 or (heaven forfend) 1978 and got an innovative artist to mash up the top 25 you'd get a similar transcendently terrifying mass-marketed "Om." I'd also bet that most of those songs are now nigh-forgotten.
In fact, no need to wager. Look at it: how many of those tunes are remembered today? Okay, one of them will not die. Ever. But most of the rest are forgotten. The memorable music from 1988 was down the charts or not there at all.
This distilled mirror of a year in pop-mind also shows us something fascinating. Perhaps it's simply staring and listening a little too long, but one doesn't have to know a thing about the events of 2008 to hear the plaintive, shivering yearning for an easier time that runs through the Year in Pop.
So let's not weep and gnash too much, hm? Because that song is old as time. Be glad that audionauts like DJ Earworm are making something good out of the inevitable, forgettable dreck of our era.