The only good idol is a breakable idol

I was standing in an un-air-conditioned room with two people who wouldn’t stop making out blocking my view, one of whom smelled kind of funny. I had tried to buy a T-shirt, but the merch girl was out of those, so I bought a long-sleeved shirt instead, which made me sweat like a pig the moment I put it on. On the stage below me, a band I didn’t know was playing a song I’d never heard and the drums were so overpowering it was impossible to hear the melody.

Three hours later I was screaming myself hoarse and considering physically fighting a guy for a used drumstick (spoiler alert: I didn’t). And it occurred to me that this kind of thing is the closest I’ve come to a religious experience.

It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a casual metal fan, and I agree. It’s either your habit or it’s not. You either get it or you don’t. This frequently-angry, sometimes-depressive, often-nihilistic, always-weird form of music is, in various measures, a primary thing that keeps me happy and empowered and positive and optimistic. I can’t explain it and I’ve given up trying.

I love it.

And then shit like this happens.

In this case, the band in question is not one I’m a fan of (thankfully, no one in a band I like had tried to kill anyone yet, that I know of).

Reaction from metal musicians has been generally cautious and staid: consensus is “we’re shocked at these allegations, but we’ll let the justice system take its course.” Reaction from fans of the band has been mostly the same, but social media being what it is, some festering froth still manages to rise to the top. Here is a good round-up.

I know those comments aren’t the norm, but it’s a rather dismaying amount of victim-blaming and hate toward someone who doesn’t appear to be guilty of much beyond making another person mad.

I understand where that reaction comes from, though—no one likes to see an idol fall, and no one wants someone associated with their community label (in this case, “metalhead”) to have done something awful, and instinct is to circle the wagons. But let’s see what that instinct actually accomplishes.

Here, I propose a thought experiment: read the MetalSucks article above, but wherever it refers to “As I Lay Dying singer Tim Lambesis”/”tried to have his wife killed” substitute one of the following pairs:

  • “Evangelical preacher Ted Haggard”/”did meth and had sex with a male prostitute.”
  • “Islamic television preacher Fayhan al-Ghamdi”/”raped and beat his five-year-old daughter”
  • “Pope Benedict XVI”/”conspired to cover up rampant sexual abuse of minors”

Now let’s look at statements made by associates/friends/fans of the above religious figures:

Regarding Haggard:

“Ted Haggard is a friend of mine, and it appears someone is trying to damage his reputation as a way of influencing the outcome of Tuesday’s election — especially the vote on Colorado’s marriage-protection amendment, which Ted strongly supports,” [Focus On the Family leader James] Dobson said.

In defense of Benedict:

“That some newspapers are now using terrible cases to attack the pope head-on is something that goes beyond every limit of justice and fairness,” [German Cardinal Walter Kasper] said.

In the al-Ghamdi case:

The judge ruled that the “blood money and the time the defendant had served in prison since Lama’s death suffices as punishment,” activists reported.

I’ll grant that the language of your average metal fan is a bit more base and direct than that of your average evangelist, politician, or priest, but the sentiment is effectively the same: those who were hurt had it coming, and you’re the villain if you make a big deal about it. It’s probably no coincidence that the word “fan” comes from “fanatic.”

Religious leaders, however, are a privileged group, unlike “specific-taste-in-music-havers.” “I sinned, but it’s okay because I have God” carries a lot more currency than “I sinned, but it’s okay because I have heavy metal.” All those people above used their authority and supposed godliness to ameliorate their punishment, halt their fall from grace or to recover their standing, to “get right with God,” or get even richer and more influential.

But why should we circle the wagons around any of these people? Celebrity alone is a powerful force—it can go to your head and make you think you’re untouchable. If a musician won’t escape the consequences of their actions, why should a cleric or a pope? Why should crimes by a religious leader differ from crimes committed by any other figure with a devoted group of fans?

A concert and a revival have a lot in common; they’re both events where people are drummed up to behave in crazy ways because someone they look up to asks them to. I think back to the concert I attended recently, which was in the small upstairs room of a club. Here’s a photo of the stage:


It’s kind of hard to see from the picture, but it’s the kind of place music journalists like to call “intimate” There was no space between the crowd and the stage. The singers of the bands could have reached out and touched the audience if they wanted, and often did.

An image sticks in my mind, of the lead singer of the band I went to see, mid-chorus, reaching out a hand and laying it on the sweaty head of a breathless young guy in the front row. The guy looked up to the ceiling, and from the expression on his face, you would be forgiven for thinking he was about to be raptured. I’ve never been to a religious revival, but I imagine it’s something like this.

It’s a metal show. We, the crowd, become possessed by a spirit we’d never display in the outside world, shoving each other and thrashing around. We scream at the top of our lungs words we didn’t write in inhuman voices and barely recognizable tongues. When the band members jump into our arms, we carry them over our heads. We fight over the used sticks, picks, and detritus they throw our way at the end. Those lucky enough to be close by struggle for the touch of an outstretched hand from the stage.


So why should laying on of hands have meaning when the hands are those of a televangelist but suddenly lose it when they belong to a large, heavily-tatooed, foul-mouthed Swedish person? If you asked most people in that room that night, they’d probably say the opposite was true.

I’d say the two gestures are fundamentally the same. A preacher or a priest is no more exalted than the singer of a metal band just because he puts God in every other word he speaks, and a revival meeting or a boisterous service is objectively no more uplifting for its attendees than something as comparatively base as a sweaty concert is for its own, except then when the concert is over, most people go home and live normally; they don’t let song lyrics guide their lives.

Celebrity is a strong shield, and when you have fans, some of those fans will have your back no matter what. But having a deity at your back is an even more powerful tool. If he forgives you, who gives a shit about the actual crimes committed, right? Getting forgiveness from those you wronged would require actual work, and might entail admitting your own breakable humanity.

Any one of your heroes might do something horrible at any minute—they’re only human, just like us. The cloak of the divine is a convenient shield and Get Out of Jail Free card for religious leaders that other celebrities and idols don’t have. It’s basically a way of suckering society into giving you a chance you may not deserve. You don’t get an imaginary friend to absolve you of crimes. You have to earn back your good name, or better yet, be aware enough to not sully it in the first place and think you can get away with it. Seeing your heroes and leaders as breakable humans is an important way to remember this. Errors are human. Forgiveness is divine. Justice is human, too.

About nkrishna

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One Response to The only good idol is a breakable idol

  1. Brian M says:

    Great post! Discovered your blog and as a metalhead myself, I appreciate where you’re coming from here.

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