How heavy metal music helps me understand Trump supporters

Earlier this month, Twitter blew up when an account under the name of “Thulêan Perspective” tweeted about “The Lord of the Rings” movie franchise, claiming that a “woke” version made today would have made the films much, much worse.

The tweet was ludicrous and, initially, I thought it was just the incoherent ramblings of an angry white supporter of former President Donald Trump. It fits with the usual kvetching about how a changing world means that stories might somehow look different from the ones he grew up watching as filmmaking diversifies.

He is like many white nationalists in America — but one whose work I had once admired.

Then I realized that the person tweeting it was Varg Vikernes, the infamous Norwegian black metal musician. For a while, I considered myself a fan of his, back when I was an angry teenager attending what I considered a repressive Christian high school. Vikernes founded the Norwegian black metal band Burzum, a name taken from the “Lord of the Rings” books. But he has become better known for his crimes of setting churches in Norway on fire and murdering fellow Norwegian black metal musician Euronymous of the band Mayhem, which sent him to prison.

Vikernes is also an avowed neo-Nazi who was convicted in France for inciting racial hatred. He also celebrated Trump’s victory as “not as much a victory for whites as it is a loss for the mainstream media and the established order.” These days, he seems to think Trump is a “puppet” controlled by the Jews. So in other words, he is like many white nationalists in America — but one whose work I had once admired.

Oftentimes people become disillusioned when they learn that their heroes are not all they believe they are. My feeling toward Vikernes and other white supremacist metal musicians is quite the opposite. The fact that it wasn’t an act, that he actually lives the aesthetic he adopted onstage, viscerally repulses me and makes me wonder how I could have been so ignorant to have enjoyed it.

When I texted my fellow metalhead friend from high school about Vikernes’ recent rant, it turns out we both have come to a consensus: There, but for the grace of God, go I. Growing up in suburbia made the genre’s satanic imagery seem subversive when I first discovered it. Exchanging burned CDs among friends in my Christian school library felt like trading contraband. That allure is powerful for the lonely and repressed.

My friend and I agreed that had we not found community or meaning elsewhere, we could have easily fallen under the same toxic spell of white nationalism, chauvinism and hate that Vikernes espouses. We also agreed that our time both in the metal community and at a strict conservative Christian school left us attuned to how alienated young men could trade their black T-shirts, leather and corpse paint for a red hat (or fur cap with horns) and raid the Capitol on Jan. 6. (It didn’t surprise me when Jon Schaffer, a frontman for the power metal band Iced Earth, was arrested for taking part in the insurrection.)

As my friend Kim Kelly has written, while much of metal is either apolitical or vehemently opposes racism, a loud (even by metal standards) minority of the metal community openly espouses white nationalism and adopts some of the symbolism from Nazism and fascism. When Holden Matthews, a young white man who pleaded guilty to burning down historically Black churches in Louisiana, said he set the fires to boost his black metal brand. The fact that he thought that committing acts of arson would be better for his band than actually practicing his instrument or perfecting his songwriting shows how deeply seeded black metal’s white nationalist problem is.

Similarly, it shows how easily groups can radicalize alienated young white men in ways that are similar to, for example, the “alt-right,” which, like black metal, largely focuses on elevating the status of white men who feel like their identity is being trampled upon.

It seemed like a natural evolution given that the music we love focuses on exclusion — namely what is “brutal” and “metal” enough.

When I saw old friends who I knew from my heavy metal high school days sway from hard-left to hard-right during the Trump years, I wasn’t entirely surprised. It seemed like a natural evolution given that the music we love focuses on exclusion — namely what is “brutal” and “metal” enough. That attitude can easily be turned toward excluding women, people of color and any other identities.

It’s why I am grateful that growing up, I had tethers to reality and to the larger world around me. Through civic organizations like the Boy Scouts, I learned how to be part of something bigger than myself. Through mentors like my guitar teacher-turned-best friend — who loved a bevy of genres like blues, jazz, country and classical, and turned me on to left-wing politics — that I learned not to be so narrow-minded in what I listened to and how to add different colors to my musical painter’s palette. Seeing my mom working long hours to make ends meet, I developed empathy and my lasting solidarity with workers.

All of those ties kept me from becoming an entitled twerp who could fall prey to metal’s worst impulses. But at the same time, metal isn’t doomed to be only for angry white men — at its best, it has the potential to be incredibly inclusive. Heavy metal and death metal have an incredibly large and rabid following in Latin America and among Latinos in the United States. My friend Kelly has worked to ensure hate has no home in the metal community.

And I’m happy to report that America’s first openly transgender state legislator, Virginia’s Danica Roem, is a proud metalhead — one whom I bumped into (literally, in a mosh pit) at a metal show in Silver Spring, Md.

It’s a version of the heavy metal subculture that I hope draws in more of the disaffected listeners who Vikernes once held sway over. And it’s a version that, if I may borrow from Tolkien, will always have my ax.