Once again we pass the digital mic to our curmudgeon at-large and drunkest Thane of Skyrim, Matt Pathogen.
When I was but a wee lad of 16 growing up just east of the Bay Area, I was a pretty typical high school outcast: an awkward nerd, I had a hilarious bad haircut, no particularly coherent or cohesive sense of style, and all the social graces of a bag of slugs. My days were committed to sitting through errant harassment by the sports-oriented cliques of my high school, battling the most skilled pilots the Kilrathi could muster to stand against me in Wing Commander III, and being seized by anxiety attacks when girls talked to me. In other words, I was a prime candidate for becoming a fan of industrial music. As is oddly common to people who got into industrial around the same time as I, the big introduction I got was in the form of the revered Mortal Kombat Soundtrack. If you find this funny, you’re in good company, because so do I. However, when you were a teenager in the ‘90s and just didn’t dig the downward slope of grunge, the rise of neutral “alternative” rock like Everclear or the antics of proto-bling hip-hop, your work was cut out for you in terms of finding palatable music. For many of us, finding KMFDM, Sister Machine Gun, Bile and Gravity Kills on one CD was a gateway to a whole new world of aggressive music that really, really got us excited.
In the spirit of this discovery, when the local ragtag assortment of weird kids I hung out with announced their intentions to visit The City to see KMFDM, I was worked into a tizzy almost immediately. I’d never gone to San Francisco before! I was going on an adventure! I was going to see a show! IT WAS GOING TO BE SO COOL. And lo, cool is what it was. I drove up with a handful of people who graciously tolerated my extreme social awkwardness, hung out in the Haight Ashbury area and drank fancy coffee, and eventually ended up at the Warfield to see the show. Mind you, this was not just a KMFDM show: this was them at the height of their career, supporting the Symbols album that featured a heavy load of collaborations that translated into a stage full of luminaries. For an impressionable lad of meager years, the likes of Nivek Ogre, Raymond Watts and the entire KMFDM crew strutting across the stage in full gearhead regalia was awe-inspiring. Plus, far from my usual daily experience of low-level hostility and social ostracism, I actually felt right at home within the crowd of screaming fans, bedecked in Doc Martens, leather jackets, German tanker goggles and spikes. Oh, was I hooked.
Fourteen years later, when the Wax Trax! Retrospectacle was organized in Chicago to commemorate the achievements of that storied record label, I knew I had no excuse to not go. Having long since parted ways with KMFDM proper, several ex-members were taking the stage in a lineup quite close to that very show I’d gone to fourteen years ago, this time joined by bands such as Front 242 and a similarly reconstructed semi-RevCo. The show was magnificent, to be sure, but for me the most stirring moment of it was when a few die-hard Wax Trax! fans from the very early days of the label were brought onstage to tell their story. One of these speakers had been gay teenager growing up in the conservative South, scared to admit who he was to his peers and neighbors. This man escaped his emotionally oppressive homeland for a road trip to Chicago for a show one day, where he experienced a scenario I couldn’t help but relate to: after years of being made to feel unwelcome simply due to who he was, he experienced an openness and solidarity that made him reevaluate how he thought about himself and turned him into a lifelong industrial music fan.
Over the past few months, a great deal of soul-searching and argumentation has gone on in the industrial community. I’ve been happy to engage in a great deal of it myself. However, every so often during these rhetorical outbursts I’ve been asked why I even care this much. Well, let me tell you another story: a few months ago I saw one of my favorite bands in the world, Firewater, play in Chicago. The show was fantastic. The crowd was not. It was laden with frat boys and broski assholes that sexually harassed a large number of the female concertgoers around them, unapologetically and with an air of smirking entitlement that I had partially forgotten existed. One of a bunch of guys who had been harassing a group of girls next to them all night violently shoved a girl backwards when she declined his advances. Later, one of the girls from that beleaguered group was invited onstage, only (to the band’s horror) to be ground against by a drunken lout who’d also clambered up.
I felt awful for the two girls, because that probably happens a lot: they and their friends will go out to some show or club, looking to listen to some music and have a good time, and some mixed bag of assholes will come along and ruin it for them. I felt awful for the band, as they clearly weren’t happy with the sloppy mess that had resulted from them welcoming fans onto the stage with them. Ultimately, I felt awful because it’s the year 2012 and there is still an enormous and disturbing amount of people out there perfectly willing to debase others, to deny them their personhood, and to treat them purely as objects that exist to satisfy their own shallow, selfish desires.
One of the talking points that comes up during the long-running debate about the current social state of the industrial scene is that most of its events are conspicuously free of this kind of meathead bullshit. However, one of the things that this scene does a little too well is insist on isolating itself from the mainstream culture it rails against. This kind of cultural tunnel vision makes it difficult to identify when the nasty parts of the culture it claims to reject creep in. We as a group might pride ourselves on being radically inclusive, of welcoming the weirdos, the freaks, the outcasts and the ostracized, but there’s a side of that coin which often goes ignored: with that kind of radical inclusiveness, you’ve also left the doors open to people who will prey upon those weirdos, freaks, outcasts and ostracized folks you’re happy to let in. By sticking your head in the sand and assuming that the egalitarian state of the industrial scene will continue to exist without any care and handling on any of our parts, you blind yourself to the encroachment of the racism, sexism, classism, and any other ism that mainstream culture has to offer, rendering yourself unprepared to deal with this onslaught until it’s already on your doorstep, calling your gay friends faggots and your female friends dumb sluts.
This is the essence of why we fight: because we know that industrial culture can make a difference and be a safe place for people, and while it certainly can never be free of the hate, fear and oppression that our society at large deals in, it can at least strive to be considerably further towards the progressive end of the scale. For those of us who know what it feels like to actually have your life turned around for the better at least partially because you fell in love with industrial music and became loyal members of the industrial scene, yeah, it’s hard to remain emotionally neutral when you’re presented with imagery that’s substantively identical to Insane Clown Posse’s creative output and as devoid of intellectual merit or forethought. It’s hard to not take it personally when, upon objecting to this content, you are accused of being a member of an “old school elite,” or being a purveyor of “politically correct fascism,” or any other of a number of baseless accusations made by people for whom abstract thought is the enemy. So, instead of going on at length yet again about why these people are so wrong, I figured I’d lay it out as to why we’re not going anywhere.
Here’s the deal: we fight because we believe in something. That something is a scene where people don’t get shoved into little boxes with descriptions of their roles in it spelled out for them against their will. Feel free to call us the thought police; we’ve been called that, and worse, all our lives, because that’s just what we get called when people who only want to think about themselves are confronted with the stark reality that they and their yea-sayers aren’t the center of the universe. Feel free to complain that your right to free speech or free expression is being impeded upon when you’re criticized for your words, images and actions, because anybody with a lick of common sense understands that free speech doesn’t mean you’re immune to being called out when you say something stupid, disgusting or hateful, and perpetuating that idea only means you’re revealing the extent of your ignorance. Try whatever you want, but know that you’ll fail, because you’re fighting for the absence of content, the invalidation of meaning, and when you get right down to it, nihilism and apathy just aren’t particularly stirring battle cries.
I hope this spells out the answer to the question of why we seem to care so much. We care because we want the same opportunity for people to find themselves and become comfortable with who they are that the industrial community offered us. For the nerdy high schooler, the gay kid growing up in the South, the girl who just wants to have a fun time with her friends, and even for people who disagree with everything we stand for, we want the freedom to decide to what extent and for what purpose your involvement in the scene is on your own, not for it to be dictated to you by egomaniacs out to satisfy themselves at the expense of the humanity of others. We know that this freedom is attainable, because we tasted it and it was damn good, and we know that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We fight because that’s what it takes. Don’t expect us to go anywhere anytime soon.