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Anselmogate – What Does The Phil Anselmo Racism Controversy Tell Us About Metal And Celebrity?

We have a think about what the recent Phil Anselmo racism controversy tells us about metal, celebrity and ‘forgivable’ scandal.

For the record, I’ve enjoyed Phil Anselmo’s music – a lot. I’ve enjoyed Down ever since I first saw them at Download Festival in 2009, and I spent my final year of university on a serious Pantera kick. ‘Bury Me In Smoke’ was my phone ringtone until very recently. If you’re reading this, you’re probably no stranger to the above video – the cautious journalist in me would say it ‘appears’ that Phil gives a ‘gesture’ similar to the Nazi salute, but that’s bullshit. We’re all grown ups here. The video shows Phil giving a Nazi salute, and screaming “white power” as loudly as possible.

The metal community has had no small share of reactions and comments since this story broke. What has been troubling is how evenly every side of this have been represented. Based on comments to articles, reaction videos and pieces such as this one it seems there are three broad groups that these seem to fall into –

  1. He’s a racist, or holds certain racist views, and used an event that celebrates the life of a departed friend and bandmate of his to air these ugly sentiments. These views have no place in polite society nor the metal community. He needs to apologise. He’s in a position where he’s a role model and should act accordingly.
  2. He’s a free American entitled to his opinion, whatever it is. Freedom of speech is a right, regardless of how offensive his opinions are to some. Those decrying him are liberal, PC-focused keyboard warriors who need to step off their soap boxes and ‘get over it’.
  3. He holds some questionable views, but so do many musicians or celebrities, or even most people. He’s a big part of the scene, he’s a good artist, so maybe we can separate his personal views from his body of work, and let it slide, or at least enjoy one whilst not giving press to the other.

Of course, there are those few undesirables who seem to agree with the views Phil seemed to express in the video, and are using this as a platform to get their own ‘white hate’ out, but we aren’t going to give those punkass morons the oxygen of further publicity.

Anselmo was, tellingly, very quiet in the immediate follow up. The original YouTuber who uploaded the video cut the initial clip short, worrying about reprisal, but has since uploaded it in full including the outburst. A few days later, which is more than enough time for the damage to have been circulated internet-wide, Anselmo published the following apology video –

In it he seems apologetic enough, asking for forgiveness and regretting his actions on that night, begging the community for ‘one more chance’. This may sound cynical, but a few things are noteworthy: he’s disabled comments for the video, which is either a sign he wants to avoid further arguments erupting, or he’s not interested in being further chastised. Also, he’s a frontman, and there’s a certain amount of performance and pantomime involved in that position. Performers play a heightened version of themselves, and arguably this can leak into the offstage versions of themselves – is he truly sorry? Is he pretending to be to salvage his career? Is he only sorry he was caught out so publicly?

And the ripples from this are slowly turning into waves. Dutch metal festival FortaRock pulled Down from their line up over the controversy. Anselmo has written a lengthier apology on his website, which includes “My band mates are now experiencing the consequences of my behavior, and I now publicly apologize to them as well. Never in my entire lifetime would I drag them down with me, and I’ve privately suggested to them that they move on without me.” This has, obviously, started the rumor mill spinning about his future in music, and the future of Down specifically. (Guitarist Pepper Keenan has said he accepts the apology).

So, if we’re going to learn from all this, let’s break it down.

Is Phil Anselmo a racist? If he is, does it really matter? – There have been murmurs about this throughout Anselmo’s career, from unsavory mid-set rants to Pantera proudly selling quite a lot of confederate flag merchandise. Is he a racist, or does he hold certain racist views? We’ll probably never be sure, unless he sits down to pen something comprehensive on his full belief system. Does it matter if he is? Yes and no.

Yes because racism is morally reprehensible, and nobody who sits in the eye of the public should be given access to far-reaching discourse or adulation if they hold such views. No because he’s already been found out by the media, and very little will change. Despite apologies and offers to step down, funding cuts for festivals he will be playing at and other festivals facing pressure to drop Down from their lineups, hardcore Anselmo/Pantera/Down/Superjoint fans will, and have, turn a blind eye and forgive.

Because we live in an age defined by celebrity. They are the most important cultural currency we possess. Metal is not immune to this. Sure, we sneer at people like the Kardashians, or Kanye, or Paris Hilton. We put metal musicians on a pedestal of artistry and integrity that, perhaps, some of them do not deserve to be on. These are the ‘characters’, the ‘icons’, invulnerable to scrutiny because of the entertainment they have provided and the credence they lend the counter-cultural world. They are the Kerry Kings, the James Hetfields, the Lemmys, and yes, the Phil Anselmos. Sharp of wit and tongue, we clutch them to our collective bosoms, and forgive them their trespasses. Anselmo has a secure enough reputation, and has also, arguably, made enough money, that even if this issue does force his retirement, his legacy will not suffer as many believe it should.

If he continues, will Down or his other projects suffer by association? Can people separate the author from the work? Not always. Although an unfair comparison, try getting a Lostprophets song played anywhere. It won’t happen. But in the case of that band, they had no idea what the one member who caused their downfall was doing. In the case of Down, the other members can clearly see what Anselmo has been accused of. Does their support of him as a bandmate and friend indicate they share his views? We can’t say. Should they cast him out or dissolve the band? Again, that isn’t our call. What we can say is, hundreds or thousands of music fans turn a blind eye to the transgressions of their idols, because they still love what they produce, without necessarily agreeing with what those people stand for. Chris Brown is still (inexplicably) massively popular. Varg Vikernes still draws in crowds, as do many black metal artists of questionably right-wing views.

In my experience, metal has always been a left-leaning space. It’s a progressive form, where counter-cultural ideas are freely shared, and anti-authoritarian views staunchly upheld. Of course there are pockets, large or small, of the right wing, those who dislike others based on race or gender or sexual orientation. Historically, metal has always been associated as the province of hetero-normative, white patriarchal masculinity. But that does not explain nor excuse Anselmo’s current behaviour. Whether he should be allowed to continue is largely irrelevant now, because like it or not, he probably will. His celebrity is too concrete. Whilst outlets such as this, and others, decry and boycott his work, the rest of the community will vote either way, with their wallets and their feet. Worryingly, this isn’t the first such controversy, and it certainly won’t be the last.

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