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[Adapted from a talk I gave at the MoPop Conference 2017 in Seattle today.]  

"Speaks Truth to Power Metal
Conceptual Fantasy, Cryptic Nihilism and the Abstruse Political Neutrality of Progressive Rock and Metal
November 7, 2016"  


I am kind of anti-political by nature, and I had reluctantly gotten involved in politics a little bit over the course of last year, and on November 7 I was looking desperately forward to finally beginning another long period of mostly ignoring dull but semi-functional government.  

The songs that were most distinctively popular on Spotify in the US on November 7, 2016, versus the next day, were things like this:  

"Intro From the President"
Diplo ft. Nicky Da B "Express Yourself"
Michael Jackson "We Are Here to Change the World"
USA for Africa "We Are the World"
Ricky Reed "Express Yourself"
Manic Street Preachers "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next"
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young "Ohio"  

It was a tense, but mostly optimistic day in music. Personally, I spent most of the day listening to gothic symphonic metal, because that's what I like to do when the internet is working:  

Nightwish "Wish I Had an Angel"  

The next day was a little different. The songs that were most distinctively popular on Spotify in the US on November 8, 2016, were things like this:  

YG "FDT - Pt. 2"
Mac Miller "Donald Trump"
REM "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"
The Rolling Stones "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Rae Sremmurd "Up Like Trump"
Eminem "White America"  

and way down here at #61 or something we finally get a little of this:  

Toby Keith "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue"  

I grew up in Texas, where we had school prayer in my public school and music tended to sound like this:  

Amy Grant "I Have Decided"
ZZ Top "Sharp Dressed Man"
Lynyrd Skynyrd "Sweet Home Alabama"  

But my parents met folksinging in the 60s in New Haven, so inside my house it was more like this:  

Peter, Paul and Mary "Puff, the Magic Dragon"
Pete Seeger "If I Had a Hammer"
Joan Baez "Pack Up Your Sorrows"  

In order to rebel against both of these impulses simultaneously, I hit upon this:  

Nightwish "Wish I Had an Angel"  

Except that didn't exist yet, so instead it was actually more like this:  

Rush "Trees"  

Music and fantasy and Pokemon or whatever can function as methods of escape, but "escape" is sometimes an impatient way of dismissing a slower or less direct metanarrative of attempted understanding. "The trouble with the maples, and they're quite convinced they're right...". Rush was not avoiding issues, they were attempting to rise above them. This is definitively pretentious, but it's a form of pretension I instinctively respond to: not advocacy, but analysis. What is the nature of the problem? How do different people's contexts and preconceptions lead them to different conclusions given the same facts?  

Gloryhammer "Unicorn Invasion of Dundee"  

Gloryhammer are not ignoring the social conflicts and issues of Brexit-era northern Scotland, they are trying to illuminate them by putting them into an expanded context: namely: what if, in addition to the cultural invasions of globalism and technological change, there was also an actual physical invasion of the coastal town of Dundee by zombie unicorns?  

You might contend that this is technically more apolitical than metapolitical. I might find this troublesome to contradict, given how much time I spend listening to cryptic metal in languages I don't even speak, or that nobody can understand by listening to them.  

Deathspell Omega "Wings of Predation"  

A few years ago, Brian Whitman, a music scientist who was the co-founder of the startup where I was working, did a statistical study of the political tendencies of music fans by artist. Many of his discoveries were reassuringly predictable: the artists most disproportionately liked by Democratically-inclined listeners tended to be hip hop or R&B or pop stars.  

Nicki Minaj / Rihanna "Fly"
Beyoncé "Run the World (Girls)"
Katy Perry "Wide Awake"  

Most of the artists most disproportionately liked by Republicans were more like this:  

Kenny Chesney "Drink It Up"
Jason Aldean "My Kinda Party"  

Except actual political stances by musicians clearly do register, because this pop skewed Republican:  

Kelly Clarkson "I Do Not Hook Up"  

and this country skewed Democrat:  

Dixie Chicks "Lubbock or Leave It"  

The detail that excited me, though, was that at the end of the study, almost as a footnote, Brian looked at which artists were the least predictive of their fans' political affiliations, and several of the top ones were metal bands.  

Paradise Lost "Theories From Another World"
Moonspell "Alpha Noir"  

To me as a metal fan, this naturally felt like it was probably mathematical proof of the moral and intellectual superiority of metal.  

Later our startup got acquired by Spotify, and now I have even more data, so I decided to do this study again, abstracting up from the level of individual artists to the cultural level of genres.  

Replicating statistical experiments in social science is often a thankless pit of despair and frustration, and you usually end up proving not only that the first study was wrong, but that all your data is terminally flawed to begin with, and the universe is rapidly collapsing towards the point where the only music left is either Drake, or Major Lazer remixing Drake, or algorithms generating endless choruses of excruciatingly cheerful faux-reggae by virtualized white people.  

But whatever. I have the daily listening behavior of over 100 million people, and somebody quietly slipped me the US political affiliations (or not) of about 7 million of them, and I have a map of about 1500 music genres, and apparently I have an infinite supply of computers, because when I requisition more of them nobody ever says no.  

So here are the top 24 metagenres in the US, ordered by their tendency towards political neutrality. Metal is...not quite first. But if we drill down to the top 150 or so microgenres, metal is...still not first. But if we go all the way down to the 1094 genres for which we have at least 100 fans with supposedly-known political affiliations, then there, finally, #1 is in fact melodic power metal.  

Gloryhammer "Unicorn Invasion of Dundee"  

104 fans in my sample, of whom 27 are Democrats, 26 are Republicans, and 51 are unaffiliated.  

Having successfully proven my point, I began poking around in the rest of the data. And I made it into a web application, so you can poke around in it yourself.  

The most left-leaning metagenres do seem to have a certain consistency to them: funk, soul, r&b. The most right-leaning ones: christian and modern country and classic country. At the microgenre level, the patterns are even more striking. The Democratic end has new jack swing, quiet storm, pop r&b, neo soul, latin pop.The Republican end has worship music, contemporary christian music, christian rock, christian alternative rock, redneck, modern country rock, texas country.  

And at the hyper-microgenre level, it gets kind of ridiculous. Several of the leftmost genres are not just African-American forms, but actually African: kizomba, azonto, makossa, mbalax. After that there's a parade of Afro-Caribbean and Latin forms like kompa, zouk, cumbia, merengue, boogaloo, salsa, norteno, ranchera. Pretty much any kind of American hip hop you can think of leans Democratic, as do almost all indietronic or hipster anythings. If you're conservative and you want pop music, how about some a cappella covers?  

BYU Vocal Point "Happy"  

Or performances from TV talent shows?  

Jeffery Austin "Dancing on My Own"  

So basically, with nothing but listening data, I have replicated the same insight that more or less every other statistical examination of American politics has come to, which is that we are a nation of urban liberals who are exposed to diversity in their daily lives, and rural conservatives who are exposed to church and television.  

Collectively. But it's not entirely that simple. Thank Satan. If we sort by neutrality, which I defined as a combination of tendencies both towards fans' political non-affiliation and towards balance between Democratic and Republican fans, the patterns aren't as depressingly obvious.  

The two most neutral genres with at least 100k fans in my sample are pixie and screamo. For those of you who are older than 25, pixie is basically cheerful pop punk:  

With Confidence "Voldemort"  

and screamo is basically angry pop punk:  

Blood Youth "Buying Time"  

And then there are some other kinds of pop punk and metalcore and emo, but also teen pop and viral pop. And a little farther down we start seeing electro house and EDM. The kids are not as polarized as the grown-ups. Not yet.  

And in fact, almost anywhere you look closely, you find a range. In hip-hop, hardcore and latin and east coast and west coast hip hop all lean left, but there's also Christian hip hop way on the other end, and nerdcore and horrorcore and most forms of hip hop from other non-Latin countries are much closer to neutral in their American fans' politics.  

In country, we find that the bro-ier the country form, the more Republican it leans, but alt-country leans Democrat, and alternative Americana leans way Democrat.  

And so, for me, basically, this is how I reconcile keeping my day job working on music recommendations, instead of quitting and becoming a full-time climate or diversity activist. I observe that making enemies and then trying to convert them doesn't seem to be working super well, but exposing people to difference and diversity tends to result in them becoming less intolerant and isolationist on their own, and music is one of our most powerful vectors for exposing people to bits of different cultures. Music and food. Maybe food is even better, but the towns with no Lebanese people probably don't have a lot of Lebanese restaurants, either. But if you have the internet, you can now have all the music in the world. You are not stuck in your small town. You are not stuck in your multi-cultural megacity. Having empathy for the people you think are your enemies is never trivial, but no matter how insane they seem, they always turn out to also have awesome music.  

Passion "Remember"  

Turns out, I like Christian progressive rock.  

Levante "Le mie mille me"  

I like Mexican indie pop.  

Joker ft. Ayben "Microphone Show"  

I like Turkish hip hop.  

And yeah, sometimes I still feel kind of self-conscious when it seems like a lot of people are doing this:  

Body Count "Black Hoodie"  

and I'm still playing this:  

Nightwish "Wish I Had an Angel"  

RuPaul is doing this:  

RuPaul "American"  

And I'm listening to concept albums about the Platonic solids, or the internal bureacracies of Atlantis.  

But I've come to understand, or maybe resolve, that my own goal is not to magically turn activists into analysts, or isolationists into explorers, but just to seed and cultivate and encourage and reward curiosity. "Acceptance" and "Tolerance" are kernels of empathy, but they are also still assertions of authority and privilege. Curiosity is different. Curiosity goes beyond "I tolerate you" towards realizing that other humans are not subject to your tolerance or not. The questions about Them are questions for them to answer, not you. Music can help people understand a little better how their place in the world is just another place. How their awesome musics are just a few of the many awesome musics. How the act of singing is essentially human, and how singing allows the act of listening to be inherently life-affirming, and that maybe, therefore, music is part of how we undo political division, and thus part of how humanity survives.  

Maybe power metal has actual power.  

Ayreon "Everybody Dies"  


This thing is online at everynoise.com/genrepolitics. See if it helps you.
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