Earlier this week, Digital Music News published a list of 37 "white supremacist hate bands" whose music was available on Spotify. Of those bands, 29 had been previously singled out in a 2014 report on white power music by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC); Digital Music News' Paul Resnikoff identified another eight himself, which he found with the aid of Spotify's recommendation algorithms. Within two days, most of the bands on Resnikoff's list had been removed from the service.
It's hard to argue with the removal of racist propaganda posing as art from any online outlet, but that didn't stop some people from trying anyway — and not just Breitbart. "Now that Spotify has laid out criteria for what music is offensive enough to be removed," wrote Amy X. Wang for Quartz, "will it apply the same standards to all songs in the future? Who will judge?" She went on to speculate that Guns N' Roses could be banned over their infamous 1989 song "One in a Million," with its racist, homophobic lyrics, or that one could make a case for removing N.W.A thanks to lyrics "inciting violence against race," which according to a statement Spotify gave the media this week "is not tolerated by us."
Such arguments are a canard — Guns N' Roses didn't build a career on racist rhetoric, and if you're not sure why N.W.A's "Fuck tha Police" gets a pass and Brutal Attack's "Aryan Child" does not, Google "false equivalence." Nor is this really about free speech and First Amendment rights. Brutal Attack's noxious frontman, Ken McLellan, can sing all he wants about "bankers of the Jewish fold" stealing your hard-earned, white Aryan dollars — but Spotify, a private company, has every right to decide that it doesn't wish to be a platform for him doing so.
But OK, yes, there's a big gray area here, and it's worth having a conversation about it as more and more sites start following Spotify's lead (and iTunes', which actually began removing white supremacist bands back in 2014, in response to the original SPLC report). How do you distinguish between a band that just sings about Nazis, versus a band made up of actual Nazis? Bizarre though it may seem to be having this conversation in 2017, have it we must — and hopefully the folks at Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, Pandora, Amazon and every other site and service that profits from the sale of recorded music will have it, too.
Let's start with an obvious and notorious example: Slayer's "Angel of Death," their 1986 song about Nazi physician Josef Mengele and the gruesome experiments he performed on prisoners at Auschwitz. Written by guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who collected Nazi memorabilia, the song is mostly sung from Mengele's point of view — which can make it hard to listen to, especially when singer Tom Araya tears into lyrics like "Sadist of the noblest blood, destroying without mercy/To benefit the Aryan race" with such heavy-metal gusto.
So how is a song like "Angel of Death," which is still on Spotify, any different from, say, Ad Hominem's "Auschwitz Rules," which was removed, along with the rest of their catalog? Well, first of all, Slayer doesn't return to genocidal, Aryan themes on song after song, whereas that's pretty much Ad Hominem's entire M.O. (the rest of their catalog, if you want to dignify it with that term, includes such ditties as "Go Ebola!" and "Arbeit Macht Tod"). Also, Slayer fans, for the most part, don't self-identify as Nazis, whereas Ad Hominem's fans do — at least in the relative anonymity of the YouTube comments, where they frequently big-up the French black-metal group with the white supremacist code "14/88." (Even though they're now blocked on Spotify, most of the white power bands I mention here are still readily available on YouTube — but I'm not linking to them.)
But fan bases and running themes aside, the most important distinction between "Angel of Death" and a typical song by a neo-Nazi or white supremacist band is one of intent. However unsettling or even offensive you may find Slayer's meditation on Dr. Mengele, in the end all it's doing is telling a story. And like all good storytellers, Slayer don't hit you over the head with a heavy-handed moral or message at the end. Calling Mengele "monarch to the kingdom of the dead" could be meant as either celebration or condemnation; they leave it up to the listener to decide. Nazi bands, generally speaking, don't like to traffic in such ambiguity. Here, for example, are the lyrics to the aforementioned "Auschwitz Rules":
The spectre of Auschwitz is haunting your minds
It didn't forgot you were born to suffer
And we, ruling over your insipid lives,
We'll raise our weapons and you will return to the past
Where Slayer use Auschwitz as a history lesson, Ad Hominem use it as the setup to a not very thinly veiled threat. Plenty of other white power bands are even less subtle — their songs are blunt calls to racist action. Here are the lyrics to the first two verses of "Superiority" from White Knuckle Driver (whom I keep accidentally calling "White Knuckle Dragger"), a hardcore band from our own backyard, Orange County:
Our forefathers fought for you and me
Spilled their blood for a white country
Now that we’ve lost our grasp on this land
Our country sits in the palm of Jewish hands ...
Will we let them take over this place?
We’re supposed to be the master race
How can we let them bring us to our knees?
It’s time to rise and destroy our enemies
Amazingly, when I started writing this on Friday, five days after Digital Music News published its list, Spotify still had not removed White Knuckle Driver's catalog. But CD Baby had, replacing their page with a delightfully irreverent error graphic that I bet sent White Knuckle Driver into paroxysms of Aryan outrage. And by Saturday morning, someone at Spotify had apparently finally gotten around to looking up the lyrics to "Superiority." (It's perhaps not coincidence that many white power bands opt for extreme metal and hardcore punk, with their guttural, hard-to-decipher vocals, as the genres with which to spread their message.)
Things get trickier when we look past bands such as Slayer, who only touch on Nazi subject matter once every three albums or so (Hanneman wrote another Slayer song about Nazis, "SS-3," for 1994's Divine Intervention — but again, using language that stopped short of clearly celebrating its subject matter). Are Marduk, a Swedish black-metal band who have devoted entire albums to Nazi military achievements (including their latest, Frontschwein), as bad as Ad Hominem and White Knuckle Driver? What about Laibach, the Slovenian avant-garde industrial band whose music and visual imagery have long played with themes of fascism and totalitarianism?
Both Marduk and Laibach have denied any fascist or neo-Nazi leanings, and I'm inclined to take them at their word — even though, when I saw Laibach a few years ago, a handful of fans showed up in full SS officer cosplay. Just as it never made sense to blame Marilyn Manson for the Columbine shootings, it doesn't make sense to blame Marduk or Laibach for a handful of listeners who take their lyrics or musical themes way too literally. Neither band has ever, to the best of my knowledge, openly advocated for Nazism as a viable political ideology. They just use Nazis (tastelessly, in Marduk's case — but that's just my opinion, and anyway tastelessness is not the same thing as hate speech) as raw material for exploring the dark side of humanity — and artists have to be given the freedom to explore dark subject matter, even when they do it in ways that some people find objectionable.
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It's fair to question, as Quartz's Amy X. Wang did, whether that distinction — art versus propaganda, storytelling versus polemic — is one we can trust corporations like Apple and Spotify to make. But in a way, it's the wrong question. We already know that, left to their own devices, streaming services would make the music of racist groups like Blood Red Eagle and Grand Belial's Key — the latter of whom have some anti-Semitic songs so vile, I won't even quote from them — available to anyone who cares to listen. They'll even helpfully suggest other racist bands for you, because recommendation algorithms have no moral compass. That's why Digital Music News published its list, and why social media and other news outlets shared the list, eventually forcing Spotify to take action. And if Spotify ever goes too far in the opposite direction and bans a group like Laibach, it will be up to fans and the media to take them to task again, and make sure any music that's unfairly targeted is restored.
Is all of this highly subjective? Inevitably, yes. But in the current political climate, it's necessary. Giving white supremacist bands access to the same streaming platforms as everyone else normalizes them, and tacitly implies that their views exist along the same political spectrum as liberal and conservative, libertarian and socialist. They do not. White supremacy is a form of fascism that, by its very definition, does not have a place in democratic society, because it is predicated on the notion that some members of that society are inferior and do not deserve to participate in it — deserve, in fact, to be totally eradicated from it.
That's not to say that advocating white supremacy is, in and of itself, a crime. We still have free-speech protections, so it's not. But those same free-speech protections entitle the rest of us — as well as companies like Spotify — to tell those white supremacists to fuck off.