COMMENT: Watain concert ban stokes burning questions

·Senior News & Video Producer
Do you see an agent of Satan or man in a funny costume?
Watain lead vocalist Erik Danielsson (above) described the Singapore concert’s cancellation as “old-fashioned retardation”. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

The last-minute cancellation of Swedish black metal act Watain’s concert last week and the brouhaha surrounding the saga has left me frustrated and concerned.

It all began when I heard about the petition raised on the eve of the concert, which sought to get the show canned. While I understand that the band’s “Satanic” antics and lyrics may be offensive to some, a band playing to a small group of fans didn’t seem like a credible threat to public safety.

What’s more, all the upset parties could have stayed safely out of reach of the band’s allegedly corruptive influence by simply not attending the show. Instead, some 17,000 petitioners succeeded in imposing their values on another, much smaller group – yes, metalheads have rights too – and denied at most 200 Watain fans their right to a night of music.

Even more aggravating were a handful of petitioners – still rejoicing from their perceived success in influencing the concert ban – who decided that they should step up efforts to block even more upcoming concerts from taking place.

And in case anyone thinks that no one was hurt in the process, spare a thought for the show’s local organisers who have been left out of pocket and are now awaiting the authorities’ response to their request for compensation.

Adding fuel to the (hell?)fire were baffling comments made by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, not least of which was his claim that the “petition per se did not influence the (Ministry of Home Affairs’) decision” at the eleventh hour to “advise” the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) to cancel the show.

Nevertheless, he also admitted that the MHA had been aware of the many concerns expressed in the days before the concert and conducted a “further security assessment”. Senior clerics were apparently consulted, too – although one would imagine that they would be the least reliable source for an objective assessment of the threat that Watain poses to our society.

All I see are angry musicians and metalheads. (PHOTO: Facebook / Boplay Photos)
All I see are angry musicians and metalheads. (PHOTO: Facebook / Boplay Photos)

In further explaining the need for the cancellation, Shanmugam highlighted the race of some of the concert attendees by referring to a photo showing the band and their fans giving the “one-finger sign” to the camera. He claimed that Christians looking at the picture – which he described as comprising “mainly young Malay men” – might wonder “(Is) this what Muslims think of us?”

I believe this assessment is off the mark in its presumptions. It would seem more reasonable to think that those viewing the picture – whether Christian or otherwise – might see only a bunch of angry musicians and fans defiantly expressing their disappointment.

It would have been better if Shanmugam had not brought up the race issue at all, given how it has sparked vitriol online. Better, too, if the concert had been allowed to quietly take place without interference.

Instead, in an ironic yet somewhat predictable turn of events, an act meant to appease the feelings of a select group has only led to greater animosity and furthered divisions within our society.

Now that our nation rests safe from Watain’s “Satanic” influence, I would like to ask a few (rhetorical) questions:

1. Has stopping the show helped to stem the tide of moral decay from reaching our shores?

Spend just 10 minutes on the internet and you’ll find worse things than whatever’s contained in any of Watain’s lyrics. A night spent at Orchard Towers would also likely prove more “corruptive” than any concert.

Meanwhile, Spotify can stream just about any black metal band you want straight to your ears, at least two porn sites still rank among Singapore’s most visited websites and there’s even a Netflix TV series called “Lucifer” – alongside a host of other shows about serial killers, zombie apocalypses, porn stars, cult leaders and drug dealers.

From “50 Shades Of Grey” to “Harry Potter” and “Grand Theft Auto”, there’s no end to the sheer volume of material we’re exposed to that could be taken as offensive or downright Satanic by those who are sensitive to such things.

So how does one handle living in a world filled with such questionable content? Here’s a basic rule to live by: If you don’t agree with the values that something represents, then just don’t give it your attention or patronise it.

2. Still, were there “safety concerns” that were successfully addressed?

Singapore has played host to countless music acts that have been accused at some point of promoting less-than-stellar values, if not outright devil worship. Among them are Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Lamb Of God, Nine Inch Nails, Slipknot, Korn, Mayhem and Behemoth – the last two being groups that actually write songs about the Biblical Satan.

And despite thousands of Singaporeans having been exposed to these artists, I can’t recall any instances of music-related or occult-inspired crimes that have occurred in the recent past. Ask yourself, are Satanists and metalheads your primary concern when you walk home at night?

3. Have the authorities sent an effective message in cancelling the show?

I guess that depends on who you ask.

Concert organisers will likely be left confused and distrustful of the permit system. How was it that Ravage Records had its permit granted for the Watain concert – presumably weeks if not months before the show – only to have it stripped away at the last minute?

It would have been more fair if the government had not said “No” to the concert from the get-go. Instead, the inconsistency being demonstrated smacks of incompetence. To add further confusion, the IMDA said on Tuesday that it had initially consulted the MHA before giving the concert the green light.

For Watain fans, and possibly other local metalheads, the authorities’ signal would be that their right to peacefully enjoy a musical performance is not as important as protecting the feelings of certain religious conservatives.

As for the petitioners and their ilk, the perceived victory will likely have them thinking that the government is on their side and no doubt embolden them to seek new targets.

We’ve already seen similar crusades to remove a same-sex kiss from a staging of “Les Miserables” and to bar pop star Adam Lambert from performing at a New Year’s countdown show. So how long before they take this “moral” battle beyond the realm of the arts?

Nothing to fear but our own biases

In an interconnected world where the information flow is fast and furious, it’s inevitable that we will be exposed to things that offend our values.

So should we just ban everything that we find objectionable, go hide under a rock to avoid having our feelings hurt, or compel everyone to adopt the same values? The first two options seem like impossible tasks, and will only hurt our societal resilience in the long run; the last is clearly dangerous.

Being exposed to things we disagree with can not only help dispel prejudices and superstitions but also help us more clearly define our own values as they evolve. After all, you’ll only know the strength of your own ideas and convictions once you have tested them out in the big, bad world.

So, if you are religious, go listen to some black metal. If you can get past the lyrics, you might find yourself appreciating the pageantry of it all – or have a laugh at the silliness of grown men with painted faces and spiky costumes. And that’s all fine; no one is above criticism or mockery.

I, myself, have listened to a fair amount of religious music – mainly Christian rock acts that I was recommended by friends – and it didn’t convert me to the faith. So I’m sure a little Watain won’t have our youths sacrificing puppies and wearing corpse paint every day.

Taking a paternalistic approach to deciding what types of art Singaporeans can or cannot enjoy will stifle our society’s growth. Worse still, offering select groups of people protection from offence might do more to actually hurt our “social harmony” than protect it.

And that would truly be doing the Devil’s work.

Related stories:

Satanic panic grips Singapore’s conservatives as they petition to ban shows by Swedish metal bands

Watain Singapore concert ban: Our fans can decide for themselves about our music, says band vocalist

Watain looks forward to playing show for Singapore fans without interference from ‘lesser men’

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