Contemplating Death Metal: Cannibal Corpse as Memento Mori

One day, as I was walking down the street listening to death metal grinding through my earbuds, I began contemplating the appeal of immersing oneself in such dark subject matters. I’ve loved metal since I was a 10-year-old kid whose parents got divorced. My question at the moment was: Why did I turn to darkness for comfort amid my pain?

You might think when one is suffering emotionally, that person would prefer to forget her suffering and choose an artistically light response to the world instead. But that wasn’t the case for either my middle school friends or me. We immersed ourselves in horror – through the books we read, the movies we watched, and the music we listened to. Stephen King was our favorite author, A Nightmare on Elm Street our favorite film, and Slayer was our favorite band. We lived for death… at least in our art, and at that outer rim of childhood’s plateau, we invented play-worlds for ourselves as enmeshed in hell and fear as the art we consumed.

Now, the question I’m wondering is – Why would children embrace destruction so completely at the first sign of being exposed to this world’s greater suffering? My answer lies in a traditional form of artistic expression: Memento Mori.

Memento Mori is defined as a Latin phrase meaning: remember you must die. In the European artistic tradition, it is often portrayed by the contemplation of a skull reminding the viewer of death, an image not inconsistent with the artwork on the heavy metal tee shirts I wore to school every day as a young teen. At one point in time, there must have been perceived a great need for Memento Mori for it to have been elevated to such an important status in medieval and Renaissance art. I would like to make the claim it’s the same individual and cultural needs for Memento Mori that drove my own middle school love of horror movies and death metal.

“Remembering death” consistently reminds one that she must embrace life immediately rather than wait for the future. She must take advantage of the moment rather than hope for something better to come. She must live for today rather than tomorrow. For, tomorrow may never arrive. If that last turn of phrase sounds at all familiar, it’s because it’s a variation on the tail end of the ancient Epicurean dictum to “eat, drink, and be merry. For, tomorrow, you may die.” Along with Nietzsche’s claim that “God is dead”, this short, pithy statement is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented phrases in the history of philosophy.

The notion that tomorrow you may die is not an exhortation to hedonism as contemporary culture so often wishes to impart. Rather, it is a potential reality to ponder and meditate upon. If today truly is your last day on earth, how would you prefer to spend it – obliterated on substances or caring for the people and things you cherish most? Would you rather be alone and destitute in your final hours, or would you prefer to live your last moments rich with family and friends as a loving and compassionate human being? The choice is yours. You don’t know the future. Today could be your last day on earth.

Memento Mori serves the same purpose. By contemplating death, the viewer is reminded she is alive only for the moment. Nothing is guaranteed in this life… other than the certainty of an eventual death. With the remembrance of this certainty of death, the viewer of Memento Mori desires the impermanence of life rather than the permanence of death. The viewer of Memento Mori strives to live today rather than seek solace in a world that may never come. This is the same insight the lyrics and intensity of a band like Cannibal Corpse provide the listener.

With album titles like Tomb of the Mutilated and Butchered at Birth, Cannibal Corpse’s world is nothing but a monument to the gruesomeness of death. The first track on their first album, Shredded Humans, paints a vivid picture of a head-on car collision. Describing in graphic detail everything from the father’s head becoming part of the dashboard to the mother’s intestines stretched across the road, these lyrics are an examination of everyday gore. However, the twist in this song is that this was not necessarily an “accident”. The words leave open the possibility that the driver who veered across the center line intended to kill this “family of five on their way home.”

Of course, this sounds like the cartoonish plot of a seventies splatter film, and many of those now-classic films might serve the same function as Cannibal Corpse’s music. In this instance, the appeal might be more than simply imagining vivid gore on the open road. Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics can cause the listener to wonder whether this same event may not take place in her life. This can shock the listener out of the stupor of taking the everyday for granted. It can cause the listener to wonder if she should perhaps take more care of the fragility of this life she has been blessed with.

The excessive violence of a track like Hammer Smashed Face is no exception. In this track, the narrator consistently describes his victim as “You”. You are the one the narrator feels “like killing”. You are the one whose “fucking head” will get smashed in “until brains seep”. And you are the one who will feel the sledge pound “down on your forehead”.

This violence mimics the death of a cow in a slaughterhouse. It dehumanizes the listener’s presence. It requires the listener to envision herself as the object of violence rather than as the subject of action. This reification causes the listener to experience something like the Kantian “sublime” as the sense of individual subjectivity rushes back in to fill the void at the song’s end. I am not an object, the listener’s mind screams. I am a human being.

This, too, provides a sense of Memento Mori. For, death itself is the eternal objectification. Your subjectivity has disappeared. What is left is nothing more than a body, a slab of meat to be buried or burnt. You have vanished. Your body remains to be tortured in a Cannibal Corpse song like I Cum Blood no differently than if your subjectivity were still present. However, the speaker of Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics never saw you as a subject. You were always only a slab of flesh waiting to be violated.

This perpetual violation of the body reminds the speaker she is more than a body. The revulsion and disgust felt at being referred to as A Skull Full of Maggots forces the listener to cry out she is alive. She is more than the meat Cannibal Corpse’s speaker sees her as. She is a human being who could be dead tomorrow, waiting only to be dug up and have her body tormented by another speaker from a different Cannibal Corpse song. This forces the listener to embrace her subjective existence today rather than put off a direct recognition of the self until tomorrow. For, if Cannibal Corpse has their way, tomorrow may never come.

Of course, one could make the claim that none of this violence is evidence of Memento Mori, that Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics are nothing more than adolescent fantasies. They serve no higher purpose. They have no meaning behind them. In response to this critique, I ask only that you look once more at my middle school friends and me to determine the purpose this sort of theatrical violence served for us.

We were leaving the womb of youth, afraid of the unknown, afraid of both the world bearing down upon us and the feelings bubbling up inside of us. We were afraid for the future, and we were terrified of our emotions. In the face of all this, we began acting out against our parents, schools, and peers. We had no choice but to define ourselves in reaction to the hostile world we were entering, and in the early 1990s, we chose death metal as the soundtrack for this rebellion against everything expected of us. Where does Memento Mori fit into all this fear and anger?

Memento Mori was developed as an artistic discipline in Europe during the medieval period, a time when the entire population faced something like the fears of adolescence. Under the banner of religion, the unknown lay at every citizen’s doorstep. Ruled by warlords and children, the stability of the region was in constant flux. With the simultaneous risks of either invasion or disease, terror lurked around every corner. The monuments to death provided by Memento Mori allowed the populace both to vent their fears and to band together in the face of the unknown.

One could just as easily say the consistent reminder of death was a ploy by the church to force the population deeper into religion’s embrace. However, even if this motivation existed for the artworks’ patrons, the psychological effects of the art itself doesn’t change. Even if the goal is to terrify the populace into subservience, the experience of the Kantian “sublime” still exists for the citizen who sees her subjective experience leech away in the face of the contemplation of a dead man’s skull, only to have that same subjective experience reappear with greater force upon the realization that death has yet to arrive.

Cannibal Corpse provided the same bulwark for my middle school friends and me. By listening to the gruesome lyrics of a Cannibal Corpse song, we could look death in the face and tell it we weren’t afraid. In this way, we could tell the entire world we had nothing to fear. For, there is nothing more terrifying than the constant reality of death. By sharing the listening experience with our peers, we could stand against these terrors and recognize that together we were alive. Together, our individual, subjective existences were safe against the horrors of a serial killer or Necropedophile from one of Cannibal Corpse’s songs. We could relish our subjective existences. For, our shared artistic experience insulated us from the vagaries of the objective world beyond our control.

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Kneel Down Ye Sinners: Enlightenment in Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls

With the opening lines to Wild Side – “Kneel down ye sinners, to / Streetwise religion…” – L.A. glam metal band Mötley Crüe kicks off their 1987 album, Girls, Girls, Girls. But what exactly is this “streetwise religion” to which lead singer Vince Neil is referring, and how precisely are these “sinners” that bassist and lyricist Nikki Sixx mentions supposed to find “salvation” amid his band’s excessive branch of some rock n roll “religion” he’s discovered on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in the late 1980s? The answers to these questions are revealed throughout the sordid stories contained in the rest of this album’s tracks – tales of drugs, underage sex, and murder. By unearthing these discoveries, we paint a timely portrait of “romantic” danger that has colored the collective vision of many young artists ever since the French poet Charles Baudelaire gave birth to the notion of “modernity” as a definition for our fragmentary, ephemeral times. The question we must ask ourselves, however, is – Is there any inherent “value” for the “modern” individual in examining these portraits of suffering and escape from suffering that Mötley Crüe, in keeping with the urban artists of many other recent eras, paints on this album?

This reference to Charles Baudelaire with regard to the lyrics of Mötley Crüe is by no means spurious. For, it is Charles Baudelaire himself who has captivated more than 150 years’ worth of audiences with his seedy poems of the Parisian underbelly. In fact, it is this Paris of Baudelaire’s era that has become the archetypal urban landscape for many “modern” artists: the psychologically disturbing reality of a man-made monstrosity’s constant flux. Tales of drugs, sex, and Satan dominate Baudelaire’s conceits. He was and is taken seriously as an artist, though, not because of the darkness of his subject matter, but rather due to the rigors of his form and the musicality of his language. However, in light of his structural beauty, it appears to be Baudelaire’s shocking subject matter that has continued to seduce many young thinkers into wishing they were, as William Blake put it in his infamous The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “a true Poet and of the Devil’s party”.

Certainly, the members of Mötley Crüe viewed themselves as a band of Blake’s “true poets”. For, the inner sleeve photo of their debut album, Too Fast For Love, reveals them in S&M garb amid skulls and burning candles, pointing at an inverted pentagram, the symbol for Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, hanging over them. A fitting image to declare one’s allegiance to “the Devil’s party”. In fact, when looking at this image, we cannot but think of Baudelaire’s “Thrice-Majestic Satan” reclining “on his wicked pillow” and “vaporizing the rich metal of our souls”, which appears to be the precise operation Nikki Sixx eventually describes through the songs composing the band’s fourth full-length album Girls, Girls, Girls: the complete annihilation of the human spirit. However, we must go on to ask ourselves the more pertinent questions of – What is the actual value of destroying the inner self? And does this annihilation of the self by means of debauchery lead one to the same point of “enlightenment” that the mystics of many religious traditions have claimed to attain when annihilating the self by other means?

With regard to our first question, the act of destroying the inner self, at least according to Buddhist sentiment, is a cessation of the suffering associated with life. Therefore, the goal of destroying the inner self is to cease the individual’s emotional suffering. If we look back at the lyrics of the songs composing the album Girls, Girls, Girls¸ our attention must be drawn to the repeated words of the song Nona, the only lyrics in the song – “Nona, I’m out of my head without you,” repeated over and over, again and again. As I’ve learned from outside sources, this song is a reference to Nikki Sixx’s grandmother who had recently passed away at the time of this album’s recording. Thus, we have revealed the true root of the speaker’s suffering. The root of this suffering is the realization of death. Furthermore, it is this same realization of death that the speaker is trying to escape by means of the annihilation of the inner self.

With regard to our second question as to whether or not this annihilation of the self leads to the same sort of “enlightenment” as a religious experience, we must first ask ourselves what the experience of annihilation would feel like in a religious context. Buddhist Nirvana is a desirable state to be achieved as an escape from the suffering associated with life. If we read the lyrics of Girls, Girls Girls, particularly those of Nona, we discover that this album also reveals a desire for escape from suffering. Therefore, the root causes of both attempts at escape (both through debauchery and through asceticism) is the same. However, although the causes may be the same, the end results could be completely different.

The question we must examine at this point is whether the attempt to annihilate suffering through pleasure actually alleviates one’s internal suffering or if it simply creates more of it. This will answer our question as to whether the points reached through both debauchery and asceticism are one and the same. The answer to this question resides in the lyrics to the song Dancing on Glass, which starts by saying: “Can’t find my doctor / My bones can’t take the ache / If ya dance with the devil / Your day will come to pay”. This song is dealing with the realities of heroin addiction and a subsequent withdrawal from the substance. For our purposes, the most telling line in this verse is the last: “Your day will come to pay”.

This final line reveals an internal point of suffering reached solely because the “doctor” (or drug dealer) is unavailable at the moment to provide more of the needed substance. Therefore, it appears the practitioner of this streetwise religion has been misled. The internal suffering will not cease through debauchery. It will only be temporarily removed. Then, it will come roaring back with a vengeance so strong your “bones can’t take the ache” as a result of withdrawal from the now required substances. These substances are now “required” due to the addiction necessitating the self’s further annihilation. This would lead one to the conclusions that the debauchery Nikki Sixx describes on this album, as a means for cessation of suffering, is a series of actions the Buddhists would perhaps characterize as “misguided”.

Does that mean the history of modern art’s “debauchery” from Baudelaire to the present is a misguided attempt at enlightenment? Perhaps, one could turn to the writer Flannery O’Connor for an attempt to answer that question. In a letter she wrote to Dr. T.R. Spivey, with regard to those progenitors of the American aesthetic of sex and drugs, the beat poets, she once said, “They call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing.” Perhaps, for Ms. O’Connor, the “payment” required is the chastity permeating many religious attempts to alleviate this life’s suffering, something that the easily found pleasures of sex and drugs does not require. For, if payment is required, the physical transactions of cash for sex and/or drugs as described in Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls¸ is not the kind of fee a Catholic writer such as Ms. O’Connor would have had in mind.

Ms. O’Connor would have been referring to some sort of spiritual toll to be collected, which one who has chosen the simple escape of physical pleasures has not yet paid. However, it very well could be the case that the debauchery of physical pleasure is the precise spiritual toll one must pay to find enlightenment. For, although enlightenment will not be found in the escape brought about by physical pleasures, the increased suffering of intense physical pleasure (a suffering caused by the eventual removal of that physical pleasure and the body’s simultaneous craving for even more of that same pleasure) could lead one to search even harder for the answer to the cessation of that suffering. For, as another Catholic thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas, implies in his Summa Theologiae, Question 109, Article 6, a human being can further turn God’s divine grace upon oneself by first seeking out God. Perhaps, that itself is the devil’s job in the marriage of heaven and hell – to lead the sinner closer to God by increasing her suffering so severely her peace can only be attained through any means necessary.

It’s no small fact that Nikki Sixx got clean from drugs and alcohol shortly after the release of Girls, Girls, Girls. Perhaps, then, the spiritual value of “streetwise religion”, is the precise dilemma Goethe’s Mephistopheles explains himself to be at the opening of that author’s play Faust: Part I. For, Mephistopheles declares he is, “Part of the Power, not understood, / Which always wills the Bad, and always works the Good.” Perhaps, this is the value to be found in “streetwise religion” for any individual from any time, whether that individual be Charles Baudelaire, William Blake, or Nikki Sixx. The value of the religion one finds in the streets is that, if the practitioner can survive, it attunes the individual to the higher frequencies of the universe in an attempt to help that individual escape the infernal depths of this world.