Sunday, October 9, 2016

Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" to my #AtheistEar

Back when I was an evangelical kid growing up in the 1980s, there was a general reaction among evangelicals against modern rock music - in particular "heavy metal," and bands that played up their anti-establishment, anti-Christian identities. After the drug- and sex-fueled hedonism of the 1970s, and bitter losses in the culture wars, our evangelical communities considered the descent into chaos to be self-evident.

But they believed they did have ample evidence.

Ozzy Osbourne's 1980 solo record, The Blizzard of Ozz, was an easy target for those looking to find evil in the culture of rock. Give a listen to his hit Crazy Train, and see how many elements of evil you can spot in it:

(Lyrics are available here.)

Since we didn't have music video culture quite yet, the only visual we would have had to go by would have been the album cover, seen above. Ozzy, holding a crucifix, and surrounded by smoke, a skull, and crawling towards the camera. We had all heard about his antics as a member of Black Sabbath - an evil sounding band if ever there was one - and about his gruesome adventures on stage. (Like much of the stuff we were told during the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s, we would have done well to have had Snopes to clear up those rumors!)

And since Ozzy is notorious for being incomprehensible, we can probably forgive the upright fathers of the elder councils for not looking too deeply into the words of his songs - just listen to the evil on display in the music. The menacing bass; the creepy guitar glissando at the beginning; and the wailing vocals - those can't be wholesome!

Then there is the prominent bit of understandable vocal from the second verse:

I've listened to preachers
I've listened to fools
I've watched all the dropouts
Who make their own rules

That first couplet sounds insulting enough, perhaps we can render a verdict. Of course, if one approached the lyrics without the baggage of Ozzy and the motivated reasoning required to interpret this song as "evil," one could quite reasonably arrive at a different conclusion.

But that's how it goes
Millions of people
Living as foes
It's not too late
To learn how to love
And forget how to hate

A deep analysis is not required to see that this song has little or nothing to do with the supernatural, or with Satan, or any of the things typically associated with heavy metal tropes. It's really an anti-war song inspired by the growing realization that human being were pointing enough atomic weaponry at each other to destroy the planet several times over.

And while I know better - having lived through this period - it should be easy to connect the plea for sanity and peace in Crazy Train to the same sentiment that many of us who were being told to fear this music felt. Instead, we chose to pretend that Ozzy was celebrating insanity and exhorting us to go off the rails.

We have seen that same cycle play out several times, now. The shock rock of the 1980s gave way to punk, and saw a resurgence in the 1990s with bands like Marilyn Manson. There is always someone out there hoping to provoke a backlash, and ride to success on the Streisand Effect. And there is always someone out there looking for a reason to be afraid of them.

It usually pays to look at what they're saying before you judge them, rather than how they are saying it.

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