The Politics of Criticism

My life with heavy metal, Tucker Carlson, NPR, and strong opinions

Graphic by Darrel Frost.

My first byline was an article for my local newspaper’s Teen Voice section, when I was 15, about how women musicians were underrepresented in the heavy-metal community. I highlighted bands like Arch Enemy, Kittie, and Lacuna Coil. My grandma was proud; she saved a clipping. After that, I submitted an op-ed calling George W. Bush a warmonger, and around the time it was published, a photo of me screaming during an Iraq War protest also graced the front page. My grandma, a Republican, was mortified, but she saved those clippings, too.

In the years since, I’ve clawed my way into the pages of metal magazines like Metal Maniacs and Terrorizer—and, later, outlets like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR, and The New York Times. I have also become a labor organizer, an anarchist, and an anti-fascist. My writing on music, and more specifically heavy metal, has maintained a lefty bent. For NPR, where I started contributing in 2011, my work has always veered into the political—I’ve written about gender representation in a piece on Electric Wizard’s Liz Buckingham, and again with respect to Bolt Thrower’s Jo Bench; confronted stereotypes about metal fans; written a profile of Jucifer with the headline “Gender Is Not a Genre.” I have always covered music from the perspective of a fan. I think being opinionated is part of being a critic; critiquing the art we love makes it stronger.

Check out other articles in our new series examining the world of criticism.

So imagine my surprise when, on July 31, I was informed that my “activist stance”—as it was described to me over the phone by an NPR senior director—had become a problem, and that it conflicted with NPR’s stated journalistic ethics. The pushback came as a particular shock because I was at work on my first NPR assignment since 2017—so it wasn’t a response to anything I’d filed. But then I realized what the catalyst had been, and the director confirmed it: Tucker Carlson had aired a segment about me—me?!—on his Fox News show. Now NPR was cutting me loose.

Days earlier, I’d posted a tweet about a 68-year-old anarchist named Willem von Spronsen, who had been killed by police after he’d attempted to damage vehicles in a parking lot belonging to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I’d characterized the action as righteous sabotage and noted that the same tactic had been used against Nazis by Jewish and Italian partisans during World War II. Given the dire situation the United States is in, I suggested, it’s worth thinking about ways to fight back against Donald Trump’s cruel regime. Van Spronsen injured no one and sought to injure no one; he took aim at property, not people. My tweets caught the attention of a few biggish conservative accounts and finally made their way to Carlson.

According to NPR, I should have tried harder to keep my activism under wraps—or at least done more to avoid being targeted by Fox’s preeminent propagandist. Trust me when I say that I was not exactly thrilled when a friend sent me a video link to Carlson’s minute-and-a-half-long tirade, during which he denigrated my work, implied that I was inciting terrorism, and took a brief moment to mention that I contributed to NPR. On the phone with the senior director, I was told that my “obvious” status as an activist violated their rules. I ended the conversation with the observation that, in 2019, they’re going to have an awfully hard time finding writers who don’t have a political opinion. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

ICYMI: NPR kills journalist’s piece over her accent

Voicing political views is hardly unusual in the realm of criticism—just ask John Berger, dream hampton, Douglas Crimp, Tory Dent, Gary Indiana, Eve Ewing, Mario Ontiveros, Joan Morgan, or countless others. Yes, some music writers shy away from politics, and that’s their prerogative, but I never saw much value in feigned objectivity. How is caring enough about something to get involved in organizing around it an indictment of ethical purity?

Being an outspoken feminist who writes about heavy metal—typically a straight, cis male–dominated universe—has never been easy. Nor is being stridently anti-fascist when digging into subgenres like black metal, whose inherent nihilism and pagan leanings can provide cover for white-supremacist propaganda. All the while, I’ve engaged in activist organizing that has influenced how I choose which artists to cover and what labels to support. 

As a result, I’ve spent a decade and a half dodging the criticisms of “separate the art from the artist” types who would prefer to consume their heavy metal in a bubble, minus the inconvenience of having to consider how artists’ identity, background, and political views inform their art. For some, it’s more appealing to say, “Whatever, this song rules!” than to grapple with the fact that it was made by an abuser, or a racist, or a Nazi. 

I’m well aware that many news organizations—particularly those, like NPR, that are in part public- or government-funded—have strict rules about staffers and contributors airing political views on social media. After the call, I couldn’t find my original contract, now eight years old, to check and see which terms, exactly, I had violated. Later, I reached out to NPR’s media relations office, which provided the following statement: “NPR expects freelancers who contribute to NPR to uphold the same journalistic principles that guide the work of NPR’s own journalists. You can read more about the standards that apply to NPR journalism in our Ethics Handbook.” In one section, the handbook says to “refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online.” It was obvious that the rules were interpreted subjectively and enforced selectively. 

Okay, fine; their loss. But what does this mean going forward—for NPR, for me, and for journalism more broadly? Can a critic be an activist?  Should one cancel out the other? If so, how will that affect the diversity of opinions represented and the quality of the criticism they publish? 

Arts criticism comes from the heart and the gut; cutting out the human parts—our opinions—leaves the whole thing bloodless. I could never separate the personal from the political, nor do I have the luxury of pretending I can. I might try to tone it down a little on Twitter (at least until the post-Tucker harassment tapers off), but I’m not going to allow myself to be bullied or intimidated into silence. This is not a time for civility, or decorum, or milquetoast liberal hand-wringing; the US is in the midst of a full-blown crisis, and we should not be quiet about it, even if that does spook a couple of editors along the way.

ICYMI: The clause freelance writers should fight to remove from their contracts

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Kim Kelly is a freelance writer and organizer whose work on labor, politics, and culture has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Baffler, The New York Times, and many others. She is the labor columnist for Teen Vogue, and currently resides in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @grimkim.