The 5 Rules of Writing a Hit Piece
Part of the monthly column ‘Degtyarov’s Despotisms’
In recent years, hit pieces have really taken off in metal journalism. Often veiled under the pretense of intellectual contemplation, these articles attempt to expose an artist’s allegedly unsavoury views with the goal of damaging his career.
However, it is a mistake to look at these journalistic hits as genuine attempts to correct a moral wrong in the metal world. These articles hide an undercurrent of rancor that is much more personal than what the author would have the readers believe. They are calculated attempts to settle a score, forward an agenda or even build a reputation at the cost of actual artists.
Described below are 5 unspoken rules of writing hit pieces, which together reveal the malevolence of this hype among metal journos.
1. Go For the Small Fish First
If a writer decides to run a hit on an artist, either they must be able to credibly present them as a boogeyman (Phil Anselmo’s Führer-lovin’ faux pas is a good example), or the band/artist must still be small enough for their name to be hurt by a smear campaign. For instance, Dave Mustaine has managed to get away with all kinds of goofy shit for years because he is simply too big to drag down (efforts thereto notwithstanding), and his gaffes never came close to any of Anselmo’s bi-annual PR disasters.
An underground band like Bölzer, however, makes for an excellent target for a hit. For many, the controversy surrounding Bölzer’s sunwheel tattoos was the first instance they’d heard of the band. Add to this the extremely negative perception of every cross that even attempts to move in a circular motion, and you have a ready-made killshot that only requires a willing writer to pull the trigger.
Indeed, the Bölzer hit proved effective. With many readers being introduced to the band through the controversy, a semi-conscious connection was made between the terms ‘Bölzer’ and ‘swastika’. This resulted in a nasty piece of anti-marketing that the band is still struggling to overcome.
2. Location Matters
Another criterion by which to decide if an artist can be successfully tarnished has to do with their location. Generally speaking, the closer they are to the American scene, the better. A band from the NYC area will depend much more on the media channels of that particular scene, and will therefore be more likely to crave their approval. It is no coincidence that Mr. Jameson from Krieg started penning columns for Decibel on such constantly recurring ‘controversies’ as the treatment of women in metal. It is a clever way of regaining acceptance by the New York area’s mostly left-leaning metal press after previously having landed in hot shower water for not just doing a split with Satanic Warmaster, but also including a spicy declaration against love for dark chocolate on its back cover.
3. Be Vicious Only in Moderation
Before any journalist, writer or blogger starts putting words to paper, they must realise that the Golden Age of feigned anger is over, and has been for a long while. By now, simply cloning the m.o. of Maddox or the Angry Video Game Nerd and applying it to a different niche (such as metal) has the same mouldy whiff about it as starting an editorial by citing the dictionary definition of the topic at hand.
Of course, a hit piece can still be vicious, but 2016 outrage simply requires a different packaging than the over-the-top fury that was all the rage in the early noughties. In this day and age of unrestrained individualism, everything is about storytelling and so-called ‘lived experiences’: quasi-sincere personal accounts that are then developed into general observations, lessons or, in the present case, accusations.
Therefore, an essential part of writing a hit piece is not presenting it as such. An author who states outright that their objective is for this or that band’s reputation to be destroyed is set to fail. Much like a pushy date, an over-eager polemicist will come across as a narcissist and make their readers recoil. Instead, disapproval should always be presented as an open debate. For example, it is a good idea to state that this is ‘a conversation that we need to have’. Not only will this make the writer come across as more objective and sincere, but the use of the first person plural – we – will disarm any suspicions about this merely being about raising their own profile.
Recently we have seen that ignoring this advice can lead to some serious trouble. True to their style, MetalSucks writers Vince Neilstein and Axl Rosenberg displayed too much belligerence and pleasure in their attempt to smear Deströyer 666‘s KK Warslut, outright calling him a racist d-bag right in the title of one of their several hit pieces on his band (which have by now been deleted). By the time Deströyer 666 struck back by doxxing Neilstein, it proved impossible for MetalSucks to lay sole claim to victimhood: they had made their case too aggressively whilst foregoing journalism’s basic adversarial principle. Had they been more careful, they could simply have pulled their hands away and invoked the Glenn Beck defence, stating that they were just asking questions about this worrying topic.
4. Know the Audience
For any writer, knowing their audience is a vital part of their success. Being aware of the preferences and opinions of those who visit your website or buy your book helps you establish a connection that will help them stick around after the first few paragraphs of text.
For the writers of hit pieces, this is no different. While the concept of the hit piece appeals to widespread human sentiments — Schadenfreude, outrage, a sense of community (“at least we can ALL agree that this guy is a scumbag!”) — it will still serve their creators well to familiarise themselves with the finer aspects. What are the types of opinions the readers are passionate enough about to make them ignore potentially questionable journalistic ethics? Where does the audience draw the line? Can the writer get away with a shameless pile-up invitation, or is a more elaborate tactic required?
Again, the aforementioned MetalSucks campaign against Deströyer 666 shows what might happen if the audience isn’t on board with an overtly aggressive approach. The comment sections were flooded by readers telling the MS staff that they had gone too far and that the band’s response, while dirty in itself, was poetic justice.
5. Whatever the Approach, the Objective Should Always be Outrage
All roads lead to Rome, or, in this case, to outrage. How the author reaches this stage depends on the variables described above, but the outcome of a well-executed hit piece is always the same: outrage. Whether the writer chooses the subtle route of feigned contemplation or feels bold enough to go after a band all-guns-blazing, the audience should always feel outrage.
This outrage can either be rooted in self-righteous indignation over what a complete bastard [x] is for thinking/saying/doing [x], or the outrage can focus on the publication for going after a beloved band, having no integrity, etc.
The ideal situation is a combination of these two forms of outrage, as it increases the chances of the hit piece getting enough shares around the web. When this balance is struck, the website can generate a significant amount of ad revenue without alienating too much of its base audience. Especially this latter point is why following the previous 4 steps is important for metal websites who specialise in hit pieces and clickbait: while ignoring them can spawn a huge amount of outrage (= clicks = money), this is a short-term pay-off, because there might not be anyone left to care the next time around.
If there is one thing that unites these 5 rules, it’s that none of them have to do with a genuine desire to raise important questions and resolve them accordingly. Outrage is by far the best way to attract viewers to your website. Entire news websites owe their existence to it: Buzzfeed, HuffPo, Gawker †, and Upworthy all thrive(d) on a tandem of outrage and self-righteousness.
It is no wonder that some have since applied the Gawkfeed formula to metal, which explains why many of the money-generating metal websites focus on hype and drama while contributing shockingly little to (dis)covering good music. In their wake there have emerged hundreds of bloggers who use these tactics for their own obscure goals, often transparently so.
So the next time a metal writer tries to tell you what and who is or isn’t Good For Metal, remember that their exclusive goal is to manipulate your emotions to such a degree that you will share their patronising rants with your friends either to nod approvingly or hate-read and laugh. Instead, simply realise that the work of these people is self-serving and transient, and a few years from now nobody will remember a word they have written.
There are hit pieces and then there are genuine critiques which drive a point to be remembered. Self-righteous and righteous are not the same! :p
It’s a real pity Peter Steele is no longer around, he’d have a real field day with the current metal media but fortunately we’ve got people like Alan from Primordial and KK from D666 to pick up the slack. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Pete ended up as hard right as he was because his experience in the NYHC subculture exposed him to so much of the political left at its most toxic that he just snapped and went as far in the other direction as he could.