Closet Metalhead: Sarah Kendzior

One of the main tenets of all things metal is the unwavering rejection of conformity, which makes political journalist, scholar and all-around bad-ass Sarah Kendzior, one of metal’s most formidable ambassadors. She received a doctorate in anthropology based on her in-depth research of authoritarian states in Central Asia, covered the Ferguson riots right outside her home base of St. Louis, is author of the best-selling book The View from Flyover Country, and, along with her partner in truth Andrea Chalupa, hosts the fantastic podcast Gaslit Nation, which details the many ways the government is trying its damndest to con us. Since before the 2016 election, Kendzior’s been terrifyingly spot-on in forecasting the violent shitstorm currently wreaking havoc on our democracy.

Kendzior also happens to be a die-hard rocker and one of the foremost authorities on Guns N’ Roses. If there were academic degrees for metalheads, Kendzior would’ve long ago earned a Ph.D. in GNR. As such, she is uniquely equipped to do her job.

“When Chinese Democracy came out, I had literally been waiting for it for half my life,” she says, deadpan. “That’s why, with the Mueller report, I am so well prepared because I spent so long waiting for Chinese Democracy. I’m like, ‘Come on, people, this is nothing! I got a 15-year advantage on you!’”

Beyond possessing a superhuman level of patience, Kendzior also adheres to a work ethic and belief system that hard rock and metal naturally complement. “People shouldn’t be surprised that I cover what I cover politically and that I like the music that I do,” she says. “It makes sense—at least to me.” Her work even caught the attention of Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick, who interviewed Kendzior for Unbuilt magazine under the headline “Use Your Collusion.” (Bravo, Mr. Skolnick, though we might’ve gone with “Appetite for Obstruction.”)

Decibel checked in with Kendzior to get her take on a soundtrack for surviving the era of Trump, making heavy metal references on Twitter (it involves Steve Bannon, CPAC, and Blue Oyster Cult), and what rebellion looks like on the other side of the world.

How did you first get into metal and hard rock, and what about it drew you in as a listener?
Oh god, since I was a child. I was a child in the 80s and early 90s and was immediately drawn to Guns N’ Roses. That’s still my favorite band; they’ve been my favorite band for 30 years. It immediately appealed to me, the lyricism, the guitar. Before that, as a kid, I was sort of a piano prodigy. I taught myself piano. I hated lessons—you might’ve noticed I don’t like being told what to do—but I love music, so I taught myself. I was kind of getting into classical music. I remember talking about this with Alex Skolnick that there is this overlap sometimes between fans of metal and people who play or are into classical music. The complexity combined with the power. As a kid, I got into Guns N’ Roses and other bands sort of before I understood the lyrical content (laughs), but it still was an enormous, enormous impact on me, and it’s what I do to relax. I’ll drive out somewhere with music on very loud. That’s how I get through the era of Trump.

How has heavy metal helped shape you as a person, whether that’s your attitude, your work ethic, your belief system?
It’s hard to say because I got into that kind of music when I was fairly young and impressionable, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and was thinking for myself. I sometimes look at my writing and I don’t know whether I was drawn, for example, to Guns N’ Roses because it reflected something in me or whether it shaped the way I see things or even the way I write. There are things in my writing, like pronoun usage, that I know is the fault of Axl Rose (laughs). When I look at essays I write and it goes from first person to second person to third—I know that’s because Axl Rose did the same thing and I spent so much time immersed in that lyrical world. It’s hard to say, I mean, generally speaking I like all kinds of music. In terms of where my heart is, what I get attached to emotionally, it’s hard rock. Metallica is probably as hard as I would get. Guns N’ Roses and older groups that are bluesier, like old Rolling Stones or Blue Oyster Cult or metal from the 80s like Van Halen, David Lee Roth era, but I like Sammy Hagar era to an extent (laughs). I have broad tastes, but if I were trapped on a deserted island, it would just be Guns N’ Roses and I’d be happy.

To put it mildly, you have a very intense job. Can you tell me about an instance where a metal album or song got you through a particularly grueling or terrifying time?
I have it on all the time; I have music playing constantly as I’m working. There are plenty of times where I end up quoting lyrics on Twitter because I lack the capacity to effectively express what I want to say (laughs). Although unfortunately, it backfires sometimes. Once I put “Career of Evil” by Blue Oyster Cult [on Twitter] and I said it was Steve Bannon’s CPAC speech, and people were recirculating it as if it were true. So occasionally I have to be careful. But even when we were putting out the [March 14th] episode of the podcast, I don’t know why, I was listening to “Seasons of Wither” by Aerosmith and those lyrics, “Woe is me I feel so badly for you” … sometimes it just feels like, “Ok someone else is experiencing the same emotions as I am.” I mean, that’s the story of music; this is not some sort of revelatory insight I’m giving you, but I’m a human being like anyone else. There are other times where there’s a worldview—for example, I’m studying the Manafort trial, and if I want an exemplification of that system, Guns N’ Roses’ “Perfect Crime” would sum it up.

But one of the things I like about Guns N’ Roses are the codas. The songs tend to propel in one direction—this extremely negative or just volatile lyricism and imagery and guitars—and in a lot of songs, they switch and the coda is this compassionate plea, this outcry and desire for things to be better. You see it probably most in “Rocket Queen.” So I like that side of it too, not just the side that is raw rage, though I have plenty of that, but compassion and outreach on behalf of others, outrage at injustice.

A lot of people give Axl a lot of shit for a lot of reasons and then they were surprised that he came out so early as a very staunch opponent of Trump and as somebody who was calling out real problems within the administration. Like when Jeff Sessions was about to be confirmed, it was Axl Rose who was saying no one of conscience should support this guy, this is going to be disastrous on a policy level. The Democrats didn’t put the amount of condemnation into this lifelong racist that Axl Rose did! I wasn’t surprised at all. People were sending me all his tweets and saying, “Oh my god, Sarah, maybe it’s not so weird that you’re into Guns N’ Roses.” I’m like, “Damn right, it’s not weird!” It’s the same foundational outrage and refusal to conform and go along with shit. I love that he disappeared—not love; I think there’s some suffering going on—but I like that when he was sick of everything, he just stopped giving interviews and just became a recluse. It’s like, you know, you do your thing. I don’t like conformity and so that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to this genre and that band in particular.

Let’s say the world stopped burning for two or three years and you could write an investigative report about GNR. What are some storylines you’d go after?
Part of me doesn’t want to … I respect that they want privacy or that Axl Rose is a private person. That’s one of the things that I kind of can relate to about him. But I know, during that time [of Chinese Democracy], Axl was recording a lot of music. Like, on the End of Days soundtrack, there’s the song “Oh My God” that’s just sort of forgotten about, and so I would just want to hear the music. That would be such an incredible experience. I’m kind of in disbelief that they’d ever make another record—I’ve learned my lesson with Chinese Democracy, so I’m kinda not holding out hope on that—but it would be cool if it happened. I’ve read a lot of the biographies. I read Mick Wall’s work [Last of the Giants: The True Story of Guns N’ Roses], but to some degree, it’s gonna remain an enigma. I’ve interacted with one of the members of Guns N’ Roses who bought my book. Honestly, that was mind-blowing for me. Like, me at my current age as well as me at age 12 were losing my shit that someone from Guns N’ Roses read my book.

Which guy?
I don’t want to be fan-girling; it’s so mortifying. It was Duff. We DM’d and followed each other on Twitter. I was like, basically, my life has reached its peak: I’ve seen Guns N’ Roses reunited in St. Louis, Duff McKagan read my book—of course, I was like, “I’ve read your book,” and I think he was really surprised to hear that. Of course, as a musician, he knows that I have all the albums and stuff, but I really did love his book It’s So Easy. I don’t get fan-girlie about people. I’ve met celebrities, I’ve met world leaders, the only people I’d get like this about are the original members of GNR, and so I don’t want to humiliate myself by letting them know exactly how excited I was. But whatever, the world’s ending. Might as well let Duff McKagan know what a loser I am.

Oh they have egos that love the attention, just like anyone.
I’m sure! That’s the thing, it’s very not my style to idolize. I caution people against this! I caution people against hero worship when it comes to, for example, elected officials. I think it’s a very bad move. But these are the only people I don’t think I’d be able to handle meeting. I almost want to protect myself from looking like an asshole and protect the appeal and the enigma from being spoiled.

At the heart of metal is rebellion and self-expression. Within the past decade or so, we’ve been hearing more and more about heavy metal bands and whole underground scenes cropping up in parts of the world where doing such a thing could literally get you killed, primarily the Middle East. There was the 2007 documentary, Heavy Metal in Baghdad about the Iraqi band Acrassicauda; there’s Al-Namrood, the Saudi Arabian black metal band; and Slave to Sirens, the all-girl Lebanese metal band. Did heavy metal ever cross paths with any of your professional work researching authoritarian states in Central Asia?
It’s difficult because so many states in Central Asia, until very recently Uzbekistan, prohibited western visitors and certainly prohibited people like me, who were studying corruption in their government, from coming. My knowledge of it would often be through exiles or on the Internet from people posting content and music videos online. I don’t know if metal as a genre ever really took off in a place like Uzbekistan. A lot times, music-wise, what I see is more like pop, but that’s because in part what is allowed to be produced, what is allowed to be uploaded. They have laws on this kind of content. And they have laws against quote “Satanism,” which basically they apply to anything, and they would certainly apply to the majority of rock and metal bands.

An interesting thing in Central Asia is that from time immemorial, poetry in that region has been a form of rebellion. You can go back to Sufi masters and their poems, which were often extremely controversial and always challenged authority, and then to Muslim intellectual movements in the 1920s, where they were trying for independence and they were rebelling against the Soviets and against Stalin, and you can follow that to the present day. When Uzbeks who are involved in politics get mad, they don’t write an article, they don’t become a pundit—they write a poem. That is the vehicle of self-expression, and so I think there is a really deep connection in that respect between poetry and rock music. It’s a way to speak truth to power without doing it in a direct way that could possibly get you killed, although that sometimes happened, as well. But I think a lot of times poetry is a way to speak to the people about power, knowing that people in power can see it, but because you have metaphors, because you have allusions, you’re able to offer criticism without necessarily technically breaking the law.

Which three metal albums are going to get you through the next installment of Gaslit Nation?
Oh jeez, man. Probably Appetite … I want to give you something that’s not GNR!

No! It can definitely be just GNR!
It would be Appetite, Use Your Illusion II, and Use Your Illusion I, because Lies is too small. And honestly, some of it is because I can sing or scream along, but a lot of it feels incredibly relevant to the moment. It certainly captures my emotions. When there are moments like this, when I’m driving in the car, that’s what I cling to.