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Academics a-hunting for links between metal and religion

by Ralph Archer
December 29, 2012 –

devil-kissedStudies of the relationship between popular music and religion have increased rapidly in the last twenty years, and the scholarly interest in metal music has “increased markedly during the past decade”, states researcher Marcus Moberg in an article published in Popular Music and Society earlier this year, where he evaluates the current scholarly writings on religion in metal music and culture.

The issue at hand is, apparently, problematic. Concerning metal music and culture as religion, researchers have used “top-down” methods to justify their assumptions, with little (if any) empirical evidence to support them. Case in point is Moberg’s own suggestion that “more thought-out views on religion in general would be relatively common among wider metal audiences” (considering metal’s individualist outlook combined with its fascination for religion), but there’s simply no (or not enough) data to support this claim. Another problem connected to the lack of ethnographic information concerns a prejudiced downplaying of the ideas within metal as little else than a rebellion against adult society. “[T]he issue of rebellion has always constituted a central theme in the scholarship on metal”, writes Moberg, but a clear specification of what ‘rebellion’ consists of has been lacking.

Metal music and culture can also be seen as “offering its followers a wide range of resources for religious/spiritual inspiration”. According to Moberg, scholars studying this area have been more careful in their interpretations, but have downplayed as well as exaggerated the seriousness with which metal bands explore these spiritual themes.

Moberg’s recommendation, then, is for future studies to be based more in fieldwork and ethnography, and less in speculation:

[I]n order to be able to provide more persuasive arguments about what followers of metal culture themselves actually get out of their participation in metal culture in ways that relate to religion/spirituality, studies would clearly […] benefit from striving to ground their arguments on the expressed views of musicians and fans themselves (and this concerns the issue of “rebellion” as well).

Supposedly, we shouldn’t be surprised if curious PhD students start asking us questions in between songs at the next Asphyx show…

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9 comments

  • Jim Necroslaughter

    Religion and philosophy has always dealt with death and its meaning, or to put it another way, the relationship between ‘something’ and ‘nothing.’ In “adult society,” death has been banished and its sacred meaning has been lost. The literal minded “adult” can not wrap their head around the fact that death is a symbolic stake and something to be gambled with. In other words, life becomes debt and not credit. This is a slave understands life as debt, the Master understands it as credit. This is why we should think about death everyday, to remind us of what life really is, and I think religion served this function. So metal has almost stumbled into serving this function. I don’t even think it was conscious; consciously it was ‘rebellion,’ but unconsciously it is filling in this gigantic ‘blank.’

    Finally, to really understand metal, it must be taken as a whole, and not as a survey of data. “Death metal represents this, black metal represents that, this band’s point is this, that band’s point is that, this band explores these spiritual themes, that band explores those, this fan describes their experience thus, that fan describes their relationship to metal as so and so.” So, I’m not even sure if I’m understanding Moberg correctly, but I disagree that one can better get to the bottom of metal’s relationship to religion via fieldwork, or empirical evidence. The way to get to the bottom of it actually is “speculation,” or philosophizing, or imaginative observations. But that being said, I understand that you can’t convince anybody of anything without “evidence” these days, so I do understand that this is the way you need to go about it and I salute Moberg for fighting the good fight.

    Reply
    1. P.M. Jameson

      Metal as a modern “memento mori”, then?

      It makes sense. The “fear of death” many feel at the last few hours before they die, is probably not a fear of death — it’s a fear of life. Because when non-being is close at hand, the experience of what being really is becomes accentuated. Likewise, metal music seems to want to bring us closer to issues of death, in order to accentuate life.

      As for Moberg’s stance on empirical studies, I think it’s good as long as they’re qualitative interviews, mainly for the reason that members of bands or their fans will probably have understood metal better than researchers looking in from outside.

      Reply
      1. Jim Necroslaughter

        Precisely! Memento Mori is exactly it. So “memento mori” basically translates to “remember that you will die.” Recall that back in the day, men would always have a skull on their desk, the skull was also called the memento mori, there are a lot old paintings depicting this, and I also think of Hamlet holding the skull as he muses. “Memento” is also what they called a certain prayer for the dead in certain Catholic services. Back in the day, everything revolved around the church, people probably went to church every day and prayed for the dead everyday. Thinking about death everyday is not macabre at all, it’s actually enlightened. The modern world is stifled by excess positivity and the only thing that can save it now is the gift of death!

        Reply
  • Ernst Malleus

    Most of the heralds of the true death and black metal ideology either no longer care to expand upon their initial philosophy or are locked up in some world of their own, creating role-playing games or rehashing those old riffs we have all heard a thousand times, or there even are those among them whose work has been grotesquely expanded without their knowledge and consent by other people, not part of the circle and having nothing to do with these genres of music. And lastly, there are those who only talk and talk and talk and have, i think, forgotten to actually play MUSIC. Because that is a huge part of being in a band, remember? Actually playing music. Meaningful music, not hanging in tumblr all day. No escaping from reality in their make-believe worlds.

    Reply
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