Why listen to metal when all it gets you is funny looks

by Rob Jones
August 19, 2014 –

mystic_castle_of_violence

Every metal fan knows it: the look of incredulity on someone’s face when halfway through a conversation you mention that you listen to heavy metal. It’s a look that says, “Hmm… He seemed otherwise sane and cultured when we were just talking… Didn’t notice he had any problems understanding society’s unspoken rules on personal space or (sniff) hygiene… Why would he listen to that neanderthal drivel?”

That look presupposes a tired old trope of modern culture which is that the enlightened listen only to sensitive indie bands who sing about either love or “social issues.” These bands sing softly and semi-ironically about real world things like love, heartache, drugs or the quest for world peace. In contrast, metal embraces comically violent and magical subjects fit only for basement-dwelling neckbeards who play D&D on Saturday nights and rednecks who wear kitschy looking t-shirts with pictures of wolves howling at the moon on them. This “enlightened” mentality is similar to the trendy outlook that presumes all smart people should care about the same fashionable political causes.

I listen to metal music with its fantastic lyrics and imagery — rather than music with lyrics about real world stuff or political fashions — because it’s an escape. After I’m done hearing about the dramas of my friends, co-workers and families the last thing I want to do on my own time is listen to someone else croon about all their problems. Real world subjects are depressing to hear about precisely because they’re so commonplace and everyday. This includes the political, because the only reason people talk, sing or demonstrate about political issues is to make themselves look cool, which is a way to get new girlfriends, meet drug connections and gather around a social group.

Metal to me is anything but escapist. It is metaphorically accurate where the idea that human drama describes the universe is solipsistic. Nature is mercilessly hostile to human life, which can be snuffed out at any minute and one day inevitably will be. I spend much of my time contemplating the finality of death and the implications it has for our everyday choices and morality. Metal music by focusing on the bigger things — and by having an often ruthlessly dark sense of humour about human frailty — reminds me of the bigger questions in life and reflects the topics I think are really worth talking about.

Even more, metal gives a certain hope by expanding our view of the world beyond personal drama and political fashion. In a society where secularism and scientific rationalism have all but won out, it’s nearly impossible to believe there is anything magical or esoteric about the world. Whilst I am quite happy we live in a time when backwoods superstitions are not the basis of our science and medicine, there is something nonetheless dispiriting knowing there’s no such thing as miracles, no demons or sorcery, and no great cosmic quest to set ourselves to, just the weekday commute and a beer in front of the TV whilst watching sports on the weekend. That we live in a universe ordered by mathematics and the office timesheet. I think most metalheads recognise this and secretly yearn for an excuse to be able to see their world in terms of something grand and magical, whether that be through the prism of The Lord of the Rings style epics or by believing that reality is all ultimately a battle of wills between God and Satan.

H.P. Lovecraft, who is not surprisingly the biggest influence on metal lyrics in literature, articulated this kind of feeling about the modern rational age better than anyone else. A fervent advocate of the secular and scientific way of thinking as the only way to understand our universe, Lovecraft nonetheless posed his fiction as a great cosmic gambit: what if we’re wrong and the universe is in fact populated by powerful forces and beings beyond our control and far beyond the possibility of our comprehension? In other words, what if what we think is “rational” is in fact our own human projection and nothing else, and we will not find out until something dark and unseen attacks? Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

For me, what begins as a question of why someone would listen to Ildjarn and not The Smiths ultimately boils down to how one views the world: either to see everything as knowable and within the grasp of human understanding, if we only figure out the maths behind it; or through the metal lens which views humans as tiny, arrogant and probably doomed. The former to me seems painfully dull and conformist, whilst the latter is dangerous but leaves plenty of possibilities open and ready to be explored. This is not a dichotomy between science and religion, because metalheads accept science, but a question of forward decisions: looking to what is important, what paths we should explore, and what might inspire us to be “better,” instead of merely safe, logical and inoffensive as science can advise us to be.

This conflict exists between a worldview that is hubristic about the capabilities of humanity (“Peace, science and John Lennon CDs will save the world!”) and a worldview that is more suspicious of straight and narrow paths. This second worldview that thinks there is always an undiscovered frontier over the next hill, always a need to veer off the well-trodden path, always going to be a reason to have to get your hands dirty. A worldview that embraces the inconveniences, imperfections and overall strangeness of being alive as actually part of the beauty of it. It rediscovers humanity by escaping our notion of humanity as perfect and instead looks to a universe of perpetual conflict and destruction for meaning. This is the world of metal and it is more real than your safe and trendy indie rock will ever pretend to be.

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25 comments

  • mooz

    Funny you mention The Smiths. I had a friend who was into the extreme metal canon, Burzum, Celtic Frost, all that, and one day he started finding passive-aggressive ways to let me know he has “grown out” of metal. He starts dressing different, referring to Darkthrone as “a band that finally grew out of mother’s basement,” and listening to–yup–The Smiths (who I got him into in the first place, ha ha), Kanye West, yesterday’s backpacker rap sensations, etc. I didn’t give a shit but apparently he found our ‘cultural differences’ irreconcilable and drifted away into a more “hip, savvy” circle of friends who were more willing to have tumblr accounts, pretend they’ve read Ulysses, etc.

    Irrelevant anecdote, but The Smiths are now such a symbol of fakery in my mind.

    To my ears good metal is more emotional than any whine-rock band. But it’s a positive, masculine kind of emotion, and if there’s anything frowned upon in modern western society it’s masculinity.

    1. Nomen Nescio

      Those who say that they’ve “grown out” of metal have never really “grown into” it, my friend. I still listen to classical, metal and progressive rock (which was the first music genre I got into) even after all these years, they just have something that most other genres don’t – they express their opinions allegorically, about life, existence and other such themes. It doesn’t just bluntly tell you about how money, hookers, partying & blow are “the life” or, if you’re a gentleman or lady of a bit more “sophisticated” nature, how the frontman’s date was a no-show and how he sat there, alone at the Starbucks quaffing his latte. To top it all off, when he came home his smartphone fell in the toilet which resulted in him being unable to tweet about which show he’s “ironically” watching or how he “ironically” likes books he’s never read.

      Metal is very hard to truly get into and understand, but the rewards are simply too great, but for most people it may be too real as well.

    2. Roger Waters' Unwashed Dildo

      The rap/Hip Hop scene is adamantly anti-hipster/backpacker. Then again it isn’t a reactionary genre and it’s truly the only remaining western music that hasn’t burned out. Moving on. Kanye doesn’t actually fit the bill of backpacker hip hop, you’re better off throwing RJD2, Tyler the Creator or MF Doom in there. In fact backpackers hate kanye almost entirely while universally lauding Immortal Technique and other underground bullshit.

  • Martin Jacobsen

    This is the best thinkpiece I’ve seen in some time. Really fantastic. Metal is a thinking-person’s artform. More than any genre-except maybe classical, from which it draws so much-metal is about potential and possibility. It’s about asking the question, pressing the edge. It does seek, in many ways, more artistic roots than most other forms of expression. You’ve written a great statement about our mindset, Rob! \m/

    1. Roger Waters' Unwashed Dildo

      “Metal is a thinking-person’s artform.”

      Would you care to elaborate on this? It’s always been my view that appreciation of music is a visceral and primal experience. Understanding the music is the intellectual component. However, that goes two ways: 1) Description of that visceral experience 2) Understanding composition.

      I can see metal being intellectual in the sense of point 2. But in the sense of point 1 I think it’s hard to make the argument.

    2. BB

      “A thinking-person’s art form?” Elitist jazz fans, elitist fans of contemporary classical music, elitist fans of shoe gaze, elitist fans of Cy Twombly and elitist fans of Murakami will claim the same. Stop thinking we are special.

      1. witten

        Well, we are special, because we like music that’s actually any good… The claim itself is of course not special.

      2. trystero

        Compared to those I would say we are special. In fact being a metalhead is acknowledgment of the fact that there is something special here by default no? I mean if you deny that then arent you just a regular dude who is into a lot of shit and listens to metal every now and then?

        This seems like the last place you would want to be, if so.

        1. BB

          Why limit yourself? But rest assured, I the main genre I listen to is metal.

          Nonetheless there is something special to be found in certain forms of jazz, classical and contemporary classical too. It just are different kinds of special. So again, why limit yourself to one kind of specialness?

  • witten

    Put more bluntly, everyday music deals with “reality” as in mundane everyday life; metal deals with reality beyond such trivialities.

    I think there’s an analogy with fundamental physics and mathematics: we often jokingly talk about how such abstract structures are removed from ‘reality’ as in everyday life, conferring no immediate practical benefits, but in fact we know that what they study is much more concerned with ‘reality’ than how much money you make and so forth.

  • witten

    On the other hand, I don’t think an optimistic worldview (my term for the worldview the article contrasts with metal’s) is necessarily strongly correlated with a tendency to listen to mundane music. I don’t know about the particular example of The Smiths, but most music that is not metal/classical, unless it’s particularly political (e.g. punk), simply does not take any view about the world at all. Does Pantera or Britney Spears believe in a vision of human progress and utopian ideals..?

    Regardless of that, I find the article’s point about metal’s worldview to be quite valid in itself.

    1. Rob Jones

      I wouldn’t say the people who listen to those sort of bands and have that worldview are genuinely optimistic, beyond a surface-level kind of Buzzfeed/Reddit flavoured optimism. The fact so many such people I can personally think of are either drunks or on anti-depressants says to me that the failure of their utopian outlook to really correlate much with reality actually makes them pretty lacking in optimism, deep down.

  • witten

    I must also say that while I’ve never gotten “the look of incredulity” for saying that I listen to metal, it’s a bit frustrating if unsurprising that everyone is surprised that the two genres of music I listen to are classical and metal: of course they think they are opposites, when in fact jazz is the antithesis of classical music… If there’s a specific and concrete (if difficult) goal we can have, it is to dethrone jazz (and the Beatles) and enthrone metal in public conception as ‘the other genre that a classical music connoisseur might listen to.’ Well, that will of course first take separating good metal from false metal…

    1. mooz

      Some folks get confrontational when you draw those connections between classical and metal, they get overly literal about how the techniques aren’t the same… the distinction that needs to be made is that metal has that Romantic sturm und drang and has “big picture” song structures that go somewhere, it’s not a matter of how many metal artists studied music theory at a conservatory or something.

      The best bet is to recommend some classicalheads your Onward to Golgothas and Pure Holocausts and Hell Awaits and see what they think about how the music’s put together. It should dawn on them naturally.

      1. Brett Stevens

        Metal shows how culture rebirths itself after deconstruction. Punk reduced music to nothingness; raw modal sequences with no center. Heavy metal re-created it by using those riffs as jigsaw puzzle pieces and making a bigger song out of the elements involved. The essence of heavy metal is fitting riffs together to tell a story, which is the narrative song construction that classical also uses, sometimes by default through its standard forms.

        Thus the two levels you mention are correct: (1) spirit (“sturm und drang”) or even the Baroque fetishism for order, balance and harmony even in disharmony (2) the “big picture” song structures that create an ongoing revelation that gets to a point and then re-establishes order. This is something that classical, metal and the forms of space ambient that tiny midget mentions have in common.

  • tiny midget

    I find the “cosmic couriers” of the early 70s fascinating as well; Klauz Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, Cluster. Steve Roach and Neptune Towers are a fine continuation of that cosmic worldview. Originally such authors required the listener to imagine himself through voyages through the immensity of space which in turn requested a less anthropocentric view of reality.

  • Nick

    My only issue with this article is the assertion that ‘science and rationalism’ condemns the values of myths to die by the wayside. The values themselves still exist in the power of human imagination and artistic creativity. Also, the Nature of Reality is actually far more strange and difficult for the human mind to actually *imagine* on its own. To consider a world(s) beyond our comprehension (for now) fills me with ineffable wonder! Maybe people just need to learn more science in conjunction with their studies or art/music/culture/history. All are connected. I, for one, would love to hear more music dedicated to the wonder of the Cosmos.

    1. Rob Jones

      “Maybe people just need to learn more science in conjunction with their studies or art/music/culture/history”.

      This I would agree with. More particularly, I would say more scientists need to acquaint themselves with philosophy. Or perhaps, more of the people who think having read The God Delusion and watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos makes them ‘scientifically enlightened’.

  • Silvio

    “This includes the political, because the only reason people talk, sing or demonstrate about political issues is to make themselves look cool, which is a way to get new girlfriends, meet drug connections and gather around a social group.”

    Exactly, that’s why my political agenda is to ban all talk, public or private, about political topics. That way I am able to pick up chicks who are subconsciously turned on by fascist tendencies, which is most of them (it’s biological), and when I’m inevitably elected president I can eliminate the competition just by keeping my campaign promises. I’ll be drowning in so much pussy, Genghis Khan himself will be smiling in his grave ever so slightly.

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  • David Missildine

    Love the article. I’ve always felt that listening to music, especially metal, was akin to a spiritual experience, most likely because of the questioning and journeying into the unknown feel to it.

    1. Luis Morán

      As a teenager and young adult atheist, I used to describe metal as the closest thing I had to a religion. Now in my 30s, metal has taken an even more central role of spiritual significance which I can only describe as sacred.

      In a world where nothing is sacred and everything/everyone can be used to feed the flames of someone else’s ego, metal can be (and has been for me) an anchor in the stormy seas of a civilization that is doing everything in its power to destroy itself.