The Metal and Cultural Impact (MACI) conference launches its inaugural meeting on the topic of “Metal’s Role in the 21st Century” in Dayton, OH from November 6-8, 2014. This conference features a number of metal academics of note discussing the effect metal has on the society around it through culture.
The University of Dayton Department of English, the Graul Chair in Arts and Languages, and the International Society of Metal Music Studies are the primary sponsors of the conference. It winds up with an evening concert featuring local bands chosen by Alex Skolnick (Testament, Savatage), who also presents a panel on “Louder Education” at the conference. Ticket proceeds benefit two charities, the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund and Project READ.
A forthcoming journal on folk-metal, mostly in the pagan metal and viking metal sub-genres, requests that those with essays on the topic submit them for publication next year. The journal focuses on metal bands who use traditional musical instruments, lyrical references to customs and mythology, allusions to traditional culture, or displaying of cultural imagery in performer attire and artwork.
Folk-metal refers to the style of music that arose in the 1990s in Europe which consisted of “fusing traditional or folk music with heavy metal music forms.” The journal lists a number of bands from the power metal, black metal and death metal genres who qualify under this style:
Interested writers must submit a 300-word abstract and short biography of 50-100 words to to the editor, Dr Jenny Butler at email@example.com and cc. to butler.Jennifer@gmail.com by November 10, 2014. The final essays must be 4,000-7,000 words and will be due by June 1, 2015.
The journal suggests the following themes as a topical starting point:
Folklore, song lyrics, and cultural identity
Neo-pagan worldview of the bands
History of the genre, participants and events
Indigenous religion and mythology
Political and/or nationalistic agendas
The concept of homeland
The representation of deities and mythological beings in songs
For those metalheads from black metal or other genres with a medieval leaning, an opportunity arises in the call for papers issued by the International Congress on Medieval Studies. If you write on medieval topics, you may consider submitting a paper:
Imbas is an interdisciplinary postgraduate conference hosted annually by NUI Galway. The conference gives postgraduate students the opportunity to present ongoing work and to discuss their research with peers in an informal, interdisciplinary setting. The 2014 Imbas committee is delighted to announce the call for papers for the 2014 conference. The theme of the conference is ‘East – West and the Middle Ages’, and it will run from the 28th to 30th November at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway.
Imbas accepts papers from all disciplines, with a focus on any topic from Late Antiquity to the end of the medieval period. Interested postgraduates are invited to submit a title and abstract of 250-300 words, for a research paper of 20 minutes, to the Imbas committee at firstname.lastname@example.org by 15th September, 2014. For more information see http://www.nuigalway.ie/imbas/
Selected proceedings from the conference will be published in our peer-reviewed journal.
Metal academics might find it interesting to submit here and draw some parallels between medieval practices and those of modern black metal. If nothing else, this would be a great place for all the swords and armor pictures that from Manowar onward have graced metal with their presence.
Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone is Associate Professor of Anthropology, and Curator of the McClure Archives and University Museum, at the University of Central Missouri. She specializes in the study of gender and sexuality in music scenes, and also works as in textile curation and preventive conservation.
Dr. Clifford-Napoleone also curates the largest collections of Middle Eastern traditional material culture in America. She is also a lifelong metal fan and one of the founders of the International Society for Metal Music Studies. She lives in rural Missouri with her wife, three dogs, and a very large collection of industrial metal.
We were lucky to get a few words with Dr. Clifford-Napoleone on the topic of metal and its relation to power and her study area of specialty.
You are an anthropologist. What drew you to this discipline?
I got into anthropology as a young child. I used to pretend I was Howard Carter in King Tut’s tomb! I started volunteering at a museum, working for an anthropologist, when I was a freshman in high school. I planned on being an archaeologist, but I didn’t like the excavations as much as the lab work. Then I started working in material culture studies and ethnography, and everything just clicked. I love the way that anthropology teaches us how to be more human, to revel in diversity as our biological imperative, to really see the world for the enormous ball of complexity that it is.
What is the anthropological perspective on heavy metal? Has this been enhanced by your own personal knowledge of and enjoyment of this genre?
Lots of folks might think anthropology and heavy metal is an odd fit, but actually anthropologists have worked on topics in heavy metal for a long time. Jeremy Wallach, one of the founders of metal studies, is a cultural anthropologist working on heavy metal in Indonesia. Sam Dunn, whom I am sure many of your readers know from his films, is an anthropologist from Canada. There are many others. For an anthropologist, all aspects of human life are considered both unique and important. That extends to heavy metal as well, and anthropologists who work on heavy metal topics discuss is cultural, social, artistic and sonic effects in all sorts of ways. As to your second question, the answer is a resounding yes. I tell my own students that they will always be successful if their career engages them in things they are passionate about. I love heavy metal, and my passion for heavy metal is absolutely part of my ability to think, talk and write about metal as an anthropologist.
You’ve got a book coming out in 2014 about queer fans in heavy metal. Can you tell me more about what’s going to be in it?
My book on queer fans (Queerness in Heavy Metal: Metal Bent, to be published by Routledge and released in February 2015) is the result of seven years of work talking to queer fans, and researching the influence of queer performers and lyrics on heavy metal scenes. My book includes a lot of material about the role queerness played, and continues to play, in heavy metal. That includes the information I received from over 500 self-identified queer fans who took my online survey, and dozens that participated in individual interviews with me. I see my work as transdisciplinary- anthropology certainly, but also metal studies, ethnomusicology, cultural studies, gender and sexuality. I’m trying to make the case the metal is inherently a queer institution.
How do you study queer fans of heavy metal? What kind of barriers do you face in trying to contact them, learn about them and so on?
Queer fans of heavy metal are more connected than you might think. There are a handful of active discussion groups, listservs and websites devoted to queer fans of heavy metal, as well as some Facebook groups and blogs. As a queer metal fan myself, I was already a member of a lot of those groups. Once I started posting the link to the survey online, queer fans just sent it out to other lists, groups, and folks that they knew. I’ve also posted it on my blog and website, and always talk about it when I give lectures or papers at conferences. Because my survey is anonymous, queer fans feel pretty comfortable telling me exactly what they think too. I ended up with information from queer fans from six continents and 39 countries.
Rob Halford is generally credited with heavy metal’s imagery of leather clothing, whips, motorcyles and studded leather belts. In one VH1 documentary I watched (yes a very credible source!) one of the pundits credited this imagery to the gay community in London in the 1970s. In your view, is this correct? Has heavy metal appropriated most of its image from the gay community?
In my opinion, there is absolutely no doubt that Halford started that trend, and even less doubt that it came from the gay leather community. This is one of the things I discuss in detail in my book. Did earlier metal acts wear leather jackets? Sure, taken either from post-World War II bomber jacket style, or late 1960s leather belted coats, or even from the post-war motorcycle culture in America and the Rockers in the UK. The problem is, if you take an image of Halford premiering his leather look, and set it side-by-side with Sabbath or Motorhead or even Blue Cheer, you’ll see that Halford’s leather is entirely different. Ozzy wore striped bell bottom jeams and a brown belted coat for many of their early appearances. Even Alice Cooper wore bell bottoms and white clothes on stage until Halford picked up a whip. If you take that same iconic image of Halford’s leather look and set it next to images from gay leather culture, you have an exact match. Rob Halford has, over the years, given some different statements on whether he identified with leather culture or not, but that’s where the look came from. What I find interesting is not only that heavy metal style comes from gay leather culture, but how heavy metal also appropriated the masculinity that came with that and then pretended that didn’t happen. If you really think about it, if we push masculinity to its limits can we get any more masculine than muscular leather men who only have sex with other men? Funny that heavy metal keeps trying to refashion that as straight male masculinity, when it never was.
Other than overlap between members, what do you think are the similarities between the heavy metal experience and the gay experience? Are both outsider groups, thus privy to certain knowledge that the socially accepted cannot perceive, or is it something else?
I can tell you one thing for certain- the queer fans I’ve spoken with see and feel an overlap. One fan called this feeling “outsider togetherness,” this idea that queer metal fans are outsiders in two overlapping worlds. The similarities between these overlapping outsider worlds are the kinds of similarities that anthropologists see in most marginalized groups: a coded language, symbols that mean something specific that people who are not outsiders do not understand, certain styles, and particular ways of using space. For example, let’s consider the dog collar, a popular accessory in heavy metal and punk scenes. I remember in the 1980s, we all did odd jobs around my neighborhood so we could buy studded dog collars at pet stores to look tough. I had a leather studded collar that I actually took off my dog to wear, and I equated it with being tough and being metal. That was the symbol of being a metal chick. Now, many years later, I know that people in BDSM relationships refer to certain submissives as being “collared” or “under the collar.” For BDSM-identified folks, seeing someone in a leather vest and a collar might mean something much more complex than just “I’m a tough metal chick.” The coded ways of existing in marginalized groups is complex insider knowledge, and for queer fans of heavy metal, even more complex because you can see where the codes overlap.
You also have expertise in textiles and their conservation. Are there any parallels you can draw between the conservation of textiles and the conservation of a culture or art form? What about a lifestyle?
Conservation is a big and tricky word. The idea is that you are preventing further damage, keeping something safe for perpetuity. As a museum curator, I work with textiles so that future generations can access them, study them, and perhaps understand something about the people who used them. I think that, in some way, we are always involved in the act of conserving our culture, whether that be lifestyles or arts or anything else. We record our music, we photograph things that signal our interests, we hand down important belongings- even the selfie that we see so often in social media is an example of conserving yourself, your life. How often do you tell a story about yourself, post a pic of your dinner or your beer on Facebook, post your music and art to the web so that others can rip, save or archive it? I think that for me, and speaking as a museum curator, the biggest conservation challenge is a digital one. It will be interesting to see what is actually conserved from an increasingly digital world. After all, how many emails do we actually print to save for some future archive?
Conserving a lifestyle or an art form is difficult. As an anthropologist, I think it might even be impossible. You cannot stop change. Human beings change, their environment changes, societies expand and contract. Art objects, recordings or paintings or quilts, we can conserve those. But conserving a lifestyle suggests we can trap humans in time like ancient insects encased in amber. And we can’t. Even if we could, I’m not sure we should. Heavy metal, as a subculture and an assemblage of scenes, has so many artifacts to leave behind: sounds, styles, film, images, on and on. But conserving the actual feeling of standing on a floor with a thousand other metalheads, blast beats shaking your bones, heads banging in rhythm? I don’t think we could conserve that any more than we could conserve our other feelings. Heavy metal has to change too, it is a human movement.
In a blog post, you mention studying the connections between leather and metal communities. What kind of connections are these? How do we observe them?
The connections are long-standing and quite deep. The first gay rights organization chartered in the United States was a leather motorcycle club, The Satyrs. Young metalheads, and later industrial and goth metal fans, found themselves welcomed in leather bars, clubs and parties where their tastes in style were not seen as threatening. After Halford premiered his leather look the ties became even more solid: metal performers donning leather gear, leather organizations using metal imagery and language, even the appearance of metal tracks at leather bars and parties. I think the key to observing them, however, is to know the history of leather-identified people in the western world. Leather-identified folks have been vilified and stereotyped for decades, both people in the queer communities and people form the straight communities. If you really want to understand those connections, you have to engage with leather culture in a new way. A visit to the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago is a great start, I can never thank the staff there enough for everything they do for the leather community and its history. My week there as Visiting Scholar was one of the most important intellectual periods of my career.
You refer to metal as a “transitory space.” What defines a transitory space? What can be done in a transitory space that can’t be done in a regular cultural/artistic space?
Transitory essentially means temporary, almost an ethereal space that will only be there for a blink in time. If we think about metal concerts, for example, I think we see a good example. Imagine a concert experience you’ve had: the sound, the crowd, the music in your ears and the bass thumping in your bones. But when the concert ends, the metal space evaporates. The memory of it sits in your brain and your bones, but the next concert will be nothing like the one before. Transitory spaces provide a place for playing with the rules, because it is all going up in smoke anyway. I went to a Killswitch Engage show last year, and down in the mosh pit was a very tall, extremely muscular guy in a Little Bo Peep outfit. He was moshing with ferocity, with his bonnet on and his lace skirts flapping away. Am I going to see that at every show? Hell no, I’ve been going to shows for 25 years and that’s my first Bo Peep in the moshpit. Did I see that, hear it, feel it the same way as the guy standing next to me? Not even possible, I have no idea what he was thinking about Bo Peep. And when the show was over, Bo Peep was gone. You can’t play like that in a permanent space. If I showed up at the office tomorrow in a Bo Peep outfit, I’d be sent home.
For many years I’ve considered metal to be music dedicated to power, where most other music is dedicated to satiation. Do you see power as important in metal? How do power, sex and attitudes toward gender reveal themselves?
Power is such a slippery concept, isn’t it. Power over what, or who? Empowered or powerful? I agree, I think metal is about power. But I also think metal is about the brutality of life, about survival no matter how bloody the battle. Power in metal is so much about metal as a home for outsiders, a place where those of us who feel like we don’t fit (for whatever reason) find a place where the extremity of the sound matches the extremity of our experiences. It is a power that really refuses to bow to authority, and a bodily refusal at that since metal is so physical. So in metal we’re not really saying “I’m in power, I will tell you what to do,” we’re saying, “I’m a survivor, you can’t tell me what to do.” There’s a fascinating dynamic in there. Sex and gender, especially for people whose bodies, desires and orientations don’t fit what mainstream authority says is acceptable, fits in that conception of power. It’s my body, you can’t tell me what to do with it. I’ve read a lot online recently suggesting that hyperfeminine women in metal were anti-feminist too, and I don’t agree. Third wave feminism is right in line with the thinking about power in metal. There’s very little difference between “you can’t tell me what to do” and “get your laws off my body.” For queer folks, the power in metal also means that your refusal to bow to authority might mean losing family, friends, being isolated, and for intersex and trans folks the very real fight against a world that demands you act your body. Imagine the bodily refusal, the physical power in that individual act. This is sonic power too. You hear a song that empowers you, and it travels with you in your ears, in your memory, in your tissues. You see a show that empowers you, and the sight is branded on your brain.
In addition to your book, you’re fully active in the academic community including supporting metal. What’s ahead for you?
A lot. I’m giving one of the keynote lectures at the Metal and Cultural Impact conference in Ohio this November, and then getting ready for the Metal, Markets and Materials international conference in Helsinki in June 2015. I’m Treasurer for the International Society for Metal Music Studies, and we’re going to have a busy year getting membership systems rolling and the first issue of the journal Metal Music Studies out to the world. I’ve also got some essays in a couple of forthcoming collections, one based on the presentations at the Cologne conference in 2008, and another from the meeting in Puerto Rico last March. I’m lucky, I get to spend part of my day working with the smartest metal intellectuals on Earth, bringing metal studies to the masses. I’ve also got a second book on the way soon, the publication of my doctoral dissertation on sexuality in jazz scene Kansas City before World War II.
Do you think academia’s expanding focus on metal has brought more light to outsider communities? What do you think is responsible for the post-2006 relatively large expansion in metal and academia?
I think outsider communities are always going to be outside in some way. In truth, several of us who identify as metal scholars talk about our concerns in bringing academic attention to metal. But let’s face it, metal has always received a lot of attention, and not always positive. And it survives, maybe better than it ever has before, and still just as outsider as always. If we can survive Tipper Gore and Hot Topic, then metal will be just fine. I do think that the academic work on metal will bring better, more focused attention to metal scenes and fans, instead of the tired old stereotypes. As for the increased attention, that’s the work of a core of brilliant metalhead folks who are teaching, writing, and thinking about heavy metal in academic terms.
Can you tell us about your own history with metal? How did you get involved? Were you a fan first, or a researcher first?
Definitely a fan first. I started listening to metal as a kid growing up in west Texas. In my mixed-race and working class neighborhood you listened to three things: metal, country, and pop music from Mexico. I grew up listening to a tossed salad of Sabbath, Bob Wills and Menudo. First metal record I “owned” (I bootlegged it from the radio) was Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots.” Then I got an 8-track of Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida,” it was 1979 and my mom got it for me at a garage sale, I was 5. It was all downhill after that. I was a big-haired 80s glam band girl in the 80s, with posters of Motley Crue on the wall, and I have Tipper Gore to thank for turning me on to Judas Priest. By the mid to late 1990s I was a Rivethead, and I still love industrial and industrial goth metal. I started reading academic work about metal when I was in graduate school in the late 1990s. By the time I was done with my dissertation, I knew I wanted to devote my research to heavy metal.
Metal folks always want to know what you’re into now. I like my metal heavy, weapons grade plutonium heavy. I’m not much for thrash and speed metal. A good sludge album, a heavy shoegaze record, something dark and funereal- that’s what I prefer. I also listen to records by bands with openly queer members, and a ton of classic NWOBHM. Priest is my favorite band of all time. Last show I went to was Killswitch Engage, and my next three shows are Motley Crue’s farewell, Joan Jett and then Judas Priest’s latest tour. And my favorite recording right now? Torche’s Leather Feather.
Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory occupies a distinct niche in the publishing world. Inspired by academia, it nonetheless attempts to construct theory around the motivations of black metal, instead of trying to fit metal into existing academic theories as most publications tend to do. While it missteps somewhat by included adulterated post-collapse black metal in the genre such as Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy, the journal digs into topics that neither metal underworld nor academic hierarchy can address.
Anticipating its third and fourth issues, Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory calls for papers and art for those forthcoming issues. You can download the first issue of Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory from the Punctum Books website; a donation is optional. The journal seeks the following:
This third issue of Helvete focuses on the sonic aspects of black metal, specifically noise music’s interactions with black metal—the interruptions, creations, and destructions of signals as black metal. Proposals are welcomed that discuss and experimentally demonstrate not only musical feedback but conceptual feedback as well, and the way that black metal works through feedback as a process. Experimentation, fiction, and speculation in contributions are encouraged, including writing and art that resonates as a background hum, drone, or cascades in a foregrounded scream. Preference will be given to proposals that move beyond a position of reflecting black metal towards creating black metal noise themselves.
Issue 4 is tentatively titled Black Metal and Politics, and seeks to give a concentrated platform to the conversations that have been happening alongside our theoretical work, regarding black metal’s complicated and diverse relationships to politics. The complex subject of politics and black metal, directly and para-musically, has long been brushed up against within black metal theory work, but rarely unfolded at length. We would like to reserve this issue of Helvete as a forum to begin to address and perhaps even articulate some of these discussions. While some may insist that black metal (as a diverse field of culture and music) exists outside of politics or cannot be described politically, it frequently sparks political repercussions, and its history courts political controversy. These include headline grabbing moments such as Varg Vikernes’s arrest in 2013 by the French government on accounts of suspicion of planning a terrorist attack; Norway’s implementation in 2011 of black metal education within its foreign diplomats; Nachtmystium’s forced cancellation in 2009 of a concert at Scion Rock Fest in Atlanta, Georgia; Inquisition’s forced cancellation in 2014 of their Vienna, Austria concert due to alleged connections to NSBM; and the complete ban on black metal in Malaysia in 2006. Most recently, Behemoth‘s recent encounter with Polish and Russian authorities has been well documented in the mainstream press. It may seem that the proposition that black metal is apolitical is itself a (privileged) political position. The editors of Helvete are accepting proposals for essays that focus on politics and black metal. Contributors are encouraged to suggest topics such as Black Metal’s interactions with nation, race, linguistic, gender, religion, and culture. Special consideration will be given to the explorations of the negotiations that the individual makes within the city or community, using black metal as a verb rather than a noun.
For more information, see the website for Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory. The deadline for both proposals is August 1, 2014 but may be extended to accommodate late notice for many people of this call for papers. The next two issues will be edited by Amelia Ishmael and Niall Scott.
Metal took its time to be accepted by social institutions. At the outset, metal appeared to most as another variety of rock. But with NWOBHM it distinguished itself and then went underground with speed metal. During those years, society rejected metal first for its repugnance to conservative moral ideals, and next for its alienation of liberal social ideals. It thus made itself friendless in a time where having political clout matters.
One reason for a lack of acceptance by some areas, such as the art world, is that metal is not controllable. As Bruce Dickenson (Iron Maiden) said in a recent interview:
The closest the “art establishment” ever came to embracing metal was punk. The reason they embraced punk was because it was rubbish and the reason they embraced rubbish was because they could control it. They could say: “Oh yeah, we’re punk so we can sneer at everybody. We can’t play our fucking instruments, but that means we can make out that this whole thing is some enormous performance art.” Half the kids that were in punk bands were laughing at the art establishment, going: “What a fucking bunch of tosspots. Thanks very much, give us the money and we’ll fuck off and stick it up our nose and shag birds.” But what they’d really love to be doing is being in a heavy metal band surrounded by porn stars.”
During the 1980s, Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) demanded warning stickers on music with content that advocated drugs, casual or perverse sex, violence and mayhem. Naturally this included most of heavy metal (sex) and most of speed metal (violence). Until rap music came along and blew those old standards out of the water by making most of heavy metal’s worst moments look tame, a real threat of economic censorship — forcing up the cost and legal risk of selling heavy metal, thus encouraging record stores to quit selling it — hovered over heavy metal.
Although the transition to online sales (1998) and resulting lack of control helped, another factor changed which put metal into hyperdrive as far as social acceptance: it found an audience in mainstream politics. As the Washington Post wrote in “Heavy Metal Gets Socially Conscious”:
More than three decades after Black Sabbath conjured images of the dark arts, heavy metal is growing up. The genre is increasingly incorporating social and political messages into its dense power chords.
The art world did not accept metal in the past because it could not be controlled. Neither did the moral world, nor the political world. Now metal has created a hybrid of itself — the indie rock, lite-jazz and grindcore infused postmodern metal genres — that is artistically acceptable, morally tame and politically acceptable. The question remains: does that mean that it is now controlled?
To provide an intellectual hub for the International Society of Metal Music Studies and a vehicle to promote the development of metal music studies;
To be the focus for research and theory in metal music studies – a multidisciplinary (and interdisciplinary) subject field that engages with a range of parent disciplines, including (but not limited to) sociology, musicology, humanities, cultural studies, geography, philosophy, psychology, history, natural sciences;
To publish high-quality, world-class research, theory and shorter articles that cross over from the industry and the scene;
To be a world leader in interdisciplinary studies and be a unique resource for metal music studies.
Jeremy Wallach made a name for himself by studying metal before it was cool, and he has expanded upon it by taking his studies worldwide. As co-editor of Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World, he explored the impact of metal on different cultures and the impact of those cultures on metal around the world. In addition, he has written numerous articles on the study of metal from many other perspectives.
Were you a metalhead before you became an academic? If so, what drew you to metal at that time?
I’m 43 and grew up outside of Philly. Like almost everybody of my age and background, I spent my teens mostly listening to rock music. My favorite band when I was thirteen was Rush and my favorite song from Moving Pictures was “Witch Hunt,” the heaviest track on the album. From there I branched out into the harder stuff: AC/DC, Priest, Maiden, BÖC, etc. By senior year of high school, I was listening to the likes of Anthrax, Slayer, Cryptic Slaughter, SOD, and Dead Brain Cells. A fairly normal, demented progression, really. As for what drew me to it, I suppose that could end up becoming a very long essay! In a nutshell, I was attracted to the music’s intelligence, complexity, social relevance, and brutality. It was music that for me told the truth about life.
By my senior year of college, I was convinced of two things: one, metal was a valuable and compelling cultural form that was completely misunderstood by the adult world, and two, the approaches to music and culture that I had discovered in my ethnomusicology and anthropology classes could be used to explain the importance of metal to outsiders.
Being a part of metal studies has been a learning experience. One thing I’ve learned is that in 2014 metal is more diverse and inclusive than I ever would have thought possible twenty-odd years ago. Metal’s message has more global currency than anyone could have suspected when the genre first coalesced. The consequence of this has been a field of study that has more relevance to the contemporary world than the vast majority of new fields that focus on popular culture phenomena that had their start in the 70s and 80s. One of the most challenging topics in metal studies at this point is social class. Metal’s blue-collar fan base is often difficult to locate in the 21st century flourishing and diversification of the music, especially outside of the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. We should never lose sight of the fact that it was working-class folks, people without much formal education, who set the template for heavy metal’s musical sophistication, aesthetics, and dark vision.
I was attracted to the music’s intelligence, complexity, social relevance, and brutality. It was music that for me told the truth about life.
Some of your research appears to take an “ethnographic” approach, which is a study of culture. Do you consider heavy metal a culture? If so, does it inherit properties from a broader culture, or is it a wholly self-owned entity?
I was trained as a cultural anthropologist and an ethnomusicologist in graduate school. Ethnography is the primary mode of research in these fields as they are currently practiced. “Deep hanging out” is my favorite definition of ethnography, although usually it’s quite a bit more systematic than that. Basically it involves long-term engagement with a finite group of people, gradually learning to see and experience the world the way they do. You have to master local languages and idioms, really be able to listen, and be willing to be changed by what people tell you. It’s difficult and not everyone can do it, as you can’t really maintain any sort of comfort zone. Metal ethnographers spend lots of time at shows, clubs, and recording studios, but also in cars, bars, record stores, and anywhere else metalheads gather. Pierre Hecker’s book on Turkish metal is an excellent example of a book-length ethnographic study of heavy metal.
There is a range of theories regarding how music cultures like metal interface with the “parent cultures” in which they are embedded. It’s more common now to refer to metal collectivities as “scenes” than as “subcultures.” This is mostly because of advances in cultural theory that emphasize how no culture can be a “wholly self-owned entity” of homogeneous values. All cultures have porous boundaries and are composed of contested meanings. Accordingly, metal music scenes encompass contradictory sets of values, from the celebration of virtuosity and freedom of prog to the despair and resignation of doom to the nihilism and misanthropy of black metal (etc.), and within each of these subgenres there are internal tensions as well, as most readers here know. Some of these competing values echo those of dominant culture (male supremacy, individualism), others resist it (anti-religion, anti-war, pro-drunken revelry). Even the values that seem to fit with dominant culture are not passively inherited but instead tend to be actively renegotiated and rearticulated to fit the conditions of the lives of the actual metalheads composing, performing, listening to, and interpreting metal.
That of your work that I could find online seems to emphasize spaces, both real and virtual, in not only the work but the audience. For example, your analysis of a rock club emphasizes spaces by role (shades of Christopher Alexander) and look at social/cultural separation between bands and fans in an insightful way. What are spaces? Can they be psychological or even artistic? Where do you find them in metal?
Metal culture has always been about claiming space. At the beginning of his book Running with the Devil, Robert Walser writes, “Metal energizes the body, transforming space and social relations.” It’s kind of a throwaway line in the first chapter, but like so much of what’s in that book, it hits the nail on the head. Steve Waksman’s research focuses on how metal’s powerful amplification made it the ideal music to fill arenas, while Keith Kahn-Harris’s work brings attention to the other side of the of the phenomenon: the proliferation of precarious spaces around the world for underground metal that becomes understood as a connected global network of unstable scenes. Emma Baulch has written about the importance of “territorializing” and thus localizing the underground metal scene in Bali, Indonesia, of claiming space, as Walser puts it, “in the name of a heavy metal community.” Nelson Varas Díaz has looked at practices of temporary space annexation by Puerto Rico’s proud and longstanding but highly marginalized metal scene. In all these cases “metal space” is anyplace marked by metal iconography, filled with metal sounds, and inhabited by metalheads. Seems obvious, but what’s not is what exactly goes on in metal space, which can only go on if metal space first exists. Lately I’ve become intrigued by the possibility that a type of metal space exists whenever two or more metalheads are interacting, regardless of whether the music or the iconography are in fact present at that moment. Like, I could be wearing a suit jacket at an academic conference and join some similarly-garbed graduate students in an intense conversation about Candlemass and somehow the space is transformed.
You have been a featured speaker at several recent metal conferences. How does it feel to be part of a rising academic movement? What do you think made metal finally accepted into academia?
It’s been great, of course. Metal studies appears to be an idea whose time has come. This is both a good and potentially problematic thing. Why now? An astonishing number of us were born around the time the first Sabbath record came out. We’re the first completely heavy metal generation, and now we’re finally old and established enough to change the conversation about metal in the mainstream press, rock criticism, and in scholarship. The last of these took the longest, due to the long slog of the academic profession, but we’ve made remarkable progress since 2008, thanks in part to the ease of international communication. There aren’t that many metal scholars in the world, and we come from Germany, Brazil, Finland, Turkey, New Zealand, the UK, California, Massachusetts, all over the place, but we keep in touch with each other, and the undeniable vitality and high intellectual caliber of our conferences and publications have won over more than a few formerly skeptical colleagues and administrators at our universities and in the wider academic world.
What do you think is the future of metal in academia, and how do you expect to support this with your own research?
I think metal studies has a bright future. Twenty-two years after completing my undergraduate thesis, it’s nice to see metal getting some respect. The truth is, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Metal matters — a lot — to tens of millions of people around the world and all indications are that it will not only continue to do so but that it will continue to win new converts in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, India, and China, as well as among future generations in places already colonized. That means the study of heavy metal will matter, too, whether one likes it or not, at least for the segment of metal’s audience who cares about intellectual issues.
To answer the second part of your question, in my recent work, I have quite self-consciously tried to produce things that will be useful to scholars just beginning their research. The “Local Metal” piece I wrote with Allie Levine on how to study scenes (reprinted in Controversies and Countercultures) is an example of that.
What, in your view, is the (apparently) enduring appeal of heavy metal, such that it is now more than four decades old and going quite strong?
There are many schools of thought regarding metal’s appeal across the world. Some of the most common explanations, the “teenage need to rebel” and whatnot, are facile and condescending to the music’s audience. I would prefer not to speculate on this question. But I will say this: don’t forget that metal is great art. Metalheads listen to metal because they find it aesthetically compelling. To ignore this obvious explanation is to invalidate, to pathologize, the aesthetics of the fans—which I would never do, because I am a fan.
If metal was just about fulfilling male adolescent power fantasies, its appeal would be mainstream, not subcultural.
Much of your research seems to focus on masculinity in metal. Does metal have its own concept of masculinity? Is this concept stifled by society at large?
I’ve lately come to the conclusion that debates about masculinity and metal suffer from some significant shortcomings. It has become commonplace to maintain that metal somehow compensates men for the power they lack that they feel they should have in a patriarchal society that denies it to them. I have made similar statements myself. But this definitely oversimplifies things. What “men” are we talking about here? Young men? Working-class men, maybe? Men like that do have power — powerful bodies, powerful minds, power to defend themselves and others. There are external forces who want to harness that tremendous power and transform those who possess it into mindless worker bees or killing machines. Metal songs often advise people to beware of those forces; I think the music is also more about using and valuing the power one does have than fantasizing about the power one lacks.
Furthermore, such assertions make metal redundant. We already have video games and blockbuster action movies and in fact practically all mainstream popular culture that isn’t centrally concerned with the myth of romance. If metal was just about fulfilling male adolescent power fantasies, its appeal would be mainstream, not subcultural. Thus to understand metal, we need to dig deeper.
To its fans, metal is a powerful and empowering music; it gives listeners a sense of control over their own lives. That power is not always experienced as masculine, however, or as gendered at all. Metal’s detractors often charge that the music glorifies the dark side of power in its portrayal of war atrocities, serial killers, state oppression, nuclear destruction, etc. But depiction is not endorsement…I’ve gone on long enough already, but I’ll end just by saying that metal’s view of power is ambivalent, alert to both its allure and its perpetual dark side to which no one is ever immune. It addresses its audience as ambivalent empowered agents, never as emasculated victims. Some fans of course simply embrace the dark side, disavowing ambivalence. That’s one possible interpretive strategy, though it’s not the most common.
You are an acknowledged expert in Southeast Asian, specifically Indonesian, metal and culture. What drew you to this area? How is metal from this area similar to that in other areas? Are there differences?
Indonesia has had a vibrant, massive metal scene for three decades, quite possibly the largest in Asia. The scene is connected to those in two adjacent Southeast Asian nations, Malaysia and Singapore, which are similarly quite active and share a (somewhat) mutually intelligible language, Indonesian/Malay. Since, until the quite recent advent of folk metal, English was the only acceptable language for international metal, lots of bands from all three countries sing in that language, too. Since I began studying the Indonesian scene about twenty years ago (visiting there the first time in 1997), I’ve compared it to other metal scenes around the planet. I’ve found that Indonesia really is remarkable for the size, longevity, and dedication of its metal scene, which is older and a great deal larger than the burgeoning metal scenes in most other Asian nations (with the exception of Japan, of course). It’s also perhaps unique in that Joko Widodo, the current front-runner in the July Indonesian presidential election, is a proud, outspoken headbanger. So Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, might be the origin of the first metalhead world leader. Which of course raises the question, why is metal so big there? Still working on that one…
Do you have any personal favorite metal bands? If so, what are they?
Let me preface this by saying that my listening preferences are eclectic and I try to listen to both fashionable and unfashionable subgenres of metal. (For example, I really like Head Phones President, a Japanese group whose sound owes an obvious debt to the most vilified of American nü-metal bands; I also dig some power metal.) I’m also hardly esoteric in my tastes, and if I find out about an amazing obscure band it’s either serendipitous or, more likely, a recommendation from one of my students. All that said, of course! Recent discoveries: I got to hear some great bands in Puerto Rico back in March, including Tavú, Organic, and doom metal scene stalwarts Dantesco. Erico from Dantesco is currently my favorite vocalist, along with Silent Hell’s Kin Lin. Vallendusk’s a great atmospheric black metal band that sounds to me like a sort of a cross between Alcest and Panopticon, and they’re from Indonesia! I should also mention Winterhymn, who I saw on tour with Paganfest—great Viking/folk metal from my home state of Ohio. I don’t know what their story is, but their music is quite impressive and represents a sadly underappreciated subgenre in the States. As for personal favorites, mostly predictable I’m afraid: Chthonic, Fates Warning, Sabbath, Slayer, Maiden, Priest, Amorphis, Anthrax, Sepultura, St. Vitus, and the Indonesian bands Seringai, Puppen, and Slowdeath.
I will say this: don’t forget that metal is great art. Metalheads listen to metal because they find it aesthetically compelling.
Where is the best place for someone to go to read more of your work?
My website has an online CV with links to PDFs of many of my publications. The articles are there with the permission of the individual publishers, so not everything is up, but it’s a good place to start. Once I started putting things on the page, I started finding many more references to my work in the Indonesian news media, not to mention student essays posted online. Unfortunately a lot of what I’ve written is still hard to get a hold of for anyone without access to an academic library, though I know a number of public libraries now carry Metal Rules the Globe. Readers of this interview can always contact me directly, especially if they’ve actually read this far!
What’s next for you? You’ve got a book forthcoming and are rumored to be working on new research. Can you tell us what future directions you’re pursuing?
Esther Clinton and I are working on another edited volume, sort of a follow-up to MRTG. I probably shouldn’t say much about it, since it’s still in the beginning phase. I also think it might upset some people. Additionally, I’m working on various pieces of writing that develop ideas mentioned in this interview involving power, ethics, and sociality in metal culture. There’s other stuff, always more than I can manage.
Heavy metal is a strange case, then. The music sprouted originally from working-class kids in economically ravaged, deindustrialized places like Birmingham, England. Even today, it seems to be most popular among disadvantaged, alienated, working-class kids.
But take a look at the map below, which I wrote about two years ago, and have been thinking again about over the past couple of months. It tracks the number of heavy metal bands per 100,000 residents using data from the Encyclopaedia Metallum. The genre holds less sway in the ravaged postindustrial places of its birth, but remains insanely popular in Scandinavian countries known for their relative wealth, robust social safety nets, and incredibly high quality of life.
This should surprise no one. Heavy metal is not a reaction to external physical challenges like poverty, but a reaction to cultural decay. It exclusively arises in industrial societies, as did punk, because our problem is not that we do not have options but that we — in the view of these artists — picked the wrong options. Heavy metal is music of internal criticism of a society that believes it has lost sight of life itself in the midst of its own opinions, economics and other proxies.
Heavy metal inherited all of this through a modern form because of its desire to escape the cognitive dissonance reaction to modern life. In part, this impulse comes from the metalhead who realizes that he or she is basically powerless, except in a future time when predictions about the negative nature of modern society will come true. Of course, in the now, parents brush that aside and go shopping, stockpiling retirement funds so they can carelessly wish their children a good life before disappearing into managed care facilities with 24-hour cable movie channels. A more fundamental part of this dissident realism is creative. People who see most of society going into denial because they cannot handle their low social status, the dire future of human overpopulation and industrialization, and the negative motivations hiding beneath social pretense, aka “cognitive dissonance,” will often mourn most for the opportunities lost when people value putting their heads in the sand more than finding beauty in life. It is the convergence of these ideas that creates the violent and masculine but sensitive, Romantic side to metal: it is a genre of finding beauty in darkness, order in chaos, wisdom in horror, and restoring humanity to a path of sanity — by paying attention to the “heavy” things in life that, because they are socially denied, are left out of the discussion but continue to shape it through most people’s desire to avoid mentioning them.
This same principle underlies classic European and Greco-Roman art and music, the idea of an aggressive and warlike but wise and sensitive motivation that is both religious and scientific, peaceful and belligerent, because it understands a principle of order to the universe and asserts it because it is beautiful in that it is a “meta-good,” or the harmonious result of darkness and light in conflict. For this reason, it is not moral in the sense of judging as good or evil, and neither fits into the hippie “peace, love and hedonism” approach nor the conservative, market- bound ignorance-is-bliss smoke and mirrors of mainstream music and bourgeois art. Unlike any other musical principle, the one thing that unites the varied borrowings from baroque, rock, jazz, blues, folk, country, classical and electronic music that form heavy metal is this Romantic principle of doing what is right not in a moral sense to the individual, but in a sense of the larger questions of human adaptation to the universe, the conceptual root of “heavy” in metal and what throughout history has been called by a simple syllable: “vir,” the root of virtue in a sense older than a modern moral interpretation as chastity. Vir is doing what is right by the order of the universe discerned by asking the “heavy” questions, and speaks to an abstract structure of right as opposed to an aesthetic one, where the individual picks the non- threatening as an option to the threatening.
The point behind heavy metal is to discover the life that is denied. That is the “heavy,” or that which acknowledges existential doubts and fears instead of burying them behind socially popular ideas. This is why heavy metal is such outsider music: it sees most people as delusional because they deny the mechanics of life itself because those mechanics are dark, so it embraces the darkness to show us the wisdom found within.
When the guitarist Marty Friedman auditioned for Megadeth, singer Dave Mustaine loved his playing but told his manager to get Friedman to change his name because Jews were ‘not metal’
Can Jews ‘be metal’?
Certainly, crude stereotypes of the Jewish male – weak, bookish, awkward, hypochondriac – and crude stereotypes of the metal male – sexually promiscuous, loud and tough – seem to be in conflict. Yet not only do these stereotypes hide the considerable diversity amongst both Jews and metallers (to say nothing of their gendered nature), there is a significant history of Jewish involvement in metal culture.
Jews have featured prominently in significant numbers of prominent metal bands, including Kiss, Anthrax, Biohazard, Death and Guns N Roses. Moreover, in at least some cases, the Jewish backgrounds of metal musicians has impacted on their careers, as in the networks of communal and family support that Anvil drew on during their long commercial decline. Further, there have also been metal bands that have drawn on Jewish sources and themes, including Israeli acts such as Orphaned Land and Salem and a number of more obscure artists in the US.
Yet whilst there has been a more than nominal Jewish involvement in metal, the significance and impact of this involvement is much less clear. What might looking at metal through a Jewish lens and Jewishness through a metal lens bring to light? A sustained consideration of the relationship between Jews and metal will illuminate this hidden history while at the same time raising wider issues in the nature of Jewish and metal identity and culture.
We invite contributions from academics, critics, writers musicians and others, for a volume dedicated to explore the connection between metal and Jews from a number of different perspectives. We welcome both non-fiction and fiction.
Themes can include:
The history of the Jewish presence in metal.
The use of Jewish themes in metal
Israeli metal scenes
The relationship between Satanism, anti-Semitism and Judaism as explored in metal
Anti-semitism within metal scenes
Reading/hearing metal through a Jewish lens – is a Jewish metal criticism possible?
Jewish community attitudes to metal
Please submit abstracts of 200-250 words (by September 30 2014), and inquiries to:
Shamma Boyarin email@example.com
Keith Kahn-Harris firstname.lastname@example.org