Society views heavy metal as a symbol

February 22, 2014 –

the_girl_with_the_dragon_tattoo

If you’ve suffered through even a few years of big media, you’re probably aware how it functions through symbols. Where literature might describe something, big media trots out a handy symbol that might be described uncharitably as a cliche. Drinking = troubled. Strip bar = edgy. Slow dance = love. Motorcycle = rebel.

This follows the primitive superstition of simple people interpreting religion. When something is bad, put a demon on it. When it’s good, it gets angel wings. The world falls into rigid categories based not on what people do, but what category they belong to as assigned by the cult. This type of cult religion is most commonly seen in mass entertainment, corporate culture, fanboyism, politics and sometimes, even religion itself.

Metal is a useful marketing tool for big media. It enables them to label something as rebellious, “edgy” and dark without it actually being a threat. The albums are available in any store or Amazon. It’s not like joining the Thugees or Cosa Nostra. Like the motorcycle, it’s a cheap way to describe a character without having to actually think about it. And that character will be as much of a cliche as everything else in mass media because it’s designed for the lowest common denominator.

Expanding upon this, Michael Robbins notes how this is true in print as well in “Heavy metal music finds a place in fiction”:

Black metal’s most familiar tropes are Satanism and painting your face to look like a clown. I mean a corpse. But every black metal fan I’ve ever met is, like me, friendly to animals and disinclined to perform human sacrifice. It would’ve been more interesting if Nevill had played against stereotype and made the evil children big Pet Shop Boys fans. As tiresome as Bret Easton Ellis is, at least Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” listens to Huey Lewis and Genesis.

This is how metal often functions in genre fiction: a lazy signifier of a character’s darkness, alienation and instability. In Elizabeth Hand’s “Available Dark” (2012), a girl describes someone obsessed with serial killers: “He’s creepy. He was into death metal, then black metal. Mayhem and Vidar and Darkthrone, bands like that.” Note the progression: death metal, a gateway drug, is less evil than black metal, but it still indicates that something’s not quite right: Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander listens to death metal. This is one reason it’s funny when two characters in Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” meet cute by learning that they share a love of “Norwegian Black Metal artists such as Burzum and Mayhem.” (Burzum is the musical project of Varg Vikernes, who also played bass in Mayhem until he murdered the guitarist.)

These examples show us the place metal has taken in the culture of mainstream society.

It is a certain kind of riskiness, a certain darkness, and a certain commitment to alienation. People who bond over liking black metal are people who have receded from society at large and are trying to go their own way. But with that truth, there is also the realization that metal forms a handy symbol, like the word “edgy” once did, for what the mainstream considers safe alienation.

It is alienated, true, but the fans aren’t the ones burning churches and murdering people. They are just spectators. It is for this reason that the music industry keeps trying to create “safe” versions of this music, so that people can feel like symbolic rebels but never venture beyond the safety of being obedient little cogs.

Why metal is not obedient

December 24, 2013 –
Comments Off

anti-mosh

It’s good to see the study of metal ramping up both in academia and in popular culture. This is because for the most part, metal remains an enigma.

One of its most enduringly baffling traits is its almost self-consuming alienation. Metal refuses to be part of anything. If a social institution reaches out to it, metal withdraws; if someone does something nice for it, metal gives them the finger. One might wonder how it survives with such a self-destructive attitude.

The answer may be found in a riddle of consciousness uncovered by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He argued that what we know of reality is a “representation of a representation,” or a mental model of a world known only through sensations and re-assembled in our mind. Our judging mind forms a representation of the representation created by our senses. In the same way, metal is both a thing of its own, and a public view of the same which includes judging and social concerns.

Metal may hurt its public layer by being so alienated and isolated, but the actual thing that is metal — something we know only distantly through our senses, most notably our ears — remains health as ever. This is because it is metal the thing that defines metal the public representation, not the other way around. Metal is not obedient to any rule by itself, and it rejects formulation for the same reason it rejects trends and hippie ideas of love, peace and equality: it does not want its public handle to control its private reality. It is not ultimately rebellious per se, but disobedient, and seeks to remove itself from the social sphere entirely so it isn’t corrupted by guilt and obligation to justify itself according to the values of others.

If you wonder why ideological movements like Christian metal, National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) and red-anarchist black metal (RAE, with an “E” for “emo”) have all failed, it is because metal is fine with accepting dangerous views, but it’s not going to formalize them. That is because in this universe, all things go through a process of being created, becoming fully known, then becoming calcified and finally dying. That calcification in the human world occurs through people imitating them outside-in, i.e. writing down the elements of what the thing is, then going through the motions, and never understanding the step before the thing in which the reasons for its existence were felt and motivated people.

You may also have seen how many retro bands utterly fail to sound like anything but a grab-bag of riffs from the past. This is outside-in imitation; they know what they want to “sound like,” but they don’t know why. We could argue that heavy metal is not the sonic end product, but the thought process that leads to that final result. That thought process cannot be easily understood, but requires someone to study the subject intently and think hard enough to find all the connections in imagery, ideals and what each musical element represents. Very few can do that, and even fewer can do that and then make inspired music based on it.

If you wonder why the Death Metal Underground is so surly toward the world, this is it: we realize metal is a fragile and sacred thing, a form of art separate from the social sphere. To allow the public image of metal to control what metal is would be to kill it. Thus we tend to reject all of that image, toss aside all obedience, and remain fairly hostile to anything that threatens to introduce obligation, justification or guilt to our motivations.

You are probably aware of how to “succeed” (emphasis on first syllable) as a metal reviews site: write friendly and fawning reviews of every band that comes down the pipe so the labels can quote you, so people can see your name and identify you as a supporterTM of the underground and then visit your site. The problem with this approach is that it’s useless. People need actual information on what each release sounds like so they can, with limited time and money, make purchasing decisions that benefit them and not necessarily whatever label found a way to make a musical clone for cheap and hopes to profit from the excessively fat margins that result.

In the spirit of metal, Death Metal Underground chooses to be unbought and un-guilted. We choose to be outsiders like the music we love because only by keeping free of that public image disaster can we be honest. It will not make us popular like the glad-handers, scenesters, hipsters, poseurs and salespeople of the world. But it will keep us from harming our favorite sonic art and help us keep a clear mind about what is important.