Does metal have a finite lifespan?


Keith Kahn-Harris, a metal academic whose work in metal academia has been covered here and elsewhere, writes that metal may be suffocating under the weight of its own success:

Metal today is in crisis. Metal’s crisis doesn’t feel like a crisis. In fact it sometimes feels like quite the reverse. This is a crisis in which most are unaware that there is a crisis – and that is the crisis. The crisis is one of abundance.

He goes own to elaborate on how this is a sort of entropy where the proliferation of options has created a form of paralysis. “Almost everything that I ever wanted in metal now exists,” he writes, showing us that perhaps the glory years of a genre are during its time of struggling for recognition. What happens when it becomes fully recognized?

For Kahn-Harris, much of the glow is gone. He ties it to the ease of availability of music and information through the internet, but in my experience, it’s more likely tied to the expansion of metal as a market. When it’s new and fringe, metal is outside of the world of social oversight, including socialization and markets, public morals and most laws.

But as metal succeeds, it becomes a commodity and thus, information about it will proliferate. Today it’s the internet, but in yesteryears it was radio, magazines, and label propaganda in your local record store. To my mind, the internet isn’t anything new, even if it’s slightly more efficient (although with the surfeit of information, this advantage diminishes).

While this abundance has fulfilled my metal dreams, it has been accompanied by a strange sense of deflation. To some extent this is because dreams fulfilled are almost always disappointing. There are also good reasons why abundance does not necessarily satisfy. The ease of finding what was once obscure takes away the pleasures of anticipation, of discovery, of searching things out. The fact that metal music is no longer found exclusively in physical media removes much of that precious ‘aura’ that can accompany physical art objects. Demo tapes were exciting and mysterious objects because one had to ‘work’ to track them down…Today, there isn’t much frisson to googling something and finding it. Stripped of the aura, rare and obscure metal recordings become much more mundane.

Kahn-Harris’ article is engaging and thoughtful and worth reading for any who have wondered why metal seems so stagnant of late. Sure, there’s more bands than ever before, and they’re all technically competent (this is new, quite frankly) but so few of them have anything interesting to convey. All their work is in the packaging, at the surface, in style and not substance. Artistically, metal is dead. What’s the usual culprit?

An unusual source offers a parallel critique of a similar situation in software companies:

Here’s the problem that ends up killing company after company. All successful software companies had, as their dominant personality, a leader who nurtured programmers. But no company can keep such a leader forever. Either he cashes out, or he brings in management types who end up driving him out, or he changes and becomes a management type himself. One way or another, marketers get control.

Did metal run out of leaders, and get taken over by marketers? Or is this natural entropy, where there are so many options that none can compete on substance? Or is it, as is the way of things, that once something gets popular it gets dumbed down for the crowd? Commendations to Kahn-Harris for introducing this germaine and insightful topic.

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7 thoughts on “Does metal have a finite lifespan?”

  1. Avi Pitchon says:

    While I agree that something has indeed changed, the problem I see with what you say is the Marxist/Newtonian assumption that we’re dealing with material, measurable constants, the result of which is dealing strictly with context and never with the actual ‘thing’ – the music itself. Still, if to momentarily remain In realms of context, I argue that the sense of fatigue you describe might be felt only by adults like you and me who went through the switch in means of distribution to the digital and never survived it, mentally. Thus, we’re still measuring the experiencing of music in the digital age using tools acquired in the analogue age. That is a sign of maladjustment of the listener and not a change in the music. Something might be taking place in music which you are simply handicapped to perceive. The more interesting question, however, would indeed be to ask whether gravity (IE context, means of distribution etc) bends time and space (IE affects the actual music). To sum up, I’m asking a) could it be that the only alienated component in the equation is the adult listener b) could it be that the music itself died – that were it to be teleported back in time to 1982 to be consumed on cassette form via mail order, it will hold no exploratory aura because it is ‘objectively’ rubbish. To sum that up, I’m asking if it’s us or the music that have become obsolete.

  2. Lord Mosher says:

    I think that “substance” is something only elites can and would like to talk about. Unfortunately the world (truth/beauty) does not reveal itself equally to all individuals, musicians or listeners,
    and those who are wiser are always outnumbered by those who are not.
    I am sure Slayer, Morbid Angel, Burzum, didn’t set out to create “art” with their music, at least not on purpose. I do not know if it’s causal or symptomatic, but a problem is that retrospectively, artistic wisdom seems to be elusive to the majority of people, including those metal musicians who created subgenres with their classic albums.
    Is it possible within any medium, to consciously and willingly create Art on purpose?

  3. fallot says:

    There is a glut of bands but a dearth of creativity. Kahn-harris does not comment on the latter, though he is able to notice that something is off. Metal just does not seem inviting for an artist who wants to push boundaries and produce something unique. A change in attitude is required, the kind that came with the infusion of punk sensibility into metal. Perhaps it needs to be antagonistic to existing metal. Whatever needs to be done, there is no cure without visionary personalities to push us into new territory which can subsequently be explored. This does not even have to be a new style or anything like that, perhaps just a change in attitude.

    1. Lord Mosher says:

      quote: “Kahn-harris does not comment on the latter, though he is able to notice that something is off.”
      I agree. Most fans that are not idiots or Metal ARchive regulars (is there a difference?), will notice that something is wrong, but being unable to discern it, any explanation is as good as any other, so the cause is never isolated and solutions are never found. Then you turn into Bitterman!

  4. Lord Mosher says:

    Mexican architect winner of the Pritzker price in the 80s once said: “Do not copy me, instead learn how to see what I have seen”.
    This could apply to all post 1994 black metal bands.

    1. Jim Nelson says:

      That’s a pretty good quote and efficiently sums up the entire situation. It could apply to any one that wants to be a serious artist or thinker.

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