Heavy metal as music of rejection, not rebellion


The conventional media narrative regarding heavy metal is that heavy metal is the music of adolescent rebellion. Like the Puritan attitude toward sex, this double-faced approach allows media to both trivialize metal and use it as the basis of product branding, or the identification by consumers of the product with an attitude or social group. This attitude reflects the needs of the media more than what heavy metal actually is.

In branding, metal joins a cluster of products like Jack Daniel’s whisky, Marlboro cigarettes, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and other products that are used in mass culture films, books and music to symbolize rebellion. Much as the media sells sex ambivalently, rebellion is also sold as a duality: it is portrayed as bad, yet fun, and so often the compromise is to avoid it on a regular basis but to cut loose on weekends. Smart observers might realize that’s a great method of control, because by “capturing” the impulse toward anarchy and controlling it, you keep the workers showing up regularly every weekday. Similarly, it’s good advertising because it implies a safe rebellion: the rebellion is there, but it’s a product you can buy anywhere, so it’s socially approved and thus there are no real consequences to face.

But what about those who are dissidents? These see our society as going the wrong way entirely and refuse to participate. Much of this infuses metal through the people it attracts, who are either drop-outs or cutting-edge dissidents, depending on who you ask. As Jeremy Wallach reveals in a post to the Music, Metal and Politics mailing list:

The notion that metal is a cause or a symptom of adolescent psychological development gone awry has been roundly criticized for the last 20+ years not only for its practically nonexistent empirical justification, but more importantly. for its unstated ideological assumptions. Too often the “problem” turned out to be insufficient socialization–of working-class kids who refused to be docile, obedient, and unquestioning, and of middle-class kids who refused to be conformist and hardworking. But rock and roll kids have always been, in Simon Frith’s words, working-class kids who reject work and middle-class kids who reject success.

Zoom in on this: working-class kids who refused to be docile, obedient, and unquestioning, and of middle-class kids who refused to be conformist and hardworking.

In other words, if your parents were expected to work as entirely subservient to the system, you reject that subservience; if your parents were expected to lead within the system, you reject the attitude that allows them to do that without questioning the system.

What we’re seeing here is not rebellion, or disagreement with method, but rejection. These are people rejecting civilization as it is so constituted. This started with Black Sabbath rejecting the idea of “peace, love and happiness” — a once-removed proxy for egalitarianism and coexistence — peaked in speed metal’s warnings of nuclear war and apocalypse, and finally in death and black metal saw acceptance of the apocalypse and subversion of its methods of control and emotional passivity, respectively.

Heavy metal does not tell society that its methods are wrong, but that its approach is wrong. We are those who dream of a different world… one where intangible values triumph over those that are material, social, economic or political. Different generations of heavy metal reflect this dream differently and few seem to be able to articulate it, but it remains beneath the surface, peeking out periodically like divinity in an avatar, hinting at the invisible narrative pervading what we know as “normal” life.

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13 thoughts on “Heavy metal as music of rejection, not rebellion”

  1. BB says:

    Viz. “intangible values” – how can you be a Platonic idealist, but at the same time say you are a monist (as I remember you writing elsewhere)?

    1. I don’t believe Plato was a dualist, as most seem to. The text bears that out. What most interpret as “dualism” was the cause->effect tenet of his belief that separately, but in parallel, Schopenhauer explained as a necessary portion of idealism.

  2. steve says:

    Thanks for the well written article. Good thesis.
    I agree metalheads are dissidents more than rebels because metalheads reject society’s values ( rather than trying to actively reform them). Unfortunately all the rejection adds up to a lot of “talk” instead of “walk” though.
    To truly be a dissident within metal though, would one not have to distance himself from the metal “scene”?

    For instance – Dark Throne is dissident because they refuse to play shows, refuse to listen to “only metal” etc. But many other sucky overrated always touring bands who all the trendy metalheads can’t get enough of – are they really dissidents- especially if they are just another true to form genre act?

    Most metalheads have a comfort zone within the rules of their genre and clique etc which prevent them from truly being dissidents . It also seems that dorky happy go lucky metalheads get ahead ( through networking and socially)(several of my friends are famous so I’m not just talking out of my ass) , while the depressive withdrawn artistic ones often remain obscure.

    Also I find it ironic that metal lyrics are so often about sex and violence but only a small percentage of artists train martial arts or are really that tough and most metalheads have a gf and a traditional relationshsip – so the sexual content is fantasy based too. The fantasy element in metal cannot be underestimated , as very few metalheads can actually walk the walk and talk the talk . But then again , that can be said of other dissident music genres such as ganster rap as well .

    1. To truly be a dissident within metal though, would one not have to distance himself from the metal “scene”?

      At least one source agrees with you: No Mosh * No core * No Fun * No Trends

  3. steve says:

    can something still be dissident if it is trendy? if you started the first death metal band ever at your highschool – maybe that’s dissident . if by the time you graduated there were now 10 death metal bands at your school and it became trendy to be in a dm band at that school- are you still a dissident ? are they dissidents??

    1. Lord Mosher says:

      I think the author utilizes the concepts of rejection vs rebellion to describe the music from an overall artistic perspective as if to define the genre as a whole; not the artists or musicians.
      But that’s just the way that I understood the article.

    2. I would introduce “assimilation” as a concept here. The first death metal band may have been dissident, and others, too, but at some point, people will step in and make a rock version of the music. That’s what Cradle of Filth did to black metal, Cannibal Corpse did to death metal, Pantera did to speed metal, Motley Crue did to heavy metal, etc.

      In other words, it’s not the type of band that matters, but the content. It inevitably runs in parallel to mental clarity about dissident issues. Sell-out bands tend always to be comical and talk about karmic drama more than the dissident bands. Some bands even lose dissident status over their lifetimes. The first Cemetary was great, but by their later works, they were stoner doom.

  4. steve says:

    thanks for the replies guys. yes lord mosher you are right about the original article . I just wanted to further analyze the idea that metal is a dissident genre by break it down further to the level of the individual (or the band) . It is hard to accept that the whole genre is dissident somehow if the majority of bands or individuals in the genre are not dissident themselves. However I do agree that metalheads are closer to dissidents than they are rebels . I actually think the majority of metalheads are “useful idiots” as Stalin would have said . Meaning that I think the average metalhead is a lot trendier and conformist than is commonly thought .

  5. steve says:

    I like your point about assimilation by the way . Assimilating towards what is popular (rock in your example or stoner doom)- you are saying that it makes metal genre less dissident. That’s a good point I think .
    But what if a band assimilates away from what is popular – for instance how the band cynic assimilates towards jazz or world music . are they more or less dissident because of that ? also , because metalheads are more receptive to assimilating towards particular genres ( that are in fashion or that are perceived to align better with metal) what if a metalhead assimilates his metal towards something that metalheads might dislike (out of fashion ) like Enya or Rick Springfield? In a way would he not be even more dissident than say a run of the mill black metal band . Sorry to rant I just love the topic of dissidents even politically Chomsky , hunter Thompson , buchanon , zinn etc are all so fascinating .

    1. Good question. I think popular isn’t a style, much like not all death metal is dissident, but an approach. Some music is there for the comfort of its audience, generally by (a) confirming their existing outlook and (b) offering no challenge or merit, sort of like pleasant decoration without substance. Music with substance is generally not popular, although some bands manage to mix the two (Kraftwerk, Black Sabbath). A good metric for this might be looking at early Iron Maiden compared to later Iron Maiden. The later material removes some of the substance of the early works, and replaces it with toe-tapping sing-a-long material that uses highly similar formulas detached from any underlying meaning.

      I agree dissidents are fascinating. All of the best metal comes from people who are dissidents of some form, or those attempting to come to terms with their dissident outlook.

    2. EDS says:

      “”But what if a band assimilates away from what is popular – for instance how the band cynic assimilates towards jazz or world music . are they more or less dissident because of that ?””

      Less dissident. Despite the fact that jazz and world music is significantly less popular than Top 40 pop or hip hop/R&B, when fused into death metal or other forms of metal it gives hipster metalheads a reason to say “hey look at my favorite band they are soooo technical and super tight man. I’m cool because I listen to them”.

  6. steve says:

    thanks guys for responding much appreciated

  7. steve says:

    i still think popularity does determine dissidence though to a large extent.

    for instance if the overwhelming majority of people ever became dissident (purposely self -isolated from the system) – the minority ( those still engaged in the system ) would have no power and would become the dissidents . and the system would be run passive aggressively by the purposely self isolated against those who cared to participate .
    for example I remember when I went to school at uc davis if you weren’t a peace-loving green party and a vegetarian feminist you were not mainstream there . it was the opposite of everywhere else I’d been . in davis , to be mainstream or right wing at all politically made you a dissident there. because to speak your mind there as anything but an ultralib was to socially isolate you etc. I would say there was both rejection ( socially and politically ) there and would even say its possible that dissidence is not always a choice but in fact sometimes it is politically or socially forced on people .

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