Why the art world rejected metal


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?

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8 thoughts on “Why the art world rejected metal”

  1. fenrir says:

    This article is a heap of uninformed bullshit.

    The art world seeks to control and thus it did not accept Metal because it couldn’t control it. <- then you do not understand the posture of the art world; assuming that by "art world" in this case you mean the classical music tradition, which is the "art" institution in music.
    Dickinson and Iron Maiden don't know the first thing about art. They make likable Metal product with lyrics related to history or social topics that anybody with education can understand.

    You are confusing "art world" with what Prozac routinely refers to as the mainstream. These are actually two opposite sides of the spectrum. The most flamboyant and ridiculous side of art actually likes things which cannot be controlled. Metal is controllable, to a degree, otherwise it would be a bunch of nonsense (like Univers Zero, which is out of control arty rock).

    1. Pffff says:

      The “art world” has been a leftist echo chamber since the late 1800s. “The most flamboyant, ridiculous side of art actually likes things that cannot be controlled.” The adjectives you chose are telling. As long as it’s flamboyant and ridiculous, right? Or as long as it portrays weakness and class struggle, or “deconstructs” masculinity. Blah blah..

      “Dickinson and Iron Maiden don’t know the first thing about art”
      Cool non-argument, care to elaborate? I think Warhol might have had something to say about how you separate “art” and “product” when it’s convenient to your argument.

      “Art” and “the mainstream” are not opposites, not that it matters. You can find watered down dada in the latest Lady Gaga costume. I hate it when uninformed people call things uninformed.

      1. fenrir says:

        No, you are not talking about real art. you are talking about art that has been absorbed into the mainstream for the use it has for it, just as metal has been absorbed.
        Just as there are people who think that the mainstream metal is what represents metal, you are making the same mistake of thinking that the superficial adoptions of art by the mainstream represent the true essence of art.

        I hate it when people try to diss anything they don’t like because they think they aren’t recognized. This is more like a tantrum than a valid point.

  2. BB says:

    Can you name some contemporary “real” (visual) artists? That would clear things up a bit.

    1. fenrir says:

      I wasn’t talking about visual artists. The article talks about “art”. This is a website about music and we are talking about metal. A great deal of the “Art” music tradition on the Western side of the world is what we know as classical music.

  3. Count Ringworm says:

    Art in the 20th century has across the board been subject to manipulation.



    Subvert the real; glorify individualism. That’ll show those Soviets.

  4. nihil says:

    I love maiden’s music but it is becoming folk-metal. Dickinson does not have the range he once had.

    However, maiden is very mainstream.

    For me, death metal does not present answers but it does pose questions. It questions society’s values and norms. It presents destruction. I am very comfortable with that. It speaks to a drive to destroy society.

    It is an art form. However, it does not find a comfortable place in the mainstream because of what it represents. Regarding rap, that is about something else, drugs and sex largely. But that has nothing to do with death metal. Those are other artists dealing with issues that are not relevant to me.

    It has nothing to do with control. It is a dark and hazy vision that all is not well with the world.

  5. IBTINL says:

    Good, accurate, relevant article.

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