Concerts and Community Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 18

concerts and community

“Reading a heavy metal concert involves decoding a complex array of communicative acts by using the heavy metal codebook.”(Weinstein, 1991, p. 218)

Consumption of popular music at clubs and concerts plays a significant role in the lives of adolescents, and the concert experience is especially “pivotal” for heavy metal enthusiasts (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 58).  Weinstein (1991) reveals that music as a social ritual “has always been used to celebrate and stimulate community, … belonging and … solidarity,” and heavy metal fans have a particular dedication to supporting their favorite artists by attending live concerts (p. 225).  Audiences bring their existing experiences and interpretations of recorded music to live concerts for a “fully reciprocal” interaction with the performers and crucial opportunities to engage in fulfilling social meetings with other members of the subculture (Weinstein, 1991, p. 183).  Purcell (2003) adds that a primary highlight of a heavy metal show (besides watching the artist perform), is that attendees interact socially, meet people with shared interests, and simply “hang out” (p. 36).   Concerts bolster the artists’ commercial and cultural success, enhance the fan’s attachment with the music, and as audience members interpret the music as “epiphany,” the affinity for and success of the subculture as a whole are further propelled (Weinstein, 1991, p. 183).  Wilson (2008) states that the most important factor of a concert is simply the presence of loud sounds, which are not only heard, but also “above all felt with the body, especially the upper chest” (p.159).  Bashe (1985) proudly refers to the visceral effect of these intense, distorted and rumbling sounds as “heavy metal’s glorious white noise” (p. 7), which has a “transformative communal effect” on listeners (Wilson, 2008, p. 159).  Concerts can thus be a physical and ecstatic experience, where metal is celebrated and “the metal gods rule from the stage as cultural heroes” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 231).

Weinstein (1991) elucidates the complexity and importance of a heavy metal concert in Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology by summarizing,

“As a whole, a heavy metal concert encompasses a very dense and wide variety of communicative actions, which produce three distinctive results or consummations that define the concert as the epitome of the heavy metal culture and especially of the subculture of the core audience.  The first consummation is pleasure, experiencing an exciting entertainment… the second consummation is the representation of the heavy metal subculture to itself an idealized form, … and the third is the bonding of the audience and band with one another.” (p. 213)

When the band is performing on stage, all three agents in the metal experience – the media, the artists, and the audience – interact and further encourage one another (Weinstein, 1991).  Concerts thus become vehicles for “idealizing the heavy metal subculture” by creating a highly sensational community event where all audience members are engaged and united in their common appreciation for the art (Weinstein, 1991, p. 223).  Members are further bound to each other and the music by songs that cause members to “behave in harmony with one another” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 224) and by rallying calls made by the performers that call special attention to the many foes of heavy metal music (Weinstein, 1991).  These proclamations emphasizing the shared aversion to heavy metal detractors are similar to mottos and statements made by military and religious organizations that bind their adherents together against “an external enemy in order to foster internal unity” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 226).  Heavy metal enthusiasts thus attend concerts to experience the auditory and visual elements of the show as well as to confirm their commitment to the subculture and solidarity to one another (Weinstein, 1991).

Heavy metal concerts are typically very intense experiences.  The audio-visual components of the genre are penetrating and powerful, and the physical experience is no different (Haenfler, 2007).  Arnett (1996) even concludes from the work of William James (1902) that heavy metal concerts are social rituals with the “moral equivalent of a war” (p. 14).  Artists with names like Suicidal Tendencies, Slayer, and Black Sabbath perform their aggressive songs of obtrusive violence, chaos, and disruption in cultural rituals of escalated sensory stimulation and socialization, where audience participation is highly encouraged to facilitate a venting of trepidation and expression of aggression (Trzcinski, 1992; Arnett 1991a). The thunderous power of a heavy metal concert, however, is “intended as a motivating force,” which gives audience members release of the tedium of their daily lives and can even lead to “accepting responsibility for one’s own destiny” (Berger, 1999, p. 67).

Heavy metal concerts often feature heightened security measures because physical violence and personal injury are often manifested in the form of ‘moshing’ or ‘slam dancing’ in front of the stage (Arnett, 1991a).  Security guards interviewed by Weinstein (1991), however, proclaimed that they preferred heavy metal concerts to for rock and country shows, “such as Alabama or Charlie Daniels,” because the latter are “more prone to fighting” (p. 181).  Accusatory fingers are often pointed at moshing, but this visceral purging of hatred and frustration actually serves as a “ritual and ecstatic transcendence” that resembles many ancient manhood rituals from numerous diverse cultures (Arnett, 1991b; Arnett, 1996, p. 12).  Mosh pits exist as “emblems of freedom and passion” that are based in the simple need for physical human contact and “animalistic release” (Purcell, 2003, p. 193). Though outsiders may view moshing as a bizarre, violent and potentially malicious behavior, members of the heavy metal community view this activity as a “fun, communal, and essential” component of a good concert (Haenfler, 2007, p. 20).  Noted, mosh pits have resulted in physical injury in numerous occasions (Purcell, 2003), but most moshers have no intention on actually fighting, and the experience of such feral dancing actually binds its members as “friends and brothers more than enemies or opponents” (Purcell, 2003, p. 34).  Mosh pits are cites of the emotional, passionate release of hostility and aggression, but this aggression is typically not aimed at any one person in particular (Purcell, 2003).  Walser (1993) additionally defends moshing by remarking that this violence is “greatly exaggerated by metal’s critics [and the] mayhem is no more common at metal concerts than at sports events – or at the opera in nineteenth-century Paris or performances of Shakespeare in the nineteenth century New York” (p. 143).  Purcell (2003) admonishes the particularly violent individuals at metal shows because they “ruin the fun for everyone else” (p. 35), and Weinstein (1991) notes that the supportiveness and brotherhood of metal fans has made it safer for “people walking around on crutches or with canes … in a metal crowd than on a crowded city sidewalk” (p. 211).  Purcell (2003) concludes her argument by stating, “in general, no intentional hurting takes place at … metal shows…  therefore, those who describe mosh pits as free-for-all fights are grossly mistaken” (p. 34).

Metal shows are based on “heart” (Purcell, 2003, p. 153).  The honest love of the music and culture of heavy metal is what attracts fans to concerts, which are experienced as “sacred, in contrast to the profane, everyday world” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 232). Weinstein (1991) points out that emotions reach peak levels at heavy metal concerts, which further aids the reinforcement of the subculture and the bonds felt between individuals with one another and to performers.  At the height of a concert experience, this point of sensory “perfection,” metal fans feel that, “time stands still and one feels that one belongs to a higher reality, far away form the gray, everyday world” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 231).  In summary, Weinstein (1991) poignantly explicates that, “from a sociological perspective, the ideal heavy metal concert bears a striking resemblance to the celebrations, festivals, and ceremonies that characterize religions around the world” (p. 232).


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