Fans and performers of heavy metal music have been found to experience more profoundly meaningful connections with music than fans of other genres (Berger, 1999), and often mesh these musical tastes with their larger social contexts, ethics, and belief systems (Berger, 1999). Metalheads are thus renowned for their passion, “intense loyalty, and devotion” to the music and subculture of heavy metal, (Weinstein, 1991, p. 237), and have also integrated the sounds, images and language of the genre into a dedicated lifestyle with many distinguished and marginalized character traits (Arnett 1991a; Weinstein, 1991; Purcell, 2003). Heavy metal is more than a simple musical preference for those who like it, in that it provides a vital source of personality and emotional exploration, is the determinant and catalyst of social interactions and relationships, and for severely enthusiastic fans, the discourse of heavy metal can even become “a life philosophy” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 202).
This extreme patriotism to the music and culture of heavy metal is equaled only by the “judgment, … abhorrence, … and contempt and loathing” that detractors feel for the genre, comparable to the detestations of those who speak out against other horrific “cultural phenomena [like] child torture and cannibalism” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 237). Quite noticeably, opinions of heavy metal are polarized, and similar to the ragtime, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll music of previous generations, heavy metal critics continue to be repulsed and vehemently opposed to the art form. This “lexicon of noise” has been despised since its infancy, yet heavy metal continues to thrive as supporters fervently cherish the music and resulting community that it engenders (Bashe, 1985, p. 11; Christenson & Roberts, 1998). Conservative and progressive critics of heavy metal denigrate the music as “drivel,” the culture as “nonsense” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 238), and the individual fans as “monsters” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 7), but these generalized oversimplifications have simply resulted from detractors’ “failure to attend to the music carefully” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 243). Opponents of heavy metal music and culture should take the sage advice of researcher Natalie Purcell (2003), by remembering that it is “dangerous and unjust to draw sweeping generalizations about the psychological makeup of any population” (p. 151), because “all the information about attitudes collected in [her studies] challenge existing notions of metalheads as anti-social, pessimistic malcontents” (p. 122), and “metalheads on the whole have not acted to warrant the hatred that they receive” (p. 194).
Granted, the first impression of heavy metal music is often strongly negative because of the “titanic rage” of the medium (Berger, 1999, p. 291), however, to understand the sociopolitical significance of the genre, it is necessary to overcome these initial interpretations and objectively analyze the powerful and profound sonic components and “ethnographic dialogue” of the music and culture (Berger, 1999, p 291). Mischaracterizations, redefinitions, and uninformed disparagements of heavy metal often occur because of the perceived hostility and “symbolic unacceptability” of the art form (Weinstein, 1991, p. 273), but supporters of the subculture provide proof that heavy metal is an environment of “fulfilling experiences,” a cite of crucial social, economic and spiritual involvement, and a benevolent community that is “immeasurably different from the stereotypical vision of a depressed, antisocial, and aggressive collection of youth” (Purcell, 2003, p. 38). Heavy metal music “keeps culture honest” by presenting symbols and beliefs in fantastic, metaphorical and occasionally purely histrionic and escapist fashion, but these mediations are intended to have “multiple, ambiguous, and [even] undecidable interpretations” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 275). Heavy metal is thus a “creative response to difficult conditions with real benefits,” and fulfills “genuine needs” in participants’ lives (Berger, 1999, p. 291).
Heavy metal culture, then, can be ethnographically analyzed as an “index of attempts to survive the present and imagine something better for the future,” and is one of the many accounts of the trials of dealing with the inherited inconsistencies, conflicts, and “tensions that drive and limit” the lives of fans on a daily basis (Walser, 1993, p. 171). Heavy metal is about action, resistance, power, frustration, and “exploring and responding to the whole emotional complex that emerges” from these feelings (Berger, 1999, p. 291). Further, heavy metal is an “arena in which the participants engage with emotions denied in daily life” (Berger, 1999, p. 291), and exists as a source of inspiration for building more fulfilling and compassionate lives for its adherents (Haenfler, 2007). Haenfler (2007) additionally reveals that outsiders who attempt to dismiss heavy metal as “violent, sexist, or narrow minded,” could not be more mistaken, as many devotees are drawn to metal music and culture “precisely to counter these tendencies” (p. 217). Weinstein (1991) adds that haters and critics of metal have only offered “projections” that “should not be considered,” or taken seriously because they lack “genuine arguments” (p. 274). As Matthew Medeiros, metal director at WVPH 90.3 FM in New Jersey states in Purcell’s (2003) ethnography, Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture,
“Metal culture is not for everyone. It never will be, but people need to acknowledge that people in the metal culture are still people… Media and society have stigmatized a large number of people based on isolated actions of a very select few, and due to ignorance and disinterest, the majority of American and world culture has done nothing to degrade these barriers, and as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder for people to remain active members of the subculture as a result of society’s misunderstanding.” (p. 146)
Since heavy metal is not a mainstream culture, no one becomes a fan due to mass appeal media marketing and thus the controversial and “tempting images” are not presented in similar ways as other forms of popular entertainment (Purcell, 2003, p. 194). Thus, heavy metal does not “lure youth into a life of debauchery and hopelessness,” or “harm American culture or values” (Purcell, 2003, p. 194). On the contrary, Christenson & Roberts (1998) proclaim that,
“Heavy metal is central to the alienated and disaffected youth who seek it out. It provides a crucial source of personal identification and group solidarity, and articulates as no other set of cultural texts can their opposition to the cultural mainstream and their quest for alternative modes of self and peer acceptance. For many of these youths, listening to heavy metal is what matters most to them; indeed, it is often their primary source of solace.” (p. 110)
With recorded music or live performances, heavy metal enthusiasts can successfully “experience a utopia of empowerment, freedom and metaphysical depth,” which is crucial for catharsis and spiritual gratification (Walser, 1993, p.154-155; Purcell, 2003). Enthusiasm for the metal is paramount over natural talents, physical appearance, or economic prospects offered by the genre, which effectively “permits individualism by discouraging judgment and declaring acceptance of the socially unacceptable” (Purcell, 2003, p. 158). The complex social structure of heavy metal is thus a “haven for the unique” that is heavily focused on “making sense of the world” (Purcell, 2003, p. 158; Walser, 1993, p. 162). Haenfler (2007) comically but poignantly adds that, “all this screaming and jumping around [in heavy metal] doesn’t mean anything unless it changes who you are in the rest of the world out there” (p. 59). Heavy metal fans use the music and their involvement in the subculture to make profound personal statements and commitments to themselves and their community (Haenfler, 2007), which results in the “positive value of music in identity formation in ways that can be moving and inspiring” (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008, p. 3). Bashe compendiously concludes by stating, “the fans support heavy metal because heavy metal… supports them” (p. 35), and is, “forever” (p. ix).
There are endless discussions and research opportunities within the heavy metal subculture, including gender studies with women as fans and performers in metal bands like the all-female Drain S.T.H., Kittie, Civit, and Girlschool, and singers or keyboardists like Angela Gossow (Arch Enemy), Marta Peterson (Bleeding Through), Maria Brink (In This Moment), and Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), just to name a few. Other studies could include the analysis of body modifications like tattoos and piercings, which are predominant in heavy metal subculture, the significance of instrument selection and endorsement, as well as heavy metal performed in foreign languages like Ill Niño, Puya and Brujeria (Spanish), Rammstein (German), and Dimmu Borgir (Norwegian), to provide an abbreviated list.
Also quite prevalent in heavy metal are concept albums that feature music, lyrics and artwork that serve as incredibly creative and academic storytelling devices. Thematic material from bands like the award-winning Mastodon, who have created four albums based off fire (2003’s Remission), water (2004’s Leviathan, inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick), Earth (2006’s Blood Mountain), and air and space (2009’s Crack the Skye), are highly expressive, intellectual and original works of art, and South Carolina’s Nile, who have based their entire career from Egyptian and Sumerian mythology, compose incredibly demanding death metal instrumentations in highly historical and educational songs like “Ramses Bringer of War,” “Dusk Falls Upon The Temple Of The Serpent On The Mount Of Sunrise,” “Invocation of the Gate of Aat-Ankh-es-en-Amenti,” Destruction Of The Temple Of The Enemies Of Ra” and “ “Die Rache Krieg Lied der Assyriche.” Other bands like England’s Cradle of Filth have created concept records about Elizabeth Bathory (1998’s Cruelty and the Beast), and Canada’s Protest the Hero who composed 2005’s Kezia with lyrics that feature a central character but tell the story from three separate perspectives, and Poland’s Behemoth, who refer to the work of Austin Osman Spare’s Book of Pleasure, Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law, English lyric poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, and many works by Friedrich Nietzsche. Bands who draw from the mythologies and tales of other literary legends like H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkein are also extremely prevalent in heavy metal, and deserve the critical examination of academics in the future. Other research in regards to the similarities of heavy metal culture with other highly devoted and marginalized subcultures, like motorcycling, Japanese animation, and technical musical performance should also be conducted. Heavy metal music and culture are the sites of incredibly artistic, expressive, and spiritual material, and I earnestly hope that this research project has given credibility to the sounds, feelings, and intentions of heavy metal artists and fans, and demonstrates a critical need for more analysis and aggrandizement, rather than dejection and misguided detraction, of heavy metal music and culture.
Links to all references can be found here: http://www.heavymetalmediastudies.com/cultural-sociology-of-heavy-metal-music/