(A long-time NCS supporter who calls himself Utmu has written a paper for a college course about metal. We’re already somewhat involved, having published three previous pieces by Utmu that were sort of groundwork for the paper (here, here, and here). So we’ve decided to post the pay-off, especially because it’s likely to be controversial. Please do give us and Utmu your reactions in the comments.)
I’ve been excited about this for some time now, as my Facebook friends can attest (just ask them, I wouldn’t shut up about it for a week or two). I realize that this paper tends to go against what NCS is about in that it is somewhat bleak, but I think this needs to be said, and discussion is always important.
I’m not sure how much context I put in this paper, but if any of you have any questions about anything in this I’ll do my best at answering them. I also realize that this is a pretty divisive topic insofar that I’m on one side and virtually everyone else is on the other. But it’ll be interesting hearing your comments and concerns.
It should be noted that this is my informed opinion, and although I believe that there could be some objectivity to art, I’m skeptical of objectivity in relation to some of the topics discussed in my paper.
I will ask one thing of you all, I’d like to try an uncommon form of argumentation (if any of you feel like debating this). Try to use argumentation in the form of proofs. For more information on this form of argumentation, please listen to Daniel “Awesomebeard” Cohen at 2:32:
Before we get to the paper I’d like to thank my Composition instructor for her help and support. I’d also like to show gratitude to some names you all are probably familiar with. I’d like to thank Dane Prokofiev and Andy Synn for their assistance with philosophical topics—you’ve been very helpful! Thanks to Phro for reading it and giving me some feedback. Thanks to Islander for posting this paper, and I’d like to thank all of those who responded to the survey. And finally, I’d also like to give a big “thank you” to Helm for allowing me to use him as a source, and allowing me to come to him for subsequent elucidation regarding heavy metal, and if I remember correctly philosophical and/or artistic concepts.
Two final things: In this paper, I think I present postmodernism as the sole cause of heavy metal’s stagnation, etc. But more recently I’ve come to the conclusion that the case is more complex and that a variety of factors led to stagnation, not simply postmodernism. Also, I am considering submitting this paper to the upcoming journal Metal Music Studies, which accepts papers from both academics and laymen (I’m an undergraduate, so I assume I’d be included in the latter).
POSTMODERN CHARACTERISTICS IN HEAVY METAL MUSIC
This essay focuses on heavy metal after it became a postmodern form of music. First, it defines what postmodernism is based on several concepts that make up postmodernism; second, it applies those concepts to heavy metal; third, the possible stagnation and/or death of metal is discussed as a potential result of the shift from modernism to postmodernism. Finally, a point is made that, in order for us to define what is and is not metal, we need a working definition of what metal itself is defined by. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the current state of heavy metal to metal fans and/or introduce new concepts with which to think about the genre.
How do you feel about heavy metal music? What of music in general? If heavy metal or other forms of music interests you, then the information contained herein may also be of interest. Heavy metal is a rather obscure form of popular music, but its obscurity misrepresents its diversity and its size. Indeed, there is even a large subculture based on the raucous music, and many blogs exist that document heavy metal news, gossip, examinations, and other pertinent pieces of information. This paper is essentially an examination of postmodernism and how it relates to heavy metal. Postmodernism is a complicated topic that needs elucidation, impacts a wide variety of things, and may have something to do with heavy metal’s possible stagnation, or even death. Additionally, the categorization of genres is also an important part of this discussion, and I will discuss the concept of the Death of the Author in relation to genre categorization.
Characteristics of Postmodernism
As it was stated earlier, postmodernism is complicated, and it’s not simply a complicated concept, it’s a complicated body of concepts. For example, according to Strinati (1993), both time/space perplexities and the eventual disuse of meta-narratives are concepts that characterize postmodernism (para. 13 and 14). Speaking of meta-narratives, they play a key part in postmodernism. Strinati (1993) goes on to speak of how postmodernism posits that meta-narratives are becoming less and less important, and how postmodernists are critical of meta-narratives (para. 13 & 14). This is interesting as Helm also puts a major emphasis on meta-narratives, although Helm and Strinati seem to differ when it comes to what narrative is left over.
In particular, the pair differ in that Strinati (1993) says that a key issue with postmodernism is that it argues for the idea that meta-narratives are an undesirable thing; however, he then implies that postmodernism is a meta-narrative in itself and even asks “Or is postmodernism the last of the meta-narratives?” (para. 40). Helm (personal communication, 2013) has stated that capitalism is the last of the grand narratives—it should be noted that grand narratives make up meta-narratives, however I think the two can be used interchangeably in this instance due to the varied meaning behind them when used by sources—and postmodernism being the last of the grand narratives is a result of the Soviet Union’s becoming Russia and the Second World War; he also states that postmodernism is the period after capitalism “won” (responses 13 & 37). I think both points are reasonable. Helm’s position makes sense due to the fact that there is little trace of anything other than capitalism in the world now, but Strinati’s position makes sense because there is no reason for postmodernism to be considered anything but a meta-narrative—or at least a narrative of some sort, depending on the definition used. Perhaps postmodernism and capitalism could be seen as two sides of the same coin; as two grand narratives as part of a meta-narrative. Narratives are not the only characteristic of postmodernism, but they are a major one.
Other characteristics of postmodernism are wide-ranging, such as style over substance, and a flirtation with consumerism. Postmodernism seems to have a lot to do with consumerism, and this makes sense when we look at it through the eyes of Helm, who places an emphasis on capitalism. Strinati says that:
Postmodernism has links with some long-standing ideas about the scale and effects of consumerism and media-saturation as central aspects of the modern development of industrial capitalist societies. One schematic indication of this is the attempt to account for the emergence of postmodernism in terms of the argument that during the twentieth century the economic needs of capitalism have shifted from production to consumption. (Strinati, D., 1993, para. 29)
This seems to imply that postmodernism was a result of the production-to-consumption transference, which also seems as if it would makes sense to Helm as well. Strinati (1993) also states that art has become a way of advertising (to get consumers to consume) and is a product in itself (para. 11).
The idea of art-as-product being a postmodern characteristic (at least in a strictly postmodern fashion) is flawed, I say this because of the fact that Renaissance painters were commissioned to make art for the Catholic Church, and they existed during a pre-Modern time (in terms of art history, not history in general). However, it goes hand-in-hand with the capitalism-as-narrative idea. But simply knowing about postmodernism isn’t enough; let’s examine these and other postmodern characteristics in relation to heavy metal.
Metal in the Postmodern Era
Based on what Helm (personal communication, 2013) says, the postmodern era of metal began in the 90s, although it’s important to note that there is a caveat to this: one interprets movements by the narratives to which they subscribe (response 17, see also 34 & 37). So when analyzing something such as postmodernism, concepts like when the postmodern era began are subjective and arbitrary. However, I think Helm’s position is reasonable, considering how the Soviet Union became Russia after the Cold War (which was, in part, a war between communism and capitalism), and capitalism supposedly overcame all other grand narratives.
In his list of postmodern characteristics, Strinati (1993) includes the concept of style-over-substance; this is important when we consider that heavy metal has a distinct style of dress (para. 9). Heavy metal fans (hereafter referred to as “metalheads”) have recently played a part in the resurgence of the wearing of denim vests with band patches on them, which was originally a trend in the 80s for metalheads. The vest is now a form of postmodern dress in that it references another time period. A respondent to a survey I conducted stated the following:
I would say metal isn’t really stagnating, but perhaps the extra-musical (superficial) aspects are losing their impact; things like corpse-paint and running themes (gags) like “being metal”. I think a lot of bands are struggling to find identity and separate themselves from other bands, so they focus on the superficial things like being “brutal” or “epic” and they forget to just write good music. So I suppose there is a sense of stagnation, but only if you focus on the imitators and those bands who are just in it for the party (and they’ll jump ship to rock n’ roll when the party’s over). (Anonymous, 2013, response 5)
While the respondent references the question posed at first, he or she clearly acknowledges the fact that some bands try to emphasize style over substance. For example, in the technical death metal scene, there are many bands that are indistinguishable from one another simply because they focus on playing technical music, rather that writing something interesting. And this concern over appearances is present in other subgenres: bands in the deathcore and brutal death metal scene focus on trying to be brutal, bands in the black metal scene try to be grim and misanthropic. This idea of trying to appear as something based on how you seem rather than how you compose music is ubiquitous in heavy metal culture, although it has existed for nearly metal’s entire lifespan, rather than more recently (this does not mean that it doesn’t contribute to metal’s current postmodern state). There is another way postmodernism presents itself in metal, and I’ll explain it using that last genre I mentioned: black metal.
In the 90s, black metal hit its peak, but towards the end of the decade, black metal bands (such as Mayhem) changed their sound and began incorporating more elements from other genres of music—whether they knew it or not. More recently, metalheads have noticed several newer black metal bands that exemplify postmodernism, such as Krallice or Liturgy. Post-black metal (at least in its more recent incarnation) is postmodern in that it combines two different genres (post-rock and black metal), one already being a postmodern form of music. This embodies an aspect of postmodernism that Helm (2013, personal communication) mentioned: the combination of genres (response 13). It’s possible that this commingling of genres is a form of coping with anxiety that was born from the loss of a grand narrative (Helm, 2013, personal communication, response 13).
Strinati (1993) also touched on a similar subject in his paper: he mentions the movie Blade Runner and notes that it mixes several influences from different periods of time (para. 20). There are clear parallels between the mixing of influences and the mixing of genres, although it isn’t a perfect fit; I will expound on this in a later section. In the same paragraph where he mentions Blade Runner, Strinati (1993) also notes that the mixing of these influences from different time periods are also a form of time confusion—another trait of postmodernism (para. 20). This is also observable in heavy metal, as some bands mix subgenres from different time periods (like doom metal and black metal) and some bands even play subgenres like thrash metal or death metal, even though those subgenres’ original movements have ended. But there is an issue with these revivals and genre-mixing: the possible stagnation and death of heavy metal.
More recently, I have been enraptured by the idea that heavy metal may be stagnating, or even dead. If it could qualify for either one of these states of being (or nonbeing), it’s possible that postmodernism has a part in that. Both Helm and Strinati have something to add to this topic, and the respondents of my survey most definitely have opinions on it, although they may have missed the mark. The concept that metal is either stagnating or dead could have interesting ramifications if it were to be widely believed by metalheads. It could lead to innovation, or it could lead to droves of metalheads leaving their beloved genre; I find the latter to be extremely unlikely, impossible even. But if it is in fact stagnating or dead, there have to be reasons concerning why that is so.
Helm speaks often of narratives, and Strinati also mentions them; indeed, it seems they are very important due to their influence over society. As I stated before, the prevailing of capitalism over communism may have ushered in postmodernism, which now influences heavy metal. Narratives could be so important in fact, that they may be part of the reason that metal could be in a state of stagnation or death. Helm (personal communication, 2013) explains that perhaps people simply “expect [metal] to be alive” and continues to say that if our definition of whether metal is dead or not rests on whether it has “a message and agency” and continues “…then yes, Heavy Metal is dead” (response 24). But this is not the sentiment of all metalheads.
In preparation of writing this essay, I conducted a survey on a heavy metal weblog called No Clean Singing, asking several questions that centered around the idea that heavy metal may be stagnating or even dead. The responses I received were, generally speaking, extremely opposed to the idea that heavy metal was stagnating (only two respondents mentioned the word “dead” and it seems as if only one of them was using it in a response to my use of the word). For example, one respondent gave the following answer to the question “Is heavy metal stagnating? Is there a lack of originality?”:
F*** no! In fact, I was trying to explain to someone the other day how metal has essentially evolved to the point of encompassing all other genres – in the sense that there’s jazz-infused metal, symphonic and orchestral metal – and even more ‘movie soundtrack-style’ orchestral metal. This is particularly apparent in Xerath, Mechina, which is based around a theme that could be a movie, versus Septic Flesh’s Great Mass, which is a more a traditional album with individual songs. Panopticon just put out a bluegrass-hillbilly metal album. There are many more examples of cross-over and pollination of ideas from various sources. Obviously I’m not saying that cross-over doesn’t happen in other genres, it’s just that other genres are much less varied and more restrained, whereas metal is truly flourishing with all kinds of creativity spreading in different directions. (anonymous, 2013, response 9)
The respondent mentions several genre combinations such as jazz and metal, bluegrass and metal, and symphonic music and metal. These are all postmodern efforts on some level, as they combine genres in a way that keeps the parts of the original styles completely intact. But is simply combining genres enough to stave off stagnation, or is there more to it?
Assuming that we have defined a band as metal (more on this later), there is a portion of Strinati’s paper that can shed light on this topic. What he says could be quite useful as an analytical tool to determine whether something could be seen as vibrant, or innovative:
So what was distinctive about rock’n roll, for example, was not the fact that it too borrowed from, and based itself upon, already existing forms of music, but that it used these to construct something new. Rock’n roll, as is commonly accepted, arose out of the cross-cutting influences exerted by country and western, on the one hand, and urban rhythm and blues, on the other. The result was not, it is argued, a postmodern amalgam in which country and rhythm and blues stayed recognizably the same, but a novel and original fusion–rock’n roll. The story of soul music was similar, since this is said to have arisen out of the coming together of gospel and blues within black American culture. Yet again the consequence was said to be something strikingly new and different, not a sound which maintained the relatively separate identities of gospel and blues. (Strinati, D., 1993, para. 27)
By this definition, it seems as if it would be difficult to stave off stagnation; apparently mixing genres is not enough if we go by what Strinati says. The music must be more than the simple sum of the music’s parts. I think this is a perfectly rational way to look at innovation in music, as there is a clear division between genres; however, when genres are mixed, it doesn’t seem to bring anything other than the sum of its parts. Given what Strinati has laid out, it seems that many bands in this postmodern era would not be playing innovative or “new” music, which, considering what the respondents to my survey had to say, is quite surprising.
Most of the respondents to the survey that gave examples of innovation pointed at bands like deafheaven, Sigh, or Panopticon (anonymous, 2013, responses 2 & 9 respectively). All of these bands fuse genres, but don’t really seem to build on them. Sigh, in their latest album, had elements of a plethora of genres: 70s rock/metal, black metal, classical, jazz; Panopticon made an album from bluegrass and black metal, and deafheaven composed a post-rock and black metal fusion album. Based on Strinati’s definition of innovation, none of these bands are innovative. It seems that innovation is hard to come by if we don’t consider genre mash-ups to be new.
But what if we did? So far, everything seems to be pointing to stagnation and there seems to be a correlation between postmodernism and stagnation and/or death, but what if these preconceived notions are false? The mixing of musical genres may not bring anything new, but Strinati’s definition does not account for the execution of those genres that were mashed together, so to speak. The question of whether a certain genre of music is dead or stagnating, or alive and thriving could be said to sit on a thin line; and I think the question of whether or not the execution of a genre “mash-up” could be innovative should be explored further.
There is a concept in deconstruction that involves form and function, and for the purpose of this paper, this concept is very important. Function, according to deconstruction, takes precedence over form (Aylesworth, 2013, para. 36). To elaborate, if a band uses post-rock elements to make metal, it is making metal, not post-rock. This is crucial, as it is a way of defining whether or not what a band plays can be described as metal. It’s crucial because if we cannot categorize a band or genre as metal, how do we say whether the output of the subgenre or band is making innovations (or doing the opposite) in the genre as a whole?
But of course, the musicians’ intention may not matter at all; it could be the listener’s interpretation that matters:
…for Mallarme, as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality — never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist — that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself”: Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author for the sake of the writing (which is, as we shall see, to restore the status of the reader.) (Barthes, n.d., para. 3)
The concept of the Death of the Author should be considered when speaking of metal, as it should with every form of art; the word “author” can be replaced with the word “musician” and “text” can be replaced with the word “album.” If I feel that Whitechapel is not death metal with hardcore elements, rather, that it is hardcore with death metal elements, I am correct when we look at it from the point of view of the Death of the Author—it is my opinion and interpretation that matters, not the musicians’.
But which of these two ideas should take precedence? Should the musician have total control over what genre they fall in, or should the listener have the final say regarding who is what? Should both apply? I think the most feasible answer is to say that they both do.
The artists obviously have domain over what their music sounds like, and they can call it what they want. But the listener can also play the genre categorization game, and interestingly enough, the listener’s definition of what a band is can quickly shape how other listeners perceive that band as well. So, if we look at Barthes’ point that we should let the author die in order to allow ourselves to come to our own conclusions, why shouldn’t we also let the reader die? The only way in which we can avoid both the author and the reader is if we refrain from paying attention to media or others who are interested in what we choose to indulge in. This is difficult as heavy metal has come to rely on an online community that discusses music on a daily basis, both as news and as a forum. Are we to shut off all others and do our own thinking about heavy metal without any influence? This is an absurd idea as it’s incredibly difficult to execute if you are already absorbed in the community in some way or another—and many, many, metalheads are already at that point, and I doubt that new blood will avoid conversing about music—metal is a subculture in itself, and therefore is inherently social.
It could be argued that the author and the other readers are equal in their influence, and this means that both should be equally important. We should not eschew the artist’s viewpoint of what genre they are for the listener’s viewpoint, nor the listener’s for the artist’s. Foucault (2009) quotes Beckett, saying: “What does it matter who is speaking?” (para. 3). We should ask more than this; we should be asking four questions: “Who is speaking? Who is listening? What do they have to say? Are they logical?” It seems music is not the domain of either the artist or the audience; it could be said that it is the domain of both, and following this logic, we should arrive at our own conclusions based on the observations of three parties: the artist, the listeners, and ourselves. Is philosophy itself not largely based on discussion?
This paper is essentially an examination itself, and in it I examine postmodernism and how it relates to heavy metal. Postmodernism is a complicated topic that needs elucidation, it impacts a wide variety of things, and it may have something to do with heavy metal’s possible stagnation, or even death. Additionally, the categorization of genres is also an important part of this discussion, and I have expanded upon that by invoking the Death of the Author. We have explored some of the characteristics of postmodernism such as style-over-substance, consumerism, and narratives. Another topic we explored was the application of postmodern characteristics in heavy metal, for example genre-mixing, and style-over-substance. We also discussed whether or not heavy metal is stagnating or dead; and finally we entertained how Death of the Author, and the “Death of the readers” might pertain to heavy metal. In the end, postmodernism remains a complex issue that has real-world ramifications, especially in respect to heavy metal.
Aylesworth, G. Postmodernism. (2005, 2013). In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/
Barthes, R. (n.d.). Death of the Author. Aspen. Retrieved from http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/threeEssays.html#barthes
Hamrick, J.T. (2013, June 25). Reflections in the Void: The Survey
[Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.nocleansinging.com
Strinati, D., (1993). The Big Nothing? The Contemporary Culture and the Emergence of Postmodernism. Innovation in Social Sciences Research, 4(1). Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.libproxy.dtcc.edu/ehost/detail?sid=4dac7f4b-852b-48c6-9ecc-740590a1c362%40sessionmgr11&vid=1&hid=19&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=sih&AN=9707202883