(Here we have an NCS first. We’re delighted to publish an academic paper prepared for college credit by one of our long-time supporters, a frequent commenter, and a regular source of excellent musical recommendations: His NCS moniker is Utmu. Both Phro and your humble editor happily agreed to be interviewed for Utmu’s project. Usually we only see our names cited in police reports, so this is a refreshing change.)
See what I did there with that title? Yeah, I know, it’s corny. Anyway, I recently took a sociology class and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and luckily for me one of the choices for a final project was a research paper, and I decided to cover heavy metal culture. Also luckily for me, my teacher was quite lenient about sources and other things regarding this paper, and I don’t normally enjoy this sort of thing. Also fortunately for me, I have friends who are metalheads and those friends have opinions and experiences regarding metal culture; both Islander and Phro were very cooperative in the interviews on which I based this project, and I’d like to thank them for their help!
I really enjoyed interviewing them and I also enjoyed writing my paper (even if I did get about 98% of it done from around 2:30 AM to 5 AM the morning of its due date) and I think I did pretty well. I wish I had put more analysis in it, but sadly I had to be able to fit information into 5 or 6 pages — I couldn’t even include everything from the interviews. Also, I realized after reading the project that I utilized in-text citations frequently, but I’m afraid I’m a bit paranoid when it comes to such things.
I sent this in to Islander for a number of reasons: It’s the first academic paper on NCS, I get to help the blog out by contributing something, and maybe this can spark a good discussion (if it does I’d like to send this in to my instructor). Anyway, here is my paper, simply titled “On Metal Culture”.
ON METAL CULTURE
In this paper I intend to discuss heavy metal culture and I will do so by identifying specific examples which represent the attributes that constitute a culture. These attributes consist of the music itself, language, beliefs, values, norms, behaviors (both on the internet and in person), material culture, and gestures and symbols, additionally I will also cover the culture in general. Heavy metal was born in 1970 when the band Black Sabbath released their self-titled album which had the low-tuned guitars and deviant lyrics which are mainstays of heavy metal (Dunn et al., 2005). Since then this style of music has had a proliferation of subgenres, subgenres like death metal, black metal and doom metal (Unknown, personal communication, Nov & December 2012). Even the subgenres have subgroups; for example there’s blackened death metal, technical death metal and brutal death metal. Over the course of approximately 42 years, the genre has grown drastically.
The first topic I covered in my interviews with both of my respondents was the culture in general. The first question was probably the most important as it played a part in whether I should even write this paper; I asked both respondents whether they thought there was such a thing as a heavy metal culture and/or a subculture/counterculture. They both answered yes, and both felt that metal was a mixture of a subculture and a counterculture (Unknown, 2012; Phro, personal communication, December 2012). Arnett says that involvement in the culture is based on the level of alienation they’ve experienced (1993). I don’t doubt that, but I believe other factors also contribute, such as a want for power in sense of becoming a better person, or self-identification with the music (Unknown 2012; Phro 2012). Islander (2012) also wrote in the interview that metal culture also has “[A] strong individualism, often coupled with an anti-authoritarian streak; a desire to live and think as you wish; an instinctive questioning of rules and norms that define the bigger society; a general rejection of much of of mass popular culture . . . a strong element of irreverence (though I don’t necessarily mean that in the narrow sense of being [irreligious]).”
The music itself covers dark and controversial topics like violence and gore, sexuality and sexual deviance, Satanism, atheism and even Nazism and racism. Islander says (2012), “My own feeling is that the widespread presence of those “taboo” lyrical subjects (and it’s present in the artwork, too) is a result of the rebelliousness and denial of societal norms that’s a driving part of the music itself and the culture more generally.” Phro (2012), cites several reasons whether they be shock value and/or more importantly honesty. Phro (2012) also expresses his opinion that every genre of music covers these kind of controversial topics with the intensity of how underground the artist is in their genre. Islander (2012), is quick to note that most musicians don’t espouse these ideas (although he also notes at another point in the interview that there seems to be a higher level of atheism and agnosticism in heavy metal than in people at large).
On the topic of material culture, dress and artwork play a role in metal. Band shirts and black clothing seem to be the main physical “uniform” of metal fans (Unknown 2012), they also are an outlet for socialization (Snell & Hodgetts, 2007). Band shirts always have band logos or simply the band’s name, and/or artwork which may be featured on the musical releases by the bands. Artwork on these shirts and album covers usually have themes on them that are indicative of the genre, for example, a black metal band (black metal mostly focuses on Satanism and the occult) would have images of demons, Satan, goats, inverted crosses, and inverted pentagrams. Death metal bands, bands that tend to focus on violence, gore, and at times sexually deviant acts, usually have images focusing on those very topics. These images have become so involved in metal music that they’ve essentially also become symbols; black metal would not be the same without inverted crosses, and death metal bands wouldn’t be the same without the gore.
The horns are a regularly occurring symbol/gesture (Unknown 2012); the horns are made by tucking the middle and ring finger in towards the palm, leaving the little finger and index finger outstretched, sometimes the thumb is folded over the ring and middle fingers, sometimes it isn’t. I could argue that every metal fan knows what the horns are, and it is one of the most iconic symbols in metal. The horns were originally appropriated by the legendary metal singer, Ronnie James Dio, from the Italian culture his relatives brought with them when they came to America (Dunn et al., 2005). It has come to be used to say, that basically, something is metal (Unknown, 2012), and is generally used to express approval, especially at metal concerts. Another gesture regularly used is the middle finger, often band members use this when photos are being taken, they use it at the audience at concerts, and sometimes the audience uses it at them. Headbanging is another gesture (Phro, 2012), that involves moving one’s head in a variety of ways to the music, whether it be back and forth, left to right or in a circle.
The behavior of metal heads might be strange to outsiders of metal culture. In contrast with the lyrics and imagery used by the bands, the fans of bands are often quite polite with each other at shows; the act of moshing, would, to outsiders, probably indicate the opposite. However, there is an unwritten code of conduct when one moshes (Sinclair, 2011). Sinclair (2011), who interviewed metal fans about moshing, and in his paper, notes that moshers usually pick each other up if they fall and deliberately causing harm to others is frowned upon. However, on the internet, interactions between metal fans differ greatly from the personal interaction of concerts. Metal fans, like many people on the internet, are regularly rude to each other; as Islander (2012), notes, “There seems to be a lot more shit-talking on the internet.” And in referencing the difference between personal and impersonal environment Islander (2012), says “It’s harder to be an asshole to someone’s face.” Phro (2012), opines that the interactions that often take place on metal blogs and sites are basically the nature of the internet.
Beliefs of metal fans are hard to pin down, especially in respect to politics. Islander (2012), believes that many people across the political spectrum listen to metal, afterwards expressing that he doesn’t really feel that a Tea Party member could be found within the ranks of a metal fan; however Phro (2012), believes, that in the context of the United States at least, people lean towards the left, although in the interview he makes a big deal of region-based beliefs and finds it hard to pin down the metal community in general when politics are concerned. On the question of religious beliefs, Phro (2012), posits that there are many people of many religions who enjoy metal but feels that in the United States, people into heavy metal music/culture tend to be more irreligious; Islander (2012), says that generally, there seems to be a larger percentage of atheists and agnostics in metal, but still mentions that there are plenty of devoted fans that believe in God.
On the topic of values (which pertain to metal) Phro (2012), says: “I think solid musicianship and honest expression is important.” Islander (2012), says “I guess I referred to some of those in an earlier answer: a strong sense of independence, a general suspicion of, or even hostility toward, authority, pride in being outside the mainstream.” When asked about emerging values, Phro (2012), responds that he thinks paying for music is an emerging value and that metal fans are realizing that if they want to the bands they listen to carry on, buying music is a way of supporting them; conversely he makes a point that there is still a lot of piracy and that many bands give their music away. On the topic of norms, I touched upon the concept of “selling-out” with Islander (2012), who says “There’s definitely a pretty common view that metal is underground music and ought to stay underground, and that large-scale popularity is a cause for suspicion or even criticism. I think most people would say a band has “sold out” if they’ve made their music less extreme and more accessible in an effort to increase their fan base. It’s kind of weird, because I think there’s also some pride that comes from seeing a band become more popular — as long as they don’t achieve greater popularity by seeming to pander to a mass audience.” Islander (2012), then, when asked about the sanctions bands receive for selling out he responded: “Fans who think a band has sold out are just going to turn away from them (and flame them, of course).” Also, speaking of norms, Islander (2012) referenced dress: “[Once] you get past band shirts, I doubt there are any other appearance norms. I mean, you definitely see more ink and more piercings in metal than outside metal, but I wouldn’t even say those are defining norms. Metal heads have beards, and are clean-shaven. They have hair down to their ass and shaved heads. [Some] bathe every day and some don’t.”
Finally, when speaking of language, both interviewees felt that there was a language, although Phro (2012) thought “lingo” was a more appropriate term. I agree, seeing as how metal does not have a language like English or Hindi, it’s a globalized culture that has makes use of broad languages like the ones I just mentioned and uses slang or specific terms to refer to music and cultural facets. For example Islander (2012), implies that he thinks metal is unique because it uses terms like “brutal” and “ugly” as compliments for the music, and metal fans often refer to the music as “shit” with no negative connotation. Additionally, Islander (2012), (probably jokingly) says ” If someone tells me that a song is “some filthy shit”, I probably want to hear it.” On the topic of subgenre names, Islander (2012) says that terms like “black metal”, “death metal”, “deathcore” and “metalcore” would mean nothing to someone outside of metal.
All in all, heavy metal culture has many facets and, in my opinion, can be called a subculture and counterculture (for simplicity’s sake, I’ve referred to it as a culture throughout this paper). Outsiders are quick to generalize about metal fans and metal music, but my respondents often had difficulty speaking about subjects in broad terms. This is likely due to the presence of metal throughout the world, the wide variety of subgenres, and the hard-to-place beliefs of metal fans. Heavy metal is a lifestyle to some, a hobby to others, and believed to be responsible for murders and suicides to more. It is both maligned and cherished.
Unknown. (2012). Interview by J.T. Hamrick [Personal Interview]. Islander on heavy metal culture.
Phro, P. (2012, December). Interview by J.T. Hamrick [Personal Interview]. Phro on heavy metal culture, Facebook.
Sinclair, G. (2011). Chastising and romanticising heavy metal subculture: challenging the dichotomy with figurational sociology. Available from Academic.edu. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/537136/Chastising_and_romanticising_heavy_metal_subculture_Challenging_the_dichotomy_with_figurational_sociology
Snell, D., & Hodgetts, D. (2007). Heavy metal, identity and the social negotiation of a community of practice. Available from Ebscohost. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.libproxy.dtcc.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=e00d7b34-ef15-4ad8-bca4-64b17c296d32@sessionmgr14&vid=5&hid=8
Dunn, S. (Director), McFadyen, S. (Director), & Wise, J. (Director) (2005). metal: A headbanger’s journey [Television series episode]. In Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. Banger Films. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-GUhiPduso
Arnett, J. (1993). Three profiles of heavy metal fans: A taste for sensation and a subculture of alienation.. Retrieved from Ebscohost
I hope you get a good grade for this, man!
Also, in terms of the uniform, i don’t think you can really ignore leather and boots. Those are not universal, but they’re definitely noteworthy (see: the Ace of Spades cover, the song London Leatherboys by Accept, everything Judas Priest ever did, most promo photos of Darkthrone, etc.)
Oh, definitely, I don’t know if I even thought about leather and boots. We didn’t cover denim either! Oh how furious Saxon would be!
Thanks for the kind words BadWolf!
Great! but it’d be great if you could go a lot deeper, and go past the givens. But then again this is a paper, and i completely get it. Nice article though and there needs to be more such papers on the different aspects of metal culture.
I wanted to do more, but I didn’t have enough room in the paper, the limit in the project paper says 3-4 I think and my teacher let me go to 5-6. I covered a lot more in the interviews and I ended up having to cut some stuff out. Thanks for the approval!
Papers done on a certain local metal scene,(specific to the area) and how it got started, the whole history and all the bands involved,. That would be great as well !
The name under which you post well exemplifies what I find to be yet another aspect of metal culture. There seems to be, for lack of a better term, an inherent nerdiness amongst metalheads. Of course this is not true of all who enjoy metal and its many subgenres, but based on observation, it applies to many a devotee of this so called “Devil’s music.” Likely it is due to the interest in the occult and, dare I say it, epic nature of many a metal tune that draws followers of the genre to such interests as RPGs, science fiction, etc. As an example, Corpsegrinder of Cannibal Corps has a World of Warcraft tattoo on his forearm. Now I couldn’t tell you what it signifies, but after meeting Mr. Fisher at this year’s Summer Slaughter tour, the friend with whom I attended the event was certainly geeking out about it. Continuing with the tattoo theme, another example can be seen in one of the hosts of Metal Shop on KISW here in Seattle. On either calf he wears symbols from the Star Wars franchise, those of the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, if memory serves. These, of course are just a couple of examples among many. An entire paper could be written on this on subject alone, as I’ve barely scratched the surface in this brief explanation of my theory regarding the correlation between metal and geek culture.
On the other hand, maybe I just hang out with a bunch of nerds…
I think I wrote this on some post here at some point, but I agree completely about most metalheads being nerds and geeks (and I’m including myself). Trying to explain why that is would be an interesting exercise.
Woa great articule dude!!!! Hope you get an A for this!!! Wish you could go and write more about the subject!!!
Thanks man! It’s something to consider.
Nice! Great read. You should definitely expand this. I’d like to know how all the sub-genres began. (For example, what was the first doom metal band?) You could interview local metal bands, too. Find out what/who influenced them. This could turn into something…brutal! Thanks for sharing.
Interview local metal bands, eh? That sounds really cool! I mean, how often do we hear from relatively unknown bands about their experiences? This comments section really seems to be filled with great ideas. Thanks for the support!
Good job. This topic is so expansive. Metal is truly an international music, and every country and culture seem to have their own take and attitude towards it. This could be an interesting recurring feature.
Of course! Bands like Melechesh and Finntroll are definitely influenced by their region (or in the case of Melechesh, former region), and I think that really adds to metal, while I like the idea of riffs, blast beats, double bass and growling, sometimes we need something extra!
Even bands that don’t play something that’s specific to their region, but add another, or deeper element to their music like Botanist using only a hammered dulcimer, vocals, and drums, Fleshgod Apocalypse using a piano, operatic vocals and orchestral compositions and Sigh using symphonic compositions, electronic noises, sound clips and general weirdness are what really keeps things interesting. Impureza is another one! Flamenco and metal? I’ve never seen that done before!
Thanks for the kind words!
Thanks so much for all the support guys! I got a 100% on this; as for the depth of what I could have included, I had a page limit, I would’ve included a lot more (I covered more in the interviews than what is in the paper). Big thanks to Islander, Phro and my teacher.
Congrats on the 100%! Any chance we may be able to these interviews in full some time in the future?
I might consider it. This is an interesting topic for me.
Just to…ummm….sixth? (I can’t count)…you definitely need to expand on this, Utmu! I realize you’ve just started university, but if you liked this class, there’s no reason not to pursue sociology. (Though job prospects for sociology seem to be either academia or marketing, though I’m not really familiar with the field.) It’d be great to have more metal scholars.
I like everyone’s suggestions of interviewing more people, but I’d also like to suggest trying to compile raw data and doing field observations (I may have just made that up) at shows. (I wonder if you could get your school to pay for your research by paying for your tickets.)
Hehehehe! I’d like it if my school could pay for my tickets! However a large portion of concerts are 21+ and I’m only 19. I GET TO WEAR A PINK BRACELET!
I really like the idea of field studies, and I’m really considering pursuing sociology as a career, however my college doesn’t have anything beyond this sociology class! It’s social sciences department is pretty limited I think, at least in the school I go to, I don’t know about the other schools that are related to this one in other regions/counties of my state.
That sucks…though this could be the perfect opportunity to someplace more metal. Studying in Finland!
TO FINLAND! Wait. I wouldn’t understand the teachers.
The teachers there probably speak metal like everyone else, so you’d get by.
The teachers there also probably can pull off Devourment vocals. “Finland separated from the Soviet Union…” “Sir, we can’t understand what you’re saying.” “I wrote it down.” “Yeah, that doesn’t help.”
Must…resist…the…urge….HGGHAAAAAH!! We were never part of soviet union! But you weren’t serious, I know. Right? RIGHT?!
On a more serious note: If metalness is what you want from your possible exchange student program, then perhaps Finland is the place for you. Just don’t expect a Willy Wonka-like wonderland of all the things kvlt. The intarwebz can be abit missleading.
Oh and the Finn girls go crazy on all things exotic, so you might wana have a serious thought on what Phro said! And yes, a 19 year old Delawarean is exotic in their eyes( no disrespect meant )
I heard it was part of the Soviet Union somewhere… Wikipedia says it was part of the Russian Empire from the 19th century to about the early 20th. Sorry mate.
Thinking of a Delawarean as exotic is one of the weirdest things… thinking of Americans as exotic is weird… but Delawareans? If America is a conglomeration of all types of bread, Delaware would be white bread. We barely get acknowledged in our own country. 😛
You’d learn pretty quickly. Especially if you get a Finnish girlfriend. Learn by osmosis, as it were.
So your fiancee is responsible not only for keeping you out of traffic, but also for teaching you Japanese?
It’s always fun for me to read stuff discussing about metal and its undergroundness as I can’t really relate to that. I mean it is underground here aswell, but I’d say in a more or less different meaning. Yeah we got the Biebers and whatevers being the whole mainstream pop culture. But specially among the male population metal is very common ( if you’re willing to take Disturbed, Mustasch and the likes as metal). I have never ever felt like an outsider in the negative sense for liking/being a fan of metal music. I’d even dare to say it’s the other way around.
I can’t say I feel the same way. I’m not exactly thick-skinned, and I’m sort of paranoid and shy, so when I’m not in the company of metal fans (never; I’m never in the company of metalheads) I have to choose things like what I wear carefully because I hate having people react negatively towards me; I know that their opinion doesn’t really matter, but again, I’m thin-skinned and I hate awkward situations.
Glad you enjoyed reading the paper though! 😀
I know you’re not trying to rub it in that you’re from Finland, possibly the most metal nation on earth, but . . . you’re rubbing it in. 🙂
Don’t let something as small as language stop you from doing a semester or year abroad. Especially if it allows you to get closer to a subject you’re interested in. The thing I regret most from my college years are that I didn’t spend anytime abroad. You can still pick up any language pretty quickly. Plus Finland is awesome!
Yeah I want to study abroad, it’d be a real change of pace as I’ve lived in Delaware all my life and I’ve ventured out of the state rarely, so it’d be cool to check out some place that’s foreign to me, and yeah Finland would be awesome to go to!
You are the first person i’ve ever “met” who is from Delaware. Ever. I’ve met people from various countries in every continent excluding Antarctica. I met a prince from Ghana. Never so much as a busboy from Delaware.
Yeah, the state is so small and there are less than a million people, so there aren’t a lot of us to go around. 😀
I believe the correct contraction here is aresn’t, or perhaps amsn’t, if speaking in a more Skwigelfian dialect. Although, I have been out of school for a while now, the rules may have changed.
@ Utmu, I did my Master’s degree in London and wrote my dissertation about heavy metal culture in the city. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I made friends from all over the world, saw more gigs in a year than I did in the rest of my life combined, and got graded on a paper that I did research for in metal bars. If you want to study abroad go do it!
That sounds like a lot of fun. Maybe I should really look into studying abroad.
If you go to the United Kingdom during your travels check out Crobar in London. It’s the coolest bar on the
Studying abroad and internships are the POINT of college, speaking as a graduate. Nobody cares what your degree is in; they care where you’ve been, what languages you speak, and who you know that’s willing to vouch for you.
YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS.
Study abroad, and get internships, lots of them, as many as you can. Your gradecard should come secondary to those things.
Absolute awesome piece Utmu!
Thanks Max! 😀