(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