Feb 112013

photo by Peter Beste

(We’ve got something different for you, something I hope will provoke thinking and discussion.  This begins a 5-part post by cultural anthropologist [and metalhead] David Mollica on the subject of metal culture, based in part on extensive field research in bars.)

Hey NCS readers, Islander has kindly allowed me to talk at you about the metal community and why we do what we do for a little bit. I’m going to cover the whole media perception, violence, and counter-culture thing first to get it out of the way, then move on to some more interesting stuff in later posts. So first a little background:

I study cultural anthropology and mass media in addition to being a metal head and thought it would be cool to mix a little fun with my serious business. So, a couple years back I somehow managed to convince my adviser that letting me hang out in bars and listen to Iron Maiden was a legitimate form of fieldwork for my Master’s dissertation. The end result was a rambling 33 pages of material, some of which I’ll be talking about here. Since most of my field work took me to places where I had to keep up with the livers of London natives I may have missed a few things, so feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments. I like discussion. If you want a copy of the paper email me at gilderling@gmail.com.

Let’s start with a question you might not think about all the time: Why do you like Heavy Metal and what got you into it in the first place? Not only is this stuff grim, aggressive, angry and over the top, but we also see those things as standard positive qualities of the music. We expect macabre subjects and weird note progressions. So what drives us to listen to this instead of more mainstream or easy going stuff?

When I asked people that question during interviews I got a lot of different answers ranging from the music being more lively and authentic, good for letting out steam, to feeling that the music spoke to them on an emotional level that radio friendly stuff never could. However, the best answer I’ve heard to that question came from my friend Edward Banchs, a venerable fellow who writes about metal and Africa on the interwebs, when he told me that metal is ‘just being honest, like life’s a struggle you’re going to have to fight to go on’. We are also pretty hardcore about our love of the music, which drives away casual listeners who think we take this stuff too seriously. Finally, every person I interviewed thought of themselves as a lifer. They were stuck in and even if they didn’t like going to shows anymore they still felt comfortable around other metal heads and continued to listen to the music.

But then again, everyone else seems to hate this stuff. I mean, I once read a psychological study about subjective musical taste that was titled Anything but Heavy Metal! For decades popular media, fundamentalists, and governments have taken issue with this music. From the PMRC in the 1980’s to Moroccan metal heads being charged with what basically amounted to treason a few years ago because of the music they listened to, the perception of metal heads as young, degenerate, violent, and unproductive persists even though that clearly isn’t true…for the most part. There will always be people like this guy to make us look like the special flowers the media portrays us as. Most of us have jobs, have gone to college, have families and function just like everyone else, but much of the dialog in popular media is tied up with presenting the music as an influence that can literally kill your children!

All the people I interviewed and hung out with, including those at concerts, were functional adults with responsibilities. I focused on adults because the contradictions between popular belief and reality were too striking to ignore, though it also allowed me to reconcile the need for cultural participation and observation (what we call ethnography) with hanging out in metal bars and drinking with people I liked. On a related note, if you are ever in central London I strongly suggest checking out Crobar; it is just about the coolest bar in the world. Most of the academics who had done field work with metal heads had relegated themselves to major concerts in the United States and Europe, interviewing people who they didn’t spend any time with on a regular basis. They saw mostly younger, white males because those are the people who show up at North American and European festivals the most (more on this in later posts).

My research and experience have led me to believe that established power structures hate metal so much because the music adopts oppositional codes in almost everything it does. For example, we probably like songs about Satan so much because it is in opposition to established religious norms, not because we are all evil doers out to sacrifice delicious goats and join suicide cults. We like crazy discordant note structures, growling vocals, and messed up rhythms because it opposes a mainstream song writing style that many of us find outright boring. We can understand and identify with the anger, sadness, and oppositional thinking because that is, in some way or another, how we think and feel. That’s also why it gets pigeon-holed into the realm of rebellious youth culture, specifically viewed as music for ‘young, white, disillusioned, middle class males’.

So what’s my point in all this? Just to say something that most of us know already: Much like any other social group, metal heads build up their communities based on things they have in common. We all like metal so we hang out together when we can. Political and religious beliefs can become irrelevant, at least temporarily, as we form a group of friends and acquaintances around stuff we like. We aren’t that different from anybody else as people, we just happen to like some weird shit and maybe feel a little differently about the world. So metal gives us that nice little point in common that transforms a stranger from some guy with long hair to a decent dude who shares some of the same interests. It makes him look more like a person, so we find it easier to talk to him. That’s how social groups form, it’s why the nerds and the jocks don’t hang out together, and we do it too.


David is an over opinionated contrarian, general antagonist, and semi-professional examiner of musical culture. He is equally likely to be reading about economics so he can argue about it better as he is to be banging his head to some old school thrash metal. He writes for Underground Entertainment in Altoona, PA and plays bass in Black Sun.

  26 Responses to “METAL CULTURE – PART 1”

  1. I am not a huge fan of Crobar tbh!

    • I hung out he Unicorn, Intrepid Fox, Hobgoblin, and Underworld as well. I did notice that Crobar was rather cliquish but I knew the bar tenders so it never put me off.

  2. Good article! I spend a lot of time debating the merits of metal with people who think it’s pure noisey shit and or discussing why we like what we like! Look forward to the rest of this.

  3. I was hoping for something a little bit more psychological. Can i read your dissertation?

  4. Great article! I can’t wait to read more!

  5. Very nice! I also wrote something similar to this for my final project in my sociology class. I’d link to it but I’m on my phone. I may be going into the field of sociology and I thought about interviewing someone else about metal subculture. What are your thoughts on the subculture/counterculture dichotomy in metal?

    • Seeig your paper was what inspired me to contact islander in the first place. I migt have even snagged one of your sources while I was working on a rewrite. You want a copy so you can snag a few of mine for later use?

  6. Good grief, articles like this is why I keep reading this blog even though I find a lot of the metal in it to be outside of my metaphorical cup of tea

  7. Every Iron Maiden show I’ve attended, I’ve gone with a friend of mine who also hails from Altoona, so I’m digging where you’re coming from.

  8. Oh man, this part ended way too soon! Can’t wait to read more, I love reading stuff like this.

  9. You mention, near the end of your article, that nerds and jocks (and metal heads) don’t hang out together. Do you mean that strictly? Because I have found that, individually, that’s untrue. I have friends that are nerds, friends that are metal heads, and ones that could sometimes be termed “unique.” And we all hang out together. I get that, for specific activities, one might only hang out with a certain groups (like all of my metal head friends going to a concert together because your nerd friends aren’t into that kind of music), but you make it sound like these groups can never cross. Just because one can be termed a “metal head” doesn’t mean they don’t have other interests. I think that might be part of the misconception, to be honest. (Well, maybe most don’t, but that makes me feel kind of one dimensional, you know?)

    • I don’t mean to imply that we can’t make friends outside of metal. I have plenty who don’t like it. I’m jut talking about my experience working with groups of metal heads who were at specific places that are part of the culture. I was trying to not a write a book for one post so I might have cut myself off before making myself clear. Sorry!

      • No worries. I just like to make sure everyone gets a fair shake in these kinds of articles. I understand that the focus is on metal, so of course you will be talking almost exclusively on it. I think I just wanted to make sure metal heads aren’t portrayed as people who can’t get along with other social groups.

        I get why you focused on adults, specifically, though. For some…er, kids, “metal head” is more of a “scene,” not a “culture.” Plus, as you stated, adults are more likely to be responsible and have awesome things like jobs and families, which makes their viewpoints unique (to others outside the culture) and more…mature(?). They’ve been in it longer and probably have a clearer view of why they like what they like.

        Overall, I thought this was a good start. I just wanted to clear a few things up for myself. (Sorry for the book! Lol!)

    • Nice article man and i am genuinely stoked for your next installation .I hope you do take a shot at elitism in metal which too is a contentious issue as well. But ‘L’ makes a very serious point here. Especially in countries such as mine, India, Kerala to be specific. Unless you are from a big city, there is hardly any chance you will bump into a metal head. And pubs that have metal played here, let alone music, here are almost non existent. And sometimes you tend to agree more with a non-metalhead than you do with a metalhead. Friends are friends, irrespective of taste. It all depends from where you come from.

  10. Thanks for all the positive comments. Next installment is the stuff we buy and how we identitfy ourselves, which might cause some discussion.

  11. Looks awesome. I’m a fellow anthropologist who hasn’t managed to do fuck all with my degree so I’m going to live vicariously through these updates.

    I also feel a little peculiar because I don’t actually know any other metalheads in real life. I mean I know dudes who will listen to some In Flames and Mastodon every once in a while but no one else is jamming to Dying Fetus, Winterfylleth (can you jam to Winterfylleth? is that against kvlt law?), or Converge. So I’m living doubly vicariously in that you’re actually talking to other fucking metalheads!

    • If it makes you feel any better, this is the only time any of my anthropology stuff has been published! It’s quite a nice feeling. I guess I’m lucky that I found a few guys who were into it as much as I am where I live. That’s something I haven’t really considered. I say jam all you want!

    • I’m a psychologist who has not (yet) managed to exploit his degree fully either,

      Still trying to get a PhD sorted though. Still…

      Anyway, I know lots of ‘metalheads’ in real life, but personally I just don’t really describe myself as one.

      My identity is not tied to that stigma/stereotype/scene – not that I’m suggesting being very much a PART of that sort of scene and it being important to your own sense of self and identity is in any way bad.

      That being said MUSIC is one of the most important things in my life, listening to it, analysing, it, creating it… it just so happens that my music of choice is metal. It’s what I work in, it’s what connects to me personally.

      BUT I don’t feel any connection to the ‘identity’ of a metalhead. I love all the guys I know who do, of all the different sub-types… but if pushed I wouldn’t really describe myself as one. That’s not how I would immediately describe myself to others.

      Though I suppose you could do a WHOLE paper on the self-loathing dichotomy of the modern metalhead, who refuses to identify as such.

      • I’d read it if some one printed it! For me though that seems like an ultra specific line of inquiry. Probably not the bag of some one who looks for over arching societal trends!

  12. Another anthropologist here! What are the odds? My interest leans more toward concepts of cultural identity expressed through folk metal and its various sub- and related genres…but I’m digging this article and am curious to see where you go with it!

  13. This is awesome, very interesting read. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  14. I like the bit about metalheads finding mainstream music boring. Not only is it musically boring, but it’s also vapid in lyrics and artistry. Metal is for people who want to grasp the reality outside of social limits. Glad to see more writing of this nature.

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