Feb 122013

(Here’s Part 2 of a 5-part series about metal culture by guest contributor David Mollica, a trained cultural anthropologist and dedicated metal head. This series is based in part on David’s Master’s dissertation and the interviews he conducted in preparation for writing it.)

Today I want to talk about physical culture and the group/individual dynamic. Anyone who has ever been to a gig or looked inside Gaahl’s closet knows the metal uniform: Jeans, camo shorts, chains, denim vests, black band shirts, guys with long hair, tattoos, piercings, and so on. It makes us stand out a bit, attracting wary looks from ‘normal’ people on their way to work when we are trying to buy a Red Bull at 6:00 am for the after-gig drive home. On a surface level this helps create that group cohesion thing I was talking about yesterday. There is a certain amount of comfort we get from being around people who look and act like ourselves; that’s why immigrant groups often move into neighborhoods together instead of dispersing all over the place.

Personally, I never thought of why I choose to dress the way I do (minus the camo shorts…that’s just too much for me) until I started my fieldwork. That whole being able to see the other guy as a person and not just part of a sea of bodies at gigs is obviously important, and I think that’s partially why mosh pit etiquette is so universal. However, the way we dress goes beyond that simple level of making groups of strangers work together more easily. It’s also how a lot of us make friends, myself included. Think back to when you first met the people you know in the metal scene. The first thing that was said by way of introduction was probably something along the lines of “Nice shirt man!”. That’s how I met half the people I interviewed and some of us are friends to this day even though we don’t live anywhere near each other anymore.

Another important aspect of the physical culture among the people I worked with was the buying of physical copies of albums. Despite overall album sales being on a steady decline, things like Bandcamp allowing bands to self distribute, and some of the more prominent metal bloggers spending the last few years informing us that the CD is dead as a format, the desire to buy albums was a common thread. It was mentioned to me several times during interviews that a proper metal head would buy an album from a band if he likes them enough to put their stuff on a play list. Interestingly enough, most of them didn’t have an issue with downloading stuff in general, like movies or software, but they did look down on people who downloaded too much metal. In their eyes a fan should be willing to support the musicians.

In this way, buying albums turned into a method by which they could support a specific band, helping to ensure that more music is made later. I think part of the uptake in metal album purchases also comes from the collector aspect, especially as bands are starting to release tapes, collectors editions, and vinyls that are basically works of art. Owning that rare vinyl or tape you can’t even listen to unless you are chugging down the road in your mid 90’s station wagon displays what is known as cultural capital. In other words, a person who owns his favorite band’s stuff is more likely to be seen as true or authentic than a guy who downloaded it illegally.

On to my favorite method of cultural inclusion: making music yourself. I bet the percentage of metal heads who play an instrument is way higher than your average group of pop fans. Between myself and the ten people I interviewed, eight of us played an instrument or sang and about half were in metal bands at some point in our lives. That’s too much to be a coincidence and there’s a good reason for it. When you go to a gig do the musicians usually get that weird, standoffish Bob Dylan syndrome or leave immediately after the gig? It’s my experience that most will stay after the show, hang out, sign your shit, listen to the other bands, and generally let you fawn over them even if you are drunk and annoying about it. They present themselves as working class underdogs, making the music you love despite the uphill battle against larger society. It’s only natural that so many of us would want to be in a band because “you become a composer, a song writer, an entertainer. You become everything that you saw everyone else doing!” and isn’t that just about the coolest feeling in the world?

All this talk of fitting in and such might be making some of you uncomfortable. I thought this was weird at first, what with the genre’s obsession with yelling “Fuck you, I do what I want!” at even the slightest mention of conformity, so I made a point of figuring out what all this buying stuff and hanging out in groups meant to the people I interviewed. Some would say that just like any other form of popular media we are adapting ready-made items to express ourselves, which is in essence inauthentic and superficial. That we have no real identity of our own and are allowing the producers of media to decide who we are. It should be noted that I imagined a few metal head themed rage faces as I typed those last sentences.

Being yourself is obviously an important theme in metal. I mean, I’ve come across two references to the phrase ‘do as thou will’ just in the past week. To be individualistic despite what others think is a well-practiced skill among metal heads, so how do we reconcile our conformity to the sound and cultural aesthetic with the all important act of being ourselves? Well excuse me if I get all hippy on you for a second, but it’s the music, man. We use metal to express ourselves in ways we might not be able to put into words, to display or regulate emotions, and to help express and identify our own identity. At the same time, the best musical experiences are generally live ones where you are subjected to a large group of people you probably are similar to in at least a few ways. So, heavy metal and its physical culture allow us to express ourselves and to build social groups at the same time, to be an individual who is also part of the tribe.

David Mollica 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 2”

  1. Interesting point about buying into the cultural conformity! One could argue (sorry Old Man Windbreaker, I’m not trying to horn in on your style here) that the trappings of conformity could be considered tribal markers. I remember not too long ago being told that I didn’t “look like” a metalhead, even though I was wearing a black t-shirt and (I confess it) camo shorts.

  2. I’d be willing to bet that one of the references to “do as thou will” was the title of the new Rotting Christ album…

    Nice piece, particularly the last paragraph. Looking forward to reading more.

    • Yeah, and I’m not entirely certain what the point of mentioning it in the paragraph was? After all, it’s a pretty common phrase with some (vaguely) occult connections, so tends to crop up a lot in metal circles. That in itself isn’t an example of conformity, just a common lexicon.

      Though perhaps he means that it’s a common piece of ideology that’s often spouted by the metal community, but rarely adhered to?

      Or maybe even raising the point that “Do as thou wilt” does not necessarily mean being different and/or reactionary.

      • A little bit of all that Andy, mostly that it is something that the concept seems to be a common thread amongst those who listen to metal. Are we conforming to our non-conformist ideals!?

        • Pretty much. We all construct rules for our identity, dictated (consciously or unconsciously) by those around us… so essentially we all confirm to particular structures.

          I wouldn’t say that “Do what thou willt” has much to do with that though – bands/fans on the more esoteric end of the spectrum probably know it more from the occult writings, and the more reactionary “METAL” bands/fans are probably little aware of it at best.

    • That and Manilla Road.

  3. Oddly enough, prior to 1992, I did not consider myself a metal head even though I was an Iron Maiden fan and was into classic proto-metal/classic rock. There were three types of metal fans while I was growing up in rural NE PA: the hair metal crowd where the guys and girls were almost indistinguishable, the Big 4/thrash crowd (which was a big drinking crowd), and the Merciful Fate/Celtic Frost crowd (that got stoned and pretended they were Satanists). All were easily recognized as they all wore the “uniform.” I got along well enough with the later two, but didn’t really want to be a part of either.

    It wasn’t until Helmet released “Meantime” that I realized that metal didn’t have to conform to the goofy (sorry guys) stereotypes. Here was a group of guys with short hair in polo shirts, shorts and baseball caps making this crushing sound like no one else. I was hooked and down the path I went. Over time, I came to appreciate and enjoy the music my peers in high school had been listening (well, maybe not the hair metal) but I can’t bring myself to wear the uniform. I own no jean jackets or denim vests, no chains or spiked arm bands, I have no piercings. A band t-shirt a few tattoos and a 4” beard is about as metal as I get.

    Now, 25 years after high school graduation, through the wonders of Facebook I’ve reconnected with a lot of those uniform wearing metal fans I grew up with. Most of them are Tea Party conservatives who listen to country music now, and they look at what I listen too with the same sense of bewilderment I gave them back then.

    • Similar boat here. Never understood the whole “metal look” thing. Just not for me. I’m about as plain and average looking as they come when it comes to clothing. Though I have about a week’s worth of Mastodon shirts and quite a few other band shirts hanging in my closet for special days where I don’t have to look as presentable. No tattoos, no piercings, and pathetic amounts of facial stubble here. I guess I have a leather jacket from the 80s that was handed down to me, but thats about it. No studs or patches or anything like that.

      • I get what you guys are saying. I don’t have piercings or tattoos but I do have long hair (which I grew before I got really into metal incidentally) and a crap ton of metal shirts. Remember I’m talking about how we dress and act at gigs and in venues that cater to the crowd. How we build a group identity, even a temporary one. Most of us still have to put on the monkey suit and go to work!

    • I’ve got tattoos down both arms and legs, but they don’t have anything to do with metal, and they’re all covered up when I’m at work. However, they do make me feel more “at home” when I go to shows (especially since I’m considerably older than most people I rub elbows with at venues). I also do have hundreds of band shirts and almost always dutifully wear one when I’m at a show. So even though I definitely don’t think outward trappings are a necessary part of being a metal head, I confess that I do feel the desire to look like part of the tribe when the tribe gathers.

      And David’s point about “Nice shirt man” being a conversation starter with strangers is definitely true in my experience. Just last night, when I was grabbing a burger at about 1 a.m after Enslaved’s show in Seattle, a young guy in line with me at the all-night burger joint asked, “Is that a Dragged Into Sunlight hoodie?” I said yes, he said “Nice!”, and there began a conversation.

      • When I saw Agalloch last year, I wore a WoY: Woods 5 shirt. I walked up to Agalloch’s merch table to buy a shirt and the guy manning it said “nice shirt, I played guitar for one of the tracks on Woods 4.” THAT was the start of an interesting conversation and that’s how I met Nathanael Larochette of Musk Ox.

    • One’s thoughts exactly. Every time someone mentions the heavy metal “uniform”, One immediately thinks about Helmet with their short hair, polo shirts and short pants.

      On a more personal note, One can’t stand having long hair or a full beard. The constant itch…

  4. If you want another good stuff about Metal Music saw through the len of cultural anthropology you have to watch these two documentaries: Metal – “A Headbangers Journey” and the sequel “Global Metal” (Youtube).

    • Probably everyone here has seen that at some point of time. But i do want to check Sam’s other ventures. That 10 part metal series he is currently on

  5. In group/out group marking’s a helluva drug. It’s really a pretty interesting thing because I’d wager a lot of it starts in the teen years when you don’t really have a lot to draw on within yourself to craft an identity. Equally importantly, although I may just be pulling this out of my ass here, you’re probably just becoming free to dress yourself without as much parental supervision. It’s a whole new way of expressing yourself.

    I do think there’s a strong element of conformity to it, especially at a younger age. And that’s fine. I know a lot of metalheads treat conformity as this great evil but it’s really not. Conformity to some set of social mores is what solidifies a a group. You’re brought together by a lot of the things you have in common. That can be your appearance, your politics, your music, whatever. In some ways everyone’s alike and that’s cool.

  6. Im trying to figure out a way to phrase this without sounding like Im coming down on these posts…Im not. Ive read both articles so far, and I do find them interesting.

    The problem Im having is that they seem to be grounded in the idea that metal culture is, itself, something that can be grouped as a whole. At one time this may have been true, but as metal has fractured into its various sub-genres its taken things like the uniform “metal look” with it.

    Im not saying theres no conformity among metalheads, but it tends to exist among the fans of the various sub-catagories (i.e…thrash fans look like thrash fans..black metal fans look like black metal fans)..and even that conformity can split as you get into the sub-sub-genres

    • It’s a general thing. Like I said up top, I’m talking about how we work as a group when we are in these specific settings, not in our every day lives. There are plenty of differences from one sub-group to the next, but I bet your average Joe won’t know the difference between a Power Metaller and a Black Metaller if they see them on the street.

      • I get that these are generalizations made about metalheads in their native habitat, what Im saying is that I disagree that these generalizations should be made so broadly. If we’re talking, not just about extreme metal, but about all metal then its a genre thats far too diverse to summarize all its different fans under one brushstroke

        Metal fans of certain genres tend to look alike, but metalheads as a whole do not..I realize its a stereotype, but it hasnt been an accurate one for years now. The most recent and obvious example is the amount of mesh-short, flat-brim-hat, sport jersey wearing meatheads that have popped since the rise of the “-core” scene.

        ..and yes, I do think that Joe Schmo could tell the difference between a decked out Blind Guardian fan and a decked out Satanic Warmaster fan. Extreme metal tends to attract extreme looks…The opposite is usually true as well. The more accessible the music, the more likely the fan is to look clean-cut and straight-edge.

        (..and just as a sidenote…When it comes to downloading, I think it depends on two things, your age (younger people obviously dont place as much value on a physical medium) and how far into the underground scene you are (theyre usually the ones . I do agree that, in general, fans like to try and support the bands they like by buying something)

        • …duh..that was supposed to be “They seem to be the ones who are most passionate about owning collecting physical media”

        • When dealing with a complex culture at some point you have to say fuck it and define your terms and start drawing some lines. It’s one of the things that makes ethnographies in modern first world countries kind of a bitch and I’ll be up front in saying I only have the most rudimentary idea of how you go about the actual process of putting it all together.

          That said, you can look at metalheads and while you can tell a Blind Guardian fan from a Satanic Warmaster fan you can tell that in the end they’re both metal fans. Yeah, this isn’t going to be totally true all the time but it’s more about building a baseline. You have to make the broad strokes before you can go back and poke holes in your own work and write a paper on the clear cultural differences between the power metallers and the viking black metallers.

          • Is true, if only I had had the time and funding to write a book instead of final paper…I could have done all the sub sub-cultural breakdowns ,but is the nature of the field to use models and general observations about the group as a whole.

  7. Nice shirt story
    When i was going to my first proper metal gig, 17-18 years old, i wore a rather big Emperor T-shirt. After the gig, walking though a crowded street in norways largest city, some random guy walks up to me pointing at my shirt. He goes something like ” hey nice shirt, so you like Emperor? Do you happen to like Thrash Metal? Im in a band with the drummer from Emperor , you should check us out *hands me a CD-R*

    The guy i met was “Pete Evil”, and the CD-R was Blood Tsunamis untitled 2005 demo.

  8. This was a great second part! I like how you explored the issue conformity/non-conformity in it. I think, from the little sociology that I have studied, that almost everyone wants to belong to a group. There are very few people that like being alone and wouldn’t appreciate at least one other person understanding where they come from. When you are part of a smaller group, having a”uniform” of sorts does help identify someone of another group, and can help make great connections, like the stories above have shown. While certain groups may not want to conform to “normal” society, I don’t think there is anything wrong with outwardly displaying what group you do belong to, and I don’t think it should be treated as such. And there’s nothing wrong with NOT displaying it as well. Different people, different situations; not everyone can dress in dark band tees and camo shorts all of the time, but that doesn’t lessen their love of the music, which is the important part, I think.

  9. Interesting article, looking forward to the next part. It’s made me think about things.

    From 16 through to 19, I wore a band shirt every day, and I enjoyed the idea of being a part of that metalhead group. I don’t know any one else in real life who’s into metal, so at a gig it was nice to ‘blend in’. It almost justifies you; that what you listen to is good because other people think so too. The ‘nice shirt’ part felt like validation. To me now, this sounds rather needy of approval, and I’m glad I don’t have it anymore.

    What changed my attitude was by ingratiating myself in literature. Music is a facet of my life that I love very much, and metal is an important element of that, not the whole thing. At one time it was, but now I feel I don’t want my music to define me as a person, it’s a cherished part of me but it’s not everything. By displaying visibly and strikingly in the metalhead uniform it sets a precedent of who I am, when other things are just as important to me. I don’t have the need nor want to look like my music. The music you invest in or the music you create is the expression of self, not the merchandise you adorn.

    In my mind, to some extent, fans wearing band shirts are attempting to define their identities with that item. They support the band’s message and philosophy, imbued in the merchandise, and want to associate themselves with it. If it looks cool, bonus. It’s not something that appeals to me, appropriating other people’s messages and using them as my own. I’d rather a blank slate and not have something that needs that much decoding. I understand however I appear will never be ‘new’ or ‘significant’, I just want it to be an outward expression rather than an attachment of pre-packaged meaning.

    I guess this is all minutiae for an anthropologist.

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