(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.