(This is Part 4 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. The previous Parts of the series can be found here.)
If you live in a Western country most of the metal heads you know are probably white and if you don’t live in one there is a chance that there aren’t so very many of you. Metal heads in Europe and the US also get accused of being racist often enough, and statements made by people like Phil Anselmo and Varg Vikernes don’t always help to put that image down. However, there are large pockets of fans from almost every ethnic group across the globe, especially in larger cities.
Further, out of the ten people I interviewed, three of them weren’t white. If my group was at all representative of the larger fan base, and things like Sam Dunn’s Global Metal would suggest that they are, it means there are a lot of non-white metal heads out there. They are a group that most academics who study metal have somehow missed. Since I met these people hanging out together in bars it also puts up some strong evidence for something I’m guessing you knew already — most of us aren’t racist.
Those academics who have studied non-Western metal heads have made a point of figuring out how and why the music, which has some pretty distinct Anglo-Saxon roots, ends up appealing to people outside of its original context. A few have theorized that the appeal comes from metal’s inherently rebellious nature. The music carries with it the sound of “the oppressed other”, and this feeling of struggle against larger society that metal sometimes conveys gets adapted as a form of actual resistance against a society those people may feel no longer represents them. (I just paraphrased the crap out of Heavy Metal Islam there.)
As an example of this sort of thing, in Bali fans of death metal started using it as a rebellion against the commercial “native” music that was being played to please white tourists. This is important because many people accuse non-Western fans of co-opting and emulating the West when they get into metal, even though the reality is often the opposite. Check out the comments on this article about Botswana to see some examples of African metal heads being accused of inauthentic behavior. Maybe those white guys are just getting uppity because they don’t like it when other people cop their style, which brings us to the exclusive nature metal heads are often seen as having.
I don’t think most metal heads actively try to push people away or anything like that, but it does happen sometimes. Let’s think about group/out-group dynamics for a minute. For example, a table full of IT guys is talking shop about servers, and a guy who is friends with them stops by to say hello. If the friend is not an IT guy and they continue talking about servers, chances are good that he won’t linger long because he will not have the specific knowledge required to contribute to the conversation.
It’s the same thing with metal. In a bar or venue full of us, chances are good we are talking about metal and many have a ridiculously deep reservoir of useless knowledge about the subject. From the outside, this might make us look like elitists, talking about that underground band from another country that isn’t even signed yet and just released their first demo.
Another example of exclusivity is tied to the musicianship displayed by a lot of metal artists. Few popular genres put quite the same emphasis on solos, leads, odd time signatures, and technicality as metal. Traditionally, music that requires a decent to high level of skill to play is a little antagonistic toward its fans because the musicians don’t want everyone else to know their craft. After all, specializing the crap out of your skill is a great way to create job security. I’m sure some of this goes on in metal, but then remember the discussion about physical culture and how so many metal heads play and produce the music themselves. I bet this still makes us look pretty exclusive to other people though, especially when we co-opt styles from music that seems to require a lot of technical skill, like classical or jazz.
Many of the people I spoke to hated it when fans exhibit symptoms of what my friend referred to as “metal head disease”. For those uninitiated into the peculiar ways my friends phrase things, that’s a syndrome that makes you hate everything that isn’t metal and strive to be more brutal, kvlt, or trū than anyone else. It’s a stereotype we get, but it doesn’t really represent metal heads as a whole. Like I said, most metal heads don’t purposely act in an exclusive fashion, nor are the majority of us racist.
What is probably happening is more of a natural sort of divide based on the specific knowledge of the group. I’ve encountered instances where a black person who demonstrates that knowledge and authenticity better than a white guy gets accepted into the group, while the white guy gets more or less ignored. This emphasis on knowledge is so strong that people who don’t look the part of a metal head are often accepted into the fold so long as they demonstrate that they know what they are talking about. Especially among adult fans, we recognize the need to look presentable to larger society and hold down that much coveted, but often despised “real job”. You can’t do that in a Cannibal Corpse hoodie most of the time.