(This is Part 5 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. You can download the actual Master’s paper at the end of this post. The previous Parts of the series can be found here.)
Well everyone, here we are at the end. It’s been great being able to put this stuff out and to read the discussions in the comments. I hope you enjoyed the series and I want to thank Islander for letting me do it. I’ve got two subjects I want to tie up the discussion with: The sort of communities we create and what heavy metal means to fans in context of the larger world.
Obviously, metal heads don’t build communities like towns, share the same ethnic groups, or even share the same governments. The social groups we build are loose and informal, based on a shared interest in the music and to a certain extent, aesthetic preferences for stuff like horror movies and occult themes that come out in the music. We also don’t always cluster together and exclude everyone else at every turn, unless we are talking about high school cliques or some such. Despite this sort of cultural preference being very real, the study of informal fan communities is a fairly new trend in most social sciences, because many had previously dismissed such groups as being invalid artifacts of youth culture that get shucked off when we enter the world of adults.
That we grow out of the stuff we like when we age and basically get boring is a rather depressing way to look at things and I don’t really buy it as a universal. It happens, of course. I’ve lost some friends because they “grew up”. When I was 16 I liked Ozzy, Iron Maiden, and Metallica, but I didn’t know what song was on what album or the names of most of the band members. Now that I’m almost 28, I visit 2 to 4 metal blogs a day, spent a year studying groups of metal heads so I could write a dissertation about it, and know more than I probably need about not just Metallica and Iron Maiden, but also about a whole metric crap ton of other, less well known groups. I’m not trying to tell you I know more about metal than everyone else, I certainly don’t. I’m just pointing out that my interest in the music has grown as I’ve aged, not diminished.
Those informal communities of fans are pretty important, not just for themselves, but also for the producers of the media. Let’s take a look at the nerdy side of things for a second. Comics, and their attendant movies, are starting to take some heavy direction from the fans. Internal humor gets woven into the story, like Tony Stark (Iron Man for you rubes out there) wearing a Black Sabbath shirt or the Juggernaut yelling “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch” in the X-Men movies because fans requested it via the magic of the internet. Metal artists might not go that far to please listeners all the time, but it happens often enough. I recall an interview with Slayer where they said something about how their next album was going to sound just like their last 20 years of output because that’s what Slayer fans wanted to hear.
Metal, and most other music for that matter, is a very individual experience and people use it in different ways throughout their life. Teenagers who feel displaced or lost often get into metal because they identify with the anger and misanthropy, not because the music makes them feel that way. Unless you are into Radiohead, who listens to music that makes them feel worse? Those teenagers like the music because they already identify with the emotions being expressed. With many fans that emotional resonance and the friends they made because of the music later grow into something more concrete, because when a person spends years of his early life building and expressing an identity partially through something, he isn’t likely to just drop it when he graduates college and gets a cubicle of his own. Personally, I think I will always like and identify with metal, even if it dies out as a form of music at some point in the future.
The music and the culture are also broken up into camps, as some of you have pointed out in the comments on the other posts. Subdivisions within a subculture, if you will. That doesn’t mean that a black metal fan and a thrasher can’t get along. In fact, I don’t many sub-genre purists who only listen to a certain type or era of metal. Especially now that so many bands are out there producing the music, new stuff is constantly being created and reworked. Many bands are crossing the streams with genre tie-ins like Blackened Doom, Death n’ Roll, and re-Thrash.
So, what is heavy metal anyway? Is it the violence-inducing crap that your pastor loves to hate or just another form of pop music that people utilize to show a fake self to the world so they don’t look like everyone else? For some it might be just that, because taste is subjective and behavior in groups is notoriously hard to classify and simplify. I think that at the end of the day metal is whatever you make of it, but to a dedicated fan it is often an important mode of expression of the self. Even if it doesn’t tell anyone else who you are because you don’t have the outward trappings, it probably helps show you to yourself.
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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To download a copy of David’s Master’s thesis, use the link below.