Feb 152013

(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.

“Children of the Grave: The Construction of Community and Personal Identity Among Adult Fans of Heavy Metal Music in London”

  6 Responses to “METAL CULTURE — PART 5”

  1. This is kind of off topic, but have you ever read a book called Hip-Hop Japan? While (shockingly enough) it’s about the Japanese hip-hop scene I found a staggering amount of it related to the metal world. It has a particularly interesting take on globalization as it pertains to music. Globalization is usually seen as (and quite often is) a top-down process where the more powerful cultural hegemony dictates the terms and overpowers the weaker culture but in music that doesn’t end up being the case. You have a sort of feedback loop where the global influences the local which can in turn flow back to influence the global. I see it in metal with shit like Glorior Belli, who I was absolutely convinced were the culmination of the southern US’s flirtation with black metal. Which they kind of are. Or would be, if they weren’t French.

    • Never read it but I bet it has all kinds of overlap. Music does the same for people whatever the genre. Globalization gets tied up with the concept of cultural imperialism often enough, so I agree with you there. When things from one nation or group get taken up by another it’s usually an adaptive process, not a forced one.

  2. You don’t necessarily grow out of it. I got into metal (thrash metal) during my last year of high school. Midway through college I was listening to death and doom. I discovered black metal a couple years later, and at that time I didn’t like it. But now I listen to black metal too, and today I am more into metal than ever. It has been the dominant form of music in my life for over 20 years.

    • And then there’s another phenomenon of which I’m an example, though I suspect it’s rare: people who grew into metal later in life, instead of growing out of it, as a result of becoming bored with everything else. 🙂

      • My dad did that. He was a metal head in his early years,Listening to stuff like Rush, Black Sabbath, Rainbow(I know because i found the old records!) but as long as I can remember he has not really been into music. Maybe buying an R.E.M album now and again, but never really listening much to it.

        Then one day we went to a Deep Purple gig together, which led to him digging up old albums, which led to him to Rush and Sabbath, which in a few years led to everything from Avantasia to Opeth.

        One interesting thing to note, is how he was with music when he did not listen to metal : It was not a big part of his life. It was hardly a small part. Now he wears band shirts, goes to festivals, knows about every fucking release and band and gig, even before I do. He actively explores music and expands his tastes. Metal can quickly become more than just listening to music, it becomes an Interest, and a lot of people actively indulge or explore it. I read a bunch of crap online, just so i can know about releases before they are released, and to find new awesome music!

        General population seldom act like this. The common radio listener listens to whatever is on, and I get the feeling that they do not really listen to it. They don’t notice if it is good or bad, it just is. They make no emotional connection with it, its just pastime in the car, gym or wherever.

  3. I’ve gotten more into metal as I’ve grown older. As a teenager( just a hair shy of 40 now, with a wife and daughter), there were 10 or 12 bands that I really loved and that was good enough. As I aged, those bands disappeared or their styles changed to something that no longer interested me. It got to a point where I never had new music and had to keep going back to the same albums over and over again. I tried listening to other things, but nothing ever connected with me like metal did. I just had a musical blind spot. For some reason, I never considered listening to Death Metal(too harsh) and didn’t even know a thing such as Black metal existed until 8 or 9 years ago.

    A friend gave me some cd’s to try out and it just opened the floodgates. I’m like a sponge for new music now and tend to listen to metal for at least a few hours every day, if not more. Metal also opened me up to some other genres of music like Neofolk and even world music. I don’t think that would have happened if I was a hiphop or country fan. Metal has been very good to me and I intend to wave the flag until I’m old and brittle.

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