Why, in the metal community, is any argument against sub-genres treated as valid? If it’s all just metal – then you’re implying that Cannibal Corpse and Iron Maiden shouldn’t be differentiated. After all, they’re just metal right? Let’s all just band together and celebrate the imaginary brotherhood of steel. Five Finger Death Punch and Behemoth? Just metal. Black Sabbath and Meshuggah? They’re all the same, it’s just metal. It’s all just metal.
Technically, this is true – but only in the same way that the Harry Potter series and the Encyclopedia Britannica are just books. Or how “Love, Actually” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” are just movies. This is what people who “hate” sub-genres sound like to anybody who likes to talk about heavy metal with precision and clarity.
Now, I have a confession – I worked as a library clerk for a few years. Whether or not you like libraries (and reading) – you kind of have to admire the amount of organization that goes into a place like that. Essentially, books fall into two genres – fiction and non-fiction. From there, books are meticulously categorized into sub-genres. This isn’t because there are literary elitists (which there certainly are) – it’s because categorization is necessary to deal with the sheer amount of books available. There’s literally no other way to deal with it. It’s fast, it’s efficient, and it’s accurate.
And in all of my years of going to a library – I have never heard the argument, “we don’t need genres and sub-genres man, they’re all just books.” While it would be technically true, all an argument like that would do is to prove how ignorant the speaker is of the topic. Because fiction and non-fiction are all books, but they’re worlds apart. There are so many different types of books, you need to categorize and sub-categorize them. Nobody has a problem with this (that I know of).
Another aspect of culture/life where people have no problem with sub-genrefication is movies. Comedies, Thrillers, Documentaries, Horror movies. There are different types of comedies, different types of thrillers, different types of documentaries, and different types of horror films.
Yet in all of my years of watching movies,I have never been presented with the argument, “Why can’t we just call them all movies? I’m sick of the sub-genrefication of movies, it only gives elitist assholes a way to put down other people’s tastes.” While technically true, a person who says this shows an incredible ignorance of the span and scope of movies. And instead of learning more about the various types of movies, they’re publicly stating that they would prefer all movie fans to bring themselves down to that same level of ignorance.
Now, there was a time when all heavy metal music was just called metal. At that point, there wasn’t enough variation in the genre to warrant the creation of sub-genres. In fact, most people would argue that metal was a sub-genre of rock and roll. And I’m sure that there were people who hated that categorization, and still do. A lot of people still consider metal part of the “hard-rock” category. Whoa, there’s sub-genres of rock music? Like, hard rock, psychedelic rock, soft rock, mainstream rock, pop rock, prog rock, southern rock, blues rock, punk rock, shock rock, etc? No way, it’s all just rock – we need to stop with the labeling and sub-genrefication of rock and roll music.
It’s almost like when the variation within a genre hits a critical mass, it’s human nature to categorize it. And it’s not some new thing – the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) introduced the concept of sub-genres to the metal community. It was new, it was fresh, it was different. But it was still metal. And when you use the term NWOBHM, you’re referring to a specific group of bands with specific sonic characteristics. It was harder, faster, and more technically proficient than other styles of metal. Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath sound very different, and to be able to discuss these differences you need to have a label that reflects these differences.
Now, the only argument against sub-genres that carries any weight with me comes from metal artists themselves. A good friend and co-worker of mine, who went to college for music theory (and who has been known to write some pretty crunchy grooves) usually presents the argument that being labeled as a musician is limiting. Incredibly good argument. I only have a couple real arguments to counter this. First, that if a label is limiting/constricting it is inaccurate or incomplete. Secondly, that there’s a difference between labeling and describing. Genre labels are, essentially, words that we use to describe different styles and influences.
Sub-genrefication is an example of a manifestation of what is referred to as”sub-cultural space.” This means it is a social area reserved specifically for that sub-culture. This includes terms that mean absolutely nothing to people outside of the culture. Have you ever had a friend who doesn’t listen to metal ask you the difference between certain genres, and then when you start to explain it their eyes gloss over and (at best) they pretend to listen in the interest of politeness? This is exactly what I’m talking about – they don’t participate in the sub-culture, so this particular sub-culture specific language means nothing to them.
If I were to say, “this band is very heavy” – very few people would have any idea what I’m really talking about. There are as many different definitions of “heavy” in metal as there are fans of metal. However, if I were to say that they’re a blackened death metal band – fans of death metal, black metal, or both would know that this is a band they should check out.
Use of sub-genres is infinitely more accurate – and with the sheer amount of heavy metal available, labels like this help people find what they like in the same way the Dewey decimal system helps library patrons find the books they’re looking for.
Are there people who will use this system to act like an asshole? Of course. But that’s not exclusive to heavy metal. There are plenty of literary snobs and movie critics, and they all have their own preferred genres and styles of writing and directing. In short, don’t let assholes invade your sub-cultural space. Or use them as an excuse for not participating.
And if you hate stereotypes, then stop stereotyping elitists.