Disclaimer: I’m not pretending to be an expert in primate behavior (no matter how many times I watched the Harambe video), but it doesn’t take a fucking scientist to make these connections.
“We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realize that we are apes.”
Whether they’re fans of heavy metal or not, people writing about the music and it’s adherents like to mention that the music taps into something primal.
I think that’s an accurate description, but I don’t think it goes far enough. My question is this – what are these primal things that metal taps into?
Primal like how our ancestors developed a love for fire (based on it’s importance in our survival) – and this translates into our love of a good light show/pyrotechnic display at a live show?
Or maybe primal like our admiration of musicianship, which boils down to admiration of mastery over tools?
These are certainly interesting subjects, and by pretty much any definition of the word they’re primal in nature.
In a sense, we (sort of) selectively bred these sorts of qualities into the human race – a love of fire and an appreciation for the mastery of tools are things that have allowed our species to advance to the pinnacle of the food chain. But they’re things that we don’t necessarily share with other primates.
What I want to talk about are things that we inherited before that (not that it’s a contest, but the things that are arguably more primal). Which poses the question, “Can the goings-on at a metal show, including the love of metal itself, be explained by comparing human behaviors with those of our primate cousins?”
Personally, I think that using primate behavior as a critical lens puts a lot of behaviors and staples of metal culture in a very interesting light. I’m going to break this down into two main sections – primate behavior among metalheads on an individual level, and on a group level.
(While reading this, you might notice that a lot of these things are not exclusive to metal. You’d be right, however this particular combination of things is pretty unique in my experience.)
Section 1 – Primate Behaviors Among Metalheads on an Individual Level
1a) Displays of Dominance and Aggression
One of the defining characteristics (arguably THE defining characteristic) of any alpha creature in nature is dominance. It can be expressed in different ways, but is inherently recognizable.
The Alpha Male
(it can be argued the desire to get on stage and beat your chest has primal origins)
In any group that’s been populated by male primates (almost to the point of exclusively) since it’s formation, you’re going to encounter a lot of very male-oriented behaviors and norms. Chimpanzees are a good example.
Being a large group of predominantly male primates (as I’ve mentioned in other articles) – heavy metal has developed what’s referred to as a Masculinist Culture. In a nutshell, what that means is that metalheads (by and large) tend to not only practice but celebrate codes of behavior that are (predominantly) attributed to males.
For example – in any given social situation, a group of animals will establish a pecking order. The animal at the top of that pecking order is the alpha. If it’s a group of males, the most dominant in the group will be what we like to refer to as the “alpha male”.
Among primates, there is a very distinctive set of behaviors that typify dominance ( and therefore are associated with the label alpha male). Humans, as primates, fall into this group. As such, an alpha male human (like any other primate) will display many of the characteristics associated with dominant primates – especially in the presence of other males.
Size Matters – Alpha Posturing and Stress
Being visual creatures – the first indication of alpha status among primates is size. Alpha males are big. Big males generally dominate. Among gorillas, for example, it’s rather easy to pick out the alpha male of the group due to their being significantly larger than the rest of the group.
Now, among our closest relatives in the primate world (chimpanzees), the alpha male is NOT always the largest. However, they compensate for this in a number of ways. One, that is common among all primates, is something referred to as the “alpha stance”.
It’s so common among humans that you might not give it much thought, but every time you see someone standing with their feet planted and spread, with their arms raised so the upper portion of their body resembles the letter “V” (sometimes called the victory pose or v-pose) – what you’re seeing is a simian dominance posture.
One of the main purposes of the alpha stance is that it makes you look visibly larger – but it also raises testosterone levels by 20% while lowering cortisol levels by up to 25% in all primates, male and female.
Cortisol is the stress hormone, and testosterone is the male sex hormone (high levels of testosterone are associated with a higher levels of confidence). So, primates instinctively know that in certain situations there’s a hormonal “oh shit” button that calms you down and makes you more confident.
You’ll see this sort of posturing anywhere you go, but I would argue it’s more exaggerated and pronounced at a metal show (largely due to the gender demographics). I’d argue the stress relief (on both a chemical and a mental level) combined with the effects of the music has an almost addictive quality to it.
If you’ve read my other blogs, you’ll know I make a distinction between metal fans and metal heads. I guess this is as good of an explanation of the difference between the two as any; real metalheads are absolutely addicted to the catharsis provided by the metal experience.
It’s certainly not a unique phenomenon in and of itself, I’m sure lifelong Grateful Dead fans can attribute to that. But the experiences are a tad different – and I think metal has a much more universal appeal.
And I’m not just pulling that out of my ass, metal is literally the beast that refuses to die. And somehow, magically, there are more metalheads now than there were last year.
Gratuitous discussion of how metal is superior to all other genres? Check.
Volume and Pitch
A dominant primate is, quite often, a loud primate (This can be exaggerated in certain primates, where loudness is often a form of evolutionary compensation). And I think you’d be hard pressed to find a style of music that is consistently louder than metal. The bands are loud, the fans are loud.
And not just loud, but loud with low tones. A deep voice is automatically perceived as more authoritative among humans, and there’s a good evolutionary explanation for that. Low voices are associated with large males who produce a lot of testosterone. It’s been argued that the lowed timbre voices of male primates (including humans) equate to a display of dominance. And it makes sense, big dudes usually have deep voices – and a deep voice can be intimidating.
If you want an example of how innate our association of deep voices and sounds with large, intimidating males is – think of the first time you saw the boxer Mike Tyson.
Now, think of the first time you heard his voice. The reason his appearance and his voice seem so incongruous is our evolutionary association of deep sounds with big, threatening creatures.
So, it’s not really that much of a surprise that Heavy Metal is loosely defined as a musical style that emphasizes instrumentation with deep, low frequency sounds (i.e. bass guitar, drums, rhythm guitar) played very loud.
Appearance as an Aggressive Display
It would be rather remiss of me not to mention stereotypical metalhead appearance as an act of aggressive display.
It’s also worth noting that to someone within metal culture, this style of dress and posturing is not threatening at all, quite the opposite – it’s appealing.
But to someone outside of the metal sphere, generally the consensus is that metalheads look intimidating. And I don’t think that’s by accident, but I don’t think it’s entirely a conscious act. Like, I don’t think a group of guys got together and said, “hey, let’s look as threatening as possible.”
All aggressive displays look threatening (that’s what makes them aggressive). It’s interesting to note that, contrary to common sense, the point of looking threatening in nature is to avoid conflict.
In other words, I think the “metalhead uniform” a manifestation of visually threatening/intimidating displays that can be directly traced to primate behavior. Camouflage, denim and leather, spikes and studs, boots and blue collar t-shirts all have one thing in common – they’re all worn by predominantly male social groups, that all look (in some way or another) masculine, and can appear threatening.
Chances are, all that clothing was introduced to metal culture by the crossover in membership – and if enough heads thought it looked cool they picked it up as a new norm.
Note: Not all displays within metal are aggressive. Perfect example, watch any metalhead youtube channel and you’ll notice they have their entire music collection situated behind them. This isn’t an accident, this is an intentional display of subcultural capital in the form of a music collection meant to impart a sense of expertise to the viewers.
Controlling Space and Attention
When a gorilla moves to an elevated area and beats his chest, he’s not just doing it to make himself feel good. He wants everyone in the vicinity to watch him. This isn’t a random occurrence – one of the resources that an alpha primate controls is the attention of his peers. In a pack setting, this is a big deal. It’s a form of social control.
Humans aren’t that different – why do you think public speakers will stand on a stage or an elevated platform? Or artists prefer to perform on a stage? We’re hard wired to pay more attention to other primates who control the high ground for a reason.
And it’s not just the high ground that’s important – another resource prized by primates is space. My favorite manifestation of this concept is the lead singer who, once the band is on stage, uses the all of the space available to him for the entire show. The more space he uses and controls, the bigger the display of dominance. Likewise, the easier it is to maintain the attention of a large crowd.
Even the act of throwing objects into the crowd (water bottles, picks, band shirts, etc) is a display of expanding territory – and fans who pick these items up are openly submitting to the display of dominance..
1b) Music Soothes the Savage Beast
“Interestingly, bonobo percussionists prefer a tempo of 280 beats per minute, the syllabic rate at which most humans speak.”
― Dr Susan Block
Long story short, they were testing to see what kind of music (if any) a specific species of monkey preferred over any other. The results showed that the Cottontop Tamarins only responded positively to two things…
Awesome. Fucking awesome.
Anyways, I feel like it was worth mentioning that on both an individual and a group level certain types of music have a calming effect that can be traced back to the same types of calls that later evolved into speech.
Strange that metal music could have roughly the same psychological effect as a lullaby, but humans are pretty strange creatures.
Section 2 – Primate Behaviors Among Metalheads on a Group Level
I’d like to start by saying a lot of this stuff will be a tad more obvious to the casual reader than the items in the previous section. Some, however, might surprise you.
2a) Dominance and Aggression
I know, I know, this was covered in the last section. But dominance, while it may be expressed individually, is inherently a group phenomenon. One of the most obvious displays of dominance can be seen in the crowd at pretty much any metal show.
Nowadays most mosh pits are a sad parody of what they used to be. But the idea of a display of aggressive dominance is still there, no matter how pathetic it gets.
“Wow, that hardcore dancing is super-fucking cool.”
-No one, ever
2b) Group-Think and Belonging
Almost all primates are pack animals, and being a pack animal is a package deal. Part of that package is group-think, or the ability to function with other members of the same species as a cohesive unit.
The intrinsic motivation behind group behavior is a need for a sense of belongingness (apparently that’s an actual word). Human beings, by nature, have an internal need to feel like a part of something bigger then themselves. It might manifest itself in different ways (family unit, church group, football team, metalhead), but at the end of the day it all boils down to this inner drive to belong to a group.
This is the same motivation behind all pack behavior. Gorillas have it, chimps have it, dogs have it, cows have it. You get the idea.
One of the ways group think manifests itself (in humans) is the establishment of social norms (I’ll expand on this in the next section). When confronted with an unfamiliar situation, humans look to and follow unspoken social ques of their peers to continue to feel like they fit in.
An obvious example of this would be “the metalhead uniform” – besides being a passive display of aggression to those outside the group, it functions as a badge of solidarity within the group.
And it works – being surrounded by other metalheads, all in black band shirts (at a concert or otherwise) feels good. You’re surrounded by other members of the group, and you’re all visibly displaying membership. It’s no longer a matter of, “I’m doing this and you’re doing this” – it’s become a matter of, “we’re doing this.”
This is why, when a person is attending their first metal concert and asks you what they should wear – you should never tell them, “Whatever you want, metal has no rules.”
That friend isn’t asking you what they’re required to wear. Obviously, they can wear whatever the fuck they want. They’re asking if there are any social norms they can/should follow to feel like part of the group (and not stand out). You know, so they can experience that sense of belonging and – in turn – have a better overall experience.
2c) Transmission of Culture
When most people hear the word culture, they think of fancy learned human behaviors transmitted socially, both generationally and through multiple generations. But that’s the thing – all culture really boils down to is learned behaviors passed on to others. There’s actually a saying that covers this phenomenon – monkey see, monkey do. And while it’s always used to describe primate behavior, it’s rarely used to describe apes in the wild.
Since the 1950’s the concept of culture in the animal kingdom has been a topic of research, and it’s been found that culture is not limited to humans. Quite the opposite – patterns of learned behavior transmitted between individuals within social groups is actually common in the animal kingdom, especially among primates.
“Being abroad makes you conscious of the whole imitative side of human behavior. The ape in man.”
So, what sorts of cultural behaviors do metalheads transmit?
One of the most universally recognized behaviors associated with metalheads is headbanging.
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes zero sense. Zero. There is literally nothing beneficial that can happen to you if you headbang.
Quite the opposite, neck and back pain and injury are common (there’s even a colloquial term for the neck pain that follows a day of headbanging – a “bangover”). Over the long term – spinal degeneration is almost a certainty. I know plenty of old dogs who have neck and back problems due to this – some that required surgery. And in extreme cases, brain damage can occur. But for some reason, the practice continues.
Not that I’m complaining – I’m just pointing out that this particular behavior seems to defy nature AND common sense.
Conformity through Non-Conformity
Oooh, the 500 pound gorilla in the room. This one goes out to all the people who say that metal has no rules (it does). When you’ve got a large group of people who practice and encourage non-conformity, guess what happens.
You, by definition, have conformed to non-conformity.
People who say metal has no rules seem to be missing the point – one of the rules of metal is that you don’t have to pay attention to all the rules. That’s why you can do whatever you want and still feel like part of the group. So even if you only follow that one stipulation – you’re still following the rules.
Just because metal celebrates a lack of conformity with mainstream ideals/etc doesn’t mean there are no rules. That’s fucking retarded – all social animals have rules.
Metalheads are humans, humans are social animals, therefore metalheads have rules. That’s what makes them social – when you’re in a group it restricts the number of acceptable individual behaviors.
Metalhead Uniform as Social Norm
personal rant: I can’t tell you exactly who will say metal has no rules, but I can tell you what they look like.
Specifically, they’re a Caucasian male between the ages of 16 and 50, wearing a black band t-shirt (of a band they listen to, obviously). They’re wearing khaki shorts/ camouflage pants/jeans and probably boots.
There’s a really good chance they’ve got multiple tattoos and/or piercings, and I’d be willing to wager they have either long hair or a beard (if not both). There’s also about a 25% chance they’re wearing (or own) a patch covered vest.
Bonus points if they’re rocking a mjolnir necklace, razor blade pendant, chains, dog tags, satanic jewelry, or some less than subtle combination of these things.
You know how I know this? Because the people who scream “metal has no rules” the loudest are the people who follow the social conventions of the culture the most strictly.
I don’t think they do it to be purposefully misleading, they honestly believe what they’re saying. The cognitive dissonance is real (bowing to social pressure and following group norms is something that’s been observed in chimpanzees, and humans are certainly not above it). Simply put, humans are wired to make and follow rules of behavior. What rules you choose to follow, however, is certainly up to you.
Exclusive Handshakes and Gestures
Believe it or not, individual groups of chimpanzees have their own versions of secret handshakes. Not all of them have it, but the ones that do have a very interesting shared characteristic – it differs between different groups (therefore a learned behavior) and seems to hold significance in the group.
What kind of significance, you ask?
Good fucking question. These secret handshakes actually signify and affirm membership in the corresponding group.
And while it’s not exactly a handshake, a learned hand gesture that signifies membership/participation in a group is nothing new to metalheads.
Throwing the horns is a logical progression of the original behavior – directly observable in primates in the wild.
Crazy, right? There’s a little conjecture there, but I really don’t think it’s a big leap.
“Hating on” the Younger Generation
I read somewhere that chimpanzees withdraw and stop making social connections with the younger generation after a certain point. This includes not learning new “social norms”, etc.
Yeah, male apes turn into grumpy old men. Kind of like how older metalheads (myself included) complain about modern metal and metalheads.
It’s perfectly natural social behavior when you put it into context. In fact, I’d be more worried if old metalheads didn’t complain.
We’re all just fucking apes. I’m an ape, you’re an ape, your mom’s a fucking ape. So technically all human behavior is primate behavior – and that includes the entire metal scene.
I thought it’d be cool to look at some of our behaviors that have been around since before shit like fire, microwaves, and pizza delivery existed.
There’s no way on earth I covered everything, but I like to think I offered up a good chunk of thinking material for you guys.
I haven’t posted anything in a while, so I figured an article with a little more substance to it was in order.
Thanks for reading, keep it brutal.