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The Two Faces of Metal

I was talking with my friend Raven from “The Vault of Metal” the other day about an interview with Chester Bennington from Linkin Park, in which he stated, “In my opinion, we actually kept metal alive.”

Now Raven (who isn’t alone in this opinion) contends that the “metal” as represented by bands like Linkin Park, Disturbed, Five Finger Death Punch, Slipknot, and the like isn’t even metal. There are elements of this statement that I sort of agree with, but I have to respectfully disagree with the overall statement.

The reason I disagree is because I think there’s a more accurate way to look at the situation. Metal has two faces, a public (or mainstream) face and a private (or underground) face. This isn’t some new or revolutionary observation – it’s an argument that’s been going on since the genre fractured. It’s been covered by every single major metal sociologist; Deena Weinsteen (Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture and Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology), Robert Walser (Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music), Ian Christe (Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal), Malcolm Dome (The bible of Heavy Metal: Encyclopaedia Metallica, Thrash Metal), Keith Kahn-Harris (Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge), Sam Dunn (Metal: A Headbanger’s journey, Global Metal, Metal Evolution, Banger Films) in some form or another.

The reason that metal culture as a whole can have these opposing factions is because it isn’t a single, unified culture. It’s what’s commonly referred to as a bricolage culture – a hodgepodge collection of distinct groups and scenes with a unifying theme (metal) that form a complete culture.

For the purpose of this article, metal can be viewed like this;
twofaces

Both sides have their positive and negative aspects. An underground band has the ability to gain a significant amount of credibility within the scene, at the expense of a smaller fanbase. A mainstream band has the monetary advantage, as mainstream viability means you’re reaching a broader audience. However, the price of mainstream popularity comes at the expense of a band’s credibility within the broader metal scene. And in metal, credibility is everything.

Bands are not stuck in a single category, movement between these areas is fluid – but with a catch. They can only move in one direction. A mainstream band cannot under any circumstances move back to the underground. An underground band, however, has the ability at pretty much any point in time to move to the mainstream. There’s even a (often overused) term for when a band moves into mainstream territory – selling out.

To become popular, most underground bands tend to try and stay in the grey area between mainstream and underground – maximizing the size of their audience while sacrificing as little credibility as possible.

So, it’s not really a dichotomy. It’s more of a “collage spectrum” that’s defined by the polar extremes.

Cultural fracture point – when metal gained two identities

When metal actually fractured into these two distinct categories (mainstream and underground) is up for debate. The divide became recognizable when Thrash (underground) and Glam (mainstream) arose as two distinct entities in the 80’s. That’s when we got terms like “lite metal“, which were used by members of the underground community to refer to their mainstream counterparts.

Arguably, the divide between mainstream and underground metal goes back another generation. When Def Leppard refused to be associated with/included in the NWOBHM, band members stated it was because they wanted their band to be associated with the greater “hard rock” category (as opposed to the niche underground genre that NWOBHM was at the time). And if you look at the first wave of mainstream metal (Glam), you can clearly see it’s roots in the styles of both Def Leppard and Led Zeppelin.

I think it’s worth mentioning that bands that existed within the cultural sphere of heavy metal before the mainstream/underground fracture are immune to this classification. It was created to differentiate the new bands, and any attempt to use them as anything else would be inaccurate.

Metal in the Mainstream

mainstreamallica fan

 

It all started with Hair Metal/Glam in the 80’s, which combined metal with popular hard rock from the time period. And as with anything mainstream, hair metal was beholden to corporate influence. So when the music industry had completely exhausted the genre (through formulaic “clone” bands and over-promotion), they moved on to “the next big thing” and declared metal dead. So, in the eyes of mainstream culture – metal had died. And in it’s place was a new mainstream genre – Grunge.

Grunge was effectively the anti-thesis of hair metal. It’s combination of metal and alternative rock pushed apathy and mediocrity as a counterpoint to hair metal’s excitement and over the top excess.

In fact, the only thing I can think of that Glam and Grunge have in common is the incredible amount of heroin band members from both genres consumed. Which, in it’s own way, helped define their shelf lives. I guess every cloud has a silver lining.

Then in the mid 90’s a new mainstream contender entered the arena – Nu Metal. Combining rap with elements of alt-rock/grunge and heavy, down tuned riff oriented metal on (typically) seven string guitars. While musically much more aggressive and exciting than it’s predecessor, it remained a relatively simple and easily digestible form of metal that was fit for mass consumption and easily duplicated by the record industry.

The mid 2000’s saw the fall of Nu Metal and the rise of Metalcore. Taking the already established hardcore/metal fusion that had been mixing with the Gothenburg brand of Melodic Death Metal (and adding the signature whiney Emo vocals), metalcore took the mainstream by storm.

Nowadays, as metalcore is waning in popularity, bands like Periphery and Liturgy are crossing one of underground metal’s more extreme sub-genres (Black Metal) and mixing it with apathetic, “self absorbed posing as introspective” hipster Indie rock genres like Shoegaze  to create the musical abomination known as blackgaze. Combined with the large number of bands aping djent and mixing it with mainstream influences, it’s only a matter of time until we see the next big trend in popular metal.

I’m not sure where the fuck Five Finger Death Punch fits into all this, probably the fact that they mixed the groove metal of Pantera with mainstream hard rock. However you want to categorize them, calling them anything other than mainstream metal is a disservice to the intelligence of both the speaker and the listener.

Metal in the Underground

death-metal-bands
(This is where the magic happens)

Recently Thrash, Death, and Black metal have all been encompassed into an overarching umbrella term – Extreme metal. A fair description, as they all tend towards extremity. I like the term, and it puts all the bands in a proper context – all extreme metal is in some way shape or form a derivative of the thrash metal movement of the 80’s, although bands such as Celtic Frost, Bathory, and Venom (generally dubbed the “first wave” of black metal) also serve as the genre’s precursors. I’m pretty sure Keith Kahn-Harris does a better job explaining it all in his book. Also, Sam Dunn did an excellent crowdfunded “lost episode” of his series Metal: Evolution dealing with the subject.

Exceptions

While metal has been, since it’s inception, a predominantly underground phenomenon, when referring to “underground metal” people are generally talking about thrash and it’s derivatives. Like I mentioned earlier, this split happened after bands like Sabbath or Maiden hit the radar, so while they would fit the mold for underground metal – they also (by standing the test of time) fit into the mainstream metal category. They’re neither and they’re both.

It is interesting to note that in the vein of these classic bands, metal in the underground follows a generational musical progression that’s the only consistent pattern in heavy metal since it’s inception – the new stuff is always heavier. It’s harder, it’s faster, it’s more distorted, and it’s progressively more socially transgressive. Sam Dunn touched on this in his first movie, Headbanger’s Journey – new generations of bands continue to strive to sound heavier than the generation before them.

Conclusions

In context, Raven’s assertion that the “mainstream” metal bands aren’t metal at all is technically true. In every incarnation, the thing mainstream metal bands all have in common is that they dilute heavy metal by mixing it with a more “palatable” style of music. With hair metal, it was diluted with hard rock (including rock ballads, ugh). Grunge watered the heaviness down with popular college alternative rock. Nu Metal did it with rap and alt rock. Metalcore did it with emo. And modern day hipster bands do it with Indie rock (Indie meaning hipster/millennial co-opted melancholy, boring, crap rock – not indie as in independent… there’s a huge independent streak in underground metal).

Saying these mainstream bands “aren’t real metal” isn’t (generally) meant as an insult, it’s an attempt to keep accuracy in the conversation. Metal is generally viewed as genealogical, so an example of that ilk might bring some clarity.

If you breed a horse and a donkey together – the resulting creature is called a mule. It’s not a horse, and it’s not a donkey. The two animals are closely related and branch from the same evolutionary family, but distinct enough to warrant a different name for each distinct species. A mule, the resulting offspring from the union of the species, cannot accurately be called a horse or a donkey because it is equal parts horse and donkey. However if the mule proves fertile (most often they’re not) and is bred with another horse, the resulting offspring will be categorized as a horse.

Substitute “metal” for “horse”, and “rock” for “donkey”, and you essentially have the entire argument against “mainstream metal” being considered part of the metal family tree (instead being relegated back an evolutionary step to the “hard rock” category). If any of the mainstream/popular genres spawn/influence new music by being crossed back with metal genres – the result is considered to be part of the metal tree.

I always figured this sort of knowledge was just a given, but apparently it’s not. the massive amount of butthurt expressed online by hipsters and others outside the metal community when they’re improper use of terminology is corrected just seems to be part of the social landscape.

This duality within the genre is also the source of endless frustration expressed in memes like this gem…

girlswholistentometal

Now, as someone who was a pretty big fan of Nu Metal, I might be a tad biased in my opinion. I prefer a touch of holism with my definition of metal – while I’m predominantly a fan of the underground/extreme branch of the metal family tree, I refuse to discount the importance of mainstream metal bands to the culture.

First and foremost, they represent the social gateway into greater metal culture. Nobody starts off listening to Extreme Metal, taste progression in metal is generally a process – and “Gateway Metal” bands generally kick-start the process. They also represent the metal community to the mainstream in other respects.

When the PMRC kickstarted congressional hearings on heavy metal in the 80’s, they completely neglected to mention underground bands. It was Dee Snider of Twisted Sister who went and spoke for the genre, and completely exposed the entire debacle for what it was – a modern day witch hunt. Slipknot and Marilyn Manson (as well as Ozzy, Preist, and Maiden – but if you’ve been reading they’re excluded from this classification as they encompass both mainstream and underground characteristics) were publicly scapegoated as the reason behind public controversies. From grave robberies to school shootings, as soon as heavy metal is found in the mix it’s automatically considered the cause.

So, these aren’t just the people who recruit new member to the metal cause, they’re the ones who defend it in the public eye. They also transmit the norms of metal culture to new recruits. Considering these critical roles mainstream metal bands play in the overall culture, I don’t believe it is accurate to call them anything other than metal.

This doesn’t mean I won’t call a spade a spade, mainstream metal is gimmicky as hell and has a lot of elements of mainstream culture I generally try to avoid. But you can like, or at very least appreciate, a band and the role they play in overall culture without dismissing them because they A) fill a different cultural niche than underground bands and B) don’t conform to a minimalist definition of metal.

Shameless plug, if you like what you read feel free to join my metal facebook group Metal Stuff.

Metal Injection Goes Full Hipster; Metalsucks is less wrong

I am writing in response the the article written by Shayne Mathis on behalf of Metal Injection, in which he makes some statements/assertions that I have some fundamental disagreements with.

Now, in the course of civil discussion and argument, context is an invaluable tool. It is the critical lens through which we frame said discussion. Without it, discussion devolves into self-aggrandizing statements of bias.

So, framing the discussion beforehand is essential to the integrity of both the discussion and it’s participants. Shayne Mathis wrote an opinion piece denying that metal has a problem with an insurgency of “scene tourists” and “social justice warriors” on the premise that SJW’s don’t exist. This seems, then, like a good place to start the framing/discussion.

Before defining what a SJW is, it might be helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. When did SJW’s come into the common collective consciousness of humanity, and from what greater demographic did they spring?

The first real incarnation of the term in it’s current incarnation arose from the gamergate controversy. In a nutshell, #gamergate occurred when some cultural tourists took a passing interest in participation in an established sub-culture (gamers). When they found parts of the culture offensive, they brought these aspects into the public sphere in an attempt to curb them. This is, arguably, the first step in appropriating a subculture into the mainstream (by imposing mainstream values onto it).

Shortly afterwards, there was a short lived spin-off phenomenon referred to as #metalgate. Interestingly, it pretty much all started from a single article and became a thing on the internet for a few days. Well played Mr. Mathis. Using the exact same tactics and social stances as the participants in #gamergate, you applied SJW values to a metal context.

Now, what sets SJW’s apart from other cultural attacks on metal? In a nutshell, the demographic population they inhabit. SJW’s, as a cultural sub group, would not exist without hipsters. Before the hipster phenomenon, SJW’s did not exist. The two terms, while not interchangeable, are not mutually exclusive. Not all hipsters are SJW’s, but all SJW’s are hipsters. Hipsters, in turn, are a product of popular millennial culture. Not all millennials are hipsters, but all hipsters are millennials.

Therefore, for the purpose of this argument, SJW refers to a sub-segment of the millennial populations popular cultural manifestation – hipsters.

This is where things get interesting. Metal culture and Hipster culture exist completely independent of one another. Metal culture formed and existed for decades without hipsters, and hipster culture formed and exists without metalheads. So it’s safe to say we’re talking about two separate cultural spheres. Now, these separate cultural spheres invariably share a demographic population. Because of this, there will be an inevitable meeting of these cultures in what is referred to as a cultural contact zone. In this instance, it looks like this;

Contact Zone

The area of overlap that you inhabit (judging by your opinions, and the title of your podcast) is within this cultural contact zone. Which is awesome, diversity in metal fucking rules. But you have a tendency to frame your arguments like you’re speaking on behalf of a culture that does not share all of your opinions or values. Mostly because the topics you bring up, and the values you espouse in doing so, are generally considered to be in the hipster sphere (not the metalhead sphere).

In the interest of fairness, I would like to take a chance to point out there there are both positive and negative consequences to the intermingling of culture within said contact zone. On the positive side, the amount of intellectual discussion and discourse within the metal community has raised considerably. This is a huge plus for the participants and the culture in general, as it helps solidify and re-enforce the culture, it’s norms, and parameters. On the negative side we have posturing, self-aggrandizing preachy articles from “within” the metal community. This is a relatively new phenomenon, and anybody who has participated in the culture for long enough can recognize this. And it’s not confusing correlation with causation – I’ve already outlined how easy it is to find ties between hipster culture and the SJW-style argument both inside and outside of metal.

Any question that this is anything other than a hipster phenomenon can be quickly reconciled by examining historical socio-cultural interactions between metal and mainstream culture. First, I’d like to put the hipster insurgency into the greater context of cultural insurgencies in metal.

contactzone2

Here, for the purpose of discussion, are a few pre-hipster examples. To do any of these examples true justice would warrant writing another article, so we’re going to do the cliff-notes version.

Every single one of these groups represents a cultural contact zone within metal culture. This is because all of these outside groups share at least part of a core demographic of the population of metal culture (just like hipsters). Now, when there was a Christian insurgency into the metal demographic, it was never viewed as anything other than that. The NSBM contact zone is certainly an area that warrants discussion, but is a relatively low area of concern because of the insular nature of the belief system of that culture combined with their relatively unpopular belief system. Vegans and animal rights groups, and individuals subscribing to those cultures, have successfully used metal as a springboard/outlet for their political views. A good example of this would be the band Cattle Decapitation. At the same time, you have a demographic that agrees with Dave Mustaine, and that guy is obviously fucking nuts (but I would guess you already know that). I, personally, take him less seriously than the whole skinhead/nazi/national socialist populations while finding him equally repugnant.

In this context, you can see that some groups were more successful than others in integrating some of their beliefs/practices/customs into broader metal culture. Without the punk contact zone, for example, we would not have crossover or thrash. In turn, we wouldn’t have extreme metal, or this conversation.

Now in terms of metal culture’s responses to criticism, and other outside forces – I would turn your attention to the PMRC and the satanic panic, which used heavy metal as their chief bogey-man. You also had the trial of Judas Priest. In all of these cases, members of heavy metal culture pretty much banded together and affirmed that nothing they were accused of was even remotely close to true. This is still a common core of the culture nowadays – if you read Randy Blythe’s book he talks about how the occasional metalhead would pop up throughout his ordeal and make it a little more bearable.

One thing we don’t see, however, is criticism of the values and practices of metalheads from within the culture. This reinforces the assertion that SJW style criticism is a phenomenon unique to the millennial generation, specifically the hipster sub-derivative phenomenon named for their actions and style of discourse.

History has shown that people who participate in but are averse to the values of metal culture generally wane or drop off entirely from participation in, or identification with, it (in anything other than the past tense). These people are generally referred to as “tourists”, as well as more colorful and commonly used terms.

And one of the reasons metalhead culture generally stresses learning it’s history in context is to prevent self-aggrandizing statements of ignorance of historical context and the bigger picture.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way – I would like to go point by point on your discussion with the college professor in regards to his article and subsequent responses.

  • Social Justice Warriors do, in fact, exist. Not as some nameless, faceless “other”, but as a manifestation of current mainstream popular youth culture. As such, they do not exist as a singular, organized, and readily identifiable group because they are a sub-sub-cultural manifestation that draws identifiable traits from the pool of the parent sub-culture. It’s a small cultural movement, not an organized (and by definition) bureaucratic group with clear boundaries. Any attempt to label them as anything other than this is self-delusional at best.
  • Boycotts/Protests/Etc are certainly protected by the constitution. But there are limits, as there are with every single right guaranteed to American citizens. The actions of that protest at the Taake show were the political equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Neither the protest nor the example of yelling fire are constitutionally protected as they infringe on the rights of fellow citizens. Your rights end where your nose begins.
  • The crux of the guy’s argument was that people like you are invading the metal scene. You knew it, he knew it, and we all know you were picking a fight and asking leading questions. The fact that you would do that to a fellow journalist and metalhead who’s obviously been around the block more than you have really bothers me. Not that I believe in the myth of a brotherhood of metal, but it’s safe to say that a guy who’s been fucking teargassed at a GWAR show might know more about SJW’s (and the politically correct insurgency in heavy metal) than a person who types a lot. How you made it to both Metal Injection and Invisible Oranges I’ll never know, but they should be ashamed of themselves for not proof-reading your articles at very least – and at the most allowing you to represent their respective establishments. Your lack of historical context is staggering, and to boot you’re a bigger turncoat than Robb Flynn.
  • I’m sorry you’ve received death threats – but maybe this is one of the consequences of free speech you’re talking about? I’m not saying it’s ok (quite the opposite), but it is a logical consequence of your words and actions. Metalheads aren’t a fun group to pick a fight with. And you have to own up to and accept the responsibility of your own actions and words before you tell other people to do so.

At this point, Shayne, I’m done speaking with you because you weren’t honest with your intentions, and from your last email, its quite clear you are seeking “gotcha questions.” I have no problems speaking with the media about issues I raise but you have to come with a bit more honesty.

Don’t contact me again.

Sincerely,
Jeff

This is nothing more than an old dog of the metal scene not rising to the ruse of a young pup who wanted to pick a fight and prove he’s smarter than a college professor. How you could even pretend to be satisfied that anything you did or said in this exchange (other than honoring his request to terminate it) is beyond me. It’s littered with logical fallacies (like the straw-man SJW argument) and self important pretense masked as genuine concern for a scene you more than likely will not be a part of within the next 10 years.

Also, Metalsucks did a better job with the subject than you did, but I still disagree with the premise.

I am more than open to a continuing discussion and having an open dialogue with you on the subject, and will be waiting to hear your response.

Sincerely,
Corey McElligott

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