Hjelm, Titus, Kahn-Harris, & Levine, Mark (Editors)
Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures (Book Review)
Released: 2013, Equinox Publishers
As the field of Metal Studies grows we are virtually assured of some interesting discourse and academic publications that compile those ideas and theories. HEAVY METAL-CONTROVERSIES AND COUNTERCULTURES is one of the most recent books that is a collection of academic essays in a nice book format.
According to the synopsis on the inside front cover the Studies In Popular Music series is, “…a multi-disciplinary series that aims to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of popular music. It will provide analyses of theoretical perspectives, a broad range of case studies and discussion of key issues.” Sound fair enough and I believe that HEAVY METAL is the first Metal themed book in the series. Published by Equinox earlier in 2013, the 250-page paperback has a nice picture of Gaahl of Gorgoroth on the cover. Otherwise the book, like most academic books is not much to look at.
HEAVY METAL was edited/compiled by Titus Heljm, Keith Harris-Kahn (author of EXTREME METAL) and Mark Levine another well-known academic in the field of Metal studies. There is an introductory piece by the editors and the book is divided into two main sections. Part I (Controversies) has six essays from academics from around the world and Part II (Countercultures) has seven essays. As with my other reviews of this type of book it would not do the authors of each piece a service to try to provide an in-depth analysis of each work, so I will do a very brief overview of each essay.
The collection starts on a bit of a weaker note, in my opinion with an essay by Andy Brown who compares the moral panics of Heavy Metal in the mid-80’s to the moral panics of the emo scene in the new millennium. He suggests that the moral panic about metal was successful and Metal was unable (or unwilling) to defend itself, and the moral panic about emo was unsuccessful as the emo scene successfully defended itself against accusations. It seems like stating the obvious. Metal produced a genuine fear and controversy in mainstream society and while the emo scene offering nothing of substance to generate controversy. Metal has survived and thrived for 40 years as a social pariah, the last true fountainhead of rebellion in culture music, while the contrived and insincere emo scene was a short-lived trend that generated very little in lasting controversy. It’s not surprising that no one took it seriously or was ‘afraid’ of it, unlike Metal. Brown essay is interesting and well done but offers nothing new.
Up next is probably my favourite piece, an essay called ‘How You Gonna To See Me Now’ the title very cleverly used as reference point from the Alice Cooper song of the same name from his 1978 album, FROM THE INSIDE. I say it is clever title because Klypchak, author of PERFORMED IDENTITIES, use three examples of Metal performers to demonstrate how they were once controversial and how they have now become fixtures in mainstream pop-culture and are now longer viewed as dangerous or reprehensible, by most. The three figures in question are Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons and, of course Alice Cooper. Klypchak's work traces how all three perfromers were once ‘bad’ and are now ‘good’, in the very simplest terms. It is a good piece for young revisionists to read who try to reframe Kiss, Ozzy and Alice cooper as not-Metal based on arbitrary sonic descritpions of ‘heavy’ vs. not-heavy’ by modern standards and by misguided personal objections. (ie. “That is my Dad’s music, It’s NOT metal”.)
Following next is McGill University’s Helene Laurin piece on media perception of Metal over the years. The conventional wisdom is that the mainstream media has always ostracized and discriminated against Heavy Metal. This is nothing new this has been the common perception for decades. Laurin challenges this perception and says that the media is actually more supportive and friendly than the perception. While an interesting notion she is basically incorrect due to her methodology. She selects a few of the big bands Metallica, Black Sabbath, Motley Crue, Slipknot, Marilyn Manson and a few others. Her assertion that media is friendly to Metal based on observations of media discussing less than 0.00001% of all Metal in existence, irreparably damages her theory. Compounded this problem she chose hugely controversial bands that get media attention NOT because of music and composition but because of image, attitude, behavior and controversy. Rolling Stone magazine isn’t reviewing a Motley Crue album for it’s sophisticated compositions, subtle performances and their deep, introspective lyrics, it’s because one of the guys did something stupid (or criminal) and made the headlines again because controversy sells. I can guarantee you that if Slipknot didn’t have the masks and stage-show, no one would have mentioned them in mainstream press, they would just be another faceless one of hundreds, even thousands of noisy bands, that the mainstream media cannot tolerate. Laurin holds up a few isolated examples as her evidence that the mainstream media is not so bad as the ‘Triumph Of The Maggots’, (the title of her piece) but it is really way off base. Mainstream media has always hated Metal, always has, always will, and that’s just fine for all concerned. That major problem aside, her work is well-written, well presented and very interesting but just needs to look at the big picture and see how many bands the mainstream media has covered and again it is evident there has been a systemic and calculated effort by all radio, TV, and print, especially in North America, to ignore (at best) and discriminate (at worst) against Metal.
Up next is Lee Barron’s excellent and illuminating piece on feminism and grindcore, more specifically on porno-grind. The title Dworkin’s Nightmare’ refers to the feminist and anti-pornography writer, Andrea Dworkin. It’s a bit like stating the obvious, an anti-pornography feminist probably doesn’t like an extremely misogynist, violent and pornographic form of entertainment. How shocking! However it was nice to see someone write about pornogrind as a legitimate sub-genre of Metal.
Marcus Moberg from Aboe Akademie University in Finland writes a very interesting piece about the ‘double controversy’ of Christian Metal. He suggests that this form of Metal is attacked from all sides; Christians who don’t like Metal, Metal fans who don’t like Christianity and by Christians who don’t even like the Christian message of the Metal bands. Moberg wisely adds some commentary on the odd phenomena of Christian Black Metal or Unblack Metal as it sometimes referred to. As Christian Metal becomes far more wide-spread as it’s own scene within a scene the controversy seems to diminishing as much of it was largely derived from right-wing Christian groups in the USA. Noberg rightly says that there are wide-spread and actively Christian Metal scenes that currently exist in Sweden and Brazil and elsewhere but I would have liked to see a few more concrete examples or perhaps even some interviews or comments from band members, specialty record label heads or editor of specialty ‘zines to corroborate the controversy and/or if it even exists any longer. It’s a fine piece and as I bear no ill-will against Christian Metal (unlike some fans) I found it to be an illuminating work.
The next piece has a very specific focus that may leave some readers indifferent. Hellfest is one of, if not the largest Metal Festival in France. This essay discussed the resistance to Hellfest from local politicians and Roman Catholic clergy in the local region. While interesting there is not much more to it than that. Every Metal Fest suffers from various challenges and those encountered by Hellfest I'm sure are not radically different than those experienced by other comparable Festivals.
Switching over to Part II (Countercultures) this section starts with an essay about the theory of scene formation. The authors, Jeremy Wallach and Alexandra Levine, both affiliated with Bowling Green University in Ohio, present a theory based on an examination of two Metal scenes; one in Jakarta, Indonesia and Toledo, Ohio. It's is a very well done comparative analysis deftly drawing out similarities between two very different regions. I felt they sold the power of radio as a central lynchpin of a new scene somewhat short. Radio for decades had been the only source to hear underground Metal music without purchasing or tape-trading. However, as a Metal radio programmer (ie.DJ) I am biased but do recognize the diminishing importance of terrestrial radio. However, (again!) as traditional radio embraces pod-casting the existing, established underground Metal radio shows will begin to take on even greater importance as they compete with the I experienced kid who wants to pod-cast a show from his bedroom on his laptop. The existing infrastructure of radio gives it natural advantages as people will continue to seek out music without having to buy it or resorting to theft. That minor gripe aside, Wallach and Levine lay out how scenes are established and defined and it is an entertaining piece.
Ben Olsen of the University of Hawaii is up next with a fascinating discussion of National Socialist Black Metal. Entitled 'Voice Of Our Blood', he examined many facets of the NSBM scene and compared and made distinctions between NSBM and Aryan Metal and Satanic Black Metal. For experienced fans of the three sub-genres there is not an enormous amount of new information presented but it is a good overview of a difficult topic at best of times.
Michelle Phillipov from the University of Tasmania (Australia) delivers her thoughts on violence in the Black Metal scene in Norway. Again very little new information is presented for Black Metal fans however she very cleverly draws attention to the fact, that fans often forget, that the band Emperor was one of the worst for actually committing acts of violence and crossing the threshold from posturing to action, namely, crimes such as arson murder. Varg tends to take a lot of the heat but the lads of Emperor were just as transgressive in their early days.
'The Extreme Metal Connoisseur' was written by Nicola Allett from Loughborough University in the UK and she suggests that despite traditionally being labelled as 'low' culture, some Metal fans use the same techniques to analyze and appreciate Metal and do become sophisticated critics and connoisseurs. She generally focusing on 'Extreme'. Metal loosely defined as the heavier genres of Thrash, Death Metal, Black Metal and so on. She did a small survey of how fans appreciate and critique Metal and shared her results.
The band Stone Vengeance is the focal point of the next essay 'Black Metal Soul Music'. Kevin Fellezs from Columbia University speaks about the aesthetics of race by focusing on Stone Vengeance, one of the first, if not the first Metal bands comprised of Black guys. It is an interesting work and gives the band well deserved exposure, and credit for being somewhat unique in a predominantly white genre. He also touches on the blues roots of Rock and Metal.
Rosemary Overwell from the University of Melbourne In Australia and follows with a deft and insightful piece about the Australian grindcore scene and gender issues. She interviews any number of bands and implies that some of the men may have avoided the gender issues or mitigated some of their responses to her because of her gender. She also pointed out, to no surprise that people questioned her credibility as a fan of the music. She discuss the role of humour, gender, emotions and emo (the music style) in the predominately male sub-genre of grindcore.
Lastly, Niall Scott from the University of Central Lancashire concludes the book with an essay on politics and Metal. He suggests that Metal has always identified itself as apolitical but that is not really the case as much Metal is very political and he lays out several examples. Essentially one has to agree with Scott, that Metal is political. My main concern with Scott is that his definition of ‘political’ is too broad to be useful. By having such a broad definition of political as to include topics of religion, gender, culture, social issues of course Metal is political but that also means that every song that is not a love song is political. When it comes to pure applied politics (governments and debates about the systems to distribute limited wealth to unlimited demand, and the personalities in those systems) Metal is very apolitical. I’d suggest that less than 0.1% of all Metal songs in terms of lyrics discuss politics. Punk was always very liberal, activist and political with songs deliberate discussing specific people or events, dating back to when the Sex Pistols were going on about the monarchy or when punks in the US were bitching about the foreign policies of the Republicans under the leadership of Ronald Reagan. Metal however has avoided that level of detail to a large degree.
On one level if you want to suggest that ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath or ‘Kill The King’ by Rainbow are ‘political’ songs, that is fine but it political on a superficial, grade level, much in the same way that saying ‘War is Bad’ is not really keen or insightful political analysis. Singing about everyday issues does not make you a political band. There are some isolated example of very politically charged lyrics in Metal, for example when in Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine wrote an scathing indictment of the United Nations in his song ‘United Abominations’ from the 2007 album of the same name. These examples are extremely rare in Metal and it is not to be forgotten that after press people from the UN challenged Dave with a rebuttal to his allegedly inaccurate lyrics, Dave quietly slunk away with a half-hearted apology mumbled on-line about exaggerating his points for artistic freedom and effect. There was little to no political discourse and the issue was largely forgotten. It is interesting to note after that point the lyrics on subsequent Megadeth albums have been far less specifically political in nature and have reverted to simple railing against the system. (ie. war is bad).
Another concrete example of how Metal is apolitical was the ‘Rock The Vote’ campaign in the USA, where a few Metal-heads did public service announcements to increase voter turnout and political participation, were largely ignored by the Metal community, again with a precious few (an infinitesimally small number) Metal artists participating. Alice Cooper said it best. (paraphrased) ‘Metal is about sex and violence. Leave politics to the punks’. So I think Scott needed to refine his theory and definition and not try to fit a round peg in a square whole. Metal has often been the last bastion of rebellion and resistance against the political systems by non-participation and that is why bands that are overtly political are generally less well-received by the Metal community. He concludes that being apolitical is Metal greatest strength and weakness. It is a fascinating piece especially for a former student of political science such as myself.
HEAVY METAL CONTROVERSIES AND CULTURES is another fantastic and ground-breaking work in the field of Metal studies with authors from around the world. Highly recommended for students of Metal and the truly die-hard.