Friday, October 8, 2010

Heavy Metal as a Father Figure

If you've ever come across metal music aficionados and perhaps had a conversation or two with them, you might have noticed two major types of attitude relevant to the extreme music subculture. On one hand there are those whose affection for metal comes with a host of related juvenile infatuations, like role playing games or perhaps professional wrestling, whose enthusiasm is matched by an earnestness that borders on obliviousness. On the other hand there are those whose interest in metal is coated in a thick veneer of irony and who resist intellectualizing or even contextualizing of their musical tastes with assorted cries of 'it's just music'. The former type tends to consume a broad scope of loud music vigorously and with a great appetite for discussion over the cultural minutiae of the form, i.e. what genre this record belongs to, latest gossip over this or that 'metal icon' and just how much they hate this particular record by Metallica, but at the same time is uninterested in a critical examination of their taste of this music on the whole. The latter type tends to consume just as wide a selection of loud music though they wouldn't be caught dead endorsing much of it publicly, taken as they are with their identification as taste makers, they fashion their statements on the culture with a cynical edge. That type actively resists music criticism as if the music itself is beneath it, yet still laps up amazing quantities of it. Neither archetype is able or willing to coherently explain their enduring fascination with metal music.

I have met very few people who belong to this subculture and do not fall into either of these categories. In the scarce cases where their interest is more complicated than that, they seem to be metal musicians more often than not. Here I will attempt to examine both stereotypes and exceptions with a mind to their psychological profiles.

If an empirical observation is allowed: the majority of people who still listen to metal music in their late twenties or early thirties (and especially further on than that), no matter their current demeanor on it, got exposed to it in their early teenage years. I simply have not met many people for whom the attraction to metal music started at a later age and stuck with it. Furthermore I've noticed that for people of mature age, even if one is successful in describing the appeal of Heavy Metal to them - successful insofar that they seem to appreciate intellectually what is being described - they very rarely, if ever, have more than a subsequent brief stint with the form as a result. Heavy Metal then, seems to gel with some aspect of teenage mentality.

To examine why that is, we'll have to look at the profile of the typical metal teenager, and also identify the aspects of metal music that appeal to them. Here I am drawing from a wealth of empirical knowledge since I myself was once a metal teenager and I've known many dozens of them too. I appreciate however how there are exceptions to any theory I might entertain. The point of this argument is not to be the last word on metal and teenager attraction, but to make a foundation and encourage discussion on this frankly overlooked aspect of this culture.

So, the teenager that encounters metal music, does so at a very precarious age. Teenage reality is often characterized by a shifting of values. On one hand, it is at this age that one starts to realize that the traditional authority figures in their life (parents, school administration, grownups in society at large) are not only fallible but often downright ignorant or malevolent. This results in doubt and reexamination of the inherited ethical prototype that is shoved down young people's throat since they can remember being sentient. On the other hand, this is the onset of hormonal arousal and the awakening of the libido. With thoughts of sex (often aggregated with shame, as negative value judgments on sexuality are impressed upon young teens relentlessly) comes repression and thoughts of death as well. The two grand mysteries of existence (birth and death) are those that are seemingly, in the modern world, the ones less allowed to be described, discussed and scrutinized in a honest and brave fashion. Teenagers turn to esoteric pursuits that promise enlightenment.

It is at this age where old symbols gradually crack, then crumble. Teenagers are estranged from their parents, they turn to their peers for support and ill-fitting guidance and they begin to lash out at authority figures with a plethora of dabbling in various 'wrong' things. Metal music is just one of many such, nearly everything our parents might have told us is bad for us, in light of the startling realization that they're not infallible, is explored. Violent entertainment, sexual experimentation, sub-cultural cliques, illicit substances, so on. The more daring are usually those that destroy or enlighten themselves the quickest, but what of the shy introverts, nerds and obsessives, who feel the parental figure rejection but do not have the genes for self-destruction? They get into computer games, fantasy role-playing games and esoteric literature, metal music and other such dorky pursuits.

Those avenues have variant characteristics but common core appeal: they allow for fantastical exercise and ethical experimentation. This is a big part of teenagerdom, the gradual breaking down of the early borrowed belief system and its replacement with a hodgepodge of new influences, meant to steel and shield the teenage psyche from oncoming realizations about the nature of the internal and external world. Metal music is one of many weapons taken up then, to battle the sometimes explosive sense of unreality that comes with puberty. What my parents told me isn't working, I feel so strongly about things I do not understand, how can I cope as an individual with what now seems like a world that misunderstands and is against me.

This teenage look on life is famously lampooned as some passing phase of paranoia, where the world isn't really against anyone and they eventually come to realize that and join the ranks of adults. However it seems to me that the inconvenient truth is that by and large, any mass of people is always against any individually minded person by default, be them child, teen or adult. Indifference is a gift of non-proximity, at best. And that magical adulthood revelation that leads to social integration and harmony is not only an invention of wishful thinking, it also camouflages what's truly going on: well-functioning adults are just teenagers whom have fought the world and were wounded for it and have created defense mechanisms that obfuscate and shield their tender teenage heart. Adulthood is merely the semblance of cynicism, a smoke-screen underneath which the existential angst of the teenager always lies. We seek - like all - with intimacy to assuage those sanguine wounds, but intimacy is risky, isn't it?

Metal music, then, is one of many partial replacements to the once-stabilizing parental figure, a method through which some benefits of intimacy (time-structuring, belonging, stability) are achieved in lieu of actual intimacy and its risks. It has inside it specific ontology and moral code and what makes it so attractive is that it is not force-fed to the teenager listener, it is instead resistant to initial scrutiny and only gradually does it cohere and integrate within the belief system of the teenager. One has to fight for it (unlike intimacy, for which one has to be soft and welcoming) and the resultant ethics system seems misleadingly self-inspired as a result. Its dictum is as simple as it is impossible: the call towards willpower, shaping the world according to one's desire and at the same time, complete individuality and self-control, self-definition (where intimacy is no longer needed). These are very attractive notions to teenage introverts, whom are all to eager to give up on the external world and focusing on sharping their internal world.

However - and here we are returning to the broadly painted initial archetypes - this high Romantic call of Heavy Metal, as emotionally potent as it is, is practically impossible. It is perhaps ironic that the people drawn to such pursuits are the ones least likely to have the willpower to achieve them, self-define, burn brightly, achieve control and purpose. It is introverts looking for the path of least resistance to some form of quasi-intimate enlightenment that stumble on this sort of music. Shy teenagers with lots of free time and disposable income at that. They give themselves enthusiastically to the collection and absorption of many metal records and they gradually come out of this process changed.

On one hand for those that are still eagerly lapping up sometimes hundreds of records each month, the initial attraction to high Heavy Metal ideals is seamlessly replaced by collector mania and the tell-tale traits of overconsumption: they retain data related to this music like a sponge but they're unable to coherently discuss what the music means for them and how it affects them. They have achieved some parts of intimacy (time-structuring, belonging to a group) and they stopped there. For those people, metal music was a gateway out of teenager doubt, and their teenager mind-state is made inaccessible and hidden by their consumption habits. If they were to remember how it felt to be a teenager, thinking as they do how they're over all that, they'd rapidly break down in realizing they haven't taken many steps out of that mind-space at all. Their heart has been put in a little box, cushioned by layers of many hundreds of carefully wrapped and categorized Heavy Metal lps. They have genre tastes like any music snob, but the act of collecting quantities of metal, shifting through them and discussing their genealogy is a sort of zen-state for them. It doesn't promote any enlightenment, it is just stress relief. Heavy metal is drugging them and yet they cannot turn away.

On the other hand, those that still listen to metal music and follow its modern happenings but yet do not compulsively collect and categorize it are those who entertained at some point the possibility of trusting metal music, and it wounded them. They bought in the 'evil' of it, or the high command of bravery and individuality in it and they thought these musicians to be Gods, or more aptly, fathers. It is especially cruel when this happens because metal music puts forth an aura of infallibility indeed and it is easy to confuse what is effectively, small humans praying to higher entities through their metal music, for small humans becoming higher entities through it. These are the types of listener who at a late age are still burned over how King Diamond 'wasn't a real occultist' and how Glenn Benton didn't kill himself at age 33 like he said he would. The common complaints against a father they felt intimacy for. They often strike back at what they consider was a betrayal by making fun of metal music and with the conceit of ironic appreciation of its cheesier aspects. Yet they still listen to, and indulge in the sub-culture of metal. Heavy metal is hurting them and yet they cannot turn away.

There is a magnetic quality to Heavy Metal. That I can write so many words on it should clue you in: those that came close to its chaos core are altered forever. However the mutation is not inherently to the better or worse. What one takes from metal music can be examined only insofar as how harmoniously it is integrated in their psyche. Self-loathing is a telling signal this has not occurred. Just as father figures fall from grace, so do transgressive ethical systems such as political ideologies or indeed, metal music, eventually cave in. The holes are there for anyone willing to see them, yet most, in their quest for some benefits-of-intimacy-sans-actual-intimacy, disregard them. No idea-space concept can stand the test of application because flesh is weak and faltering and the way through conflict is dim with the blood-mist of carnage. People must adapt, and the Heavy Metal inside them has to be fashioned into a spear, not as a shovel to haul inside the gaping maw vast quantities of surface entertainment. It is telling then, that the people I've met whose affection for Heavy Metal seems to help their psychological evolution the most, are those who engage with it pro-actively. Musicians and writers have turned a pass-time into an active pursuit. The interest psychological parallel of what I've been working towards is that then, this is taking the dictum of a higher, parent-like entity, and pursuing it in first person. In doing this, misconceptions as to the potency of romanticism are put to the endurance test and what is left is almost always a leaner and more streamlined, yet curiously more ambiguous and liquid thing.

This is not an ode to the metal musician, however. A great number of them are frauds and intellectual midgets hiding behind the big scary Heavy Metal ghost. Indeed those musicians who come to contribute to the medium with the stereotypical mindset of the metal music collector or the extreme metal cynical taste-maker often put out rubbish music themselves. However it seems to be that those that stand a chance of personalizing the Heavy Metal dictum, making it their own, turning it from a father figure into an internalized force, stand to do so via proactive methods. Making it, scrutinizing it and being savage with it, testing out what they love to the point of hate. Very few things can withstand such bravery, but when they do, the complexes of authority and control inherent in ideal can be divorced with the positive aspects of its individual philosophy and creativity.

It is worth keeping the complexes of post-puberty in mind when looking at metal music listeners. If they seem to be avid over-consumers, keep in mind they're yet to test out the ethics of metal music. If they're cynical hip taste-makers, they probably did and it didn't work out for them and the result is self-loathing. If they're hanging around metal communities without contributing pro-actively to the form then they stopped at time-structuring and belonging, and so on. If they are musicians or other pro-active proponents, worth keeping in mind how their demeanor aligns with their metal-related output. Usually those that talk the biggest talk are those who make bad metal, yet those who don't talk any talk often make even worse. Beware of cliches, as in any aspect of communication, cliches are there to discourage intimacy. They are a communal hymen which the prodding individual member always fails to penetrate. The resulting feeling of castration is powerfully used against the individual. When you hear cliche talk about metal, the people talking are trying to discourage intimacy, exposure, risk. When you find one of the few individuals whose speak is from the heart, then their metal art is probably potent as well. But even beyond the base scouting I suggest here, the real question to take from the construct I've presented above is "how do you relate to your metal music as a figure of authority?" and by answering that question, many things are inspired. Not always pretty and not always safe, but useful and brave.


  1. Well thank you for this piece. A lot of it made sense to me and gave a good chunk of food for thought which I am already digesting.

    "the majority of people who still listen to metal music in their late twenties or early thirties (and especially further on than that), no matter their current demeanor on it, got exposed to it in their early teenage years. I simply have not met many people for whom the attraction to metal music started at a later age and stuck with it."

    Well I got into it in late-teenage, when I was around 18-19 years old. That is later than most I think and sometimes I'm even jealous of people who found it earlier and of their stories about their early ventures with Heavy Metal. Still I guess being a young adult is to be in late state of transition from youth to adulthood. Most aren't that mature yet (god knows I wasn't) and they can still relate to their earlier struggles with the world in some level and I think that discovering Heavy Metal helped me to extend it a little. I don't mean I still think and function with the mindset of a 15 year old boy but I remember what it was like and I can see many positive things in it while this time in life is generally considered silly and something to forget and hide. At the time Heavy Metal also seemed to fit the psychological shape I was in. I was self-destructive and had damaged self-confidence, some esoteric interests and thirst for something that I later found out to be romanticism.

    I remember trying to integrate with rest of the world and especially with people of my own age. While I succeeded in this a little it didn't work out properly. It felt that I was almost alone with certain thoughts and interests and that there was a slight line that separated me from the rest. A line that I was expected to cross and leave a part of me behind. Heavy Metal went against this because more than anything I had been listening earlier it seemed to embrace individualism and willpower so openly and it just struck the right chord inside of me. One of the first Heavy Metal bands I got into was Manowar and particularry their song "Fighting The World". It hasn't aged well with me (nor is the whole album) but I'll use it as an example.

    Fight, fight, fight
    Fighting the world every single day
    Fighting the world for the right to play
    Heavy Metal in my brain
    I'm fighting for Metal 'cause it's here to stay

    Now people keep asking if we're going to change
    I look'em in the eye
    Tell'em no way
    Stripes on a tiger don't wash away
    Manowar's made of steel not clay

    "Heavy Metal in my brains" becomes what defines your identity and fighing for it means fighting for a right to be who you are. Now you only need to replace "Manowar" with yourself and you are made of steel not clay thus have the necessary power to fight. It's so blunt but it worked.

    Little later I too started to show some signs of obsessive consuming. Much of my time went to cranking up some good tunes while being preoccupied with discovering new "amazing" metal instead of properly focusing to what those tunes were trying to achieve. It took some really strong and involving music, inspiring discussions with other people and a few well written LotFP articles to set me in the right course again. I know now better what I am getting from Heavy Metal and what it means but I still have to work a little bit to answer with condifence the question you presented.

  2. My teenager creed comes from the Omen track 'At All Cost', from the album 'The Curse'.

    Do you see clearly
    The image on the wall
    It's true that man
    Must surely fall

    If we build foundations
    Reflections in our eyes
    Unless we look deep within
    It's believing only lies

    Shadows cast in likeness
    Stretching with the sun
    Like the fear of death
    They linger even though we run

    Once before we lived in
    Another space and time
    Now that the Earth is our home
    we need a reason for the rhyme

    Don't separate yourself from your dreams
    Do what you must to survive
    Don't give up and don't give in
    You must keep your dream alive
    Do what you must to survive

    The consequence is clear
    Regret will break your heart
    If you stop reaching for
    The top you'll be torn apart

    Nothing worthwhile is easy
    The path isn't always clear
    With each forward step we take
    We bring the meaning ever near

    Fear plagues each moment
    Conviction will decide
    If energy is gained or lost
    Nothing more can it provide

    Against the odds we struggle
    Each in his own way
    But you are the one
    That faces reflections of everyday

    This resonates as deeply in me as it ever did. I will never give up, I must keep my faith alive. I will do what I must to survive. However now I answer to the call of my own music than to the call of Omen (remember "Reopening the Gates"?).

    LotFP was instrumental for me as well at some point, as I think we've discussed before, in making me answer some questions for my own self instead of just looking at the answers of others. This blog hopes to continue on this path.

  3. Since you're sharing teenage creeds adopted from lyrics, here's mine as well:

    Listen to dreams, they always tell you the truth
    Listen to dreams, it is your heart that is speaking to you

    ...from Dreamhealer - Gamma Ray

  4. This is quite the fascinating analysis. There is more to this subculture than I have so far considered.

    Shall I suggest a relevant topic for discussion? It is often remarked by purists that there is 'trve' 'kvlt' Black Metal and that anything that doesn't fall under these classifications is poseur metal garbage. This is not exclusive to the Black Metal culture, it can also be observed in many others subgenres. Death Metal, for instance, can be rejected on the basis of lack of acceptable brutality or technicality. Progressive Metal can be derided for regressing into less complex song structures, and so on and so forth. Essentially, when the subgenre fails to meet perceived intersubjective expectations, say due to experimentation of sound, genre hopping or hybridization, or drastic change of thematic direction, those that have invested temporal, emotional, and financial capital into the genre can feel betrayed, hurt, and deceived by something that they had concluded was static, consistent, unchanging, predictable, or something along those lines. It would seem that this ties into the psychological hypothesis of Heavy Metal as a father figure. Any thoughts?

  5. And yet, there's that handful of us that don't really care so much, if at all, about the words or the movement... Style or culture.
    I am a metal musician, my love is for the raw, greasy, agressive distorsions and sick as drum beats, followed by that solid, "harmonizing" death growl... :)
    I'm into metal for almost 15 years now, loved it and love it like this since the early beginings almost... :p