Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Social gaming in metal communities.

There was a discussion in the previous post in the comment section over metal lyrics, ideology and listening to bands that might be singing about concepts that do not align with ones own beliefs. Those opinion fragments got me thinking on the subject enough to inform with it a broader point of view which I now present for discussion.

I do not go to Heavy Metal to get answers to my questions, I do not go to it to make friends (real or imaginary) and I do not go to it to figure out what to vote. That doesn't mean I have not made friends through my interest in Heavy Metal, nor does it mean my sense of reality is not informed on all levels its aesthetics and themes. Those things are the gentle byproducts of an interest whose primary focus is more difficult to define. I listen to, play, and write about Heavy Metal in the way that I do now, because it engages my imagination and has a lot of ambiguous space for interpretation. I find in there, a distant, perfect self that calls me forward. It is not other, yet it is not I. A son and a father, a ghost and a god. The characteristics of that entity, though they fascinate me, I do not want to figure out and tie them down. I want to figure me out through that reflection.

However I remember puberty. Like most people, I also wanted to belong to a subculture then. I wasn't a huge joiner so I stayed (or was made to stay, depends on the point of view) on the fringes of my chosen subculture of metal. This meant that though I had ample vantage to inspect and interact with its various specimens, I never counted myself as one of them nor was I included too often in broader excursions. I never belonged to a large circle of metalheads, I never was a groupie or supporter for any local band, I never went to too many shows. These things never interested me enough to pursue. I instead wanted to find more about the music, experience more of it, form my own band and reach my ideal of its capacity.

Proponents of the metal scene however are very anxious to 'get' what metal music is for social reasons: They need to understand it to have an opinion on it and use those opinions to form a social profile. With this profile they'll approach other metalheads (or listeners of extreme music, as it were in modern lingo) and test out interactions, iterate their profile and test again. Their concern is to come out on top, make allegiances, be considered knowledgeable and interesting. Men build bridges and go to the moon for the same reasons, that's how you get - eventually and hopefully - laid. (And in the case of the super obscure metalhead elite that discusses amongst its almost-all-male body in hidden recesses of the internet, the case is of simple intimacy transference: discussing about vinyl is like getting laid without all the messy repercussions of actually getting laid).

Nothing wrong with wanting to get laid (possibly plenty wrong with intimacy transfer but who is the guy with the Heavy Metal blog to judge). However, those that are trying to 'understand' metal to get a social profile going reach for shortcuts, because there's nothing to understand in it. There's only something there to inspire, to trigger awe and hope. However talking to girls about your Heavy Metal hopes and aspirations is a risky deal (and here the guy with the Heavy Metal blog can have an opinion). Instead then, the eager scenesters (try to hear me saying this word with the minimum amount of judgment: in the abstract, a scene and its actors is what we are discussing) latch on to surface concerns about metal -or extreme- music and understand, form opinions, discuss, fight and hopefully get laid over those. Think of a popular music forum for a minute, here.

The easiest way to arouse interest on one's own person is to draw a dividing line between themselves and other people, and paint their side in flattering colors. The easiest way for metal aficionados to do this is to say band x sucks (which is much stronger than saying 'band x rules' which is an inclusive statement). Then someone who perceives themselves as being put on the other side of the line in the sand will challenge the opposition to qualify why band x sucks. This is a four hand game that can go on for much longer. The third hand is then that the instigator will qualify his statement in as impersonal a way possible. Band x sucks because of their image, because they're boring, because of the ideology they endorse, because they sold out, because they're old, or young, pretty or ugly. These qualifications must sound like facts although they're not. The person behind them is shielding themselves from scrutiny by phrasing his critique in such a way that it is impossible to reach them through it. The fourth hand is then either a personal insult (trying to circumvent the loop - the game ends, people get wound up, drama explodes, the point of the game has been reached) or idle discussion on the merits of the opinions expressed (in which case the game goes on until someone insults someone). The latter loop can go on forever, people discussing their 'music taste' (though taste is very rarely brought up, accounted for, or examined in any rigorous fashion) in lieu of actual intimacy. Onlookers rate the participants with their opinion bias (: whether or not they agreed with the abstract 'band x sucks' to begin with) and with how entertaining they found the method of argumentation. Even when the game doesn't reach a satisfactory conclusion, it serves as a secondary determinant in opinion forming for the outsiders. It is not uncommon for real-life friends to play this game online without any malice or stake against each other directly, yet reach hysterical drama for the benefit of the audience. Today the one guy will win, tomorrow the other guy. Time is structured, sociality achieved, intimacy circumvented.

The easiest way to get noticed on the internet is to be a contrarian, and entertaining about it. This is a game I call, 'This Band Sucks'.

As you've noticed, although I'm talking about a lot of bands here, I've generally kept from making damning statements about them because I'm avoiding playing this game. I'm terribly good at it and it's easy to fall into a loop. Instead I'm talking about albums (and not bands) that I love and I go to great lengths to make my love clear for what it is: personal and inspirational to my life. I do not want to be rated by some reader for my good taste, I want to engage with them, get to know them and what they love and especially what their love inspires in them to create in return.

But 'This Band Sucks' is a very popular game on the internet, and so it has become very sophisticated through repetition. What once was a crude two-hand game of '-Metallica are better than Iron Maiden!' '-But Metallica cut their hair!' now has become an elaborate construct where band affiliations, ideological conceits and crucially, concerns of integrity are commonly employed.

So, let's say I love this record by the band 'Carnivore'. It has clearly misogynistic, misanthropic and chauvinist lyrics. Would it be a surprise to you that most mentions of Carnivore on internet message boards would quickly degenerate to games of 'This Band Sucks' over these prominent surface qualities?

People want to have an opinion on metal to get laid in their metal subcultures so they must judge how they feel about Carnivore singing about misogynistic, anti-humanist and racist topics. Their opinion, whatever it may end up being, will serve to draw a line, some will be with them on the matter, some against them. They'll try to be savvy and manipulate their opinion in such a way so they end up close to the people they want to befriend or have sex with through this process, that really has nothing to do with Carnivore, or the ideological concerns themselves. It's a game. Often participants will have wildly contrasting tastes: they like this band but hate another sound-alike of it because the former one has a conceit of ideology that suits their social needs better. Outsiders to this game could feel baffled by the near-randomness of the choices of the participants until they understand that there isn't a compositional merit or melodic quality that distinguishes good bands from bad bands for them.

It is exactly because I do not play this game that I do not judge art on surface qualities. I take them into account and keep them in heart and mind while I experience it at a different depth. When I first listened to Carnivore, I was shocked and felt kinda bad over parts of it. A year later, still listening to Carnivore, I thought the shock material was mostly meant as a joke, but the music was very compelling. A year later still, I was certain that Carnivore were trying to reach out to people through their shock antics because they were depressed or paranoid, but my love for the music grew. A year later I believed Carnivore meant every word they sang and when I listened to them, I meant every word they sang too. And a year later still, I now know that all these states are valid, they occur simultaneously, the quantum state of probabilities is determined by the capacity of the onlooker for risk. Art is not a game, it is cruel magic. Those that dabble with magic risk altering the inner and the outer.

One thing's for sure, Carnivore were worth dabbling in, for me. The things I found out about myself through that process did not get me laid (and/or did not get me high fives by racist morons), nor did they have any other social effect, but they were extremely useful in building character and exciting imagination.

So, when you see someone play 'This Band Sucks', because of their ideological subject matter or image or whatever else, know that they're not really interested in the music primarily, they're interested in playing a game with you. If you want to play this game, fine. Just know you're not primarily interested in the music right then either.

Does this mean that I'll listen to anything? Yes, it does. It doesn't mean I'll keep listening to it but I'll give it a chance and if there's enough beauty in there I will stomach even the worst connections it can make to human misery and ugliness. At the end of a certain time I'll know whether I should keep this art close or not.

Most of the Nazi metal I've heard has been awful not because it's nazi metal, but because it's all it is. 'This Band Sucks' is such a popular game now that people are actively forming bands just so they can have them be the subject of the game. It's sloppy and mediocre, empty metal that annoys me most, not metal that flirts with horrid imagery and notion.

And the type of metal that is most empty is that which proclaims to be all about fun and good times. A variant of the 'This Band Sucks' game is then 'Relax Bro, it's Just Music'. The instigator there is playing (or participating) in a game of 'This Band Sucks' and is watching out for anyone that is trying to turn the discussion towards ideological merit. They reply to that with 'Relax Bro, it's Just Music'. Which is meant to connote that there isn't any deeper significance to art and that the other person is undoubtedly problematic for having divined depth in a puddle, or -perhaps- even worse, is gullible and simple for having fallen for the 'image' of the band instead of its musical merit. This game is also very popular, to the point where aggressively anti-intellectual takes on a type of music that has been customarily meaningful have surfaced, and are enjoying ironic appreciation by scenesters internet-wide.

I'd take a few nazi metal bands over this, for example. The former at least has the capacity for beauty, the latter has nothing.


  1. I suppose I could say that I'm also sort of an outside observer, except that I never hung out with any real metalheads. My friends in high school pretty much just listened to Metallica. Add to that Blind Guardian, Symphony X, Mastodon... and um... Dream Theater... and you pretty much have my complete metal experience. Honestly, I'm exaggerating how little I've listened to, but the point is that although I was never involved in any metal scene really, I'm deeply interested in Heavy Metal as art. I was even fortunate enough to have a composition teacher at university willing to let me write metal for my serious projects. Not to say that metal isn't serious.

    I'm really looking forward to your future post about Something Far Beyond. It's one of the few albums on your list that I know fairly well.

    RE: "Art is not a game, it is cruel magic. Those that dabble with magic risk altering the inner and the outer."

    This reminds me of Scriabin. I imagine you might be aware of this, but Scriabin felt that a lot of his music had magical powers. Of course, he seriously considered some of his pieces to be too dangerous to perform, and he felt that his final work would destroy the world when it was performed. But he died before he finished it. We dodged a bullet on that one.

    But it got me thinking...

    Most metal music comes with lyrics, and I get the impression that you're mostly referring to the lyrics when talking about the transformative effect that art has on the listener/viewer. Do you have any thoughts about the connection between music and lyrics in terms of this "cruel magic" sort of influence that might occur. Not to mention completely abstract music, such as "Symphony #2" by (composer of your choice)? With no lyrics to speak of at all, I imagine that the music will still have an effect, but it might be more difficult to identify. Or, perhaps, it depends more heavily upon associations that the listener's mind provides.

  2. Erenan, thank you for your comment.

    It's the combination of lyric and music (and album cover and photos and interviews and anything else the band decides to augment the compositions with) that is magical, for me.

    Alan Moore made an interesting point in the documentary "The Mindscape of Alan Moore" that in the capitalist modern world we're short-selling the capacity of the storyteller. We're treating them as capable of entertaining us but not much else.

    But - Alan Moore says, and I tend to agree - storytelling is a process that, when it aims for it and is successful, alters one's perception of reality. The artist is not here to give people what they want, he's here to give people what he thinks they need. The unsaid implication here is that the artist is changing the world according to what he wills it to be, which is a fundamental definition of magic.

    Even 'Symphony #2' will have some semiotic signifiers that lend it storytelling strength, even if it is something as basic as 'this piece of music is very angry/sad/powerful!'. Only certain musique concrete and other post-modern composers attempted music mostly clear of lingual (and therefore storytelling) baggage, and even that, I am certain, became a story potent enough to imbibe the music with mood altering power. Human beings like stories.

    I am spending so much time in this blog talking about the aesthetics and lyrics of metal because I think they're sold short, they're ridiculed by those that pretend to like metal ironically and they're often insulted by insiders and outsiders same for being basic and badly written. Well, I love Heavy Metal lyrics and I think it's one of the most potent ways to present romantic poetry, the storm of steel that HM conjures. I think that even a few powerful lines can give a whole record transformative powers by unlocking the imagination and creating a space for interpretation. It baffles me when listeners of extreme music treat it just as entertainment, the precarious edge of the world is not a place for casual sight-seeing.

  3. At least I know what I'll be giving folks for the holidays: This Band Sucks, or Relax Bro, It's Just Music ringer tees.

    Is the "This Band Sucks" game played regularly outside of the blog/messageboard realm? Don't believe so. Negative criticism, no matter how well extrapolated, is essentially verboten on the Internet and in print (which is a stange phenomenon in this day and age... negative crit was plentiful in the 80s; guess it died with that era).

    Of course I love playing the "This Band Sucks" game. But I always consider my target record as an argument and use criticism to exploit the argument's weakness. Aren't too many bands as system builders these days, so the "This Band Sucks" game could get a lot more play than it does.

    For the record, I love the "Relax Bro, It's Just Music" guy. They sit at the back of the classroom. The cool ones. Always wanted to be them anyway instead of the loser geek who thougt about stuff too much.

  4. "Is the "This Band Sucks" game played regularly outside of the blog/messageboard realm?"

    Yes, people do play it face to face and they do try to summon the severity of their internet persona when they do it but it quickly falls apart when they see emotions run on the opposition's face. 'This Band Sucks' is intimacy circumvention. Looking at a person getting sad because you dissed their favorite band is cutting it too close to real intimacy. What happens then is that the instigator will attach the usual errata to his statements, the cliche gamut of '...but this is only my opinion' to 'let's agree to disagree' so as to seal the argument.

    In an internet game of 'This Band Sucks', the same cliches are used not as ameliorations but as attacks in order to get the opposition riled up, however. The implication becomes 'this is only YOUR opinion' and 'let's agree we're both wrong but you're wronger' instead.

    Here's a real discussion I once had with a friend, over beers

    me : "well I like Seventh Son of the Seventh Son [his favourite album] but it has some clunkers in there. I mean, 'Prophecy'? What's up with that fucked up verse "...impending disaster!" and then it goes into a wildly incompatible part?"

    him : "'prophecy' shits on you, man."

    He mistook my critique as me wanting to start a 'This Band Sucks' game, and he shut it down by getting personal (even half-jokingly) straight off the bat.

    "Of course I love playing the "This Band Sucks" game. But I always consider my target record as an argument and use criticism to exploit the argument's weakness."

    Yes, I agree. The very few negative reviews I've written (in the past, in Greek) were created with the same impulse. However they were instead interpreted as 'well Helm doesn't like that band and is being bitchy about it'. Which is 'Relax, Bro' through and through.

    The greatest thing about the Relax Bro guy is that he himself is not what he claims to be. To arrive at a 'Relax, Bro' position, one has to consider the game played to a great degree and has to devise a good catch-all defense in it (whichi s what Relax, Bro is, possibly the greatest defense). This means that the laid-back Relax Bro guy is the biggest social gaming - and not music - nerd of them all in this situation. The best counter-attack then against him is 'Relax, Bro, it's just a conversation, you don't have to win them every time'. And that escalates to drama and exposes the game for what it is.

    The best idea is to shut down the game, however, by just not engaging with others on the subject of art on that level.

  5. But that's a lonely thing to do.

  6. Ha! Also: The "Relax Bro" guy sees negative crit as a problem w/ the one making the critique. The critic must be "butthurt" or "Band that sucks" must've "fucked his girlfriend." Otherwise the critic wouldn't be playing "This Band Sucks."

    Not a fan of any Maiden post Powerslave, but the phrase, "Prophecy shits on you" is a winner.

  7. I get told often that what I'm doing classifies as complaining, whereas to me it doesn't have that vibe at all. Complaining involves not just being dissatisfied with the way things are but using logic and rhetoric to deny the gravity (and therefore existence) of what is being complained about. Complaining is a negotiation of the individual with their social surroundings until they wield and come to a tentative agreement that what the complainer is going on about.

    I may not be satisfied with the way everything is in the metal world, but I'm not sweeping anything under the rug nor do I want people to validate my concerns, really. I want there to be dialogue on all things that ring true inside us, without personal judgment hovering over the touchy subjects.

    Furthermore, I think it's seen as a problem to engage in critique too often because it destabilizes our common perception mode, which is - through decades of capitalist middle-class training - consumptive. The implication is constantly that if you don't like what you ordered, order something else and shut the fuck up about it. There's a big menu.

    I read all the time on message boards "Why do you have to complain about [this or that], just go and listen to what you like, there's so much music out there". Which seems like a relatively kind-hearted rebuttal, live-and-let-live and all. However it has a sinister underbelly, when its parts are inspected psychologically:

    1. Why are you a complainer? What's wrong with you? Can't you just be quiet while you eat like the rest of us?

    2. Go away, this table isn't for you because I am sitting in it and you annoy me and there's more of me here than you.

    Just like how fast food is not good for you, but every fast food consumer feels that in that they have the right to eat this fast food, its quality is vindicated as well. The artifact being consumed becomes a testament to individual freedom. That's a circular logic that breaks down easily which is why it's a psychic upset for people to question their taste.

  8. I really really like this post.

    Not sure I have much to offer other than that the abstract "music for music's sake" form of listening that you touch on is surprisingly rare.

    Other than the social gaming that you mention, I find that many people listen to music as a form of emotional masturbation. Although I poke fun at this, I don't think this is a "less valid" way to appreciate art. It is, however, something that is almost completely alien to me.

  9. Hi, Todd. Can you explain more about this emotional masturbation concept?

  10. I also am interested to hear more about emotional masturbation. Unfortunately I'm familiar with just the physical one.

  11. I'd be interested in some elaboration on that as well. It's interesting, because I've seen terms like "musical masturbation" thrown around when negatively reviewing or criticizing certain bands. I've seen it applied to Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment, the Mars Volta, etc...

    As far as I can tell, the idea they're trying to communicate in that case is that the music is something that predominantly makes the musicians feel good and the listener bored. Even, maybe, that the sophisticated merits that the musicians claim is in the art isn't there at all. The people who say these things, as far as I can tell, are generally the sort who turn up their noses at musicians that they perceive as turning up their own noses at everyone who doesn't "get" their music. Like, "if you don't like our shit, then you're just not cultured or sophisticated enough." So then, deriding the music with a term like "musical masturbation" seems to be a reaction moving away from trying to be sophisticated to the point of trying to be crude. But in the end, it's probably just playing "This Band Sucks" again.

    However, Todd has gotten me thinking about it in a different sense. Masturbation isn't really a negative thing, is it? Our sexuality is one of those primal level parts of being human, isn't it? So if there is a connection or analogy between sexuality and appreciating art, and I imagine there must be, then theoretically masturbation might as well be involved in that process somehow.

    I may be overthinking what Todd was getting at, however.

  12. I think Todd means some people listen to music for emotional masturbation, not that some people write music that sounds wanky, like Dream Theater. But I'm not sure what it would entail still.

  13. Yes, what Todd said simply reminded me of the negative meaning, but he clearly meant something else. What I was trying to say is that Todd has got me rethinking how I view the term when applied to the artist. But I agree he probably was referring to the listener.

  14. Masturbation only pleasures the self, so musical masturbation would imply the artist is only concerned with his own desires/wankery. Now if an artist creates a media that inspires other people to "emotionally masturbate", it is no longer viewed as negative or selfish. That's how I view the varied interpretations of the term.
    My girlfriend linked me to this blog after we had a similar discussion about music yesterday. I have no knowledge of any of your prior writing but this hit close to home so I felt the need to chime in. I'm just glad there's still people out there that truly love this art for more than surface value.