Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Metal Inclusivity

So, here I am, 29 years old, more than half of my life spent listening or creating Heavy Metal music, and I am now acutely aware that what what people say when they use the term 'metal' does not correspond to my Heavy Metal experience. I am not upset or annoyed at this, but it does make me think on how that happened.

This will not be a text about how Heavy Metal was better in the old days. I'm not interested in eulogizing a view of the past that is more than anything else coloured by nostalgia. Nostalgia is a treacherous emotion in that it's weight in a memory is arbitrary and unconnected to the value of the original experience. I am equally likely to feel nostalgia for when I first watched a seminal piece of cinema like, say, Blade Runner as I am for watching Superman IV: Quest for Peace.

There are those, I've found, that surrender to nostalgia wholesale. They will idolize any artifact of their past with equal fervor. This creates an obvious problem when discussing Ye Olde Heavy Metal, because those rose tinted glasses can strip away the awfulness of this music and just leave, say, that one good riff or nice solo to shine. This selective view of the past will not help us in a discussion of where exactly *my* Heavy Metal and metal at large became not just disparate, but antithetical entities.

The angle I'm interested in instead is to look at what is gained, socially, by metal inclusivity. What is gained in the modern pop culture dialogue over metal in erring on the side of including outsider bands in the increasingly broadening metal canon. Who benefits, and what exactly are the benefits?

The parties in this social structure, real and symbolic, are: 'metal music' as a genre, the bands that play the music, fans, journalists and finally, society at large.

So let's say there's this new, interesting band that seems to play vital, exciting music. Let' say they're called Pinkish Black. Let's say that they've come out with a new record, and it's ostensibly reviewed and talked about in metal circles, signifying that they're metal, at least to some extent. A cursory listen to them will reveal they're a formalist hybrid of many different genres of music, yet we are encountering them in the metal press, as a metal band. So let's see who benefits and how they benefit from the inclusion of this band in metal culture.

First, our conception of 'metal music' benefits from the inclusion of Pinkish Black in that we have now another reason to suggest that metal is alive and vital and still branching out and producing culture capital. It means metal is music to pay attention to, and most importantly it means it's music to pay attention to if you're slightly on the outside of it and you want to see if it now, with Pinkish Black (let's say) you are also a little bit more included.

Fans benefit from being inclusive in what they consider metal because in this way they appear open-minded and that they're supporting a growing type of music. For their bravado, metal fans have long carried a persecution complex (it could be said that that is the core of the metalhead social personality, really) and as long as a narrative is sold to them that they're being embraced by the mainstream on their own terms, they lap it up eagerly. Their own terms in this case basically means as long as there's an illusion that the mainstream is coming to them, they're not going to the mainstream. And that may not be as completely illusory as I at first expected.

The metal press benefits in that they're covering a wider scene, there's more articles to write, more bands to market, more shows to book, more culture product to spread. For the metal journalist there is nothing worse than the realization that their niche of culture is dead. It is better to invent a new metal than to accept that it is dead. Ironically, this large-scale inclusion policy in most metal sites have contributed to their unreadability. Too many album streams. To many live show write-ups. Too many interviews on what books band people read. To mask the lack of actual discussion of metal music for what it is and where it's heading.

Society at large benefits from metal being more inclusive because that means it'll be more watered down. For all its social uselessness, the scary ghost of Heavy Metal was indeed, that. Scary. For a while at least, culminating with church burnings and homicides. What can society do with that? It can feel the dark reverence towards death, of course, but it can't sell that shit if it gets so (un)real. Now, costumed clowns that play music that isn't so far removed from that of Limp Bizkit, sure! They can be the new metal.

The bands that are now branded as metal benefit because they're exposed to the metal audience. It may or may not be the case that other audiences they could reach for would not support them enough or support them as they would like to be supported. This is a really curious thing for people of my age that were into Heavy Metal in the mid '90s because back then (and for a long spell afterwards), actual metal bands were trying their hardest to distance themselves from metal and if you told, say, a stoner rock musician that they liked Iron Maiden, they would take great offence.

So, what changed? Why is now the metal audience a desirable one for outsiders? Has the Heavy Metal stigma been lifted?

I believe that the case is that metal music has resisted - for good or worse - marketing extinction campaign during the grunge era. Don't reach for your tinfoil hats here, people. I am not saying that The Man Hates our Truth or anything. I am just saying that the market recognised that if loud music is here to stay, can't we at least have a more palatable version we can sell, and to a wider audience? Hence the grunge fabrication (which was peddled on the backs of some fortunate and many more unfortunate american punk bands).

That metal has continued to sustain a core audience mainly due to word of mouth and grassroots communities online has proved to the mainstream that it's here to stay. The reason that it's here to stay is that metal music carries a Romanticist torch and though not everything it inspires is beautiful, enough of it is. Beautiful art that pretends to be about ageless natural truth and imagination apparently won't go out of style. New generations of metal listeners are introduced through the classics (Sabbath, Metallica, Maiden) in the same organic way that they enter puberty. Since the attempts to ameliorate the rough edges of Heavy Metal and sell it like hair metal or grunge fell through, in the first case because the saccharine coating was completely cynical and in the latter case because the depressive self-destructive tendencies were entirely too real - the only real way left for metal music to be integrated in broader culture was to be accepted. Somewhat.

So, metal music won. And that's why Heavy Metal has died. The antagonistic ambition of Heavy Metal (of Romance itself) is such that it cannot thrive without the adversarial role. Heavy Metal has a long history of inventing the enemy it needs to function (posers die, false metal, rap music, etc.) and never before has the war cry against something, anything, felt more hollow than in the last ten years or so. This acutely explains the rise of National Socialist Black Metal. If people won't believe that posers must die and those that are false must leave the hall, then all that is left is to say that our racial identity is under attack and the most enduring form of the Other is our enemy (the Jews).

Truthfully, there's nobody left to hate us. Most people enjoy at least some metal-influenced music, some sort of angry loud formalist take on what Judas Priest came up with. The collapse of Grand Narratives after the fall of the Soviet Union removed from the culture the aspect of 'mandatory ideological struggle' as a signifier of grreat art. This may have happened gradually and not without illness, but it happened. In a world where Capitalism won, was there really much difference left between those of 'true heart' and those that were 'false'?

I am not advocating for another fabrication of a comfortable enemy so that Heavy Metal again may live. It's ridiculous. Capitalism seems to be having enough trouble winning without an opponent that I am sure the Western World will again live enough tragedy and turmoil that angry, rebellion-based culture will find a real foothold again. I am not really looking forward to this either. I just wanted to add to the dialogue over 'what is considered metal' these analytical tools that explain that perhaps the real reason we're reaching out to outsiders to fill in for metal is that metal has been missing in action for a reason that is meta-cultural and larger than any 'us vs them' narrative would have us believe.