September 3, 2010

Will metalheads rule the world in 100 years?

I've been on a metal posting kick and probably will be for another week or so. There's so much new to see now that I'm no longer a 13 year-old infatuated with Beavis & Butt-Head, which unfortunately was the last time I spent much time with it.

One thing that jumps out is how high the solidarity is among metalheads, far greater than for fans of any other type of music. Looking around over the past 20 years of various culture wars, they're about the only major subculture that has consistently been founded on strength of community and keeping their traditions sacred, where others have descended into petty status contests and "moving beyond" their ways once they become too well known and hence no longer fashionable.

Metalheads still look pretty much like they did 30 years ago: slim-fitting light blue or black jeans, black or white t-shirt (often with sleeves cut off), white tennis shoes or black boots, and long hair parted in the middle (perhaps with bangs). Even the nu metal people, arguably a separate species, haven't strayed so far from that costume. In contrast, look at how differently the fans of rock-for-the-college-educated have looked from 1975 to 2010, going by five-year intervals. Hair length is all over the place, eyeshadow is present or absent, colors are varied or monochrome, the overall look is hyper-tailored or disheveled, and all according to the trend in the larger society. About the only constant is Chuck Taylor shoes.

Metalheads therefore take their community membership much more seriously: their appearance is supposed to be above the fickle shifts of the stream of fashion, much as the more traditional religious groups still sport a look that's hundreds of years old. "Moving beyond" this cultural inheritance in order to stay in touch with the times would be sacrilege. Other subcultures are more likely to view their community membership as fleeting, something fun to do for now but nothing they're going to commit themselves to over the long haul, let alone sacrifice anything for.

This suggests that unlike most other groups of white people, metalheads have a strong potential for collective action. (Readers of Peter Turchin will know this by Ibn Khaldun's term "asabiya.") True, they're not as strong as they were in the '70s or '80s, but neither is anyone else -- and those other groups are even more faded or divided. Punks, post-punks, goths, country, electronic, pop, mainstream, you name it. While there are short cycles up and down, this group-mindedness really rises and falls on the order of centuries -- maybe two or three for a complete cycle up and down again.

It comes together when one group finds itself on what Turchin calls a "meta-ethnic frontier" -- where the people on the other side might as well come from a different planet culturally. This intensifies the Us vs. Them distinction, and often makes you band together lest you be overrun by Them. Ground zero for the heavy metal scene in the U.S. was southern California, but that was before illegal immigrants flooded in, so I don't think it's so much a white vs. other racial frontier. It's more internal to white people. Part of it is class, since classes are close to ethnic groups in America, but that's not the whole story. After all, country and western fans are working class, but most of them haven't conserved a fairly coherent way of life over the past generation or two; they blend in with the mainstream. They probably couldn't name more than a couple Hank Williams songs, don't know who Kitty Wells is, and wouldn't recognize the face of mega-babe Emmylou Harris.

The culture associated with country music is also too self-pitying to galvanize a large mass of people into conquering the faction-riven mainstream culture. It's also contaminated by appropriation by the elites, where they pretend to like country and folk and even bluegrass music, as part of their affectation to care about the honest working man. You could find some music by Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, or Tom Waits in an elite person's collection -- but never any metal from '75 or so onward.

Metal has never won any elite praise, so it's been safe from being diluted that way. Again this rejection by just about every other subculture heightens the Us vs. Them distinction, giving them a greater sense of solidarity. Plus the music tries to work the listener up into feeling like they're a macho soldier in the advancing metal army. If they had their own country, we would call such songs patriotic. Here are just two by Judas Priest: "United" and "Take On The World". You don't hear such rallying cries among any other group, except the religious traditionalists.

Returning to the differences with country, the latter is lyric poetry set to music, whereas metal tends to shun the personal and focus more on third-person narration, often aiming for the epic. There's one big exception to that, which is the power ballads, probably the most well known being those by Scorpions and then later those by glam metal bands. Really, though, this combination is no different from the speech of Marlowe's Tamburlaine -- mostly virile, bombastic, and epic, but occasionally intensely emotional when talking to his main love. He was another leader of a people whose high solidarity was forged along the frontiers of civilization, whose squabbling and dainty elites they later conquered.

Of course, that took a long time, but the same could eventually happen with some mix of metalheads and religious traditionalists. If we're looking into the next 100 or so years, I'd actually give metalheads a distinct advantage in one area that may make the difference -- they're not infected with political correctness and they don't put faith in social science to design society for the better. Those seem to be the two main diseases eating away at Western civilization from inside, mostly in indirect ways. America overall is fairly religious, so the religious traditionalists don't face a strong meta-ethnic frontier, unless they're Amish, Mormon, etc., but these groups are not as large as the group that's sympathetic or drawn to metal. But who knows what their population sizes will be in 100 or 200 years. Too bad we won't be there to see them getting along, or not. Perhaps the conquest of the existing mainstream culture will be lead by Mormon metalheads.


  1. Metalheads still look pretty much like they did 30 years ago

    Jean jackets were also a big part of the look. The t-shirts often were white with a hard rock band logo on the front, and with long black sleeves. Target put out an "ironic" retro line of shirts in that style a few years ago.

    But seriously, where do you see metalheads? I figured they are extinct.

    I've seen them in my early teens in 1982 in working class suburbs of Baltimore. Pretty much every working class white kid had the metalhead look, though preppies called them "rednecks."

    They started disappearing around 1991, and at this point, I figured, they're completely replaced by whiggers.

    By the way, I kind of miss them now, but they could be vicious bastards.

    I was more in the preppy cliques, and sometimes they'd come up and fuck with you for no reason at the mall or in a pool hall. But I'll give them one thing: they were tough and gutsy. Unlike other types of 'youths', they woudl come up to you and your buddies in a similar-sized group, or one-on-one. If one got in a fight with you, others would not jump in, even if you were wining. Six-on-one swarm-kickdowns were unheard of.


    To see the high-classic metalhead look as I remember it, check out Skid Row's video for "18 and Life."

  2. Every time I think this corner of the blogosphere is the most mentally agreeable community I've ever discovered, someone outdoes himself. I've been planning a post on the relationship between metal and what I think of as "traditionalism", and I will link to you when I do.

    One big part of what I want to say is essentially that in contrast to what many might believe, metal is not "prole" in the same way country is. Rather, it's masculine - but not the "thug" sort of masculinity associated with gangsta rap. Instead, metal, and metalheads, tend to be a) intellectual and b) interested in themes of history, culture, myth, etc.

    Metal therefore offers a very good soundtrack for traditionalism.

    Great post.

  3. Music is the most powerful but least directed art. If you play music at a rally, the music itself will be what whips up the attendees into an ecstatic fury. However, if you remove that context, the music will only excite people but not direct them to anything. If you merely listen to the music of an opera, which is honestly the only part that really matters, you'll appreciate the splendor but will usually be left wondering what is was all for. It is not until you actually watch a performance where the technical skill you appreciated becomes an aesthetic enjoyment.

    Musical subcultures, on their own, galvanize their fans and excite them, but don't really affect society in a meaningful way. Of all artists, musicians seem by far to be the least rational in their behavior and least coherent in their thinking. Music is so powerful an art over emotions that those who wield it seldom have great control over their emotions or thoughts. So while people can be inspired to have sex or commence battle with music, musicians themselves never really mold their followers into a coherent, organized group who can affect social change. Even in the 1960's, when musicians did have an effect on society, all they really did was inspire people to oppose the Vietnam War, a war no one really wanted to fight in after seeing what kind of a disaster it was by 1968.

  4. Wade Nichols9/3/10, 12:05 PM

    I was never into metal much growing up, but liked a few of the popular songs/bands.

    I was in the Detroit area for work about a year ago, and I saw Judas Priest with a co-worker who's still into metal (as is his son!).

    The dress code was pretty much as you described. There were quite a few "senior citizen" metal fans in attendance. They definitely don't age gracefully! They probably looked "threatening" 20 years ago, but today they looked comically tragic!

    I noticed Rob Halford was staring downward a lot during the show. Seems like the rumor is that he uses a teleprompter for the lyrics.

  5. Wade Nichols9/3/10, 12:12 PM

    I forgot to mention an article I saw via Tyler Cowen. Heavy metal blog "Invisible Oranges" asked a classically trained vocal coach to evaluate 5 heavy metal singers. Interesting read!

  6. "But seriously, where do you see metalheads? I figured they are extinct."

    They're definitely not as numerous as before, but I still see them around my regular used record store and nightclub, and I pass by a few of the original (now 40-something) ones while driving around.

    There's two in a class I'm TA-ing, out of maybe 15-20 students total. One was wearing a sleeveless Venom shirt the other day. But remember I live in the Mountain time zone, so ymmv in more progressive parts of the country.

    Metal actually had a pretty good survival through the '90s. I don't ever remembering hearing '80s Madonna or Michael Jackson, let alone The Cure etc. at school dances or in conversation.

    But even when we were all getting into grunge and alternative, we still listened to classic metal, mostly trying to imitate Beavis and Butt-Head. Heh, there was a student teacher in our 8th grade history class who overheard us talking about AC/DC and KISS, and he couldn't believe the kids these days were still aware of them.

    In the comments to some YouTube video, a 16 year-old guy complains that at his high school of 1000 people, most metalheads are into nu metal or metalcore, and that there are only 6 classic metal fans. That may sound small, but consider how big the school would have to be to find 6 devoted fans of any other genre that peaked in the '75 to '84 period!

  7. "but not the "thug" sort of masculinity associated with gangsta rap"

    Yeah there's definitely a lot less hubris among metalheads. Not the kind of machismo that's going to get you killed because you think you're a Big Man, when it's all just a front.

    A lot of the lyrics, taking cues from classical mythology, focus on the power that fate or the gods or some other unseen higher power has over us. It's not fatalistic, though; it's like the motivational music you hear in a Rocky training montage -- the future looks tough, but you've got to stand up to it and fight like a man.

  8. "So while people can be inspired to have sex or commence battle with music, musicians themselves never really mold their followers into a coherent, organized group who can affect social change."

    I agree with that, but that doesn't mean the community of people who listen to some form of music won't organize on their own. It's more like there's a current among the grassroots, and the bands have to cater to that, or else they'll be thrown to the side as sell-outs.

    It's hard to think of another genre where the scene is more about the fans than the band members in that way -- despite the superficial showiness of the lead guitarist and singer.

  9. "The dress code was pretty much as you described. There were quite a few "senior citizen" metal fans in attendance. They definitely don't age gracefully!"

    All that tobacco, booze, and drugs probably didn't help.

    That's all changed, though -- everyone, including metalheads, has more or less given that up, at least among young people. (Just like how even yuppies were into sex, drugs, and rock n roll in the late '70s and '80s.) The 40 year-old metalheads in 2030 probably won't look so haggard.

  10. Steve Johnson9/4/10, 5:16 AM

    The idea isn't so implausible. Different people look at the cultural zeitgeist and see same things and come up with art based on the idea that they intuit. In this case, there's a tv show Metalocalypse where the creator was influenced by the same idea that you had here. From the wikipedia page:

    "In the series, Dethklok is a band which enjoys a popularity level unheard of in reality, ranking as the seventh largest economy on Earth by the end of the second season.
    If Dethklok endorses a product or service, competitors are quickly driven out of business. Organizations worldwide, ranging from governments to businesses, go out of their way to avoid hindering Dethklok, to the point that the band is allowed to maintain its own police force and can get away with any crime imaginable with virtually no repercussions, although the band is often too ignorant to even notice that they are committing illegal acts.

    The members of Dethklok tend to cause disaster wherever they travel, and anything remotely associated with them likewise attracts chaos.
    The band's popularity is such that impressionable fans will do anything for them, even if that means death, which is usually the case. In the episode "Dethgov", fans of Dethklok murder the governor of Florida after he disrespects lead singer Nathan Explosion, whom they then proceed to elect governor in a landslide write-in victory."

    All the elements are there:

    1) recognition that metalheads are a cohesive group
    2) that they get power from being cohesive
    3) that they specifically coordinate consumption and tastes


  11. I suspect that Christians and metalheads don't mix well, because "Christian Heavy Metal" is mostly an oxymoron. If there was more compatibility, wouldn't there be decent Christian Heavy Metal bands?


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