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Heavy Metal More Than Music Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2602 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Subcultures are present in all societies around the world. Their members usually differentiate themselves by clothing style, music or even behavior. Studies and theories of subcultures have been conducted by various sociological schools. The Birmingham School came up with three levels of general analysis in their theories about subcultures: structure, culture and biography (Stanley Cohen, Symbols of trouble, 1980). He viewed subcultures as a “political battleground between the classes (p.50). The first level on analysis, structure, refers to the problems of society that cannot be controlled by individuals, it refers to “constraints” put on people by the distribution of power, the labor market or wealth.

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The culture represents “the solution” to all the problems imposed by the structure. The culture includes the responses of the people to the structure, responses based on traditions, ideologies. The culture represents the more broad form of group present. A subculture, as defined by Cohen, “is the specific, especially symbolic form through which the subordinate group negotiates its position”. Two dominant themes were defined. The first one represents the style, which constitutes a type of resistance to subordination encountered in most subcultures, for instance Punks, Rockers or Hippies. The second theme refers to the fact that the resistance by style becomes “symbolic or magical” for the people that are part of the subculture.

The process of resistance is seen as a symbolic one in three contexts. The first circumstance is when the subculture attacks a target which is not connected to the source of the problem. The second circumstance is when the solution to the problem is seen as magical without any real chances of being fixed. The final form of symbolic meaning is represented by what the style stands for. The style can symbol something that is beyond the “surface appearance”. Common objects are borrowed and used as symbols of opposition and insubordination, often in an ironical way.

Biography represents the third general level of analysis that can be distinguished in the new theories of subculture. It is defined as “the pattern and sequence of personal circumstances through which the culture and structure are experienced” (p 151). This refers to the symbolic meaning of a subculture and the way its followers actually live given that they are part of the subculture.

Heavy Metal Subculture

Heavy metal has become more than just a subgenre of rock or metal music. It has become a subculture that not only listens to bands that play heavy metal and attends concerts. Fans of this music embrace its style, way of thinking, behavior, language and symbolism.

Heavy metal music appeared first in Birmingham with groups like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The unique sound of Black Sabbath was given by Tony Iommi, a factory worker that cut his fingers while handling a metal cutting machine thus being forced to wear plastic prosthetics on his fingers in order to be able to play the guitar. The background of the singers remained deeply integrated into their music and lyrics. However, defining songs as heavy metal remained a constant debate among metalheads. Defining the term strictly pushes fans to accept as heavy metal only songs that have a “harsh, dark sound” and include songs which have as a theme alienation and anger, traits which characterized the life of Black Sabbath’s member, Toni Iommi. In contrast, defining the term heavy metal more loosely allows other bands to be included in this genre. These bands can have as their focus other themes, such as angry love, lost love, desired love and even partying. The lyrics of the songs are generally focused on violence and angst, giving the songs a constant mood of anger and sorrow.

Even if heavy metal has its roots in 1969, with the band Black Sabbath, it became a defined form, different from hard rock much later, in the early 1980s. The term heavy metal was popularized in the hit “born to be wild” by Steppenwolf with the phrase “heavy metal thunder”. With the popularity surrounding this distinct type of rock, several heavy metal bands rose from the dark. Groups like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden developed a darker and abrasive sound, Metallica and Megadeth energized their songs which were used to present several themes: religion,” political hypocrisy, alienation and existential emptiness”. Moreover, Slayer used violence and chaos to attract its audience. All these bands contributed to what came to become a “subculture of alienation” [1] .

In her book “Heavy metal: The Music And Its Culture”, Deena Weinstein argues that heavy metal “has persisted far longer than most genres of rock music” due to the “subculture which identified with the music”. The fans of heavy metal formed an “exclusionary youth community” which became very distinctive and marginalized from the mainstream society. The heavy metal community developed their own norms, values and behaviors. The “code of authenticity” must be followed by bands which have to show a “disinterest in commercial appeal” and a refusal to “sell out”. Another factor present in the metal code is the “opposition to established authority, and separateness from the rest of society”. The metal performer becomes an ideal image of the music and subculture, being compelled to show total devotion to the music. A performer needs to be an “idealized representative of the subculture”. This idea that metal shapes what young people should think and their view of the world built up the ideology of “pervasive alienation”, which is a reason of pride and defiance for the subculture’s members. [2] However, Phil Collen, a guitarist for the band Def Leppard, says in one of his interviews “They think they are alienated but they are not. There are two million people exactly like them”.

The members of the subculture are in majority white males that come from middle class backgrounds. They are “tolerant of those outside its core demographic base who follow its codes of dress, appearance, and behaviour” [3] . Their code involves attending concerts, buying albums of the groups they support and building friendships among the members of the subculture. Solidarity is built on the activities they do together, for instance going to concerts. This is a ritual in which the members can celebrate their common appreciation of music. They use magazines and, more recently, websites, to connect with others and “express their solidarity”. Moreover, a person who does not fully embrace the culture is considered a “poseur” by the rest of the members. A poser, as defined by the Webster dictionary, refers to “person who pretends to be what he or she is not: an affected or insincere person”. Authenticity and sincerity are necessary in order to not fall under the “poseur” label. James Hetfield, the lead singer of Metallica, stated in one of their 1980s concerts “This will kill all the posers out there, all the fake people”.

The members of the heavy metal subculture do not have a well-defined name; instead, they are referd to as metalheads, headbangers or even trashers. The term metalhead is applied to a member of the subculture who, in addition to being extremely enthusiastic about the music, follows the fashion and behavioural rules imposed by the subculture.

The amount of young people that identify with the heavy metal culture exceeds a couple of million individuals just in the Unites States of America. A performer states in the documentary “Heavy-the story of Metal”: “Why do kids like heavy metal? They can be whatever they want, be dumb, be cool, be crazy”. Metalheads find meaning in several aspects of their involvement with heavy metal; for instance, in their resonation with the meanings of the songs, their admiration of the performers, their “participation in the collective ritual of the heavy metal concert”, and also from being part of a subculture that shares their taste in music and view of the world. Being a metalhead means being a “true believer”. Metalheads have authority over each other in what concerns acceptance as a true believer. Confirming to the heavy metal style and ideology of alienated individualism grants acceptance by the other members.

The absence of community is substituted by the heavy metal subculture. Connections between members are made based on their enthusiasm for the music. This also often becomes the basis for new friendships. A resemblance between the community of metalheads and a “geographically distinct traditional community” can be made.

Listening to music pushes metalheads to think they are sharing the declaration of the song’s message. This makes it easier for them to observe the imperfections of society and the hypocrisy that comes with adult life. By embracing heavy metal, young people think they are helping the world expose its falsity.

Performers declare their authenticity through the music they make as well as their dressing style. Breaking all social conventions regarding dressing and behavioural codes shows their lack of interest and disrespect for the corrupt society. Solidarity to other metal fans is shown by following the same pattern of dressing. In addition to this, metalheads use their style to show that they agree with the messages put out by bands in their songs, they too agree with the fact that the society’s corruption needs to be exposed. Sebastian Bach, a heavy metal performer, states in the documentary “Heavy – the story of Metal”: “Heavy metal does have a message for the rest of the society, and that is “F*ck you!”

Reckless behaviour is often associated with metalheads. This behaviour ranges from driving under the influence of alcohol, to doing drugs or having sexual intercourse without protection. Vandalising and shop lifting are also more often associated with members of the heavy metal subculture than with other young people. One reason behind this is said to be the heavy metal music that influences their behaviour. The antisocial themes of the songs can awake the same feelings in those who listen to them. However, reckless behaviour is linked with heavy metal music by sensation seeking. Young people that are in the look for intense feelings or new experiences are attracted to the dark, rough sound of heavy metal music as well as to the danger and novelty that comes with risk-taking behaviour. [4] 

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Heavy metal style

In addition to the music, heavy metal style occupies a very important place within the subculture. It offers metalheads a degree of independence compared to the other factors that constitute this subculture. Elements of this fashion are derived from several other youth cultures of the 1960s, for instance motorcycle culture, hippie culture, but it also has influences from military clothing. There are several functions that the elements of the style have: social, psychological and symbolic. With the help of style, members of the subculture can distinguish between insiders and outsiders and at the same time allowing them to create their own identities by providing them with forms to express their attitudes, norms and values.

Heavy metal fashion consists of clothing and other visual elements added to a member’s image. It is predominantly male because all metal styles “are inscribed by the masculinist ideology”. The “uniform” consists usually of a black T-shirt, leather jacket, blue jeans and boots. T-shirts and sometimes baseball caps can have imprinted the name or logo of a metal band, allowing others to see what is that person’s favourite band, fact that often leads to mutual appreciation of each other’s musical tastes. What is more, jeans jackets, which are legacy of the hippie culture, can replace the leather jacket. However, both types of jackets are decorated with pins, buttons, spikes, metal bullets or other homemade decorations, like patches. Designs preferred range from skulls, skeletons to snakes or dragons.

Heavy metal jewellery also consists of leather objects, like wrist bands, gauntlets or belts, decorated with metal spikes or chains. Necklaces often have a cross or a skull medallion. Moreover, colourful tattoos can be often found on the arms of metalheads. Long hair is also one of the best ways to show your dedication to the subculture because it is a feature that cannot be concealed. It became one of the aspects that best defined the boundaries of the metal subculture because only a dedicated member would accept to always be associated with heavy metal.

Headbanging and the heavy metal hand sings, often referred to as “metal fingers”, “metal horns” or “Satan fingers” also play an important role in the subculture. Headbanging is the “dance” of choice of metalheads. It is an activity most metalheads engage in, refers to a “violent rhythmic shaking of the head by fans of heavy metal music” [5] . The audience members of a concert usually ‘headbang’ in order to show that they get lost in the music. It is more often seen in the near proximity of the stage and it is not absent from any show. The metal horns were popularised in the subculture by Ronnie James Dio, a member of Black Sabbath, who claimed his grandmother used the sign to keep away the “evil eye”. Nowadays, this is a sign widely used by fans not only in concerts, but also in othe social gatherings.

Members of the heavy metal culture also indulge in some recreational substances. Beer is the most popular drink among metalheads. It was taken from the bikers and is consumed in high amounts at festivals and concerts. Weed is another substance commonly used in the subculture, originally used by the hippies. In addition to these, other drugs such as cocaine or vodka are associated with heavy metal performers.

In conclusion, metalheads use their music and style to rebel against the norms of society. They fight back by breaking the rules and adopting an ideology of alienation. As Rob Halford from Judas Priest said “You kick back, you punch back, you fight back, you claw back, you scream back with Heavy Metal”.

Word count: 2391

Additional sources – Documentaries

Heavy: The Story of Metal

The Decline of Western Civilisation Part II – The Metal Years

Heavy Metal Parking Lot

Get Trashed


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