What does it mean to be Metal? (Re)(de)constructing a definition of Metalness. \m/


UPDATE: FINAL VERSION: Inner Piece Through Metal

Here’s the (very) rough draft. I’d love feedback, but only if it’s constructive. Otherwise it gets deleted and ignored 🙂

I’m collecting perspectives for a creative nonfiction piece that I’m writing about Heavy Metal.


Oxford English Dictionary:
d. heavy metal, a type of loud, vigorous rock music characterized by the use of electronically amplified instruments (typically guitar, bass, and drums), a heavy (usu. fast) beat, intense or spectacular performance, and often a clashing, harsh musical style; formerly identified with hard rock. Freq. attrib. or as adj. phr.

What does it mean to be Metal? Towards a definition of Metalness as an IDEA: especially as an adjective and corresponding philosophy.

Don’t give me any of that “it’s just music” bullshit though. If you’re going to repeat the dictionary definition, then just don’t bother answering.

Image and Posturing: As fan of Metal, I’d like to think that it can be (re)defined in terms that isolate it from the [at-worst bigoted, at best hetero-male-centric] behaviors and ideas currently associated with it.
Negativity and Violence: Can someone who sees themselves as compassionate and peace-loving simultaneously accept metal, wholeheartedly (honestly)? Can one be Buddhist and Metal?
How can a music so centered on anger, hate and violence be a positive force in the world? Is it?
From a response I gave to yet one more misunderstanding of my question… *sigh — realizes why he doesn’t do forums*
I’m not saying that metal is inherently positive. Obviously any art form or style can be used to pursue most any end. What I’m asking is HOW can it be constructive. I guess I’m not as interested in people who believe in metal as a means of destroying the world or whatever. Such people are just taking out their own problems on everyone else, which is lame and immature.

My opinion so far is basically that metal uses violence, brutality and destruction to neutralize our demons. Metalheads seem dark and twisted because they are willing to recognize the world as it really is, as a fucked up place. Everyone else is living in a fantasy wonderland and in total denial.

Now, back to what the outside world has to say about METAL
Allmusic introduces the element of machismo: “Of all rock & roll’s myriad forms, heavy metal is the most extreme in terms of volume, machismo, and theatricality. There are numerous stylistic variations on heavy metal’s core sound, but they’re all tied together by a reliance on loud, distorted guitars (usually playing repeated riffs) and simple, pounding rhythms.”

Can metal escape the image it was given in the 80’s and early 90’s? Not to gain mainstream acceptance, but to be reclaimed by the metal community OFFICIALLY.

My METAL pre-MANIFESTO (early draft), parts I, II and III

15 Replies to “What does it mean to be Metal? (Re)(de)constructing a definition of Metalness. \m/”

  1. Metal for me as become a slang for “awesome” almost.

    To be “metal” it should be used as a descriptive term for something adhering to the metal stereotype. Macho, aggressive, brutal, or even something complex or messy. All of these can be considered metal. Imagine a huge football/rugby player performing a great move or play solo, and so fast he looks like a blur, which results in people having their necks broken and arteries cut, bleeding all over the pitch. Wouldnt that be metal?

    Can a metal fan be calm? Actually, one conceivable theory is that they would on average be calmer. They have an outlet for their anger, and because they are able to listen to things such as rape, torture and brutality, would have less need to enact that IRL. It ties in with video games – If your able to rip someones eyes out with your bare hands in a game, your less likely to want to do it IRL. Im a living testemony of this – Ive been told im one of the calmest and least aggressive people theyve met, yet I frequently listen to metal – including death, thrash and black.

    Can metal be positive? Ofc. Most metal is positive. Its about rising above things and self improvement, e.g. Dio’s “Holy Diver” was about him conquering drug addiction. Most modern music either is about love and losing them, which is far less positive, not to mention results in a larger emphasis being placed upon getting a partner and being in love. In reality, a large percentage of people – especially youths – are single, and music telling them how their going to fall in love but lose them can hardly be considered positive. Music about rising up, how you CAN improve yourself, thats positive.

  2. For me, Metal is first and foremost about the music. I most often equate Metalitude with such things as a dark aura, loud volume, dramatic and often risque themes, and heavy, technically challenging music.

    When I use the term “metal” as an adjective however, (i.e. “That dude is so metal!”), I’m thinking in terms of common metal stereotypes, such as darkness, violence, anger, dramaticism, and when referring to a person, large size, long hair, facial hair, piercings, and tattoos. At other times, I may be using the term in utter sarcasm, referring to something or someone whose characteristics almost completely contradict typical metal cliches (i.e. “That hydrangea is so metal!”) At almost all times, when describing something as metal, I’m using the term in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner.

    I consider myself a big metal fan: I listen to it daily, I go to shows, heck, I even write metal. But, there are a lot of things about me don’t fit with the stereotypical notion of Metal: I’m typically calm and nonviolent, My hair looks more like a hockey player or skateboarder’s might, and I don’t have tattoos or facial hair (darn!). So I don’t think you have to abide by the stereotypes to be a true fan of Metal.

    In short, the way I use the word “metal” when describing something is largely tongue-in-cheek. But, being TRULY metal isn’t about getting on your hands and knees and praying to Satan or decapitating babies. Because, for me, it’s all about the music. In my eyes, for a person to BE metal, all it takes is to openly and genuinely love the genre.

  3. I think something that’s important to note is that metal music is, above all, empowering. Many outsiders might hear a given song and, due to the extreme, or harsh, vocals, consider the song to be about suicide or sadness. However, just the opposite is true. Metal is almost always about confidence and defiance. This notion is most clearly demonstrated by the brutal instrumentation. The sound of the music itself defies what is commonly perceived as “good”, or perhaps even “normal”, music.

    Moreover, many do not realize that metal is an art form, that it is real music, and that heavy metal musicians probably work harder than others.

    As well, I think it is almost impossible to create a definition for so-called “metalness.” Seeing as metal is by far the most expansive – musically and geographically – genre in the world, very few metal heads are alike.

  4. I pretty much only ever use metal as an adjective with tongue in cheek, because what it embodies to me — to put it in (perhaps overly) simple terms, over-the-top masculinity — is something with which I simply can’t seriously identify. For some bands, this definition does fit fairly well, but if that were all that metal really was, it almost certainly would have never have caught my interest.

    I have been a metal fan in some form for about five years now, but it’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve fully realized something about myself that transcends that: I love music. By that I don’t mean that I love every single song that I’ve ever listened to… far from it. Rather, I love music as creative and thoughtful expression, and as the product of people who make it because they love music, too. If a band/musician internalizes this and makes it the core of what they write, they will almost certainly have my respect, and if they do it while ever pushing boundaries, being unafraid to experiment, keeping from descending into stale mediocrity, and while truly being able to convey emotion, meaning, or even just the passion that went into making it, they will probably have my loyalty as a fan as well.

    How does this relate to metal? Quite simply, I have never encountered another genre with so much of this kind of music. As I’ve written before, it is music that immerses, challenges, and truly causes to think and feel that I hold most dear, and in that, metal has no peer. Perhaps I just haven’t explored enough, and there are other genres that it can’t hold a candle to in this regard (if so, I assure you that I’m trying to find them). However, even if that’s so (highly doubtful), metal will always hold a special place in my heart as the first discovery in my never-ending search for wonderful music.

  5. TC, I just read your blog regarding metal and racism and I just want to say that it was a good read, with several solid retorts to the idea that racism and bigotry is somehow intrinsic to metal culture.

    In terms of ontologically attempting to define the essence of metal, I think that question will lead, ultimately, nowhere. For instance–and this is somewhat irrelevant in terms of content, but the basic idea is the same–I am a Film Studies student and have examined some of the early theorists in the field such as Munsterberg, Arnheim, Bazin, and Eisenstein, who have all tried to answer the ontological question of “What is cinema?”. Unfortunately, however, all have failed to find it, outside of prescribing their own personal preferences for the art of cinema (art is, for them, synonymous with the essence of the medium). The same thing applies to your line of questioning here, I think, but is even more tenuous, IMO. This is because Film is an entire medium, not just simply a genre; metal is only a small, relatively esoteric genre of pop music. And if theorists have tried and failed to define the essential means of an entire medium, I think attempting to do something similar but with regard only to a specific genre is even more misguided and will yield only unsatisfactory results (such as the circular logic of “To like metal, is to be metal” ad infinitum).

    Thus, in this age of cultural fragmentation, attempting to find the underlying or guiding principle of a specific genre of music will only result in over-generalizations and construed archetypes/misnomers about the culture surrounding it.

    That being said, good luck anyways .

    [From What does it mean to be Metal? (Re)(de)constructing a definition of Metalness. \m/ – Ultimate Metal Forum]

  6. What does it mean to be metal? Metal to me represents empowerment, it represents counter culture. And it can and has been mixed with many different styles of music, making it a very versatile and experimental genre to say the least.

    Metal is a counterculture. It often challenges norms, and is very provokative. Metal is like the other side of the spectrum for musicians who don’t necessarily fit in with the normal crowd.

    Seeing as the topics can range from all sorts of things, philosophy, politics, religion, fantasy, etc. and not all metal is negative(power metal), metal is very much the genre of the people.

    It is like the defiant voice, which rebels against those who wish to keep it silent. It is the triumph of freedom and individualism over opression and alienation. Metal is the voice of the people who wish to associate themselves with it. For those who love it, it becomes the ultimate tool for expression. Whether it be those who create it, or those who simply admire it.

    It inspires, captivates, enteratains, and occasionally lets the psychos blow off steam so they don’t go out and do anything crazy. Heavy metal allows for people to channel their anger into more productive things. But more than anything else, metal simply is what it is. Metal. Strong as steel, and heavier than lead! You will not find a more devoted fanbase for any other music genre, and for obvious reasons. 😀

  7. Your project is an interesting one, and I think it asks some important and relevant questions. The lack of intellectual analysis of heavy metal is unfortunate, because I think there is much potential for analysis. This is a very ambitious project, so it might take a lot of time and research to really develop it.

    Defining metal is a difficult task, and in my opinion, it is impossible to give a completely exhaustive definition. This results from the very nature of the subject. In its essence, any label for a genre of music is simply a term of convenience for record companies, music writers, DJs, and other music professionals to market or inform the public about music. It is also something that fans use for similar reasons—to identify shared interests in bands.

    Now, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has some useful things to say about definitions that I think you would find helpful. He says that abstract concepts have don’t have complete definitions—the kind we go to the dictionary for—but rather are defined by “family relations” among words and concepts. To take an example, he talks of defining the word “game.” We might try to define what a game is by saying that it is a competitive event for fun, but there are examples of games like Solitaire or Ring Around the Rosey that defy this definition. Also, fun and competition can be aspects of other activities. But people can recognize games based on the relation between things like competition, fun, rules, etc., that helps to identify what a game is, even if every example isn’t going to adhere to the same qualities.

    So it could be with metal. Qualities like heavy, distorted guitar, fast and loud rhythm, dark and violent lyrical imagery, etc., can be associated with heavy metal, although that kind of definition is ambiguous. Punk, hard rock, industrial and goth may have the same qualities and yet are not supposed to be metal. That’s why the “this band is metal, that band isn’t!” debate will never be able to be settled on an objective basis.

    Why do I like metal? On a superficial level, I have always been interested in media that explores violence, the morbid, and the supernatural. I grew up watching horror movies, from the old Universal films to the slasher flicks of the 80s, and I read authors like Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft. I also studied religion, mythology, and the paranormal. So the lyrical themes of metal that regularly touch upon all those subjects appeals very much to me.

    But of course, it is not only the lyrics. When I first began listening to metal, lyrics weren’t as important. I began hearing bands such as Metallica, Megadeth, and Helmet on a friend’s tapes, and it was more the music that grabbed me then. Although the music can be said to reflect such concepts, even without knowing the lyrics. It is aggressive and horrific.

    On a deeper level, I suppose that my interest in metal is explained pretty well by your ideas. “My opinion so far is basically that metal uses violence, brutality and destruction to neutralize our demons. Metalheads seem dark and twisted because they are willing to recognize the world as it really is, as a fucked up place. Everyone else is living in a fantasy wonderland and in total denial.” I think that Stephen King said a comparable thing about horror fiction in his survey of the horror genre, “Danse Macabre.” He says something like horror being a vehicle for society to deal with feelings of anxiety and guilt about our darker impulses and the real horrors we witness. He examines current trends in horror movies and fiction in relation to the time period to explain this, like the obsession of movies from the 1950s with atomic energy and weapons.

    I have to doubt, though, whether metal actually functions this way for the majority or even many metalheads. One needs only be aware of the many self-destructive lives of many of the most famous musicians in metal. Alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, and promiscuity abound. Not that these things result from metal—obviously musicians from other genres have similar problems, from Ray Charles to Johnny Cash. My point is that metal does not always—or even most of the time—have that positive effect. With the fans it may be different, but I doubt that metalheads, as a whole, are any better or worse adjusted to the problems of life than anyone else.

    However, on the individual level, a passion for metal may act as a constructive force. It makes sense that someone with the kind of sensibility that metal has—dark, angry, sometimes depressing—would find a medium that deals with those issues to be helpful. I wrote an essay somewhat related to your project a number of years ago called “Metal as Fringe Culture.” It wasn’t that well-developed, but it occurred to me that since heavy metal is set apart from the mainstream, it can be a powerful vehicle for those who feel socially marginalized. From the actual sound of the music, to the lyrics, to the attitude of bands and fans, many of life’s oppressive forces are confronted, from the concrete figures of political and social authority, to organized religion, and then on to more abstract concepts—isolation, fear, violence, death. The theatrical and over-the-top posturing of being “brutal” and “extreme” may be laughable sometimes, especially to those outside the genre, but I think that confronting these negative powers, one CAN have a better sense of how to handle them and to be more independent. That doesn’t mean that it WILL happen based on the music alone; it depends on the person. But without some way of recognizing these things, topics which are often shunned in everyday conversation or censored by mainstream media, it’s hard for me to see how a person can adequately overcome them.

    In closing, depending on how in-depth you want to get, I would recommend research that deals with somewhat related subjects that go beyond metal itself. For example, the Stephen King book I mentioned would be a good place to look. Also, you may want to look at the different revolutions in music, especially movements that were precursors to metal, like jazz and blues. There’s also a book called 20/20: 20 New Sounds of the 20th Century by William Duckworth, which looks at new developments in classical music. It examines some very interesting cases in which new composers who are now highly respected were met with heated resistance, in one instance causing a riot.

  8. I first started listening to heavy metal back in 1982 when I was 12. For me metal and all its sub genres has come to represent not only a musical genre but a part of what has become of my character.

    For me metal brings out so many diffrent emotions good and bad and has been my psychiatrist for half a life time. Sitting here now I remember past concerts and I cant help but smile at the nostalgia I feel from when I was younger and throwing my body around in the mosh pit as well as memories of sitting around with friends and just enjoying my music with them.

    Also I remember many a time when I would just lock myself away in my room pissed off. When that happened it was Slayer, Judas Priest, Ozzy, and Iron Maiden that kept me from going nuts at whatever pissed me off at the time.

    What is being metal? Being metal means alot of diffrent things to alot of diffrent people. To me being metal just means me being myself and just not giving a shit what others around me may say or think. Put very simply thats what metal represents to a huge amount of metal heads just NOT GIVING A SHIT about what the world may think.

    There are other aspects of coarse. For instance many metal heads are drawn to the complexity of the music. Face it to play metal you need to be gifted as a musician. The music has always demanded a high degree of technicality from the musician.

    Another aspect is the lyrics. Lets face it metal runns the gauntlet on subject matter. We have horror, satanistic, anger, blind brutal rage, hate of God, love of god, and tons more.

    All these aspects by themselves and others more all bring a small group of people in the world under one social banner that being the love of the music that they treasure. Sorry if Im being overly romantic about all this but thats what it means to me.
    good luck with your report
    \m/ bless

  9. Why are you trying to turn metal into rock?

    Rock is a liberal genre. But liberalism has failed. It has made the USA into an egocentric mess, has turned its culture into mush, and made it ripe for corporate conquest.

    As Plato tells us, liberalism empowers tyrants and oligarchs, and no one else.

    Don’t “deconstruct” metal. Take it for what it is: a spirit, an ethos, in which reality and the beauty of nature and the power of warfare are more important than morality (a/k/a liberalism).

  10. Metal like all music is about feeling. I used to be an avid rock listener, but I got sick of the subject matter (he loves me, she loves me not, etc.). What first got me into metal was the fascinating subject matter. I’m a fan of fantasy and I love getting lost in a story. I also found metal at a point in my life where things like school and marks started to matter. I, for one, hate school. Blasting metal music was one of the few ways my feelings were free. The loudness swallowed my rage and the technicality kept me distracted. The beautiful orchestral elements kept me in touch with something when I was really down. Essentially, it did everything for me that rock did, but it did it better.

    To a certain extent, I blame the music theory courses I took for my appreciation of metal as it meant that I was exposed to the full orchestra sound for years. Really, it just made me used to a full sound. I have a feeling that listening to opera singers in my classes also endeared me more to that style of singing and to more technical singers.

    I’m also a sucker for lyrical references to fantasy, Classical literature, and anything exotic so even the oh-so-cheesy genre of power metal just connects with me in a ridiculous way. I like over the top.

    But those are all of my own little personal reasons.

    All in all, I really have to agree with Chris Humphrey. The fact that metal is not some disgustingly mainstream genre that is embraced by everyone makes it a rebellious genre.

  11. Vijay, Vijay, Vijay.

    Let’s just run through the errors one by one, shall we?

    First, metal is a type of rock.

    Second, there’s nothing inherently liberal about rock.

    Third, it makes no sense to say “liberalism has failed”. Failed to do what? Liberalism is not a means to an end, but an ideal in and of itself, so there’s no way it can be said to have failed. It may not have produced what you want to see, but your goals are not liberalism’s goals.

    Fourth, the term “liberalism” didn’t exist in Plato’s time, nor did the corresponding concept, so, yeah.

    Fifth, metal is not a spirit or an ethos, it is a style of music. Stating the obvious is apparently a necessity with you.

    Sixth, there is nothing inherent to metal that connects it to the idea that the beauty of nature and the power of warfare are more important than morality, which is, in any case, a disgusting idea.

    Seventh, morality is not the same thing as liberalism.

    This doesn’t leave much, does it. I refrained on commenting on the stuff which is pure unsupported opinion.

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