Heavy Metal: The Art That Continues to Alter the Status Quo
(this was originally a paper I did for my Sociology of Music class at UCLA where I needed to sociologically analyze a genre of music. I chose heavy metal. It is long so take your time. This is my Christmas present to you all)-Derek
Rarely, in the history of music, does a genre come about that truly causes society to rethink their established beliefs. As rock music moved from a fad to a legitimate source of musical art, an offshoot was eventually created that was poised to be both an example of expression and controversy. Heavy metal’s influence can be found in history in various sectors, from not only the music industry, but religion and politics as well. In this sociological analysis of heavy metal music, I intend to shed greater light on a genre that still has yet to earn the respect of the academic community, and is still considered to be taboo in certain regions of the world.
My pursuit of explaining heavy metal’s significance to society is not only a scholarly one, but a personal one. I am a heavy metal guitarist who specializes in the styles of guitarists such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Eddie Van Halen, as well as a composer who writes heavy metal music as a part of my style. This music has had a deep, emotional impact on me as both a musician and composer, and I have seen the same personal effects on individuals (of all ethnic and age groups) as well. This music can now be found around the world, in Europe, South America, and the Near East, but it still is not necessarily respected worldwide. From its inception and throughout its history, heavy metal has faced opposition from music critics, religious leaders, politicians and countless other individuals (Walser x-xi). Heavy metal, despite all of the persecution, has maintained a fan base, and has inspired musicians for decades. While the academic community and general society has yet to accept this music style, the genre continues to grow and gain a wider audience.
From the very beginning (the late 1960’s), it was obvious that heavy metal was far different than the styles it formed from. With roots in the blues influenced rock style (a genre that includes bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Animals) as well as psychedelic rock (a genre that includes bands such as Pink Floyd and The Jimi Hendrix Experience), heavy metal took the foundation of these styles and expanded on it (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). It should also be worth noting that heavy metal could at times take heavily from the western classical genre, such guitarists as Randy Rhoads (late solo guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne who was a classically trained guitarist) and Yngwie Malmsteen (neo-classical metal guitarist known for his virtuosity and compositional influence of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven in his music) both were heavily influenced by western classical composers (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). What was added was a far more aggressive tone, with highly distorted guitars whose players developed large sweeping solos, occasional shrieking vocals, amplified decibel levels of live performances, driving drum beats, and lyrics that ranged from the esoteric to the darkest poetic images(VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal).
Such early groups of the heavy metal genre originated in Europe, including the virtuosic Led Zeppelin, aggressive Black Sabbath, and ambitious Deep Purple. The societal influence of these bands was almost immediate, both in negative and positive contexts. The pioneering bands of the heavy metal genre generated a sizeable audience in both Europe and the United States. One could postulate that the reason for this was simply that certain rock fans (in many cases male teenagers) were looking for a style that was louder and more primal in aggression (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). The genre was not met with same warm welcome from critics at the time, however, as they in fact detested the genre (as can be said for rock, the father of metal, in its early years). The aggressive songs in Led Zeppelin’s album Led Zeppelin III were considered by Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs to be disjointed and in essence noise (Rolling Stone Review). Black Sabbath’s first album as a band, Black Sabbath, was considered yet again by Bangs to be “discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitised speedfreaks all over each other’s musical perimeters, yet never quite finding synch (Black Sabbath Album Review).” Black Sabbath also faced significant controversy of their own due to the dark imagery created by their music (which heavily used the “diabolus in musica” Tritone interval and lyrics that were at times inspired by the occult) (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). Religious leaders (namely from Christianity) in general condemned Black Sabbath and any heavy metal group as evil and expounding incorrect moral values (a label that rock music had suffered as well, but with heavy metal the condemnation was more severe) (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). This would mark the beginning of a still in tact struggle between heavy metal musicians and the religious establishment (a struggle that I personally find myself in as an individual who pursues reconciliation between religion and heavy metal).
In many ways, ignoring the critical response of course, heavy metal as a genre truly challenged social norm, and became the personification of Theodor Adorno’s idea of serious music. Heavy metal, especially early heavy metal, had substance both lyrically and musically, and was directly antithetical to the pop music of its day (which could be considered the “light” music Adorno spoke of that deluded the public of reality) (Adorno 45-47). With dense and challenging musical parts, heavy metal was a genre that, from its inception, challenged musicians to think differently with regards to musicianship and theory. Lyrically, heavy metal bands wrote lyrics that could be considered poetry. Consider Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On,” which contains lyrics such as “Mine’s a tale that can’t be told, my freedom I hold dear. How years ago in days of old when magic filled the air. ’twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, mm-I met a girl so fair. but Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her her, her, yeah, and ain’t nothin’ I can do, no (Train).” This of course alludes to J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a well-respected and influential work of fiction often cited by scholars as a landmark work in fantasy writing (Train). Heavy metal showed the world that rock music could be a music that unlocked a deeper understanding of music and what it was capable of, which is the main aspect of Adorno’s theory on serious music.
Heavy metal saw more development, and a wider audience in the next wave of bands, including Judas Priest, Motörhead, and Iron Maiden. With the advent of Judas Priest and Motörhead specifically came an evolution in the style with the blues influence being deleted by Judas Priest and Motörhead firstly laying the foundation for speed metal and secondly establishing a firm line between metal and punk rock (which due to their lyrics and sonic aggression had been lumped in the same genre) (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). By this point western society, namely the United States and Europe, was fully aware of heavy metal music, unfortunately such a fact was created by the negative reaction the mainstream establishment had against the genre. Critics continued to write negative press about the genre, and this in turn influenced the base that the bands held (with the genre becoming music for the “outcasts” and “misfits”). Heavy metal became a genre, especially when disco arose and record labels knocked many metal bands from their roster, which went underground (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). The societal influence continued, namely due to the media blocking heavy metal from reaching greater audience (this would be reversed when the decade of the 1980’s came into existence). The genre of heavy metal was labeled as an “offensive” and a non-lucrative endeavor. This would change with the New Wave of British Metal, namely with bands like Iron Maiden making the Billboard charts. Other heavy metal groups like Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne (now split from Black Sabbath) and The Scorpions all received a great deal of radio airplay and other forms of media coverage (such as televised events like the 1983 “heavy metal day” festival (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). With these improvements, record companies and media publications began to invest money in the genre once again. Arguably heavy metal stimulated, to some measure, the United States economy at this time, for by 1984, 10-30 percent of all record sales were for the heavy metal genre (Walser 180). Such numbers infer a change in the public perception of heavy metal. Especially with the unmatched innovation of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing (which contained complex melodic passages that utilized right-hand hammer ons and tapping with the right hand), metal was beginning to yet again change music’s ability to be virtuosic and entertaining. The influence of Eddie Van Halen, and the overall popularity of the heavy metal genre, would eventually lead to the next evolution of metal, glam metal (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). In this era of metal, the genre saw some of its greatest social contributions, as well as social controversies.
With the glam metal groups came a resurgence in the mainstream nature of the genre. The anthemic choruses, virtuosic guitar solos, good-time/party life lyrics of the bands in this genre (such as Mötley Crüe, Ratt, and Quiet Riot) combined with MTV (Music Television) created a cultural movement of sorts (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). The movement of glam metal could be seen through the light of how Jon Fitzgerald explained the crossover of Motown music in the period of 1964-1967. During that period, Motown music accounted for a vast number of chart topping singles, making them a staple in mainstream music (Fitzgerald). Like Motown of the 1960’s, 1980’s glam metal created a mass media revolution for heavy metal, making it a mainstream genre via album sales and television/radio exposure (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). The music industry signed a vast number of metal groups that played on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip clubs like The Roxy and whisky-a-go-go, and turned glam metal into a truly commercial enterprise (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). The genre saw an expansion of its audience (hence creating a greater influence), as Billboard magazine stated “metal has broadened its audience base. Metal music is no longer the exclusive domain of male teenagers. The metal audience has become older (college-aged), younger (pre-teen), and more female (Walser 182).” With metal being back in the mainstream brought a massive political battle, with parents, moralist politicians, and censorship advocates leading the charge to quiet the fury of heavy metal. As a culmination of outrage at the content of heavy metal music, the Parents Music Resource Center requested that record companies develop a rating system that would warn purchasers of “suggestive content (Walser 137-141).” In widely publicized United States Senate hearings, the genre of heavy metal was vilified by various supporting witnesses. One such witness, Susan Baker, stated that “There certainly are many causes for these ills in our society, but it is our contention that the pervasive messages aimed at children which promote and glorify suicide, rape, sadomasochism, and so on, have to be numbered among the contributing factors (Walser 137-141).” Another witness for the PMRC, Florida senator Paula Hawkins, stated “Much has changed since Elvis’ seemingly innocent times.” An ironic statement considering how controversial Elvis was at the time, she continued,”subtleties, suggestions, and innuendo have given way to overt expressions and descriptions of often violent sexual acts, drug taking, and flirtations with the occult. The record album covers to me are self-explanatory (Walser 137-141).” Out of these hearings came an official rating system for “explicit” content, a label that ironically increased album sales for heavy metal artists (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). No other genre of music had, at this point in history, caused the level of political and societal action that heavy metal had. It should be worth stating that the PMRC focused their efforts later on attacking rap music as an instigator of violence against the police (citing songs like Ice-T’s “Cop Killer”) (Keyes 105). Some religious groups around the time of these hearings also went as far as holding mass gatherings where heavy metal records would be piled up and burned (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). What other music could have produced such strong reactions other than heavy metal? While rock certainly altered the fabric of society with its birth, I argue that heavy metal has had an even greater effect on society. Heavy metal became a topic of discussion in religious circles, political offices, music critic offices, media outlets, and such influence continues today, not just in the United States and Europe, but South America and the Near East.
In Brazil, more than any other country in South America, has seen the effects of heavy metal on society. The main areas that Brazil has been affected by with regards to heavy metal are in the music industry and in the economy. Bands like Sepultura, Sarcófago, and Vulcano all opened the public consciousness to the idea that heavy metal is a legitimate music style. With the demand for more access via various media outlets, the record labels in Brazil realized that heavy metal bands were worthy of a contract (Barcinski and Gomes 50). Coupled with exposure on radio and television, heavy metal bands in Brazil caused the South American music industry to take the genre seriously. As was alluded to earlier, the bands in this Brazilian metal genre also generated revenue for the record labels (Barcinski and Gomes 120). This in turn stimulated the economy of Brazil, as heavy metal became big business. As of present day, heavy metal has a massive influence on audiences in Brazil, with heavy metal giants like Iron Maiden and Steve Vai frequently playing concerts in that region (VH1’s Heavy: The Story of Metal). The phenomenon of heavy metal in Brazil as well as the next region of discussion, the Near East, demonstrates a perfect example of “life of music in a society.” From the demand for heavy metal music to the various entities that circulate to a wider audience (i.e. record companies and media outlets), every nature of musical life is present.
The final area of influence to be spoken of in this paper is the Near East, a region that has seen enormous turmoil and progress all in the same points of history. Heavy metal is, to this day, regarded as an “evil” and “demonic” genre of music in certain theocratic nations of the Near East. Bands such as the Palestinian Khalas have been subjected to persecution due to the fact that, in the words of the band, “because of the situation in Palestine it was really hard to get this band going, a lot of religious people didn’t like what we were doing, they thought we are Satan’s messengers on earth (“Interview with Khalas”).” The first Iraqi metal band Accrassicauda, in addition to the constant threat of war, were subjected to death threats from religious extremists in protest to what they perceived to be “evil” music (Heavy Metal in Bagdhad). The concept of “musical life” is slightly differently realized in the Near East for this reason. There is supply and demand, circulation of music and creation, but the context is far different. Heavy metal in the Near East is still considered to be a very taboo genre, so the musicians of the genre must respond differently to give the audience the music. Regardless of opposition from society and religious leaders, heavy metal bands can be found in numerous nations all over the region. As with heavy metal’s development in the west, the societal influence of the genre was not just negative, but positive as well. Near Eastern metal bands have developed their own sub-culture, which is in many ways underground for safety reasons, and are slowly starting to change the minds of the mainstream establishment. In addition to this, certain metal bands have a political agenda in hopes of stopping the constant violence that occurs in their neighborhoods on a daily basis. Bands like the Palestinian Chaos state a philosophy that is slowly beginning to take hold in the region, saying “take a look around you, see the truth, tell the truth and acknowledge it. We all deserve to live in peace, no matter who you are, no matter what color you are, we are all equal human being (sic) (“Chaos Official”).” As time progresses, I predict that the Middle Eastern metal bands will break into the mainstream in their native lands, but for now they can only wait. There is hope for them, however, as the Near Eastern metal bands, are affecting western society. Bands like the aforementioned Accrassicauda are already influencing the United States’ metal scene, being featured on MTV and other media outlets, in turn pushing the acceptance of heavy metal even further (Heavy Metal in Bagdhad). Being an Arab band, and especially considering the post-9/11 prejudice against Arabs, Acrassicauda is influencing the social ideas in a positive light with regards to their ethnic group (Heavy Metal in Bagdhad). Heavy metal in the Near East faces a great uphill battle in the future, but as heavy metal bands in the west have progressed, so will Middle Eastern bands.
Art has the ability to stir up emotion, communicate abstract ideas to the masses, and change the very fabric of society. Heavy metal music, throughout its long and sometimes tumultuous history, has done this and more. I argue that no other music genre has been as polarizing, and influential, in areas of politics, religion, and music sales. No matter how many individuals wished an ill fate on the genre, it persevered through the direst of circumstances. As a metal musician, I feel the strong pulse of this art every day of my life, and I have faith that it will be in existence until the end of time. With its preservation will come innovations that will continue to change music, and the world, a dream we all should share.
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