Under The Skin: Is Heavy Metal in rude health, or just rude?

Download Festival 2013
Photo: Download festival

Following this year’s Download festival, Skin Back Alley’s Founding Editor pens some thoughts – and poses some questions – about the heavy metal community, the perception of it within other segments of society, and how it wants to be seen and understood in the future.

I read an article in The Guardian last week about heavy metal that, if you’ll forgive the music related pun, struck a chord with me on many levels.

Timed to coincide with the advent of this past weekend’s Download festival, the thrust of the article was ostensibly that whilst trends in the popularity of certain genres of music may come and go, metal’s popularity has remained remarkably consistent.

The article notes that, according to data from the UK’s Official Charts Company, metal’s share of UK album sales has varied by no more than one percentage point, from a high of 7.3% in 2006 to a low of 6.3% in 2009. So, despite many declaring that rock is dead, one particular strain seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much.

Stuart Galbraith, chief executive of Kilimanjaro Live, organisers of July’s Sonisphere festival at Knebworth, is quoted as putting this down to “…the vast loyalty of the audience, and that’s engendered by the enormous sense of community. It’s much more avid in its love of music, much more likely to spend money to see it live, and music is much more likely to be part of their lives and something they talk about in the pub. If you look at the social media stats on a festival such as Sonisphere, the numbers engaging us are far ahead of any other genre.”

That seemed to chime with my recent thoughts about the maligning of heavy metal as a genre in the wake of the recent furore surrounding Metallica’s headline appearance at this year’s Glastonbury festival. I argued here that at it’s best “…Metal is supportive of – and promotes – education, intelligence and critical thinking, in order that you might make the best of yourself as an individual, and help those in the world around you make the best of themselves, too… For all it is seen as an aggressive form of music, the metal community is actually extremely tolerant and open-minded.”

I would stand by that summary and defend metal as a genre to anyone who chooses to attack it, but a few things have made me sense-check my own thinking in the past few days.

The first was a response to my previous article from a very close friend, suggesting that their experience of metal and it’s fans was very different. Speaking as black, Jewish female living in the Caribbean, she had been subject to something much less than my experience as a white, male fan living in the UK.

Secondly, whether I like it or not, outside of it’s fan base, there is a perceived conservatism within the metal genre; a perception of a resistance to change. But yet again, as the Guardian article notes: “…metal is actually one of the most restless of genres, with a profoundly experimental outer edge.” So why is that perception of metal in the wider community there?

Finally, I’ve been amazed, appalled and pissed off in recent days by the grumpy prejudice I’ve seen amongst the metal community about popular and mainstream events such as football’s World Cup. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course they are. You can reject the wider public, sport and football in particular if you so wish. But at the same time, just as I was recently highly critical of ill thought out, over-simplified and clearly prejudiced arguments against heavy metal, football fans are just as likely to be pissed off at the metal community for the comments I’ve seen of late.

So what is my point in all this? Essentially, that as a community of fans we need to practice and promote what we preach. Individual expression, freedom, tolerance, love, acceptance, equality, a progressive attitude: these are all things that, at it’s best, I still believe heavy metal values, supports and encourages. But do we outwardly project that?

Metal has historically actively positioned itself in opposition to the mainstream, providing an alternative experience for those who do not feel they can accept, or are a part of, the dominant hegemonic models. That’s great; amazing. But we also need to be careful that we don’t become over-zealous in criticism of those who do feel a part of that mainstream. Remember, for some, sport and football, pop music, religion, fashion – all the things I've seen metalheads stereotype and be simplistically critical of in recent days – have provided exactly the same solace, comfort, acceptance and purpose for them as metal has for us; for you.

heavy_metal_liveLet's be what we want to be; let's live outside of mainstream culture in the dedicated and loyal community that we've built; but let's do that in a way that is respectful and tolerant of those who don't wish to join us.

Rock on. Horns up. \m/

You can read the entirety of the Guardian article referenced here.

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