Why Metal Matters
To be quite candid, I would be a great liar if I confessed to being anything more than a passing fan of metal. In fact, I am much more of an onlooker, a standoffish observer, or even a peripatetic spectator who enjoys the spectacle of heavy metal. Unfortunately, very few of my age now confess to such an interest. Yet, with the rise of nu-metal (a plague upon your house) and the continuing degradation of alternative rock in general, perhaps there is some relevance, some lessons that can be gained from heavy metal. But first, why metal and why now?
For many of my generation, the dichotomy that we fostered between styles of music did not really begin until college. Prior to this time, most of us displayed a carefree and catholic approach to music. One could easily make the transition between The Smiths, Iron Maiden, Slayer, Echo and the Bunnymen and The Colourfield. Yet, as college approached and tastes changed, very few of us remained true to our old favorites. The Maiden, Priest, and Sabbath records were put away and we turned instead to Pavement, Sebadoh, and Yo La Tengo. We matured, and in doing so, sought out mature forms of entertainment. We reveled in our sense of adulthood, our pretense of depth and our lust for intellectual baubles. Suddenly, we were postmodern hipsters, singularly swaying to the sounds of Jawbox and Fugazi. Or perhaps we became experts in social science, clutching our copies of Chomsky’s Democracy Deferred close up to our button-downed workmen shirts while listening to Consolidated. In quiet, unguarded moments, we may let slip that yes, “Mother” by Danzig was pretty cool, but these were only revealed after a few drinks. For whatever reason, ironic detachment reigned, and those bands that were supported usually vacillated between the twin poles of obscurantism and kitschy novelty.
The poet Czeslaw Milosz once commented that poetry and art should be evaluated in light of post 1945 history. The thrust of his argument being, millions of individuals who suffered through the Holocaust, war, pogroms, and a miscellaneous list of other degradations could not create art in the manner that was predominant before the war. A new sensitivity and awareness must be reflected in the art. Although the events of September 11th do not match, say, the evil of Auschwitz, they still represent a fissure that divides American history in ways heretofore unimagined. If you are a pod person, this is of little consequence to you, but if you are a thoughtful, intelligent person, you may pause or hesitate before reaching to insert that Britney Spears, or Nickelback, or Radiohead CD in your stereo. For some reason, that Wilco album does not seem so compelling anymore. Nor, in fact, does much from Tortoise seem capable of assuaging the soul. Where to turn, what music would seem appropriate? Yes, my friend, it is time to return to metal.
Unlike many of the current crop of artists, the key quality that I see which distinguishes metal from many of these other forms of music remains threefold. First, it is engaged. It centers on action and addresses some issue that must be contended with. Unlike many of the artists singing today, metal doesn’t care about relationships or that your girlfriend left you. There is no time for feeling sorry for yourself. Sebadoh says, “let’s sit at home and stare at the wall.” Blink-182 says, “Doo Doo Doo, Please love me.” Metal says, “Taste steel.” Actually, metal says, “Sit up straight. Don’t be such a wimp. Take some pride in yourself.”
Second, heavy metal remains resolutely centered on the individual. One would never confuse a metal album with a collection of labor hymns. There is no collective action. In addition, for the most part, there is no spurious pseudo-Marxist interpretation of history. Instead, all action remains centered on the indomitable spirit of the individual. While bands like The Indigo Girls or maybe Dave Matthews encourage a sense of solidarity with their listeners, metal remains the staunch champion of the individual. The pre-Christian myths of numerous countries along with untold influence of science fiction and fantasy (and an unacknowledged debt to the Hebrew Bible) allows a band like Iron Maiden to reinforce and praise the deeds of heroes (as on “Aces High”), or reinforce the need for a redeemer or a mythic savior (“Revelations” and the whole of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son).
Lastly, and in conjunction with the previous point, metal reinforces normative behaviors that encourage heroic behavior. “Die With Your Boots On” acknowledges that in times of struggle, there is nothing left to do than suck it up and fight back. Whether your boss is a tyrant or another country is trying to kill you, in either situation, don’t wallow in despair but square your shoulders back and be prepared. Or on the track “Flight Of Icarus,” the band reminds us, as in the myth it draws from, to beware of hubris and the fault of too much pride.
In this much altered world, the obscurantism of acts like Radiohead offer very little in the way of art or entertainment. Theirs is the way of the copout, the aural equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand. Likewise, a thousand more anemic white bands mewling about failed relationships and how their upper middle-class upbringing failed to provide them with pleasure is of little benefit to us. Kitsch for the benefit of being kitsch is unacceptable. No, the way to progress is clear and a balance must be struck. And I say the balance should be struck across the faces of those who continue to churn out maudlin drivel that is overly concerned with their social life and their (warranted) inability to secure the fair charms of the opposite sex.
Does this mean I want a return to the bands that dominated the airwaves of the late eighties and early nineties? Of course not, but what it does mean is that an artist that expects me to shell out $12-15 for their CD, they better provide me a little more than a laundry list of grievances or facile interpretation of history. Life has changed. The world has changed. I think we all deserve more than Creed or Linkin Park.