Heavy Metal Studies Unlocking Cultural, Open Access Research

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

Given its popularity, visibility and complexity, the scholarly attention to heavy metal studies needs no justification. Like other popular music cultures, heavy metal is a contested and controversial marker of both cultural resistance and sub-cultural conformity, offering a resource that enables individualised identity-formation and collective practices of association, consumption and commodification that are now global in character and complexity. At the same time, when compared to research on punk, electronic music and other scenes, the study of heavy metal was slow to get going, with substantial studies not appearing until the 1990s.

With little fanfare, heavy metal studies has began to flourish in the last few years. In summer 2011 a multi-media event, involving exhibitions of photography and fan-memorabilia, art and performance, personality musicians and presentations, publicly celebrated the ‘Home of Metal’ in the British West and East Midlands — Birmingham in particular. The event was followed in September by an international conference, held over three days and gathering together a host of academics, practitioners and industry-professionals. The conference was the fifth international conference to have been convened, specifically centring on the subject, since 2008, and more are to follow.

This recent surge in academic interest on the subject of metal and the extent to which it is reflective of a hitherto unrecognized depth of scholarly engagement that is global in character, certainly demands an explanation. Prior to 2008, although there were papers presented to conferences on the subject of metal, they were to some extent smuggled in under other themes, such as subculture, popular music, media and cultural studies, and the like. As North American professor of sociology Deena Weinstein and London-based sociologist and writer Keith Kahn-Harris both attest, prior to 2008, no one who was seriously interested in studying metal believed it would be possible to put on a conference exclusively devoted to the subject or that an international, peer-reviewed journal could possibly see the light of day.

It is this dramatic shift and the possible explanations for it that are the subject of this editorial. One possible explanation for this change is that there has been a rise in the volume of PhD research, as younger scholars who perhaps were once fans themselves, have wanted to explore the cultural significance of their own formative identity practices. The data presented by Brian Hickam and Jeremy Wallach seems to attest to this, as does the growing inclusion of heavy metal as a music preference among graduates respondents, in recent cultural surveys, replacing or co-existing with those for classical music and jazz (Savage 2006). This in itself suggests a dramatic shift in the disciplinary focus and treatment of the subject of heavy metal, a key concern of the opening survey article by Andy R. Brown in the Journal for Cultural Research, 15 (3): 209-212.

The increased scholarly attention to heavy metal has developed alongside a recent dramatic shift in the journalistic representation of heavy metal music and culture. Heavy metal has, for much of its history, been generally (but not exclusively) scorned and/or ignored by music critics and journalists (Deena Weinstein 2004). Yet there appears to have been a decisive and largely unexplained, sympathetic and measured treatment to the news representation of heavy metal culture and fandom in recent years. It is possible that this is connected to the growth in academic interest in metal-related research.

Perhaps the best illustration of this (in the United Kingdom context) is the notable shift in coverage concerning heavy metal music to be found in the quality or broadsheet papers concerned with deciphering the cultural impact of the recent global recession to impact upon the G8 countries. This qualitative shift was exemplified by a piece in the Observer review (March 25th, 2007) which reported current academic research that suggested that “some of the brightest young people in Britain like nothing more than a monster riff after a hard day of being a chess prodigy” (Empire, 2007: 9). This report, drawing on academic research presented at a Psychology Conference held at University of Warwick, derived from a survey sample of members of the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth, indicated that one third of the sample, “rated metal among their favourite genres of music, ahead of classical and jazz, two complex genres thought to be the sound of choice for brainiacs” (ibid).

This feature, echoing others from that year, was followed by a series of articles and weekend supplements in 2008, linking the dramatic resurgence of hard rock and heavy metal to the economics of the global recession. “For those about to rock… heavy metal set to be the soundtrack of the summer’ announced The Guardian Weekend, in May (Gibson, 2008: 11) and in June, “Aaarrrgghh! Why Iron Maiden still rule” (Quirk, 2008: 4-6), acknowledged the band’s global appeal and the fact that they were due to play Twickenham Stadium in July, to 55,000 fans. In November, The Times, ran a feature in its colour supplement, ‘Recession Rocks: Hard times call for heavy metal’ (Wall, 2008: 1-4), which linked the resurgence of the metal genre and its popularity with a new generation variously to the success of the video game series, Guitar Hero, notions of authenticity, value for money, and the anti-mainstream credibility of a genre that had last been globally popular during the “hard times” of the 1980s.

The upsurge in research on metal together with the increasingly nuanced way it is seen outside of the academy should be welcomed by all those concerned with nurturing a reflexive approach to popular music and popular culture. At the same time, questions are beginning to be raised about the disciplinary status of this emerging field of research. At conferences on metal and on scholarly email lists, the term “metal studies” is increasingly being used, suggesting the view that the study of metal constitutes a multidisciplinary field in its own right. In this medium, we aim to examine this claim, by mapping the scope and ambition of metal studies within the wider context of cultural research, identifying the key theoretical and methodological developments of the field, from the seminal work of Deena Weinstein and Robert Walser, to the more recent focus on extreme metal, the global metal Diaspora, comparative regional and national research and the perennial “border skirmishes” which mark the still problematic relationship of metal scholarship, metal fandom and the academy.

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