Seeing Heavy Metal As Controversy And Counterculture

Keith Harris

Keith Harris

Heavy metal is now over forty years old. It emerged at the tail end of the 1960s in the work of bands including Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and — most importantly — Black Sabbath. In the 1970s and early 1980s, heavy metal crystallised as a genre as bands such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden removed most of the blues influence on the genre, codifying a set of basic metal characteristics that endure to this day: distorted guitars, aggressive vocals, denim, leather and spikes.

Although sometimes thought of as monolithic, heavy metal has always consisted of divergent styles. In the 1980s, the nascent differences within metal engendered new and widely divergent genres. On the one hand, “lite” metal bands such as Poison and Def Leppard led metal to embrace pop and rock, with enormous success. On the other hand, thrash metal bands such as Metallica and Slayer-inspired a series of “extreme” metal genres including death, black, doom metal, and grindcore. In the 1990s and 2000s, metal has followed increasingly diverse musical pathways, developing new sub-genres and hybrids that range from the commercially successful nu metal of the mid to late-1990s, in which metal was fused with hip-hop, to the experimental and avant-garde tendencies of post metal bands such as Isis, Neurosis and Celeste.

In broad terms, wherever it is found and however it is played, metal tends to be dominated by a distinctive commitment to “transgressive” themes and musicality. This article looks at some of the consequences of heavy metal’s transgressions. As we shall outline in this article, metal’s transgression has caused it to be a frequently controversial music genre. Metal has variously embraced, rejected, played with and tried to ignore this controversy. At times, the controversy dies down and the previously transgressive becomes relatively harmless — as in the transformation of Ozzy Osbourne from public enemy to loveable dad. Still, metal remains irrevocably marked by its controversial, transgressive tendencies. Indeed, the moral panic that metal has been subjected to is not only constitutive, at least in part, of metal scenes, but is encoded in metal’s transgression itself. As with hip-hop’s “ghetto” roots, metal’s history of extreme sonic, lyrical and visual messages continue to give it credibility with new generations of fans today.

Although, as this opinion piece will demonstrate, controversy and what we call “counterculture” are often inseparable on the dynamics of controversy or the creation of metal cultures. Here we offer some synthesising and theoretical thoughts in the articles that may follow.

The controversial image of heavy metal is something that metal musicians, fans, and researchers often agree upon. The word “image” is important because controversy over heavy metal is seen as a social reaction to perceived deviance, usually triggered by boundary-challenging events. The most common concept used in studying controversy is “moral panic.” Although in many ways similar to moral panic theory, the “theory” of controversy presented here takes its cue primarily from the constructionist approach to the study of social problems.

Controversies can be defined as the activities of individuals or groups making public claims about conditions that are perceived as a threat to certain cherished values and material and status interests. This definition has four elements. First, controversies are materialistic in the sense that ideas as such do not create controversy; it is people that create controversies. Second, controversies have a definitive public element. Parents’ frustration over their offspring’s new Dimmu Borgir record does not constitute a controversy. When this frustration becomes part of public discourse, through letters to the editor in national newspapers, interviews and stories in the media, politicians and religious leaders taking up their cause, and (more recently) publishing about the perceived threat posed by Dimmu Borgir’s music, parental frustration takes on a new and more powerful dimension.

Third, controversies are discursive and symbolic, because raising public awareness is a process of claims-making and these claims are primarily discursive — that is, involving the intersection of claims to truth and circuits of power and knowledge. Yet they are discursive in a highly symbolic manner in that they are articulated first and foremost through aesthetic production, circulation and consumption. On the other hand, such aesthetic-discursive production can generate cultural discourses, which in response then penetrate into the larger public and political spheres. For example, images of concerned (Christian) parents burning heavy metal records in the United States of America in the 1980s convey a powerful symbolic message — a claim — that these particular cultural products are inappropriate, even evil. Similarly, contemporary crackdowns on the metal community in Iran, for example, have targeted heavy metal on a symbolic level by confiscating “Satanic” paraphernalia such as t-shirts and forcing metalheads to cut their long hair — a central symbol of the metal culture.

Finally, controversies are subjective in the sense that it is the perception of a condition that provides the framework for claims-making rather than concrete evidence or facts. Perceptions of inappropriateness, deviance, and threat can be independent of the actual conditions, but they can also be influenced by particular “trigger moments” which create concern. Thus, controversy is seen as the product of a claims-making process, one in which various elements of the hegemonic culture respond to the aesthetic-political claims of the music by raising awareness of the “problem” or “threat” to the wider public, media and political leaders, specifically in a manner that objectifies and reifies it far beyond the original boundaries and meanings of the practices that originally generated the controversy.

Controversy is an integral part of heavy metal culture — almost to the point where it is in the “nature” of heavy metal to be controversial. This view, however, needs to be qualified by putting heavy metal into a historical context. It could be argued that in the 1980s — the heyday of metal’s popularity — it was the content of heavy metal (primarily lyrics) in itself that was perceived as offensive and dangerous, to youth in particular. The culmination of this concern was the congressional committee hearing in 1985, instigated by Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson Gore, the wife of Senator Albert Arnold Gore Jr. and spokeswoman of the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC). The hearing, which received wide coverage in the national news media, targeted heavy metal as one of the threatening genres. Because of the sheer popularity of the genre, the controversy became a battle over wider values in society and about the boundaries of “appropriate” (youth) popular culture. While at the time the Parents Music Resource Center managed to gain favourable media attention for its views, the movement against metal withered alongside the mainstream popularity of its nemesis.

In contrast, very few death or black metal bands (for example) have made headlines despite their explicitly “Satanic” or pornographic imagery or lyrics per se. The breaking down of most of the remaining public sexual taboos since the 1980s, along with the “celebrification” of ageing metal stars such as Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee and Poison’s Bret Michaels have made it much harder to excite the broader public about the dangers of heavy metal, making it in turn much harder for claims about the content of metal to become a full controversy in post-1980s Western culture. Instead, it is in situations where the genre is dislocated from its perceived place in culture when controversies arise. In other words, in order for heavy metal to become a topic of public discussion, there must be some external reason, or “trigger moment,” that produces a serious cultural dislocation so that the content of various — usually extreme — subgenres becomes a topic of controversy.

The black metal culture in early 1990s Norway offers a good example of this dynamic. Beginning as a small and marginal subculture, black metal eventually became a national — and to an extent, international — concern because of its violent imagery and themes. However, as Norwegian scholar of religion, Asbjørn Dyrendal notes: “What made Black Metal interesting news was not ideas as such, but an escalation in internal competition for transgressive, subcultural capital that ended in two murders, multiple church arsons and episodes of assault. This, combined with a militant, anti-Christian, anti-social attitude, made Black Metal an ideal example of the Satanism that the Evangelicals had warned about.”

This observation has two points that are relevant to the current argument. First, it was the deviant actions of the members of the black metal subculture that caused controversy, not the perceived deviance of black metal as such, which did not inspire that much public controversy until they were coupled with actual violent criminal activity. Church burnings and murder triggered the controversy and, by moving black metal from the arena of musical subcultures into the arena of crime, focused attention on a small group that most likely would have remained marginal without these events. Second, although black metal might not have been considered controversial as such before these actions, the trigger moments gave voice to an interest group (Evangelical Christians) which held fixed beliefs about the evilness of heavy metal in a wider, absolute sense. The content of black metal did become a topic of controversy, but only after certain trigger moments.

However, the idea of cultural dislocation is not exclusively about moving from the margins back to the mainstream. Arguing this would simplify the differences both between the subgenres of metal and between national contexts. For example, when the “monster metal” group Lordi was voted to represent Finland in the 2006 Dollarsvision song contest, it was not the band’s music or image as such that caused controversy. The band had sold double platinum with their first album in the domestic market, being thus very much in the mainstream. However, when the band moved to a cultural arena conventionally constituted as “light pop,” controversy arose. More importantly, it was widely considered inappropriate for a “monster metal” band to represent Finland as a nation in an international contest. Thus, the question of content became controversial only after the band moved from the arena of commercial popular culture into the arena of national image and identity. However, because viewers in the Finnish qualifying rounds democratically voted the band, there was a discrepancy between the media accounts of the issue and popular sentiment. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the tone of the media discourse took a full turn after the band returned victorious from the contest, national shame changed into national pride.

The above said it is important to acknowledge that controversy is not merely something ascribed to metal from outside. From its earliest days, when groups like Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper used occult themes and violent imagery and lyrics for clearly commercial purposes, metal has used controversy as a tool not merely of identity, but also of marketing. In this context, the deliberately offensive sonic landscapes, lyrical content, and physical imagery of some genres of metal are generated from within, not without; “controversiality” is often also an intentional aspect of heavy metal bands. However, in order to grow into a controversy in the sense outlined above, trigger moments such as the above are required in the current Western cultural climate.

This does not mean that the cultural framework is fixed and irreversible. We still might see large-scale controversies such as the Parents Music Resource Center controversy in the 1980s, even if it looks unlikely at the moment. What is apparent is that as a consequence of the globalization of metal, situations analogous to the 1980s controversy over the content of metal have surfaced and will surface in contexts where the music, lyrics and imagery are in stark contrast to local cultural values, as in the contemporary campaigns against metalheads in Islamic countries.

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