Metal has often been critically reviled, subject to prejudice and persecution. Metal’s pretensions to art are frequently seen as laughable. It’s understandable, therefore, that the first scholars to take an interest in metal, were keen to emphasise its ‘seriousness’ as a genre. Pioneering studies by Deena Weinstein and by Robert Walser, published in the 1990s, demonstrated metal’s aesthetic value, together with its social value.
This work of validation was necessary, but also missed something important. When I began researching metal scenes in the mid-1990s, I noticed that metal scenes were often places of laughter – and it was metal itself that was the cause of this. Crucially though, when metal fans found metal funny, that didn’t undermine their love of the genre.
Take Manowar, posing near-naked in fur underwear, muscles rippling. This is a classic example of what people who hate metal see as evidence of the laughable pretentions of metal. Yet fans of Manowar often appreciate their ridiculousness and they love them not despite of that, but as an integral component of their work.
Metal fans often have a remarkable ability to simultaneously ignore and revel in metal’s ridiculous elements. I have called this practice ‘reflexive anti-reflexivity’: the ability to be acknowledge something while suppressing that acknowledgement. Similarly, Owen Coggins has described drone metal as a form of ‘acting as if’ – acting as if drone metal bands like Om or SunnO))) re conducting religious rituals, whilst recognising that this is a fiction.
Yet this ability to be simultaneously aware and unaware also has its darker side. It allows metal fans and artists to flirt – or in some cases actively embrace – racism, sexism and homophobia, while at the same time disavowing prejudice when it becomes inconvenient. Reflexive anti-reflexivity can become a method of refusing to take responsibility. In one case that I discuss in my book Extreme Metal, a musician and member of staff at a record label explained that, while they put anti-Nazi logos on their CDs, they were not ‘n*gger lovers’. That person wasn’t stupid, he was using a reflexively anti-reflexivity to position himself as racist in one space and anti-racist in another one, all at the same time.
There are signs that metal is moving away from reflexive anti-reflexivity. Racism, sexism and homophobia are starting to get some serious pushback in metal (from the anti-fascist black metal movement for one). Moreover, metal is now developing the confidence to laugh at itself more openly. Bands like Nanowar of Steel and Gloryhammer are unabashed in their attempts to make metal fans smile. The delicate dance in which metal fans both loved Manowar seriously and loved to laugh at them too, may no longer be as necessary as it once was.
Songs to keep in your ear (besides those mentioned in the text):
Manowar, ‘Gloves of Metal’ (1983)
Nanowar of Steel, ‘Norwegian Reggaeton’ (2019)
Om, ‘Rays of the Sun/To the Shrinebuilder’ (2006)
Keith’s book Extreme Metal was published by Berg Publishers in 2007 and can be found here.