Originally written 20 April 1989, for a Critical Approaches to Popular Culture class.
In 1980, the authoritative Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll declared that the genre of heavy metal was dead1. A loud, insistent, abrasive form of music that had dominated the Billboard popular music charts from the early to mid 1970’s, metal had indeed fallen on hard times by the end of the decade. But dead? If so, it has most assuredly resurrected. Led by a group of glam-metal artists whose home base is Los Angeles, California, heavy metal is back, “stronger and faster than ever, filling stadia, making chart inroads and reaping millions of dollars”2, not only through the sale of albums and concert tickets but also in the marketing of studs, leather, skateboards, fanzines, comic books, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia. In essence an economic phenomenon, symbolically the revival means more. Heavy metal may well represent the last bastion of youth culture in North America.
The heavy metal form first emerged at the end of the 1960’s. Its musical roots lay in the blues-rock revival movement headed by supergroups like Cream, but metal was also inspired by Blue Cheer, a band known for having the biggest amplifiers in rock, and by the virtuoso guitar-playing style of Jimi Hendrix and the early Kinks and Who3. Led Zeppelin, whose first album was released in 1969, is generally acknowledged as being the first authentic heavy metal band, however, setting the standards both in terms of sound—described as “sluggish, lumbering, loud distortion”4—and playing style:
Un chanteur-hurleur sexy, mais un peu macho, à la voix suraiguë… un guitariste très technique qui promène riffs, notes triturées et longs solos, cascadés sur une rythmique serrée et appliquée, joués à un volume sonore démenti…5Jean-Marie Leduc, Rock-Vinyl
Though Led Zeppelin progressed beyond the archetype they set, bands that followed them cemented it. Black Sabbath and Deep Purple also added a death-rock element with their dark imagery and lugubrious sound, while American bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper emphasized glamour, using spectacular, theatrical stage set-ups and wearing elaborate costumes and make-up. Metal received little “radio air-play and was almost universally scorned by critics, but millions of young consumers loved it. In the 1970’s, everyone was “going platinum”6.
Socially, politically, and economically, the decade was one of expansion and consolidation, and heavy metal seemed to fit right in with the general mood. “Led Zeppelin, the last band of the hippies, inaugurated a decade of downers”7 As the ideals of the 1960’s were absorbed into the mainstream, the pursuit of decadence seemed to succeed the pursuit of love8, and the change was reflected in the texts of American popular culture. For the music industry this meant overall growth and fragmentation into highly disparate genres; heavy metal shared the charts with art-rock, blues-rock, country-rock, folk, pop, bubblegum, and punk. Youth, once considered a unified mass with common goals, was now addressed in terms of distinction. Each genre constituted its young audience by purporting to express their authentic feelings9, now less a sense of the defiance of the ‘60’s than one of marginality10. Bands made albums that were considered to be reflective of their own personal vision and development11 and were followed by the fans who shared that vision. These remained on the charts for extended periods of time, with long gaps between releases while artists undertook lengthy tours to promote them12. The expensive strategy worked as long as money flowed freely, but gradually stagnation set in, and the decade ended with an economic slump. Heavy metal, known as the music of young, working-class white males, also suffered declining sales.
The regrowth of the music industry to its current healthy economic state began in 1982–83 with the New Romantic movement: young, stylish, British groups with synthesizer-based, dance-oriented music and a compelling video image. The industry recognized that the market had changed and adapted to it. In particular, they realized that “youth culture was no longer necessary”—that the young had aged, and the youth of the day were not as wealthy or large13 a segment as they had been. Music aimed instead at reaching a mass audience, including but not exclusive to the young, instituting a “process of generic stabilization” that led to music which manifested “an almost unprecedented degree of homogeneity”14. Single songs, promoted on radio, in dance clubs and on MTV, became the basis of album sales. Turnover was rapid, and the artist’s own persona became important—in stylistic terms only, not in expressive ones. Long term individual success was difficult to ensure15, but the industry itself once again boomed.
The Meaning of Metal
Despite the dominant trend, however, the “new” heavy metal continues to “intensify authenticity and produce youth culture”16—and the strategy is still proving highly successful for them. The bands sell millions, with virtually no radio play, and often without singles, without videos. Their audience is almost exclusively the young, whom they continue to constitute through membership. As is usual with subcultures, the distinction is made as much in stylistic as musical terms. The sound is inspired by the heavy metal artists of the past—the wailing singer, virtuoso guitarist, drum solos, solid bass and riff-based songs continuing to be standard—but groups have also been inspired by punk and now play in a style called speedmetal, which at times is virtually indistinguishable from hard core punk17. They have also borrowed from rhythm and blues and rap, which provides a more rhythmic feel to the music18. Nonetheless, songs are still sometimes very long, solos continue19, and generally, you cannot dance to heavy metal. The songs purport to be “anthems to teenagehood… an expression of teenage angst”20, and bands are credited for having a “genuine rock’n’roll attitude”21.
The new glam-metal is very concerned with look, not to individualize band members but rather to reinforce the sound, which may be described as “adolescent ugly rendered tribal”22. Heavy metal artists are distinguished in particular by their long, scraggly hair. They also tend to wear tight clothing made of spandex, leather and lace, exposed at the chest, sometimes featuring see-through bottoms, usually drawing attention to the genitals with bulging pouches, leather strips and/or studded cups. Metal accessories include spiked collars and arm bands; oddly placed, non-functional zippers; flashy guitars; fright make-up; earrings; tattoos; and demons and dragons jewellery and patches. Their fans do not necessarily aspire to precise imitation of the stage outfits, but they are also likely to have long, unkempt hair and to have holes in their jeans, and they do buy spiked accessories, leather jackets and heavy metal T-shirts. They also spend their time reading comics and riding skateboards23.
It is a look and a sound designed to be unappealing to the masses. The music is insistent and distorted and is usually played loud. It is accused of being “more noise than music”, of being “appalling”, of “all sounding the same”24. It does not lend itself well to jingles or to orchestral adaptation, or even to re-interpretation as another form of rock—it is not easy to co-opt. The style, furthermore, is deliberately ugly. Those who like it—primarily young males—form an in-group from which everyone else is excluded. They all share a feeling—but is it one of defiance? What are the young trying to express through their adherence to heavy metal? The possibilities are of great concern to many parents, churches and juvenile officers. They fear that the young are being damaged by heavy metal, that their morals are being corrupted25, that an irresponsible, even dangerous lifestyle is being encouraged and adopted26. In the 1970’s fundamentalists amused themselves playing records backward and deciphering obscure symbols in search of satanic and drug-related messages in rock. Now they need go no further than the album covers, song titles, and promotional videos of heavy metal artists. They tend to isolate the prominent use of such symbols, attribute them to some committed atrocity, and conclude that metal is damaging all youth. This sort of reading is much too simplistic and does little to explain the music’s mass appeal.
Take satanism, for example. It is trendy to credit the current rise in satanic crime to metal music, but the roots of the link lie back with Led Zeppelin, whose founder Jimmy Page was very interested in black magician Alexis Crowley. Rumours were rampant that the band had sold their souls to the Dark Forces in return for material success, and multiple record players were ruined trying to decipher “Stairway to Heaven” played backward. Satanic and irreligious symbols are used much more blatantly now, however, in evidence in band names—Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Possessed; album titles—Highway to Hell, Friends of Hell, The Coven; lyrics (“666 is the number of the beast”—Iron Maiden); and album covers, band crests and video images of demons and death. It seems unlikely, however, that the bands use these symbols in order to “turn” kids into Satanists, seeing as almost none of them practice overtly. There is even one Christian metal band, Stryper, who toss Bibles into the audience. Young satanic murderers do often draw on heavy metal imagery, but not exclusively, or even predominantly so27. Very marginal bands who want to make a greater impact are most likely to make excessive use of such symbols, but it is not a very successful strategy. Satan is not drawing kids to metal.
The use of drugs and alcohol, though an older argument, is not as easy to dismiss. It is clear that many, probably most, heavy metal artists do use drugs, and they make no secret of that fact in interviews. There have been deaths from overdoses and car accidents caused by drunk driving, and early metal was directly associated with the use of Quaaludes, a “downer” which induces a death-like torpor28. However, while there are some metal songs purported to be promoting “Cold Gin” (Kiss) and being “High and Dry” (Def Leppard), this is not a dominant theme and plays almost no part in the imagery. This is not “acid” rock. Drugs are certainly part of the metal concert scene, but of course, they are also part of the general rock concert scene. They are a part of being young, which many of the artists and virtually all of the fans are. It is very difficult to credit metal specifically with the drug use which is occurring generally. Furthermore, many of the older artists are now sheepishly making anti-drug statements, with no decline in their popularity as a result of it.
The use of drugs, however, is a form of violence against self, just as satan and hell come into play once life on this earth is over. Taken together, and combined with the sound, image and attitude of most bands, heavy metal may be said to be presenting an aesthetic of violence, even of death29. Band names include Iron Maiden—a torture device, Poison, Megadeth, Mercyful Fate, Broken Bones and Suicidal Tendencies. Artists pose in aggressive stances, sometimes carrying knives and wearing studs. Concert performances are rife with guns and axes, blood, mock hangings, mock sacrifices, snakes, doll mutilations, explosions, whips, leather, and fire30. Rocker Ted Nugent is well-known as a wild game hunter, and many band members are notorious for destroying hotel rooms31. Fans at concerts express their enjoyment by “head banging”, throwing themselves into the crowd, and on occasion, accidentally hurting themselves imitating some aspect of the concert act. Some have naturally claimed, therefore, that heavy metal incites kids to violence. Ozzy Osbourne has even been sued for allegedly inspiring a young boy to kill himself with the song “Suicide Solution” (he was acquitted). There have also been incidents of fans rioting and destroying seats at metal concerts, but these have largely been resolved through the efforts of the artists themselves, and they have never been as bad or common as those which occur at British soccer games32, for instance. Supporters argue that as heavy metal is “a soundtrack to teenage emotion”33, the aggression is an attempt to inspire feeling, not action, and that it is thus a safe outlet for male adolescent tension.
In fact, the violence is just used to give the music an appearance of danger and make it especially appealing to young boys—and boys only. Heavy metal is “cock” rock, “a masturbatory celebration of penis power” from which not only adults but girls are structurally excluded34 at several levels, from the emphasis on the technical phallus—the volume, size and quantity of the equipment used35, to the aggressive and boastful performance style, with artists displaying their bodies and using their mikes and guitars as symbols of pineal power. Even the songs are composed on the basis of arousal and release36. Machismo also extends offstage, where heavy metal performers lead the lives of “rampant travelling men, smashing hotels and groupies alike”37, and making “a big macho point of drinking lots of Budweiser”38. Even flirting with death is hyper-masculine. In metal imagery, men are primal and beast-like, and women are symbols of conquest. They belong in the scene only as signs of success, existing to pay homage to the men and offer them sexual accessibility with no ties39. Groupies are the ultimate manifestation of this role.
As is usual in metal, the sexism is not subtle. Lyrics range from the suggestive—“Let me put my love into you” (AC/DC), “Love gun” (Kiss), “Going to give you every inch of my love” (Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love”), to the obscene—“(Animal) Fuck Like a Beast” (WASP—We Are Sexually Perverted), “I’m going to force you at gunpoint/To eat me alive” (Judas Priest), and “Turn around bitch I got a use for you/Besides you ain’t got nothing better to do/And I’m bored” (Guns’n’Roses). The latter’s album cover also originally featured a painting of a woman being raped by a robot; when objections were raised it was moved to the inner sleeve40, supplanted by semi-satanic skulls. As well, heavy metal videos often feature “beautiful girls, wearing hardly anything and draping, rubbing, crawling and otherwise displaying themselves”41, who are sometimes put in cages and/or in chains. And many artists spend a great deal of time bragging about their sexual conquests.
One real consequence of this is that “except for Heart and Pat Benetar, heavy metal’s macho maidenhead remains fundamentally unbreached”42, and even these stars “ont quelque chose du groupie”43. Heart is not really metal—their music is too soft and poppy—and Benetar has not sold as well recently, perhaps because “most heavy-rock fans are in their mid-teens and don’t want to go and see someone who looks like their mom wearing a miniskirt strutting about”44. There are only two roles women in metal seem able to adopt—slut and butch. Except for Benetar (slut) and Joan Jett (butch), few have achieved much commercial success: Canadian Lee Aaron gained notoriety by being chained, half-naked and sweating, in her videos, but she is now singing show tunes instead. The Runaways were teenage girls who, under the complete dominance of their male manager, were presented as jailbait, and thus were never taken seriously. Alumnae Lita Ford continues to strive for heavy metal success; she recently posed naked behind a guitar on her poster—“I think a 14-year-old boy’d love that!”45–for publicity. That is all she got. Wendy O Williams, a razor-stropped ex-stripper who chainsaws televisions on stage, “manipulates all the standard heavy metal cliches”46 but does not sell a lot of records. Naturally, most women singers do not even make the attempt. As Canadian singer Sass Jordan said, “It just looks too weird to see a woman playing heavy rock”47.
Nevertheless, “there are more and more women enjoying heavy metal music”48. They are a different sort of fan than the boys, however, primarily in that metal is not be the only kind of music they listen to. They select certain bands of various genres as being worthy of attention, including some heavy-metal artists. Metal-inspired teen idols Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, both of whom are “cuter” than your average heavy metaller, have many female fans, who seem in this case to be assuming the standard homage paying role. However, “ugly” bands such as Metallica, Motley Crue and Guns’n’Roses also have significant factions of women followers, who were perhaps introduced to them by their boyfriends. How do they share in the celebration of their own subordination? Most likely they simply enjoy the feeling the music gives them, much as the boys do. Ellen Willis is a case in point. A feminist who had difficulty reconciling her political beliefs with the messages being transmitted in the rock music she loved, she finally decided that the appeal lay below the surface:
Music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated, challenged me to do the same… even when the content was antiwomen, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics49.Ellen Willis
A similar process, in fact, is probably going on with the vast majority of heavy metal fans, who are basically “good kids… they never give me any trouble”50, according to a paraphernalia shop owner. They are not the passive receptacles of the music’s explicit messages; they know they are participating in a “fantasy of a community of risk” with little basis in reality. The most popular bands are not the most vulgar—Metallica, at number one,51 lyrically and symbolically eschews satanism, violence and sexism for “an admirable desire to expose corruption, the justice system, and the ravages of war and discrimination”52. Furthermore, the fans are aware of the constant, evident, humorous and fun-loving side to metal that is always missed by the protestors. In its very obviousness, heavy metal is “the most complete example of rock as mardi gras”53. Some of their videos straightforwardly mock the metal aesthetics: the diffused sexism of Van Halen’s “Hot for the Teacher”, the cartoon violence of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (both of which were protested), and the hilarious posturings of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”, for instance. The film parody Spinal Tap was in a sense homage54. Interviews with the artists, as revealed in Penelope Spheeris’ film documentary The Metal Years, are inevitably light-hearted; these are funny guys, whose only “message” is to not take life—or them—so seriously. It is all a joke. Many of the bands are just straight-forward dumb and fun-loving, Ratt, the Scorpions and Slade (You Boyz Make Big Noize) being prime examples. Heavy metal is
The one form of music that can exaggerate life to the point of ballooning, clowning mirth. It has no pretensions to change politics or halt poverty, nukes, etc. It long ago accepted a raging role as entertainment55.Malcolm Dome, “The Year in Heavy Metal”
In this sense it has the “soul of conservatism”56.
For the time being metal offers a fun, dangerous-appearing alternative to the “glib blandness of modern corporate existence”57, but it does not signify true rebellion—just the delaying of the inevitable. The life options offered by heavy metal are fairly limited. There is no place for adult fans. A disturbed few do choose the path of self-destruction, and in this way manage to stay young forever. The vast majority of former metal fans, however, give in to encroaching aging, cut their hair, put on their neck braces and keep their records around as fond memories of youth that they cannot stand to listen to now. The rest, the eternal optimists, opt for the eternal teenagehood of the heavy metal scene itself, seeking the brass ring as writers, club owners, deejays, possibly groupies, and of course, as performers. What else is there? Unlike punk or rap, metal does not advocate trying to change (or hurt, damage, destroy, eschew) the system—in fact, it embraces the system. The system is making them rich. In essence, heavy metal is the “real corporate rock”58.
Meanwhile, the mainstream has to cope with the continued existence and growing popularity of the form, of the “eternal embarrassment that will not die”59. The music press, who vilified and ignored heavy metal in the 1970’s, are now glorifying Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, et al, and using them as the standard to judge the new crop. To wit: “Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ sounds better now than ever, especially in light of its hideous spawn”60. Other bands are dismissed as mere rip-offs. A few groups do receive critical approbation—most notably Metallica—but reviews are still not based on popularity, and fans are quick to respond in kind:
Poison are better looking, richer, have better taste, more writing talent, more fans, better personalities, and can get any female they choose whereas I’m sure you can’t61.Graffiti magazine letters
Poison have more of the accoutrements of success than rock critics do; therefore they are better. The fans understand. MuchMusic sees fit to keep heavy metal videos separate from the rest of its programming, isolated into their own “Power Hour”. Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years documents the LA glam-metal scene, talking to the stars, aspirants, and inspirations of it. The film has received mostly positive reviews, but one did advise that parents go see it as a dire warning of what their children are getting involved with62. The Grammy’s gave out a “Heavy Metal” award for the first time ever this year. Jethro Tull, “an eclectic, electric, amalgamation of jazz, classical and folk”63 received it. Most fans were wondering what they were even doing in the category. Heavy metal may have to adopt a mainstream approach someday. But of course, then it will not really be heavy metal. It is all in the attitude.
1 Lester Bangs, “Heavy Metal”, in Jim Miller, ed., The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (New York: Dell Publishing Inc., 1981).
2 Andrew Jones, “Glam Slam”, Montreal Mirror (Feb. 10-23, 1985), p. 15.
3 Robert Duncan, The Noise: Notes From a Rock’n’Roll Era (New York: Tickenor & Feddes, 1984), p. 39.
4 Jim Miller, “Led Zeppelin”, in Jim Miller, ed., The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1981).
5 Jean-Marie Leduc, Rock-Vinyl (France: Editions du Seuil, 1985), p. 111.
6 Duncan, p. 38.
7 Duncan, p. 39.
8 Duncan, p. 39.
9 Paul Attallah, “Music Television”, in Watching All the Music: Rock Video and Beyond (Montreal: Working Papers in Communications, 1987), p. 21.
10 Frith, Simon, Sound Effects: Youth. Leisure, and the Politics of Rock’n’Roll (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), p. 195.
11 Will Straw, “Videomusic: Popular Music and Postmodernism in the 1980’s” in Watching All the Music: Rock Video and Beyond (Montreal: Working Papers in Communications, 1987), p. 47.
12 Attallah, p. 24.
13 Attallah, p. 24.
14 Straw, p. 43.
15 Straw; p. 44.
16 Attallah, p. 24.
17 Viva Tvetsvora, “Metallica: Grunge Is Cool, Man”, Graffiti, Vol. 3, No. 11, p. 14.
18 Tim Powis, “Guns’n’Roses: Boners, Anyone?”, Graffiti, Vol. 3, No. 11, p. 21.
19 Judge I-Rankin’, Spin, Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 32.
20 Rolling Stone
21 Alastair Sutherland, “Guns’n’Roses: L.A. Redux” , Graffiti, Vol. 4, No. 11, p. 36.
22 “Rock Style, 1967-1987”, Rolling Stone, No. 498 (April 17, 1987), p. 12.
23 “Rock Style, 1967-1987”, p. 12.
24 Bangs, “Heavy Metal”.
25 Stave Dougherty, “Parents vs. Rock”, People Weekly, Vol. 23, No. 12 (Sept. 16, 1985), p. 46.
26 Jones, 13.
27 Dougherty, p. 46.
28 Duncan, 46.
29 Duncan, 47.
30 Gary Herman, Rock’n’Roll Babylon (New York: Perigee Books, 1982), p. 70.
31 “Rock Profile: Jimmy Page”, Graffiti, Vol. 4, No. 9, p. 28
32 Howard Druckman, “Violence in Rock: Is the Music Responsible?”, Graffiti, Vol. 2, No. 12, p. 27.
33 Druckman, p. 27.
34 Frith, p. 227.
35 Duncan, p. 39.
36 Frith, p. 227.
37 Frith, p. 227.
38 Duncan, p. 93.
39 Susan Hiwatt, “Cock Rock”, in Jonathan Eisen, ed. The Age of Rock: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 146.
40 Powis, p. 21.
41 Peter Payne, “Video Views”, Graffiti, Vol. 4, No. 3, p. 62
42 Duncan, p. 146.
43 Marjorie Alessandrin, Le rock au féminin (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980), p. 79.
44 Malcolm Dome, “The Year in Heavy Metal”, in Ian Cramer, ed., The Rock Yearbook 1986 (Toronto: Virgin Books, 1986), p. 35.
45 Holly Gleason, “Lita”, Spin, Vol. 4, No. 5, p. 16.
46 I-Rankin’, p. 32.
47 Sass Jordon, quoted on CTV’s Lifetime.
48 Dome, p. 31.
49 Ellen Willis, in Duncan, p. 147.
50 “Rock Style 1967-1987”, p. 12.
51 Frith, p. 228.
52 “Metallica: And Justice For All”, Graffiti, Vol. 4, No. 12, p. 55.
53 Jim Curtis, Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-84 (Ohio: Bowling Green State Popular Press, 1987), p. 286.
54 Tim Holmes, “Heavy-metal mania: Six new releases”, Rolling Stone, No. 456 (September 12, 1985), p. 76.
55 Dome, p. 31.
56 Duncan, p. 15.
57 A Social History of Rock’n’Roll, p. 86.
58 Duncan, p. 52.
59 Holmes, p. 76.
60 Tim Blanks, “Crucial Singles”, Graffiti, Vol. 4, No. 3, p. 55.
61 “Letters”, Graffiti, Vol. 4, No. 11, p. 5.
62 Movie Review, Preview.
63 A Social Historv of Rock’n’Roll, p. 100.
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Lepage, Mark. “Metal film is revealing, ironic”. Gazette (February 1989).