Armagideon Time

Why so serious?

April 3rd, 2009

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A couple of nights back, gynecologist I caught the tail end of an IFC documentary about some Scottish pre-teens who formed a heavy metal band. It was interesting enough, but not nearly as entertaining to my wife’s reactions to the events on screen.

Unlike myself, who underwent two entirely separate headbanging phases — the first during the heyday of ugly pop metal and the second where thrash metal became a gateway genre to hardcore punk — Maura’s experience of the scene was limited and entirely associative.

Metal’s inner circle of cliches mysteries was — and for the most part remains — alien terrain for her. As she watched the documentary, she had a hard time seeing the metal mindset and its various manifestations as anything other than the stuff of parody, too over-the-top to be real.

“Heavy metal is a joke,” I told her. “A joke that is entirely lost on the participants.” You’d think that a musical genre that embraces bat-winged skulls and remedial-level occultist wankery would operate with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but the even the occasional flashes of self-awareness in the participants are leavened with a po’ faced dedication to the “metal” or “rawk” attitude.

“Rockism” and its associated lifestyle are nothing new, though the moral panic and aura of menace which gave birth to the ideology have long since been circumscribed by culture at large. By all rights, the attitude should have ignobly gasped its last grunt on a Graceland toilet back on August 16, 1977, but instead continued to shamble around aimlessly like some Frankenstein’s monster powered by collective id of adolescent males.

Metal enthusiasts embrace rockism at its most puritanical. Technical proficiency, represented by flawlessly executed chord progressions and guitar solos, is a primary standard (along with pretentiously puerile lyrics) by which “artistry,” is judged. Suggestions of pop frivolity or disposability are either defensively explained away or used to codify a hierarchy of subgenres to separate the men from the boys/girls/”fags” — as if “Enter Sandman” is any less ludicrous than “Turn Up the Radio” in terms of self-satisfied posturing to a hazy yet absolutist ideal.

This abstraction of “authenticity” (a.k.a. pop music’s perennial chimera) also extends to the “metal lifestyle,” a teenage boy’s fantasy of blue collar hedonism — Never-Never Land as a strip club or the parking lot of the Worcester Centrum. The trappings of the rockist mantle are almost important as the music as a vector for vicarious living amongst the end-users, who can only dream about the debauchery and excess tantalizingly hinted at by their idols. Party today, for tomorrow will bring beer bellies, liver disease, and receding hairlines.

But what is adolescence, but an opportunity to indulge in willfully foolish behavior? The problem isn’t that kids will be kids (which is to say “stupid”), but that there is a sizable contingent of the adult population who treat youthful folly as transcendental dogma.

There is something about high concept ideas — and heavy metal is a genre which wallows in high concept thinking — that triggers a form of Stockholm Syndrome in people, where affectation and ironic distance melt away after prolonged contact with the laughably frank simplicity of a high concept idea. You can see this in various “post-ironic” examinations of heavy metal subculture, where legitimate socio-cultural musings swerve into the realm of mythical pronouncements of some universal rockist truth, to the point where a headbanging version of Poe’s Law applies.

Appreciation without perspective — or worse, deliberate suppression of perspective — is never a good idea…especially so when it involves a thirty-something college grad acting like a giddy teenybopper over Ronnie James Dio.

Me, I always preferred these guys…

…because they seemed more into having fun than adhering to the party line, were willing to embrace other genres that metal purists of the time despised, and they wrote a song about Judge Dredd.

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4 Responses to “Why so serious?”

  1. Twobyfour

    man, I miss the Worcester Centrum parking lot, but as a Deadhead that’s a whole different brand of elitism.

  2. Ken Lowery

    I was a teenage Metallica fan, and my strain of rockism was wedded to the origins of the metal bands I loved — I never adopted the “I’m a badass” mantra, because I knew then and now that I will never be a “badass,” nor do I much want to be one.

    But I lapped up those origin stories, man. Metallica, Anthrax, etc… they were POOR, living in vans, eating “hand sandwiches” (a slice of baloney in you rhand) for meals, etc. Excess never interested me; where the sound came from did. It just so happens that when I was growing up, the only thing contemporary “punk” had going for it were acts like Green Day — way too poppy for my tastes. I listened to a bit of the Clash and the Ramones, but that was it for me and the punk classics.

    Then I got older, of course.

  3. Simon

    I’ve always preferred my metal with a healthy dose of irony. GWAR, Danzig, Blue Oyster Cult … these bands all had more in common with Spinal Tap when it comes to the mock-drama of heavy metal. It was meant to be a joke, even if their fans weren’t always in on it.

  4. MaxBenign

    It is possible to be a metalhead with perspective I think — many of the people who write for Decibel Magazine do a good job of it.

    I agree with your overall premise, in as much as I understand it: Keeping it real is a sucker’s game. That said, one of the things I love about metal is the way that it sometimes stomps all over my pose of ironic distance. I’ll be shaking my head over some ridiculous narration or wailing solo, and then some huge riff will roar down and, for a moment anyway, irony is crushed by guitars.

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