A ‘trans-scene-ary’ fashion: some notes on the cultural-material history of Dr. Martens boots

Widely known, Dr. Martens boots (usually refered to as ‘Doc Martens’, ‘Docs’ or ‘Dr. Martens’) are one of the established fashion codes of several different subcultures. Being initially worn in Mod- and Skinhead-subcultures from the 1960s onwards, they were soon worn by Punks, ‘Goths’, and members of the EBM-, Wave- and Dark-Wave-scenes, too. Until today, they also are an established code in Metal culture. Being introduced to subcultural discourses in the 1960s, they until today bear with them an ‘aura’ of protest, proletarian spirit, of noncomformist identities. Given that today they are part of a huge branding and marketing discourse, whose final very conservative purpose is to earn money, it is somehow surprising that this code still ‘works’.

The boots were invented by German medical doctor Klaus Märtens shortly after World War II.1 In 1945, he injured his ankle and was looking for solid yet comfortable boots when recovering from his injury. He designed a boot using soft leather and air-padded soles made of tires. The new footwear was not an instant success; but in 1947, when meeting his university friend Herbert Funck, who was  impressed by Märtens’ invention, things changed. In 1952, they opened a factory in Munich. In 1959, the boots became marketed internationally, and British company R. Griggs Group Ltd. bought patent rights to manufacture the boots in the United Kingdom, where they were sold for the first time in 1960.

The company introduced the until today common name, slightly re-shaped the heel and, most of all, added the trademark yellow stitching. Also, in this first process of branding the soles were branded as ‘AirWair’ soles. Soon, the new shoewear was worn by police officers, postmen and factory workers. By the late 1960s, they were used as a cultural-material code in the early Skinhead-scene. In the 1970s and 1980s, as mentioned, they became part of the Punk-, ‘Goth’-, Wave- and Dark-Wave-Scenes, too. Also members of EBM-groups and Metalheads wore and wear their Docs.

Being a rather late starter, I decided to buy my first Docs this year (being 37 years old, this maybe is one of the first symptoms of a Metalhead’s midlife crisis). Buying these boots made me remember their history; as a cultural historian interested in Metal Music Studies, I am interested in how this shoewear managed to become a ‘working’ code in so many different cultural discourses over five decades. They were common when I was teenager, and still in in my twens. Today, they seem to experience a certain revival.  But, most of all, as a historian in Metal Music studies, I want to ask what these shoes can tell us about writing the history of Metal culture – in the context of a broader historiography of subcultures since the 1960s.

In this context, the mentioned ‘omnipotent’ subcultural capital of the Dr. Martens boots seems to be their most important historical feature. They ‘work’ in at least seven different subcultures: Skinheads, Punks, ‘Goths’, Wavers and New Wavers, EBM-Fans and Metalheads wear their Doc Martens. So, their cultural main feature is that they are a ‘trans-scene-ary’ code of shoewear. They construct these different identities and, at the same time, the transgress the boundaries between the scenes.

What could a cultural historian of Metal music learn from this? I suppose, we can discover two major aspects: first, the history of material artefacts, such as shoes, is a very good way to tell Metal history. Secondly, when writing this history, we have to be aware of these ‘trans-scene-ary’ features of cultural codes. They are liquid, form varying and oscillating circles of negation and the construction of identities. To tell the history of Metal culture, means to deal with material items that bear in them very heterotopic semiotic structures. We do not have to essentialize these codes but to see them as objects of constant definition and re-definition.


  1. For their history, cf. Martin Roach, Dr. Martens. The Story of an Icon. London: Chrysalis Impact, 2003. 

A culture contested: is (or was) Metal a ‘youth culture’ and/or ‘subculture’?

Usually, Metal is referred to as a discourse of popular culture for and/or of young people, called a ‘youth culture’ and/or ‘subculture’.1 Historically, looking at the origins of Metal in the late 1960s and 1970s, then its spread and diversification in the 1980s, this seemed to be the case. Heavy Metal was established, following the discourse of ‘1968’, as a counter-culture.

Metal is supposed to have been ‘invented’, performed and mediated by young, angry and critical people. Most of all, white, young and male artists were seen as the stereotypical carriers of its aesthetics, imaginaries and narratives. However, even in these early days,  starting with the global success of artists like Black Sabbath, economic success would not have been possible if it had not been backed by organizational structures of the music industry, leisure industry and media – and these institutions of (Western) societies were governed by experienced, often older stakeholders.2

Thus, coining Metal a youth culture or subculture, even in its early cultural history, is an abridging hypothesis. Rather, this narrative of youthfulness and a critique of society should be seen as a construction of discourse – constructed by artists, fans, industry stakeholders, media and other instances. However,  until around 2000, this narrative seemed to prevail. Grunge and Alternative Rock as new forms contested Heavy Metal discourse but still it was seen as a realm of young fans and artists.3

Let us take a look at the state of this (self-)narrative in 2017. First of all, the artists who ‘invented’ and popularized Metal in the 1970s and 1980s cannot seriously be called young anymore: the members of Black Sabbath are approaching the eighth decade of their lives; the musicians in Iron Maiden are in their fifties or sixties; so are the members of Judas Priest (with the exception of guitarist Richie Faulker who is not a founding member); also Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, the creative duo of Metallica, left behind their fiftieth birthdays. We can expect their fans, at least a part of them, to be of a similar age.

The other aspect – interpreting Metal as a critique of society in the shape of a musical subculture – is even more important. In several of my earlier postings, one of my main findings was that since about 2014 Heavy Metal is increasingly accepted as a ‘serious’ form of art. It is seen ‘worth’ being a subject of academic research. Among other processes, this is the context of the emergence of Metal Music Studies as an own discourse in academia. Also, today Metal is seen as integrally linked to a very fragmented and diverse mainstream.

From the point of view of cultural history, these three cultural processes – (1) the (self-)narration of Metal as a ‘youthful’ and ‘critical’ culture, (2) the acceptance of Metal in science and the emergence of Metal Music Studies, and (3) the spread of Heavy Metal music’s imaginary and aesthetics into mainstream – form an interdependent network: the narrative needs acceptance as a ‘serious’ subject of research; research needs the spread into mainstream to ‘prove’ Metal’s global relevance as a subject of scientific inquiry.

From my point of view, this threefold network results in one major cultural-historical consequence: the discourse in its entirety of narrations, imaginaries, aesthetics and sounds, is at a crossroads, where its initial cultural textures – the image of ‘a youth culture’ and ‘subculture’ – is being recoded in this parellelogram of cultural forces.


  1. Cf. Deena Weinstein, Heavy Metal. The Music and its Culture. Boulder, Colorado, 2000; Rolf F. Nohr, Rolf/Herbert Schwaab, Herbert (eds.), Metal Matters. Heavy Metal als Kultur und Welt. Berlin e.a. 2011; Jeremy Wallach e.a (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World. Durham 2011. 

  2. For an integral approach, cf. Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultura History. Toronto 2015. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

Gender in Black Metal: a cultural-historical note on Myrkur’s new album ‘Mareridt’

Myrkur is a one-woman Black Metal project from Denmark. It is the brainchild of songwriter/pianist/guitarist/singer Amalie Bruun. Bruun started out performing with her father and the band Ex Cops as a Rock, Pop and Alternative artist. In 2014, she published, now as Myrkur, an eponymous EP, followed by the debut album ‘M’ in 2015, and a live EP, ‘Mausoleum’, in 2016.1 All of these records gathered rather wide attention, were partially well acclaimed by critics. But also they were partially criticized as being ‘superficial’, ‘not real Black Metal’ or a ‘sell-out’.

All the way through these debates – as a cultural discourse of most recent history of European and global Extreme Metal – the fact that Myrkur is led and controlled by a woman was one of the most intensely discussed issues. Bruun even received death threats on her Facebook page. So, this discourse on Myrkur and her art, first and foremost, is a history of gender in Extreme Metal.

On 15th September 2017, Bruun as Myrkur released her second full-lenght record, ‘Mareridt’.2 From a musical point of view, this album is a progression of her work on the mentioned earlier records. However, aggressive parts of Extreme and Black Metal riffing, blastbeasts and guttural screaming (by Bruun) got fewer; and on two tracks (‘Funeral’, ‘Kvindelil’) the artist cooperates with singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. This new record, at least at its point of release, was well received.3 This is the videoclip to the track ‘Ulvinde’ which accompanied Mareridt’s release:

This videoclip, representing Myrkur’s current identity as an artist, features a combination of hybrid emotional aspects and strategies of narration which are rather unusual in Black Metal: Bruun is shown, on the one hand, as the classic female gender stereotype of a ‘soft woman’ in a bright dress; but then there also are sequences of female aggression where blood is dripping from the artist’s mouth and she is screaming furiously. Both styles and modes of female gender construction are shown alternating throughout the clip. Thus, Amalie Bruun as Myrkur is both: a ‘soft woman’ and a harshly screaming, seemingly suffering female.

From a cultural-historical point of view, especially this videoclip but also the mentioned records and the artist’s live shows are a remarkable strand of discourse. Here, the usual stereotype of male, Northern gutturally screaming Black Metal artists is trangressed, played with; in some ways (ie. the alternating strategies of softness and fury in the ‘Ulvinde’ clip), it even is dealt with and discussed, at least shown visually in a parodistic and ironic manner. The irony is – and remains – that Myrkur can be both: ‘tender’ woman and aggressive Black Metal frontwoman. The death threats sent to the artist by male fans give this cultural history of gender a bitter taste,  yet a transgressive and important quality too.


  1. Cf. Myrkur, Myrkur, released 12th September 2014, Relapse Records; idem, M, released  21st August 2015, Relapse Records; idem, Mausoleum,  released 19th August 2016, Relapse Records. 

  2. Cf. Myrkur, Mareridt, released 15th September 2017, Relapse Records 

  3. Cf., for instance, the review of the album on the German webzine www.metal.de, receiving a score of nine out of ten points; Url: http://www.metal.de/reviews/myrkur-mareridt-275140/, accessed 15/09/2017. 

Tau Cross’ second album ‘Pillar Of Fire’: contemporary history of the world in 2017 as hybrid Metal music

In June 2015, I published a reflection on multinational ‘supergroup’ Tau Cross’ (with members of Voivod and Amebix) eponymous first album. To me, it appeared to be a reflection of the world in 2015, which already knew developments of crisis in economies, politics, migration scenarios and many other areas of culture and their discourses. I coined their music a brand of ‘new music for a new age’ – but, this phrase and description was followed by a question mark. I was not effectively sure, from a cultural historian’s point of view, whether and how their postulate of ‘newness’ in music, meaning most of all cultural innovation, was really producing innovative patterns of culture.

My uncertainty stemmed from my analysis of the band’s music and discourse. Actually, I came to the conclusion that Tau Cross created a new form of music, and celebrated an innovative cultural-historical discourse. Yet, they used known and well-known elements from different subgenres of Rock and Metal music to create their own hybrid sound. This comprised artistical elements, in both music and lyrics, from Thrash Metal, Punk and Hardcore Punk, Crust, and Folk Music.The most distinctive and hence element that ‘bracketed together’ their music and discourse together were Rob ‘The Baron’ Smith’s unique, monotonous rough vocals.

This cultural mode of production in Metal music, hybridizing elements from Thrash Metal, Punk and Hardcore Punk, Crust, and Folk Music, writing apocalyptic and doomy, most dark lyrics, gave birth to Tau Cross’ own message in discourse. Their singer’s rasp voice was the perfect medium to perform and tell this picture and allegory of the world in 2015: basically, this message was one of hybridity and mélange – to cope with the difficulties of 2015, meant to perform an eclectic set of mind in the construction of identities.

According to Tau Cross’ discourse of cultural history of the world in 2015, to live positively, or to at least be able to survive, one needed to construct an identity which accepted and tolerated facets of belief, behavior, rules, ethics and politics from very different sources. It was a message of existential postmodernism, of relativism, liquidity and an ever-changing flux of identities in which their discourse saw a fitting modus vivendi for 2015.1

However, this was their discourse  of Metal music in 2015. In 2017, Tau Cross released their second album ‘Pillar Of Fire’.2 Again this is a very allegoric and metaphorical title which can be intepreted in many different, positive and/or negative ways. Taken that their debut from 2015 was a statement to cope with the then world by promoting hybrid identities, what is their current discourse about, analyzed from a cultural-historical point of view? The years since then have changed the world – we face Donald Trump as the president of the United States, the ongoing negotiations on the ‘Brexit’ in Europe, globally the rise of right-wing populism and the spread of terrorism.

Is hybridity, or maybe an even greater relativsm and hybridity, in the shape of irony or nihilism, today’s message in ‘Pillar Of Fire’s discourse? At the moment, because of the record’s very mythological and metaphorically open lyrics3, and its very recent release, having only gotten a part of its expectable reception, we do not know exactly. But we can assume that the album’s title track, for it is the song that performs the album’s title-message, contains its discourse’s main narrative:

Oh no, they’re burning their Gods again, the sacred and the profane
A pillar of fire

My my, its crawling beneath my skin. The visions are crowding in
My Heaven and Hell
From the garden of the dawn, to the ocean night

All is said and all is done
And nothing new beneath our sun
All we built and all we knew
Is turned to dust, just me and you
Falling through the universe

Hey hey, the Gods have all gone away
The people have learned to pray
To a pillar of fire
And these dark cathedral spires, point like fingers to the skies
Accusingly accusingly, accusingly, the question always why

I’m looking down, at a body on a table looking up
I’m looking down at the body on the table…looking up
And all we are is held by silver thread
Sewn into the earth, sent back to the dead.4

The lyrics open with the phrase ‘Oh no, they’re burning their Gods again, the sacred and the profane. A pillar of fire (…)’. So, a pillar of fire, is a fire which burns the world’s gods. Gods can be conservative and overcome policies, morals, religions, in a nutshell: worn-out identities. Supposed, in 2017 our culture seems to burn its old identites, it afterwards has to generate new ones. How to find or construct these new ones, in 2017’s world of terrorisms, fear, populism and crisis? Maybe we just have to read on to find the answer, according to Tau Cross:

All is said and all is done
And nothing new beneath our sun
All we built and all we knew
Is turned to dust, just me and you
Falling through the universe.5

If there is nothing new beneath our sun, there are only old and used things of culture – like Thrash Metal which has been there since the early 1980s; like Punk, Hardcore and Crust which stem from even the decade before; like Folk Rock which became succesful in the 1960s. Yet, again Tau Cross hybridize their elements of identities very conservatively – again Rob Miller’s vocals shape their discursive leitmotiv. What does that mean? In 2017, still and even more radical, Tau Cross emphasize postmodernist ‘hybridism’ to be the way of cultural choice. We have to build a ‘pillar of fire’ in which to burn our old identities – just to build new ones from new ways of combinations.


  1. Cf. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000. 

  2. Cf. Tau Cross, Pillar Of Fire, Relapse Records, released 21/07/2017. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. Source: ‘Pillar Of Fire’, released on ibid. 

  5. Source: Ibid. 

Between scholarliness and fandom: on distance and closeness, objectivity and subjectivity in Metal Music Studies

In my last post, I reflected on the identities of Metal scholars, in terms of the transgressive potential of Metal Music Studies, as an academic discourse. This discourse is constitutively interdisciplinary and breaks disciplinary boundaries. I stressed that this situation of  an emerging filed of study requires its scholars to work self-reflexively. We have to construct our subject and our ‘Metal scholar-identities’ between and often in conflict to traditional disciplines.

These conflicts make the emergence of our field a deeply ambivalent and ambiguous process. On the one hand, we need to employ the theoretical approaches of ‘conservative’ academic fields (in my case again the theories of cultural history) to find our own subject and areas of research; on the other hand, at least in the long run, we have to build our own ‘toolbox’ of theories, at least of own theoretical approaches which fit our interests of research.

This ambivalence of an emerging field of scholarship is the reason why we should put a strong focus on theorizing in our work. Of course, there is theoretical work in Metal Music Studies1 but most of it follows modes of thinking which try to adapt successful and established theories from other fields on Metal music. However, our discourse as an emerging field ought to find its own theoretical tools – at least in a long-term perspective.

In this respect, I want to put forward the hypothesis, or to be more precisely, the hypothetic thought that the identitary situation of most Metal scholars is an important source of reflection, maybe even of theorizing; or at least, a point from which to start theoretical self-reflection. Most Metal scholars are both: ‘Metalheads’ and academic researchers and/or teachers. In their hearts and in their heads, there are, usually, both identities which regularly come into conflict.

Why do they come in conflict? This identitary situation is very ambiguous: we have to find a balance between scholarliness and fandom, between closeness and distance to our subject of research. We have to find identitary ways  to balance the fan’s subjectivity and the scholar’s objectivity. I think, this situation – as complicated, conflictuous, ambivalent and even paradoxical it may be – actually favours theoretical progress in our discourse.

This situation forces us to find theoretical and formal language to express the newly found balance between the fan and the scholar. In most cases, this new formal vocabulary to describe our own transgression from subjective interest to ‘objectified’ scholarly work is nothing else than a theory.2 In a nutshell, the identitary situation of scholars in Metal research drives them to formalize their language; thus, what we ought to do is not to come up with brand new or unprecedented abstract vocabulary but just try to find  formal language which suits our reflection and thoughts; vocabularies which create the Metal Music Studies scholars inside us.


  1. Cf. Stephen Hudsons blog ‘Metal In Theory. Sourcebook for Scholarship on Heavy Music’ at: http://metalintheory.com/about-metalintheory-com/, retrieved 9.7.2017; also, cf. the distinct and own discourse of a blog and journal of ‘Black Metal Theory’ at: http://blackmetaltheory.blogspot.co.at/, retrieved 9.7.2017; another fine example is this article: Martin Morris, Extreme Heavy Metal Music and Critical Theory, in: The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory  90, 4 (2015), pp. 285-303 

  2. For instance, again the example of ‘Black Metal Theory’ can be seen from this angle; again, cf. http://blackmetaltheory.blogspot.co.at/, retrieved 9.7.2017 

Black: notes on the transcending cultural history of a colour in Metal music (and beyond)

In my last post I dealt with the role of Foucauldian thought in the cultural history of Metal music. I want to take up this perspective and apply it to another, rather ‘fuzzy’ subject of Metal music research. In 1998, the Dutch female-fronted group The Gathering, on their album ‘How to Measure a Planet?’,1 released a song called ‘Red Is a Slow Colour’. This title seems to be enigmatic, even paradoxical: how can a colour have a speed as one of its constituting, maybe metaphysical or ontological qualities? Yet, the song’s title, in its proper context, seemed to ‘work’. It was well received, the album critically acclaimed.

Thinking of this supposed paradox is my starting point. I want to focus on a fundamental element of Metal culture, since its historical origins: the colour black. I want to put forward the hypothesis that this colour (as an essential discursive quality in music, texts, aesthetics,  in all form of practical, mental and physical practices) had a constitutive and, later even transcending historical quality in Heavy Metal. This colour made Metal become Metal, and, later, it opened up discursive links to other fields of culture, in popular music, society, literature, everyday practices. From the view of cultural history, the colour black is a transcending historical force in Metal music’s past and present.2

Constructing the colour framework of Metal music

It is rather obvious that, since the late 1960s and early 1970s, black is the central optical quality (in terms of colour) in Metal music history. The ‘godfathers’ of Heavy Metal, Black Sabbath, made this colour, taking up the title of a 1963 horror movie directed by Mario Bava,3 a part of their name. Thus, since its ‘birth’ Heavy Metal was associated with blackness as a constitutive quality of its aesthetics, lyrics, musical qualities; its discursive culture of imagination.

Later in Metal history, in the 1980s and 1990s, Metal music took up inspiration from bands of the ‘New Wave’ and ‘Gothic Rock’ music genres – subcultures which are part of what is called ‘Die Schwarze Szene’ (literally: ‘the Black Scene’) in German language until today. In the 1990s, in Gothic, Death and Black Metal subcultures, black, again, was a central point of reference – in terms of mood, melancholy, identities and practices. That the latter subgenre even was called Black Metal is the most obvious hint at the central role of blackness in Metal music history.

And, on 12th August 1991, Thrash Metal pioneers Metallica released their eponymous album which commonly is simpley refered to as the ‘Black Album’.4 Its famous cover is painted in monochromical black, showing, rather hard to see, a snake and the band’s logo. Historically speaking, the colour framework of Metal  (in terms of aesthetics, narratives of mood, practices in concerts etc.) is the result of a process of over 47 years of discursive construction since arond 1970. It is the history of a cultural framework of interpretation which made black become a central quality of its discourse. Black, as a word, a narrative, a mood, a sheer mass of practices, encodes central aspects and facets of Metal.

Cultural history makes us aware that, following Foucauldian paradigms, this history did not happen ‘automatically’ or ‘by itself’; but was the history of ever and ever again constructing the black framework of Metal, in negation processes between artists, fans and all agents involved. Cultural and socological research in Metal Music Studies  is able to show this central sztructural quality of the colour black.5 But, only history and especially cultural history as a scientific mode of historical narration, really can show its deep historical roots in the 20th century and earlier epochs – by telling this history scientifically.

Black as a culturally transcending force in Metal music history

This is where my perspective as a cultural historian comes in. By applying this view, we can tell the history of the colour black in Metal as the history of a cultural element which has a special and own historical quality. Not only is the history of black in Metal the history of one of its constitutive codes of cultural logics; historically, seen from a view of longue durée, black was a historical force which broke boundaries and transcended from earlier and synchronical cultures into Metal, and diachronically, later, went past Metal.

Black Sabbath defined Metal and took their colour inspiration from a 1963 horror movie: here, black served as a tool to historically transfer moods of horror from movie and cinematic cultures into Metal – and beyond, until today. The ‘Black Album’ by Metallica, historically seen, was not only the record which made them burst into mainstream: here, in 1991, the aesthetics of the album, its cover and discourse of blackness, build the historical force that made possible the transgression into mainstream. From a historian’s view, for the band, stressing blackness was a cultural key move to wider acceptance, recognition and fame.

Concluding, this leads me to a cultural-historical hypothesis on the role of the colour black in Metal: since around 1970, black has not only been a constitutive cultural code for Metal identity itself. More than this, it has been a temporally, synchronically and diachronically, transcending force of culture. Historically speaking, the colour black drove Metal music history.


  1. Cf. The Gathering, How to Measure a Planet, released 9th November 1998, Century Media Records 

  2. For the discourse on colours, cf. Harald Braem, Die Macht der Farben, Munich 2003; Harald Küppers, Die Logik der Farbe. Theoretische Grundlagen der Farbenlehre. Callwey  and  Munich 1981; especially, on the colour of black, cf. Michael Pastoureau, Black: The History of a Colour, Princeton 2008. 

  3. Cf. Black Sabbath, original title: I tre volti della paura, directed by Mario Bava, released on August 17th 1963 by Emmepi Cinematografica e.a. 

  4. Cf. Metallica, Metallica, released 12th August 1991, Elektra/Vertigo Records 

  5. For instance, cf. Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultural History, New York 2015; Jeremy Wallach e.a, (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World, Durham 2011. 

A short conceptual note on ‘Foucauldian’ and ‘Neo-Foucauldian’ thought in Metal Music Studies

Today, Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984), as a theorist of post-structuralism, is one of the most well-known sources of conceptual reflection in cultural history. In current cultural-historical debates, his notions of ‘discourse’, ‘archeology’, ‘genealogy’ or ‘governmentality’ are amongst the most freuently used ones.1 They are used to tell the ‘histories’ of very different subjects and topics, from a broad variety of  perspectives.

All those  seemingly Foucauldian macro-, meso- and microstories of historical reality share, despite their different narratological subjects and objects, the ontological background of post-structuralist theory. However, we have to be aware that today’s common understanding of a ‘Foucaldian’ methodology in cultural history,  is not exactly and ‘originary’ Foucauldian, strictly clinging to the philosopher’s intentions. Foucault claimed himself to be a ‘positivist’2 who examined discourses as positive and empirical formations of performative ‘speech acts’ in history.

In the context of current historical theorizing this seems to be an ironic or even awkward claim. We construct Foucault to be the main ‘hero’ of constructivist and deconstructivist cultural history. This, frequently projects an ontology of constructivism onto the discursive ‘screen’ of Foucauldian thought and concepts; yet, the French theorist himself , especially during the development of his core-framework of ‘discourse analysis’ int the late 1960s, saw his work as one of an empirical positivist.3

Thus, when telling cultural history by using Foucauldian concepts and methods, such as ‘discourse analysis’, ‘archeology’ or ‘genealogy’, we have to be aware – and honest to ourselves – that we use and re-use, hence modificate these notions, depending on our own specific interests of research. So, maybe it is unfortunate to speak and write of ‘Foucauldian’ thought in cultural history. Probably, to define current theorizing in cultural research as an ‘Neo-Foucauldian‘ framework would maybe be more accurate: we overworked Foucault’s theories by projecting our own historiographical demands upon his work.

Supposedly, Foucault himself, a strongly pragmatic and non-systemic thinker, would not mind. He wanted his theoretical notions and concepts to be seen as a ‘toolbox’, from which everyone should take the tools and notions she or he needed; adapting them to her or his needs in analysis.4 Exactly, this is the actual and strictly Foucauldian approach: it is not an approach that glorifies (de-)construcitivism but an endless play and re-play of rethinking theoretical terminologies.

The actual ‘constant’ (Foucault would strictly avoid this notion) in Foucauldian thought is a pragmatic and ontological one,  a specific ‘flexible’ perspectivism. All through his professional life, his work was an examination and cyclic re-examination of the theorectial notions he had used before. So, actual Foucauldian cultural theorism is one which puts terminoligical self-reflection into his main focus. It is a perspective which, again and again, returns to its core notions, re-works and over-works them, making them better suitable for its relevant empirical needs.

Hence, we could define actual Foucauldian thought in cultural-historical theorizing as one which has the endless modification, the constant critique of its own terminology as its conceptual core. To think in Foucauldian ways, therefore, means to lead a discourse of terminological critique. In Metal Music Studies, as a specific research field in cultural studies, Foucault is a frequent point of reference, too.5

Taking up my differentiation between ‘Foucauldian’ and ‘Neo-Foucauldian’ thought, could be a way of making theorizing in Metal Music Studies more accessible and clearer – by being more exact and self-reflexive, taking the self-critique of terminology as a more important point. When speaking of ‘discourse’, ‘archeology’, ‘genealogy’ or ‘governmentality’, we should exactly define how we use these notions; maybe giving an exact point of reference in Foucauld’s own texts, clarifying which phase of Foucauld’s own self-critique of theory we intend to operationalize.


  1. For an introduction to Foucault, cf. Leonard Lawlor/John Nale (eds.), The Cambridge Foucault Lexicon, Cambridge: University Press, 2014; Clare O’Farell, Michel Foucault,  London: Sage, 2005; Sara Mills, Michel Foucault, London: Routledge, 2003; Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 1988; for a broad introduction to Foucauldian thought in history, cf. Paul Veyne, Foucault. Sa pensée, sa personne, Paris: Albin Michel, 2008. 

  2. Cf. ibid. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. Cf. ibid. 

  5. Cf. Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011;Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America: A Social and Cultural History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 

Getting naive in Metal Music Studies: can (Metal) music change the world?

In my last post, I reflected upon cultural-historical tendencies and processes in the year of 2016. I tried to elaborate on the question how this year, with its seemingly fundamental political ruptures, in a global and European perspective, could be told in scientific historical storytelling. Already this essay, as I ‘dared’ to measure the relevancy of one year in history without the advantage of temporal distance (I wrote my post on January 1st 2017), did not lack a certain degree of naivety. In this post I want to take, so to speak, ‘naivety as an epistemic tool’ and reflect upon a seemingly highly naive question: can (Metal) music change the world?

Yet, I think this a question, if our theoretical and methodological  prerequisites of cultural history are presented and used self-reflexively, being aware of the fundamental limits  inherent to them, can be elaborated on in a scientifically serious way. I suggest, trying to think of a conceptual answer to this question might add ‘ontological awareness’ to the research agenda of Metal Music Studies.

Getting naive…

Our starting point is a very simple thought: in the year of 2017, having in mind the first weeks of the new Trump administration and its policies, the coming important elections in France and Germany, the overall global network-like atmosphere of tension, uncertainty, even fear and panic, we could want to live in a better world; culturally, socially, legally, politically and economically. All the frictions and tensions of discourse in early 2017 – i.e. terrorism, migration, political radicalization, war-like conflicts – could make us long for a better world. And, this  being the decisive fact, wanting concepts from science to get into such a world.

So, the question, leigitimized culturally and morally, we have to think about, in ontological and discursively structural terms, is: can science provide us with ways to get into this ‘better world’? And, for Metal Music Studies, and cultural history in this subfield of academie, that question is to be modified to its specific subject of research: can Metal music change the world?

As mentioned above, this question seems to be one of purest naivity, even if taking it as ‘innocent’ naivity. How should music, even Metal music as subcultural field of popular culture, be able to change the world for the better? I think, on the very contrary, this naivety could be a good starting point for ontological reflection in Metal research; namely suggesting this naivety as an epistemic tool which enables us to open up for fresh perspectives.

…in Metal Music Studies

When we see this question as a a legtitimized one, this opens up a series of questions which penetrate into the deepest layers of the discourse of Metal Music Studies, its ontological prereqisites . Asking whether Metal music can improve the world’s current historical condition, we ask for a new evaluation of the theoretical core notions of cultural history in Metal Music Studies. These questions include the following: (1) what is Metal music in cultural history?; (2) how does Metal music connect and interfere with global discourse of culture?; (3) does this interference allow Metal music to change the world?

What is Metal music?

I address these very serious ontological questions (they basically define the subject of cultural history in Metal Music Studies as a field of research)  in exactly the order mentioned. Ad (1): trying to give a definition of Metal music in cultural history, means to give a preliminary description of a conceptual and empirical field of global history, since at least the 1970s. Starting in the early 1970s (having roots in the decades before), bands like Black Sabbath created a new, ‘heavy’ sound. Since then, this ‘heavy’ discourse emerged as an own cultural discourse. It developed its own narratives, imaginaries, style of clothes, gesticulation and networks to institutionalize them.1.

So, from the broadest possible perspective, Metal music can be understood as an own and distinct cultural discourse of popular culture. Today, it has its own history (and self-narratives of  this history) since over four decades.2 It is a structural sphere of culture, having its own rules of creating meaning, in its styles of clothes, music, practices, marketing and performing. In a nutshell, for cultural history Metal music is a discourse which globally creates meaning in an own way – according its protocol of the new cultural style encoded as ‘heavyness’.

How does Metal music connect and interfere with global discourse of culture?

Now, we can address the second question, again rather globally. Ad (2): The core argument of my ontological definition of Metal music is the adjective of ‘global’. This adjective, indeed, is of utmost importance for the second question. Here, we want to find an answer to the question how Metal music does interfere with global discourses of culture – the ones like politics, media, society etc. The adjective ‘global’ gives us the ontological key to find an cultural-historical answer.3.

This short word, ‘global’, implies that Metal music itself spans around the world. It is not only a product of this world, or a by-product of discoures lying hierarchally above it, but an own and, scale-wise and hierarchically, equal discourse. Metal music acts globally, therefore, it has the same and exactly equal rights as other discourses – such as politics, media, society etc. It may not have the same ‘discursive power’ but from a structural perspective it is global, and thus has the equal rights: to construct meaning, to construct the world. In a nutshell, aiming to formulate an answer to this second question: Metal music inteferes with global discourse of culture on an equally-righted base. Its demands of identity and narratives are no less important than any other – but not more important either.

Does this interference allow Metal music to change the world?

Ad (3): our third and final analysis is, probably, the most important one. Taking Metal music in global history as an eually-righted one, this leads us to formulate an answer which is promising and disappointing at once. It is promising because, when conceptualizing Metal music as an equally-righted sphere of culture, that implicates that it is on same hierarchical level as other discourses; hence, it, logically and normatively, can influence the world. The disappointig aspect is that, because it is one discourse among myriads of others, is potential of influencing the world is limited.

So, our answer to the third point is: Yes, Metal music has the potential to change the world; to be more specifically: it has the potential of changing its world. As an emancipative discourse, it can create (and indeed does create)4 its own visions and utopias of a better world. To me as a cultural historian, the most challenging task of examining these questions is to reflect upon the limits of cultural history in Metal Music Studies: where does the influence of Metal discourse meet its imits? Which limits and boundaries are the ones, maybe imposed by other discourses, which restrain its influence? How are these limits and boundaries, identities and non-identities, negotiated and fixated?5

 


  1. Cf., for instance, Jeremy Wallach e.a. (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011; also, cf.  Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America: A Social and Cultural History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.; and: Dietmar Elflein, Schwermetallanalysen: Die musikalische Sprache des Heavy Metal. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011; finally: Rolf Nohr and Herbert Schwaab (eds.), Metal Matters: Heavy Metal als Kultur und Welt. Münster e.a.: Lit, 2012.  

  2. Cf. ibid. 

  3. Cf. ibid. 

  4. cf. ibid. 

  5. Source of the title image of this post: http://s2.quickmeme.com/img/d2/d2c1e23ecee906584f0a6844db58aa2070bf0666afe7407a7df27caf07937087.jpg, retrieved 6.2.2017. 

Darkthrone, ‘Brexit’ and Donald Trump: Was 2016 the Year of the Birth of ‘Homo conservativus hystericus’?

Recalling the past twelve months of 2016, trying to tell it as a history of an end-of-year review is not an easy task. 2016, as a remarkable year in recent history, globally, had in petto some tough ‘surprises’: first, here we can think of the ‘Brexit’-vote in Great Britain in June; then the election of Donald Trump for president in the USA in November. Always, it is very difficult to ‘judge’ historical events that still are very close to the present. Yet, I think there are certain cutural aspects and trends making the year of 2016 a remarkable one.

In this post, to be seen as a cultural historian’s end-of-the-year review in Metal Music Studies, I will try to highlight these trends and discuss their possible discursive meaning. To do so, I will start by discussing the cultural history of these two political events, the ‘Brexit’-vote and the election of Trump, then going on by contextualizing it with very similar discursive patterns in Metal Music discourse. Seeing those discourses together, should allow us to make sense of 2016 cultural-historically – at least for the moment.

‘Brexit’

On 23 June 2016, British voters decided, by 51.9% to 48.1%, to make the ‘Brexit’ become political reality. This historical event was new and different, therefore, a shock in several ways: (1) It was the first time a country decided to leave the European Union. (2) It was one of the first times that a political campaign, inspired by populism, harsh emotions, nationalism and conservatism, led to a big political success, sealing the further way of a whole country or nation. (3) It was one of the first events in which, on a macro-level of cultural discourses, the cultural trend called ‘postfactualism’ gave a highly important political process its central cultural features.

Taking these three points together, we can call this event of June 23 one in which the cultural discourse of conservativist populism became successful, politically. One central thing was really new about this discourse: it was not ‘common’ conservatism but conservatism that substituted its rational core in narrative by an emotional stream of passion. In Nigel Farage’s discourse, conservatism of a nationalist kind was painted in the colors of xenophobia, national pride, fear of the ‘other’ and guilt. In short: it was the real debut of ’emotional conservativism’ in Great Britain. Its structure as a historical event is to be found in the linkage of common conservativist topics and emotional language.

Dartkthrone’s new album ‘Arctic Thunder’

On 14 October 2016, Norwegian Black Metal-veterans Darkthrone released their new album ‘Arctic Thunder’. When Darkthrone, as an artistic collective consisting mostly of guitarist/vocalist Ted ‘Nocturno Culto’ Skjellum and drummer Gylve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell, started out to establish Black Metal in the early 1990s, this discourse was fresh, rebellious, ‘dangerous’ and new. But, that was more than twenty years ago. Meanwhile, Darkthrone are still releasing albums on a regular base but their music is not pure Black Metal anymore. It is a hybrid form of Rock’n’Roll, Crust Punk , Heavy and Black Metal.

Their 2016 album is, seen in the context of overall-cultural history of this year, a remarkable one. It still is that new style cultivated by Darkthrone since several but its aesthetics changed. This is the record’s cover:

index1

The music on the records is not an essential change but the aesthetics hark back to the band’s own history. The cover shows a campfire in the night, dark woods, the band’s classic logo and the record’s title. This composition, as a discursive move, takes up classical Black Metal aesthetics which Darkthrone were famous for in the 1990s. Dark forests, night, campfire are key symbol in this discourse’s conservative aesthetics. However, there is one central difference between 2016’s Darkthrone cover and the ones from the 1990s: they feature the very same symbolism but ‘Arctic Thunder’ is pictured in colour while the old ones were black and white.

This, from a cultural historian’s point of view, is a remarkable shift which appears to be a ‘logical’ event in 2016’s history: discourse stuck to its conservativism, politically with UKIP and Nigel Farage, musically with ‘Arctic Thunder’, but it was painted with colour – which stands for emotions, passion, more liveliness and an overall new discursive approach stressing the role of emotions in postfactualism. Hence, the political programme of the ‘Brexit’-campaign had the same cultural structure than Black Metal discourse. As an event, it brought the dawn of ’emotional conservativism’ which is in Darkthrone’s case some sort of ‘colourful Black Metal’

Donald Trump

On 8 November 2016, Donald J. Trump, American businessman and television star, was voted to become the United States’ 45th president. This was a political event, not predicted by mainstream media and discourses, which was called upon ‘historical’ from the very first minute. A former businessman and ‘celebrity’ who cultivated a highly emotional discourse of populism, taking up narratives of xenophobia, nationalism, misogynism, sometimes even racism, was elected to become president. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, predicted to become president, lost the battle.

I do not want to join the global debates on that event, being shocked or delighted, pleading for political ‘revenge’ on the ‘establishment’, but to examine this event’s discursive structure. At its core, Trump’s political campaign and discourse was highly conservative, often right-wing, being embedded in the traditional Republican Party’s programme. Yet, this discourse had, on its surface, a very different appearance: it was aggressive, passionate, always full of emotions. Trump’s election is yet another example of the linkage of conservative thought and emotional language in 2016.

The birth of ‘Homo conservativus hystericus’?

Recalling this three very different historical events of 2016, the ‘Brexit’-vote in June, the release of Darkthrone’s ‘Arctic Thunder’ in October and the American presidential elections in November, two political decisions and one artistic speech act, they feature the same structural characteristics. They are conservative ‘to the bone’ but on the surface, concerning language and symbolism, their discourse is emotional, aggressive fresh and passionate. All three of them are ’emotional conservativism’.

So, when summarizing my thoughts in this post, the year of 2016 seems to be indeed a remarkable one. Recently, cultural historian Wolfgang Schmale published a monograph2 which has the theoretical concept of ‘collective historical performative speech acts’ at its center. It theorizes identities and narratives innovatively as ‘collective performative speech acts’ (i.e. ‘Eurocentrism’, ‘European Identity’, ‘Enlightenment’) which become influential points of reference – and Schmale thinks of our recent period as a history of change towards ‘post-performativity’.

We can take up this thougt for a cultural-historical end-of-year review of 2016 in Metal Music Studies. Seeing the similar structures in discourses in politics and music, too, we can think of 2016 of a year in which a new ‘collective historical performative speech act’ entered the cultural stage. Satirically, this new figure of discourse may be called ‘Homo conservativus hystericus’: he is, most of all, white and male, gains attraction by yelling emotionally; yet he sticks to his conservative roots.


  1. Source: http://www.nuclearblast.de/static/articles/253/253324-1.jpg/1000×1000.jpg, retrieved 12/10/2016. 

  2. Wolfgang Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism. A Conceptual Approach to European History. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016. 

Paradox, Ambivalence and the Rise of the Unexpected: What Do the Presidency of Donald Trump and Metal Music Have In Common?

On November 8, 2016, former businessman and reality televison-star Donald J. Trump won the 45th presidency of the United States of America. Being a white male of the age of seventy years, from early 2017 on, for at least four years, he will be the oldest ever elected president of the country. Recently, German historian Wolfgang Schmale gave an analysis of what Trump’s unexpected success does mean for the European Union in its state of crisis.

Globally, there have been many different forms of commentaries on Trump’s success, from very different angles, a large part of them harshly critical, some ‘celebrating’ the event. However, virtually all of them share the opinion that it was unexpected. Political and cultural discourses call it a ‘surprise’, ‘shock’, even a ‘catastrophy’ or the ‘dawn of a new era’. All of these political and cultural speech acts1 share the cultural narrative and tendencies of superlatives and ‘extremisms’ in giving an account of this event. The main question that arises from this is: what does that the mean for our future?

In this post, I try to reflect on this question, framing a possible way to an answer from the perspective of cultural history – more precisely, from  the perspectives of the cultural history of Heavy Metal and European cultural history. (Of course) I have no definitive or concluding answer to this question; yet, I think comparing key cultural processes in Heavy Metaland the rise of Donald Trump offers us a view of striking structural similarities that are, somehow, the epitome of the early 21st century.

Paradox, ambivalence and the rise of the unexpected

At a first glance, it does not seem to make any sense to compare the Trump’s rise to presidency and the recent history of the culture of Heavy Metal. Yet, it does make sense, from a cultural-structural point of view. First,  Trump’s political discourse is a cultural one of populism, hence, he is a figure of popular culture. And: Heavy Metal, since the 1960s and 1970s, growing bigger and more ‘mainstream’ since the 1980s, is a discourse in post-modern popular culture. Therefore, we can compare them, diachronically and synchronically, as fields of the production of cultural meaning.

Second, and this is my key argument of framing a possible way to a cultural-historical answer to my above question, there are striking similarities, even parallel structures in both histories- the history of Trumps rise to presidency since June 2015 and the cultural history of Heavy Metal’s way into mainstream and to scientific attention since 2014. I try to compare them from this point of view, not wanting to give a clear answer, but a framework of possibly coming to such one in the time to come.

On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced he would be running for president in 2016. In the primaries, he was one among sixteen other Republicans who wanted to become the United States’ new leader. Trump ‘celebrated’ and ‘conducted’ a very intense media campaign, and, by early 2016, the race became one between Trump and Ted Cruz, on the side of the republicans. Finally, in May 2016, the former businessman and reality television-star became the presumptive Republican canditate. All of this process, until the very event of hiselection, featured harsh debates, causing frictions in the candidate’s party and the country’s whole political culture.

Seen from a cultural historical point of view, this history between early summer of 2015 and fall of 2016, is strutured by two main features: (1) first, Trump’s rise to presidency has not been expected. (2) Second, the discourse revolving around the politician’s candidacy and final success, has been characterized (until this very day) by paradoxicalities and ambivalences. The United State’s cultural identy, stemming from the myths of its constitutional and overall history since the eigteenth century, sees liberalism, democracy, in short: the values of rational Enlightenment, as its core values.

Still, theses valuessuit the identity of U.S.-citizenship; however, Trumps campaigning and discourse turned this political upside down, too: his political style is one of focusing on emotions (patriotism, revenge on the ‘establishment’, xenophobia etc.), ‘machismo’ and the longing for the ‘the great leader’ solving the country’s suppossed problems. Despite this discourse, he was able to rise to presidency. So, America’s current political culture is one of paradoxes and ambivalence – and it became a popular culture, enshrining the medial axiomatics of populism.

Now, let us go to the history of Heavy Metal since 2014. As written in a previous post, the contemporary history of this subculture of music has been characterized by two main tendencies: first, since 2014, the history of Heavy Metal, and even its Extreme sub-genres like Death and Black Metal, more and more became part of cultural ‘mainstream’. It is, growingly, accepted as an own and ‘meritful’ way of perfoming art. Not only ‘big’ acts like Metallica are seen as key-figures of popculture, basically all of its culture is getting integrated into mainstream, as a form of the ‘current of tradition’. We only have to mention that German ‘Schlager‘ veteran ‘Heino’, before seen as an archetype of cultural conservatism, published a ‘Metal-style’ album in 2014.

Second, since 2014, Heavy Metal, and in many texts Extreme Metal, has gained a lot more of scientific attention. Since 2014, there is an own peer- reviewed journal, called ‘Metal Music Studies’ and, already established earlier, the ‘International Society for Metal Music Studies’. Not only, as had already been the case before, there are sparse monographs articel, but, as of today, there is a full-blown own discourse of Heavy Metal in science, Metal Music Studies. Growingly, it is seen as being ‘worth’ of scientific scholarship.

So, let us read this history of Metal Music since 2014 from a cultural-historical angle, focusing on its structural features. (1) First, its emancipation into mainstream, but, most of all, the full development of the discourse of an own scientific discipline of Metal Music Studies has not been expected. We did not see that come in science. (2) Second, these intertwining processes, Metal (and even Extreme Metal) getting integrated into the main currents of popculture and its identities produce structural paradoxicalities and ambivalences.

Up to 2014, Metal Music identiy was one of being a ‘rebel’, being critical of society or even of opposing society and its key discourses of popculture. This has changed fundamentally, being aware that even artists like ‘Heino’ enjoy Metal aesthetics. For ‘Metalheads’ this means essential paradoxes and ambivalence: they have to re-negotiate their cultural identity.

Framing the way to possible answers to today’s main questions: dealing with paradoxes and ambivalence as the result of the unexpected

Hence, suprisingly, the key question in American, European and global political (pop)culture and Metal Music is pretty much the same: we have to deal with the rise of the unexpected and to re-negotiate our identities in the light of new paradoxes and ambivalences. From a cultural historian’s point of view, the way to answer the question of how to deal with these unexpected histories could be the same: we have to find structural tactics, discursive strategies to perform new narratives and cultural texts that integrate the new ambiguity into a new identity. In a nutshell, Americans, maybe, coud learn a lesson from Metal Music and, vice versa, ‘Metalheads’ from American citizenship in a post-modern age.

 


  1. Cf. Wolfgang Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism. A Conceptual Approach to European History, Stuttgart: Steiner, 2016.