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. 

‘European Solidarity’, the ‘European Soul’ and the Metal Music Community as a Cultural Community of Solidaritiy – Are There any Connections?

Nine days ago, on the day of the ‘Brexit’-votum in Great Britain, I took part in a scientific conference dealing with the ‘notorious’ topic of “European Solidarity”: there, we discussed the question wether European solidarity is to be seen, historically, as ‘the bonds that unite’ Europe. Doing so, on the day of the success of the ‘Leave’-campaign in Great Britain, made me feel a bit like being trapped in a mental state of British black humour – we discussed European solidarity while one of the biggest EU member countries voted to turn its back on European solidayrity.

This was not only a case of cultural cynism but of an overall trend in global and EU political discourse where emotional arguments and strategies  had been successfully employed to reach certain nationalist and authoritarian political aims. The ‘Leave’-campaign used the fears of a split society (‘older vs. younger’; ‘educated vs. less educated’; ‘rural vs. urban’; ‘poor vs. “rich’) to pursue its nationalist and populist agenda. To vote “Leave”  in Britain on 24th June, had its politico-cultural counterpart in the success in elections of Austria’s FPÖ, of France’s Front national, of the AfD in Germany, etc. All these “movements” and their discourses clinge to a global trend of leaving behind ‘Western’ liberalism and its culture of pluralism and anti-authoritanism. In fact, theses discourses and their anti-European stance of political speech are the form authoritanism takes in the middle of 2016.

However, this is not the authoritanism we know from theinterwar-period of the 1920s and 1930s. It is a new kind of authoritarian discourse which stems from a lack of visibility of meaning and representation in the global post-1989 world; most of all since the ‘Digital Revolution’ made the ‘Global village’, predicted by Marshall McLuhan, had become reality. We live under the auspices of a permanent cultural stress and tension, a digital fog of information which makes our identities become blurred, when there seems to be lrgz no boundaries of space and time. In this cultural condition, solidarity – European solidarity – has become an almost impossible norm: Whom in Europe (or our local and regional neighbourhood) should we feel solidarity for if societies and groups of the USA, of Asia, of Africa and other parts of the world seem, in the digital context, to be much closer, or, at least, as close as Europeans themselves? This lack of the visibility of cultural solidarity in Europe, because of our today’s world cultural structures, is the root of the new authoritanism: its discourse of nationalism and protectionism seems to create a sphere where solidarity remains alive – yet, this is an illusion.

Hence, in 2016 and beyond, we need new cultural discourses enabling us to build bonds of solidarity in Europe and the European Union, in a digitally and economically, and socially globalized world. We need to find new elements of community, cultural artefacts of solidarity that remain visible even if Chinese and Japanese, or Brasilian and American people seem to be much closer to our lives in popular culture than our European neighbours. This has to be a new kind of ‘imagined community’.1 We have to find a new kind of collective imagination of our European identity and ‘European soul’ that matches this new cultural condition.2

This is where the global imagined community of Metal Music, as a global discourse of popular culture, economy and leisure comes in. In the global Metal Music community there is a kind of solidarity that remains alive in times of globalization and its phenomena of the dissapearing of boundaries of spatial and temporal imagination. Actually, just because of the fact that today, in a world of global-wide communication where the solidarity of the Metal Music community can be established in a timeframe of seconds (and where local contexts depend from its overall global level of imagination), this imagined community found its structure as a growing and established field of cultural practice.3

That Metal Music has progressed to mainstream and has become a global and European subject of an own branch of scientific discourse, Metal Music Studies, forms this development’s climax; it means that in Metal Music solidarity of all ‘Metalheads’ around the world can be imagined because global cultural infrastructure of communication and information have formed a tool-like discourse of collective imagination which allowed this development to become historical reality.4 In a nutshell, Metal Music discourse made appear a global community of solidarity whose identy stems from its ability to remain visible in our times of globalized blur of cultural realities of belonging.

Hence, what we have to ask for is, how this remains possible in times of crisis, looking for a structure of cultural discourse in Metal Music which we could learn  from something for European integration history. The answer to this question lies in the fact that Metal Music discource has become a field of social practice in which the global framework of the identy of being a ‘Metalhead’ and their local roots of belonging form a liquid and hybrid form of coherence.5 It creates solidartiy because globalization and localization work in parallel tracks, they build on synergies. Here, solidarity is a form of coherence in which an African ‘Metalhead’ feels solidarity for American and European fellow-fans of Metal Music and, at once, remain attached to his regional and local cultural.6 This form of coherence is to be sought for in discourses of European solidarity. In a nutshell, agents of European solidarity coult take a glimpse at and learn its lesson lesson from the establishment of the solidarity in Metal Music and its global way of collective imagination. Maybe,  as Europeans and EU Europeans, we should look for the Metalhead woven into our collective European soul.


  1. cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso 2006. 

  2. For a recent narrative on this, cf.  Pichler, Peter. 2016. EUropa. Was die Europäischen Union ist, was sie nicht ist und was sie einmal werden könnte. Graz: Leykam. 

  3. Cf. Deena Weinstein. 2015. Rock’n America. A Social and Cultural History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press;and Andy R. Brown e.a, eds. 2016. Global Metal Music and Culture: Current Directions in Metal Studies. London: Routledge. 

  4. cf. ibid. 

  5. cf. ibid. 

  6. Cf. ibid.