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Metal Music Studies: why studying the world’s most controversial music is worth our time

Written by Didier Goossens, Cultural Studies alumnus

During my bachelor years at KU Leuven, I was told that if I wanted to pursue my true passion, I should be ready to defend it tooth and nail. Certainly, that came true when I discovered metal music studies. What are those? And why are they worthwhile? This is a question that I, following my graduation from the Master of Cultural Studies in 2018/9, have strived to answer and defend.

First, what are metal music studies? Utilizing a metaphor from Deena Weinstein (an American sociologist and one of the first scholars of metal music and culture), the term ‘metal music studies’ blankets an archipelago of disciplines that seek to understand and contextualize metal music and culture.This has brought together cultural theorists, literary and discourse analysts, musicologists, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists, leading to the constitution of a formal research organization, the International Society for Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), and its associated academic journal, Metal Music Studies. That being answered, why do we practice these studies?

Metal music has a long and at times controversial history that proves fertile soil for social reflection and scholarly research. Issues that made past news, were either conservative accusations that metal causes Satanism, addiction and suicide; or its more extreme exploits, such as church burnings, murder and tendencies towards fundamentalist ideologies. More subliminally present in metal music and culture, and therefore known to a lesser degree, are on the one hand its negative treatment and underrepresentation of women and BIPOC, and on the other its consistent potential for cultural resistance. As such, metal music studies investigate such contradictions from various angles: cultural theorists and sociologists ask what brings fans of metal music together in so-called scenes and how the music and performances in those reflect cultural identities. One outstanding example of this is the reconciliation with traumas of dictatorial regimes in metal bands from Argentine, Peru and Chile. More musicology-oriented studies dissect structures within metal music and performances and analyse these through affect studies, among others. For example, a recent publication discusses the religious associations within drone metal, a brooding subgenre that stretches and distorts single notes.

It is within this cultural theory-oriented part of metal music studies that in 2019, I wrote my master thesis in cultural studies at KU Leuven. In it, I studied how the New Zealand metal band Alien Weaponry builds on their Māori identity in their music and performances, and how this identity is then distributed and received, particularly in western nations. According to theories of cultural globalization, this is where the majority of the metal-consuming masses are, and where thus the most cultural capital in metal still resides. Following my graduation, however, I did not want the thesis to lie around idly, as it reminded me of the fundame(n)tal value of metal music studies: its music and culture thoroughly reflect social dynamics. The inquiries of metal music studies unnerve, as they confront us with substantial elements of sexism and racism within metal music and culture; they also lay bare the explicit and implicit choices in life: how people come together in groups, exhibit taste, deal with different cultural identities in increasingly global and glocal contexts… These questions need to be asked, which has caused misunderstandings and tensions to arise between scholars of metal on the one hand and artists and fans on the other. Metal music studies are either unknown to people outside of academia’s ivory tower, or are accused of “demystifying” and/or “destroying” metal altogether – while the opposite is true. But how can metal music studies convince the world of this?

My proposition is through visibility and co-operation. With these ideas in mind, I submitted my thesis for the Vlaamse Scriptieprijs 2019. And while it did not win any prizes, it was picked up for an article in their newspaper, proving that the subject of metal music and culture, which is often discussed through simplistic and reductive stereotypes, intrigues and fascinates people, especially when dealing with different cultural identities. Following up on this visibility, I also made an appearance on Calling From The Underground, a podcast on (Belgian) metal hosted by popular stand-up comedian Alex Agnew and producer Andries Beckers. In it, I explained that while metal music and its studies are still largely absent from public debate and popular discussion in both Belgium (where I followed my higher education at KU Leuven) and the Netherlands (where I am currently employed at the Erasmus University Rotterdam), this is not necessarily cause for concern. With bands like Amenra and Brutus stepping into the limelight, discussions of metal music become increasingly nuanced, slowly opening the door for those themes of cultural studies that we find in it, and that are of great interest to metal music studies: culture, identity, affect, memory and performance. In order to bring this out in full, I therefore call for co-operation. In order to make the most of metal music studies, scholars need to co-operate with the field of metal production, dissemination and reception. We need to come together with artists, label agents, venue bookers, festival organizers, reviewers, journalists and fans alike to better understand what makes metal tick worldwide and across the world. This is a crucial element of my research that continue to stress in every publication and appearance. I am very positive about this, too: various documentaries on Latin American metal have been produced by scholars and in co-operation with local scene members. And while such efforts are taking place on a smaller scale in Belgium and the Netherlands, they are there, growing in the underground. That is why metal music studies are worthwhile.

Some links to these articles and appearances