In defense of metal: A response to an unfair critic

 I’m used to snobbery against metal. You are too, I’m sure. But sometimes, I read something so breathtaking, arrogant, ignorant and rude that I just have to respond.

I was surfing Google last week, looking for references to heavy metal and Satanism when I ran across Hole in our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Culture in American Music by cultural critic Martha Bayles. A fan of  jazz and the blues, Bayles spends several pages of her tome railing against the “pseudospiritual” elements of metal, summing the genre up as the preferred music of misguided, antisocial, adolescent boys.  

I don’t want to be accused of oversimplifying Bayles’ argument, so I’ll let her words speak for themselves.

“Since heavy metal lacks aesthetic sophistication in the realms of music, language, visual art and theater, its sole claim to artistic seriousness lies in its perversity …

“Both group therapy and puberty rites are intended to help people cope with real life. The same cannot be said of heavy metal. On the contrary, the people most deeply involved in the genre, such as the dropouts, runaways and ‘throwaways’ who congregate in places like Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, seem incapable of coping with anything…

“Does heavy metal offer a release for anger that is already there? Or does it whip up even more anger?  … Does the headbanger go home after the concert with his troubled emotions under control, ready to face the sometimes tedious demands of daily life? I don’t think so …

“Puberty rites inflict painful rituals in order to inculcate young people with the values of the tribe, to drive home the very specific rules by which manhood, womanhood, and proper behavior are defined. Heavy metal, by contrast, offers a gigantic spectacle … arousing many of the troubling passions and treacherous currents of contemporary life, with the sole aim of immunizing the young against shared values – that is, of preventing their socialization…

“At this point, the defenders of heavy metal usually stop defending its therapeutic power and say instead that most headbangers eventually outgrow their obsession. This is their final argument, and it may well be true. But it doesn’t explain how these same young people are supposed to make up for the months and years they wasted in the grip of something so ugly and useless. Heavy metal offers ritual death, but at the end of the ordeal, there is no rebirth. 

Well metal fans, did you know you were ‘throwaways,’ incapable of coping with reality and being whipped into unnecessary anger by the music? Didn’t you realize all that metal you listen to lacks “aesthetic sophistication” and that you’re basically a lazy, dawdling slacker with an immature opposition to social norms and an inability to hold any adult responsibility?

If you didn’t, Martha Bayles is here to tell you that you’re a loser.

Bayles’ critique would be hilarious if so many people didn’t buy into her lazy philosophizing and snap judgments. But there are numerous problems with Bayles’ blanket generalizations. While I hate to spend too much time debunking Bayles, some counterpoints do need to be mentioned …

Charge: Metal lacks artistic sophistication.

Rock music originally drew on the blues, but that was hardly the only well of inspiration. In metal, it’s common to find artists who have studied classical music, have music degrees and who blend elements of classical and, yes, even jazz, into their songs and performances. Sure, if Bayles’ only exposure to metal is Poison or W.A.S.P.’s “Animal (F*ck Like A Beast),” she can be forgiven for not thinking the genre has much to offer.

But has Bayles ever heard Opeth, Enslaved, Emperor, Agalloch, Megadeth, Devin Townsend, Fates Warning, or Metallica? Has she ever discussed music with, say, the members of Cannibal Corpse (who likely know more about blues riffs than Bayles) or Darkane’s Peter Wildoer (who has studied both jazz and African percussion)? Did she ever listen to just five seconds of Yngwie Malmsteen?

Calling all metal unsophisticated displays shocking ignorance of the wide variety of the genre. The “hole” is in Bayles’ research.

Charge: Metal is for “dropouts,  runaways and ‘throwaways.”

My guess is Bayles’ description is based more on the metal uniform (jeans, band T-shirt) than on any other factor. While the “uniform” does make metal fans look remarkably the same at shows, the clothes do not make the person.

I know metal fans who hold advanced degrees, who work complicated “adult” jobs, who are good husbands/wives/mothers/fathers, who pay their taxes on time, give to charity and are generally kind to their fellow man. If a critic wrote off the entire jazz audience as slackers or brainless goofs, Bayles would be offended. Like most people, Bayles is blind to her own double-standard.

By the way, the “Holly Boulevard” reference seems a tad dated, as if Bayles visited Hollywood once in the mid-1980s, saw the crowd outside the Whiskey-A-Go-Go and formed her entire opinion on metal fans from that one encounter. Again, Bayles seems to lack any first-hand knowledge of the people she so casually puts down.

Charge: Metal arouses anger.

This one is not so easily dismissed. It’s true that metal deals in dark subjects, such as war, nuclear destruction, death, powerlessness and evil. But does listening to metal, or going to a metal show, make listeners angrier than they would have been normally? Quite the opposite, I think.

I don’t listen to metal because it makes me feel bad: The very idea is rather absurd (perhaps that’s my beef with nü-metal: All those singers seem to be wallowing in their pain to me. Thank God that genre is almost dead). Instead, the raw power of metal actually cheers me up if I’ve had a irritating day. While calling metal “therapy” might be going a bit too far, I will say listening to, say “Damage Inc.” or playing along to “Seek and Destroy” on my guitar always leaves me feeling great.

As for concerts, I’ve seen more fights in bars with Top-40 cover bands on stage than I’ve ever seen at a metal show. People leaving the pit after a show are usually all smiles. I’ve bumped into people after shows where, instead of getting angry, we’ve smiled, said “excuse me” or “sorry” and moved on. I don’t leave shows angry: I leave with a smile and feeling like I’ve relaxed every muscle in my body.

Charge: You don’t learn social norms from listening to metal.

Perhaps not – or, rather, perhaps the listener doesn’t learn social norms exclusively from metal. But so what? The job of teaching norms – right vs. wrong, honesty, integrity, etc. – falls mainly on parents when children are young and then, to a lesser extent, on relatives, teachers and “role models” such as ministers. A person who gets their cultural beliefs entirely from metal would be just as confused as a person who learned how to act by watching and listening only to opera.

No one is raised in a vacuum. Those who want to blame metal for “bad” thoughts or behaviors seem to me like people who mostly don’t want to recognize how they might have failed as parents or mentors.

While it’s true metal has a rebellious spirit, that’s hardly a terrible thing. The skeptical views of government, religion and “civilized” society expressed in metal often lead listeners to question set beliefs. The ability to think for oneself shouldn’t be discouraged.

Perhaps it’s pointless to rebut Bayles’ argument in a forum like this: After all, I’m just preaching to the choir – you, my three loyal readers, are already well-aware that metal is not music for “dropouts, runaways and ‘throwaways.'” Meanwhile, there’s no hope of convincing someone like Bayles that her opinions are misguided and unfair. Her beliefs aren’t simply solidified, they’re fossilized – fused forever into stone by the fierce pressure of her ugly cultural bias.

Well, then, instead of trying to sway Bayles, let’s pity her. She either hates and fears what she doesn’t understand, or she simply dismisses everything that doesn’t fit her personal taste as “ugly” and “useless.” As someone who enjoys classical music, jazz and the blues but cherishes the glory of metal, I would tell Bayles that she shouldn’t be so closed-minded.

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2 Comments

  1. Unfortunatly there are always going to be people like this in the world,and her close mindedness is her loss,and besides it always seems to be that people who are professional ‘critics’ are just frustrated failures at the things they are critics about.

  2. I have come across similar ignorance in the past, as i’m sure most metal fans have.
    Since the ’70s metal has had hardline critics preaching of it’s evil nature and ability to corrupt the fragile minds of the young.
    I don’t know when what you quoted was written, but i believe that slowly, metal is losing it’s stereotype as being dumb music for dumb kids. There are more and more intellectuals writing positively about metal, and perhaps an understanding that metal is something deeper, meaningful, and positive, and has something interesting and important to say, is growing.

    Check out the works of Niall Scott and Keith-Kahn Harris, for example.


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