Oct 27, 2006

Striking up a Conversation about Metal.

On a recent expedition into the hinterland to visit a professor's house for an informal dinner with our seminar class, I broached the subject that forms the foundation of my easy relation to people: music. Generally, this is a winning conversation for me, because I have a pretty voracious appetite for new music, and no matter what your political or personal quirks, we'll probably have some common ground there.

In the past, I'd make a wry comment about how I listen to very disparate things, though nowadays, most people says that they listen to "everything." Perhaps as shorthand to avoid exposing too much about one's self. Or maybe it's the tipping of the hat to the pundits who claim that the advent of the digital age and Nintendo generation attention spans say that most formats of in-depth listening to music (artist-oriented or even non-single driven through the radio or tape trading) has disappeared and what's current is all that people care about. In a less cynical mood, I might have argued that genre-hopping suggests that the tall walls between rigid discourse of "right" and "wrong", "disco" and "rock", "black" and "white" are being shaken at their very foundation. I'm not in that mood right now.

I've written about music, and my personal tastes, a number of times before, including my formative experiences with different genres of metal while growing up. So lately, instead of just speaking with folks about the tastes or groups that they mention as their favorites, I have taken to exposing this facet of my personality with more wreckless abandon. It's not gone particularly well. While I don't expound with unbridled enthusiasm about how a good power riff can get me through a bad day, I have gotten defensive pretty quickly when challenged or questioned about my taste.

I guess the cognitive dissonance for many people remains in how something that seems so abrasive can actually be more forward thinking than most mainstream music. Many groups wrote about environmental issues, the cost of war, nihilism, literature (I love the Poe references out there in Maiden, Crimson Glory, and Annihilator to name a few), nuclear proliferation, and even racism before mainstream groups caught on (have they yet?). Part of the reason lies in the desire to write about things that are fairly grim, and while fantasy topics like J.R.R. Tolkien are still very popular, history is replete with many incredibly dark moments that fit quite well with the aggressive/dark music.

I guess this focus on the underside of civilization and human nature is unnerving for people who take the time to look at the lyrics. Before we get that far, the genre(s) are filled with outsiders - and their anger, or at least their disinterest in fitting in - is quite unnerving for people, especially in America. In other parts of the world, it is a legitimate protest against oppression and the normalization (and commodification) of youth culture. In Brazil, for example, Sepultura's music, which lives on the very border between thrash and death metal, was known and sung by protestors crying out against the oppressive government. They were one of the groups that caught the political moment - not unlike the way that Dylan did it in the 60s in the U.S.

Anyway, perhaps it's okay that people don't go crazy for this stuff. I mean, it's like underground hip-hop, in a lot of ways. There is precision and layering of skill in the MCs, the turntablists, and the producers (sometimes) that transcends the commodified, white-washed stuff that people hear on Z100 (sounds like underground metal, in contrast with... Metallica). They do it for their love of the music, and because that have something to say.

So I'll continue to listen to many genres, but I'll have to rethink approaching this question in a neutral social context. Because maybe this is one of those things that's not so well understood. And the questions of race and gender are also particularly interesting. I've found that a number of groups have spoken about racism, but classism is not really addressed, and there is a strong stream of homophobia that is more visible in some of the groups. Perhaps that has more to do with the socialization of men in general, but I'm a novice at this social science stuff.

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