Monday, February 27, 2012

This Isn't The Music You're Thinking About

Gate-keepers worthy of hire will certainly be those who, in Stephen Burn‘s words, talk less ‘about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories or using the book under review as little more than a platform to promote themselves and their agendas’.
Jason Goroncy
So I've finished Robert Walser's Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness In Heavy Metal Music, the third of a triptych of works on the genre that I've read as part of researching my latest writing project (the band in question isn't heavy metal; reading a history, a sociology, and cultural review of the style, however, does help to remind this writer that, while fictional, my characters and their actions are supposed to exist within a recognizable historical and cultural milieu; if I screw that up, none of the rest matters).

Walser is a musicologist. He is also deeply and widely read in cultural theory. His view of music as a form of discourse is one with which I am sympathetic, stemming as it does, at least in part, from a materialist, class basis (he is not a Marxist; he does rely, however, upon a type of criticism that one can trace back to Marx). He knows music in general. He knows heavy metal from the inside out, as both a fan and guitarist. He has deep respect for the genre, the musicians and bands who perform the music, the fans who listen to it at home, in concert, used to watch it on MTV, and the record industry that understood a cash cow when it heard one, gobbling up bands left and right that might have even the slightest relationship to the style (two bands of roughly similar vintage, Poison and Faith No More, are good examples; while neither fits perfectly under the heading "heavy metal", the latter is far more so than the former, yet Walser devotes an entire analytical section to Poison's "Nothin' But A Good Time" and doesn't mention Faith No More).

In considering a book that is over twenty years old, there are limits to the utility of picking certain nits, such as the parenthetical above. Two decades in popular culture is a very long time; the music that goes by the name "heavy metal" today is vastly different than that with which Walser had to work. Using Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption" and Yngwe Malmsteen as paradigmatic guitar virtuosi may have served his purposes well in 1991. I think it is true that, while time may have dulled our collective memory, "Eruption" still serves as a template for a style of guitar playing that was modified, refined, extended, or perhaps considered and rejected, by the generation of guitar players that came after him. Malmsteen, on the other hand, has been relegated to the sidelines of the genre. Guitar players certainly listen to his playing; to the things he says, however, and the rise and fall of his band Rising Force, however, there is little impact (in part because, not to put too fine a point on it, Malmsteen was an asshole).

At the same time, even by the time Walser was writing his book in the late 1980's, there were other guitar players - Joe Satriani, the San Francisco guitar teacher who created a career based on his influence on his two most famous students; Kirk Hammett, of Metllica; Steve Vai, the other of Satriani's students, who played with David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, and now has a solo career; Dave Mustaine of Megadeath; Kerry King of Slayer; Scott Ian of Anthrax - who could have served as counterpoint, different paths to solving various problems in composition and playing than Van Halen/Malmsteen, and even as examples showing the dedication to craft and technique necessary to play a style of music that is both physically and intellectually demanding.

As I wrote above, Walser knows the music from the inside out. Like the authors of the other two volumes I have, Ian Christe and Diane Weinstein, he has great love for the genre and a deep respect for the fans. Writing at the time he did, his choices for examples to elucidate various points were far more limited than they might be today. He has a grasp of cultural theory that breaks through far-too-simplistic (and too often ignorant and wrong) notions that the music itself is simple; that the fans of heavy metal are, in the words of one infamous reviewer "slack-jawed, alpaca-haired, downy-mustachioed imbeciles in cheap, too-large T-shirts with pictures of comic book Armageddon ironed on the front." Mark Ames, who wrote a review of Lords of Chaos, referred to heavy metal fans as "dirtheads."

All the same, like Weinstein, who managed to pass out some flyers to fans at a Rush concert, Walser received back around 200 surveys at various concerts. Considering a typical concert at the time might have anywhere from 3,000 to over 10,000 attendees, the results of such surveys wouldn't be statistically significant even for a single show; Walser notes they came from several. Considering the well-known (at least among social scientists) notion that the folks most likely to return a survey are those who have a deeper commitment to the topic in question, it shouldn't surprise most folks that the surveys showed a deeper understanding of the music qua music, the thematic content of the lyrics, a greater attention to the subculture around heavy metal (the musical and fan magazines that cover the genre; higher attendance rates for concerts; etc.). This is not to say that the fan base of heavy metal is or is not more or less intelligent than that for any other musical style; it is, rather, to suggest that, at least at the time Walser was writing, more work should have been done to dispel the myth of the slack-jawed, alpaca-haired dirthead.

On the appeal the music has for those fans, the three themes in the subtitle - power, gender, and madness - cover a broad area, and criss-cross, intersect, and could also contradict one another. A word that Walser uses quite a bit to describe the inherent contradictions in any commercial music that also appeals to its audience beyond simple questions of acceptability is "transgressive". Walser pushes the word, however, even within the three analytic categories, in an attempt to demonstrate that the music transgresses even the notions accepted within the limited definitions of the musical style and those of its fan base. He is correct to note that heavy metal, like the rest of society, is sexist. While no more racist than, say, country-western music, heavy metal is no less so, either. Even the rare African-American band - Living Colour, Body Count, Bad Brains (actually a punk band, but influential on a variety of metal bands in the 1990's with their mix of punk and reggae) - stand out because they are so rare. While the music does deal thematically with matters of madness and death, injustice and war, even God and the occult, these are less transgressive than they are pretty traditional material for songs that reach beyond the typical "boy screws girl" of rock and roll. It is less the thematic material itself, than the timbre and volume of the genre that raises parents' hackles. There is also the fact that bands from Slayer and Mercyful Fate through the Norwegian Black Metal bands and other bands like Cradle of Filth, Deicide, and Lamb of God that are far more aggressive in their rejection of Judeo-Christianity. Finally, for all his grasp of a cultural theory rooted in a kind of neo-Marxist understanding of the many contradictions in the production of any cultural arefact, Walser does not address himself directly to the reality that, both musically and subculturally, the style is conservative to the point of reactionary.

It is here, I think, that his attempted apologia breaks down most clearly. Unlike Robert Christgau, who bemoans the technical proficiency and lyrical extravagance of heavy metal as something from which rock and roll was supposed to liberate us, by ignoring the many political signs and signifiers within the music itself, the lyrics, the fan base, and critical reception, we miss a far greater, and far more troubling, contradiction than many of the others mentioned.

From whichever perspective you consider the phenomenon - either bands or fans, the intermediaries or mediators - the genre borders on occasional violence in its vehement restrictions on what does and does not constitute a band within the genre. Many if not most of the bands the popular culture so labeled at the time Walser wrote his book (and a couple about which he writes at some length) are not now considered "heavy metal", despite certain nods in its direction (technical proficiency, in particular of the lead guitarist and lead singer; flamboyance and excitement in live performance; instrumentation, timbre, tone, and volume). George Lynch is a well-regarded lead guitar player to this day. Few, however, consider Dokken a heavy metal band. If someone were to mention Dream Theater or Rush, most heavy metal fans would violently disagree (as would the band members, although Dream Theater acknowledges inspiration from Metallica as well as Rush and Radiohead). Who is and is not an acceptable fan - dress and hairstyle; attendance at concerts and music-buying habits; gender roles, including questions of sexual orientation (although that has become muted thanks to Rob Halford of Judas Priest coming out in the mid-1990's) - is something die-hard fans guard with passion and intensity.

These matters pale in comparison to the occasional spectacle such as the one I included in a post a couple days ago - the concert clip of Metallica performing "Creeping Death", with the crowd chanting "Death!" during a break in the bridge. In an infamous passage in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom compared rock concerts to right-wing political rallies. In a drug-addled interview with Cameron Crowe in the 1970's, David Bowie called Adolf Hitler the first rock star. In many ways, these aren't inapt comparisons. As rock became bigger than life, and the bands started to have greater power and authority with their fans, concerts could become rallying points for social and political danger (this is driven home in the film version of Pink Floyd's The Wall, where the character of Pink, played by Bob Geldof, uses the authority vested in him by his fans to instigate violent attacks on a variety of minorities he names in "Against the Wall" - "That one looks Jewish/And that one's a Coon/Who let this riff-raff into the room?"). With its limits policed by both musicians and fans, and the emotional overload inherent in a concert bringing with it that much power, the temptation to abuse the power granted can be overwhelming. Recently, Dave Mustaine, leader of Megadeath, spoke favorably of Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum. While many might be surprised by this, even a moment's reflection should make it clear how obvious this seems.

Throughout what I've been writing, I've tried to keep in mind the epigram at the top, while remaining true, as far as I can, to my own view of the limits of Walser's book. This is not "Geoffrey Kruse-Safford's book on heavy metal". It is Robert Walser's, written two decades ago. Walser's book delves far deeper in to the music, its existence at various nexi of social, cultural, and political life, and its role as discourse both to its fan base and to the larger society and societies (not taking for granted that "the West" is a unitary thing). For all its faults, it offers to anyone interested not only in the style under study but any musical style, a template from which to move forward social and cultural discussions of the role of music in our American society. Would that there were more such works.

Virtual Tin Cup

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