American Culture

Popular Music Scholarship I: Metal is protest music?

Is metal music really the musical outgrowth of sixties’ protest?

The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, ed. Ian Peddie (image courtesy Ashgate Publishing)

The latest book I’ve just completed from my 2014 reading list is an anthology of scholarly essays edited by Ian Peddie called The  Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest. It’s been a longish read, mainly because I’ve read each essay carefully (like the good scholarly reader I am) all the while trying to think of a way to write about such an olio of pieces. It finally occurred to me that the best way to write about such an interesting group of scholarly essays about rock, reggae, and hip hop would be for S&R’s weekly feature, Tuesday TunesDay. So over the next several weeks I’ll be posting essays on most if not all of the essays from this interesting book.

To begin, a couple of general comments about this volume. In the late 1980’s-early 1990’s colleague Sam Smith and I did a number of scholarly presentations at conferences and elsewhere that took scholarly approaches to rock music. One of the frustrations we encountered was the poverty of insightful scholarly writing about rock music by authors who actually understood rock music. Of course there were a couple of exceptions – one in particular that I appreciated was Simon Frith’s Art Into Pop, an excellent exploration of how the English “art college” system proved an incubator for many of the major figures of ’60s rock music such as John Lennon, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend. This volume is at least on a par with Frith’s now-classic monograph. The writers here “get” rock, reggae, punk, hip hop – and so their scholarly approaches have, to use a well-loved term in pop music discussions, authenticity.

A second important element about The Resisting Muse is that it takes a “big tent” approach – i.e., it covers a wide range of popular music in relation to its elements of protest. It does this in an era where the music business has been siloed to the advantage of, well, no one except perhaps hard core fans of specific sub-genres.

So to the discussion of this week’s article: “Communities of resistance: heavy metal as a reinvention of social technology.”

The article’s author, Sean K. Kelly, posits that the rise of what we now call simply “metal” is arguably a result of the evolution of the protest movements of the ’60s. Kelly’s thesis: Metal seeks, through its creation of an alternative community via its uses of myth (or futurist scenarios). to reject a world evolving into a technopoly. Kelly argues that the youth protests of the ’60s were at least in part Luddite – and that in a strange way metal’s embrace of music technology (particularly earsplitting amplification and near-seizure-inducing light shows) by “heavy metal” musicians is a way of refuting technology by turning its own characteristics upon it. Kelly also identifies two of the founding practitioners of this genre of rock music: Black Sabbath and Rush.

It is interesting to note that Black Sabbath represents the mythic (and Satanic) side of the metal philosophical outlook while Rush represents the futurist (and dystopian) side. So Kelly perhaps rightly chooses these two groups, who began their careers within a few years of each other (the first Sabbath album appeared in 1970, the first Rush album in 1974; each group’s first album is titled after the band’s name). Kelly identifies each of these groups as progenitors of later “high period” metal artists such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. He gets this right, it seems to me – it is fairly easy for even a casual fan like myself to see the line from Sabbath to Iron Maiden and from early Rush to Judas Priest. And his observations on the frustration with the failures of social technology expressed by songs such as “Iron Man” and “Breaking the Law” seem spot on.

But there are a couple of points where Kelly stretches his point a little too far concerning both the arc of the metal period in rock and the philosophical impetus behind at least some of metal’s messages.

First, he ascribes to Rush a lyrical populism that just doesn’t make much sense if one considers the arc of the band’s messaging. It is well known, for instance (again even to casual fans) that Neil Peart, the band’s drummer and lyricist, has long been associated with Randian ideas. While Kelly uses “Working Man” from the first Rush album as an example of a signaled solidarity with the plight of the average Joe, Peart’s later lyrics (say, from “Tom Sawyer” or a song Kelly cites for different reasons, “Red Barchetta”) suggest that the band’s message might be better identified with Joe the Plumber – or Howard Roark.

Second, Kelly ignores an interesting point about metal’s relationship with the Satanic. While Kelly does nod in the direction of The Rolling Stones (who truly are the progenitors of Satanic reference in rock – well, if one ignores Arthur Brown), he (and perhaps the band’s admirers such as Bruce Dickinson) ignores an important point about the view of Satanism held by, of all people, Black Sabbath themselves.

Here’s Geezer Butler discussing the song “Black Sabbath,” which he wrote – and from whence the band eventually took its name:

“It’s a satanic world,” Butler told Rolling Stone in 1971. “The devil’s more in control now. People can’t come together, there’s no equality. It’s a sin to put yourself above other people, and yet that’s what people do.”

While this refutation disputes Kelly’s contention that a band like Sabbath saw Satanism as a way of creating alternate community opposed to technopolistic oppression, it does support Kelly’s contention that metal might well be a descendant of the ’60s hippie movement.

So somehow Ozzy may well be a spiritual younger brother of Donovan Leitch.

Who’d a thunk it, right?

As Kelly moves on to discuss the careers of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, he notes that the protest element that he claims for heavy metal evolves to include more of a community paradigm that many of us who are only casual listeners to the genre recognize well. One might call it the “Led Zeppelin” relationship: critics are not necessarily sympathetic to (or even interested in) the music of (insert metal band name here); but the band develops a huge following among fans, has great success and eventually, perhaps grudgingly, draws appreciation from those same critics. Such has been the case for both Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, who, as Kelly notes are the bands who helped metal transition from the role Kelly claims for it as music using technology to protest against technological hegemony to an sort of alternate culture where fans (and their heroes) could find a space to express alternative views about their lives. Both these bands have, in their ways, continued the explorations of futurist dystopian and mythic experiences that Kelly traces back to Black Sabbath and Rush – albeit with their own interesting twists.

Finally, Kelly only lightly touches on the emergence of sub-genres such as pop metal with its party ethos.  That makes sense given his thesis. But it would be interesting to see if he has continued to explore metal’s evolution (some might call it devolution) from technological protest against technology to headbanger party soundtrack.  Perhaps a later essay will be able to show that this mutation might have been what it seems to have been: metal’s last gasp as a major force in rock.

22 replies »

  1. Looking forward to your essays here.

    I’m not sure what I think of Kelly’s main thesis. Certainly Rush and early Black Sabbath along with some Iron Maiden have some protest, but mostly my experience with metal (cira 1981-87) is more escapist. Perhaps that was just me though. I was a dense teenager.

    • Interestingly, Retro, that idea that metal evolved into a sort of soundtrack for escapist behavior is one Kelly notes, especially in discussing Iron Maiden and Judas Priest who were all about the great, rockin’ show. That sort of ritualized release isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it probably, though, as you note doesn’t rise to the level of social protest except in the most general/generational sense.

  2. A fascinating take, Jim. I’ve been a fan of Black Sabbath for decades. But I’ve never understood why I liked the music, given the world it depicted. Now I understand my odd feeling about the band’s music. Then again, maybe I just like the beat.

    • As my friend Don Dixon has said, Denny, “Most of the girls like to dance/But only some of the boys do.” Get as funky with it as you like. 🙂

    • Yes, Otherwise, quoting a line by a group who spent many of their prime years trying to weasel out of their social commentary in songs like “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Salt of the Earth” – that’ll convince me. 😉

      • Obviously, I was trying to be clever, and as usually happens, it bit me in the ass.

        I thought yesterday about my comment (before I saw your reply) and decided that I was very wrong. For my original comment to be right, either I must believe that art doesnt exist, or that art is only to be done by those recognized by the art establishment. I must not believe that art is democratic and is an expression of the times done by whomever has the talent to do it.

        I’ve always argued the last. Art clearly exists. It evokes emotional responses in us, and in fact is to me the single most compelling argument for humans being “special” as a species. It clearly should not be left to the professionals, or they would kill it just as surely as classical poetry has been killed, by divorcing it from any relevance to daily life. No, art can be done by whomever has the talent to do it.

        For me to argue that rock isn’t art is at best inconsitent, more likely ignorance on my part and at worst snobbery.

        So there, Otherwise, take that you scoundrel! 🙂

  3. “Neil Peart, the band’s drummer and lyricist, has long been a devout Randian.”

    Uh, not exactly.

    Rolling Stone: …[Y]ou were interested in the writings of Ayn Rand
    decades ago. Do her words still speak to you?”
    Peart: Oh, no. That was 40 years ago.

    • Maybe you’re right, Mike, but you can see how his pleading “compassionate conservatism” might be taken with a grain of salt. Especially since the stuff below comes from conservative/libertarian sites where Peart has given interviews….

      “Although Peart is sometimes regarded as a ‘conservative’ and ‘Republican’ rock star,[54] he has criticized the Republican Party by stating that the philosophy of the party is ‘absolutely opposed’ to Christ’s teachings. In 2005 he described himself as a ‘left-leaning libertarian,’ and is often cited as a libertarian celebrity. In July 2011, Peart reiterated those views, calling himself a ‘bleeding-heart libertarian.'”

      Like most creative types, he seems to be a complicated guy. But his lyrics for the songs cited certainly have the Randian edge….

  4. …metal’s evolution (some might call it devolution) from technological protest against technology to headbanger party soundtrack. Perhaps a later essay will be able to show that this mutation might have been what it seems to have been: metal’s last gasp as a major force in rock.

    Are you suggesting that metal is dying? I must protest!

    • Mike, I would suggest that rock itself, not just genres like metal, is dying. Yes, you dig metal and seek it out – as I dig folk rock and power pop and seek that out. But I’d ask this question (yeah, I’m being somewhat serious when you were kidding around): who’s the biggest band in America? How does that band stack up against all these damned pop tarts and deejays who are more software experts than anything else? If the sources I read are in any way correct, the answer is that rock is a niche – and that metal, mighty metal, is a niche within a niche….

      So says one crying in the wilderness….

      • I’d say that rock is evolving rather than dying, and in ways that we older folks probably haven’t anticipated or don’t appreciate, especially given the asphyxiating grip the “middle man” has had over the business since rock & roll yielded its first hit. This grip has not only loosened, it’s been jerked away for now. (Kids, enjoy it while it lasts, they’ll co-opt it all eventually like they always do.) I can’t keep up anymore with the wild stuff my daughters listen to and the ways they access it, but I still hear rock elements, it’s still mostly 4/4 and 3-6 minutes long and loud as hell, so…

        As far as metal dying, I’ve been hearing that for almost a quarter-century. Metal is still very much a force; your assertion might be a bit US-centric. The Internet has played a huge role in revitalizing the scene… just try keeping up with Blabbermouth‘s news stream. Prog metal is alive and well (props to Dream Theater, Fates Warning, etc., for never quitting), Judas Priest’s new album just made Billboard’s top ten for the first time in their career, Iron Maiden is still selling out stadiums, and, for what it’s worth, Metallica just blew away Glastonbury, “confounding critics who said heavy metal had no place at Britain’s biggest music festival.” The rise of black metal (largely thanks to Scandinavian bands) has produced some real milestones, and one of the greatest singers in metal history, John Arch, recently re-emerged to issue an instant classic with his old Fates Warning partner, Jim Matheos. Yeah, I dig metal and seek it out, but I don’t have to look very hard. (grin)

  5. If you haven’t heard Black Sabbath’s 13, I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially in the context of this essay. The world-rejecting themes, the anger at the Catholic sex-crimes cover-up, and the track “God Is Dead?” in particular are exquisitely spiritual while still embracing protest at their heart. All these years later, and Black Sabbath still have it.

  6. Hmmm. Interesting topic for a book and can’t wait to read further posts. I have a hard time seeing metal as protest music though. It’s loud, angry, and ultimately cathartic. To me, aggressive music is to the state as sex is to the church. Both institutions will tell you it’s bad because they understand that the more they tell you it’s wrong, the more they can count on you to get into it. Wondering if Kelly addresses that in his book.