Friday, April 03, 2009

Metal: A Headbanger' Journey

For some time now I have been thinking about writing a review of Sam Dunn's acclaimed documentary, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Now it's the right time because I think I finally found my words.

The most striking thing about the documentary is what I would consider an inconsistency between the title, suggesting the author's personal experience, and the method he applies to describing the Metal phenomenon, an inquiry from an anthropological perspective - since Sam Dunn is an anthropologist. He is absolutely brilliant in the first endeavor, that of a Metal fan. He sincerely and openly throws on the table in all detail the way in which he constructs and lives his passion for Metal, he goes as far as having personal and absolutely enriching discussions with artists considered as landmarks of the genre - Dio and Bruce Dickinson just to name a few - and he ends the film with the blunt and sincere conclusion :

"But I set out on this journey to answer one question : 'Why has Heavy Metal been consistently stereotyped, dismissed and condemned?'. And what's become clear to me is that Metal confronts what we'd rather ignore. It celebrates what we often deny. It indulges in what we fear most. And that's why Metal will always be a culture of outsiders. Ever since I was 12 years old I've had to defend my love for Heavy Metal against those who said that it's a less valid for of music. My answer now is that you either feel it or you don't. If Metal doesn't give you that overwhelming surge of power that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck, you might never get it. And you know what? That's OK. Because judging by the over forty thousands Metalheads around me, we're doing just fine without you."
There's a lot of theatrics in this very well orchestrated crescendo with Metallica's "Master of Puppets" in the background, but as a Metalhead I totally adhere to the fundamental meaning of these words: ignore the naysayers around yourself, stick to what you value most about Metal and give them a metaphorical finger if you feel like, it is all about the music and nothing else.

Where I don't go down along the same path as the documentary is in it's second endeavor, trying to sketch the Metal culture for the mainstream public through the anthropological perspective. Yes, Metal is a culture and obviously one can draw some basic lines upon which it is build. Here again Sam Dunn does a good job at gathering views about Metal from sociologists, musicologists, psychologists, people who approached different aspects of the culture through a scientific method and tried to come up with a coherent view. But something is badly lacking in spite of all that and if we go back to the finale of the documentary we can sum up one characteristic of this view of Metal I cannot possibly agree with, that it's a culture of outsiders. That somehow Metalheads are an ostracized and victimized bunch of rebels against the established order. And it's a perspective present throughout the entire film, developed with more assiduity in Global Metal, Sam Dunn's second documentary which deals with the manifestations of Metal throughout the whole world. Let me explain.

My basic assumption about why some people listen to Metal and choose to be part of the Metal culture is not because they are some kind of outsiders. Outsiders relative to what? Mainstream music? Of course, yet again considering the huge diversity of contemporary "popular" music, who is an outsider and who is not? Mainstream values supposedly commonly shared by some kind of majority of the society? Even less, I don't think Metalheads are an homogenous people who share the same values, far from that. Just listen to Kreator's Mille Petrozza's slightly communist views or Napalm Death's Barney Greenway's leftist anti-capitalist rants and you'll quickly jump on your feet if you're like me. The opposite is obviously valid, one can be conforted by such views. But that is not what makes me a Metalhead, it is the sound and the pleasure of feeling it live so I enjoy every single note of the good tunes Kreator or Napalm come up with. Or considering as anarchists or rebels Metal fans who have a daily job, pay their taxes, have a family and live their own lives without making much fuss about the "established order". The lowest common denominator among all of them is the Metal music, I cannot think of anything else in the first instance. It is the amplified guitars, excessively downtuned bass, highly skilled drumming and impossible voice performances who go always "faster, harder, louder" always searching for a sharper and more punching sound, always breaking barriers in speed and technicality or ceaselessly searching for a heavy sound that expresses ever deeper emotions whatever the speed. Or staying true to the basics of Metal music writing and building ever more fantastic visuals on the scene. From this perspective I could say that Morbid Angel's t-shirt describes the best what Metalheads have in common : "extreme music for extreme people". And extreme music isn't fitted for everybody because it requires a considerable amount of personal investment whether it's time, money, giving up a secure job or facing a close social environment where you don't fit in. That's about all. It might look like a culture of social outsiders, considering the term outsiders as "outside the society" but it isn't. I haven't yet met a Metalhead in a liberal society that is opposed to the fundamentals upon which the society he lives in is built. Instead I have met Metalheads whose personal values don't match with those expressed in the mainstream media or with those of his family or his close environment. But that's a totally different issue. And if one finds an appropriate answer in the metaphorical finger then let him point it. It ultimately boils down to our freedom as individuals to find our own way and follow it.

To close my argument, I will say that Sam Dunn did a great job with his documentary in being sincere about what a true Metalhead is and you should watch it for this reason. As far as the rest of the argument is concerned, just try to figure it out by yourself why you listen to Metal, it will be enough.