Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Being a metal head and the irrelevance of the concept of “scene”.


Earlier this week I started writing an article entitled Death Metal: Grotesquery, Fetish, Misogyny. In this article I considered the predominance of misogynist representation in grotesque death metal and contemplated it in relation to the feminist (Kristeva, Butler) concept of the abject. As I wrote and thought it naturally occurred to me that people have likely thought about this before me. And I was right, Keith Kahn-Harris has in the past engaged with death metal, scenes, ethics of representation and moral boundaries. Apart from momentarily taking the wind out of my sails, Kahn-Harris’ work actually helped crystallise something that has been bothering me intellectually for a while now: the concept of the scene.

Kahn-Harris’ scholarship is squarely positioned within the hybrid terrain between sociology and Birmingham cultural studies. It is a skilful engagement with sociology methodology (taking a youth subculture as the subject) and in my opinion an incomplete yet valuable articulation cultural studies. As far as subculture studies go, Kahn-Harris’ work is top notch, well researched and engaged with the actual community on which it reflects. My only real critique of his research (aside from subculture theory, which must be forgiven due to the temporal positioning of his research) would be that the author’s own identity as a metal head or something else remains incompletely articulated. I kept asking myself: “This dude knows his stuff, but his identity as a metal head is unclear... is that a methodological technique for objectivity? What if he’s just a poser?”.

This is not an attempt to stain his credibility but rather an attempt to address a critical post-cultural studies question: if the technology and techniques for artistic creation are as widely accessible as they are now in the present, what then becomes of the distinction between the artist and the critic? In other words, through the increasing use of social networking technologies such as Facebook, twitter, and more musically, bandcamp, music is now created in a highly information rich environment in which the creators of the information about music are now capable of almost instantly creating and publishing their own music as a form of critical response. What I am describing here is an empowering of the critic to transition to artist in a post-music business music marketplace. Naturally, not all critics are musically capable, yet the distance between them and their object of critique has significantly shrunk in the last decade. The role of reviews, analyses and critiques has changed drastically now that every other person is able to write a blog, post status updates or have their voice expressed in a comments area. Similarly, the speed at which information is created and disseminated has seen a movement away from carefully considered opinion and instead toward a more visceral, instant gratification of a “gut reaction” (witness the “reaction” video craze on Youtube a few years back).

Meanwhile, back to Kahn-Harris, my unfinished article and the concept of scene. To me the concept of “scene”, as in a “death metal scene”, is obsolete and only relevant insofar as it is an intellectual curiosity. Certainly subcultures exist and take pride in their identities, however, the means to more fully express the complexity of personal identity simply demonstrate the porosity between conceptual borders. Homosexual identity, while still an ethical problematic in metal occupies a space unimaginable in earlier decades. The same can be said for ethnic and religious identity, metal, once a white working class phenomenon has spread from the UK to India, Iran, Argentina and beyond. Similarly, as metal has spread across formations of identities and been reconfigured in different demographics, once rife traditional snobberies (“I liked Metallica until they released their first album” etc) are becoming less relevant as people adapt the genre to different standards, approaches and aesthetics (see my article on djent). Further, since scenes can exist in largely disembodied spaces thanks to social networking, many of the traditional markers of metal such as fashion (long hair, spikes, leather, denim) are becoming less necessary to a core image of what it means to be a metal head.

With regard to this last point, metal fashion is alive and kicking, as a fashion and its relevance to self-identification is increasingly determined by individual participation rather than top down, “scene” imposition. While it can signify legitimacy or authenticity it is not required to do so.

Just this morning I was reading “Being a Metalhead Today” over at the once wonderful Invisible Oranges. Back in the day, original ruler of transparent citrus, Cosmo Lee articulated an original, reflexive and nuanced perspective on heavy metal music. In Cosmo’s absence, his replacements continue to write about metal from a variety of perspectives but seldom match his level of perspicacity. Nevertheless Invisible Oranges remains a site in which sustained discussion of a relatively high quality can occur. Scab Casserole’s article falls into the trap set by sociology and articulated by Kahn-Harris over a decade ago even as it tries to move beyond this paradigm: it limits its construction of a metal head to a consumer within scene boundaries. This is something picked up on by many of the site’s readers who are keen to point out the persistent diversity running through metal even during the halcyon days which a certain generation chooses to fossilise, encase in nostalgia and worship. Just as with cars, rock, literature and family values, according to this perspective, it was all better in the old days. Indeed, the most interesting point about this article is the discussion it spawned which reflects much of what I have said here already. I suppose my only contribution is to return to the point I made earlier. I believe it is about time that given the technological level of the societies in which we currently live, metal heads as critics, consumers and observers articulate their contributions via what matters in metal the most, music. There is still a role for metal writing and I believe Invisible Oranges functions as a possible site. There are many others too, but it would be fascinating to see a situation in which metal heads acted like jazz musicians and commented on the melodies, rhythms and “brutal-ness” of their peers by way of musical articulation. You did that melody that way? I hear you and I raise you this way... etc.
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