Meta-metal and Metal Cheerleading

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Have you ever listened to Manowar’s song “The Gods Made Heavy Metal”? It’s an example of a lyrical meme that has been circulating through metal since time immemorial. I started thinking about the purpose of such songs and came to conclusion that while I greatly enjoy them, there are numerous aspects of songs like “The Gods…” that bother me.

I love songs like “The Gods…”, “The Book of Heavy Metal”, and Rocka Rollas’ recent masterpiece, “Metal the Posers to Death”. These songs are fun. They’re cheesy, but in a good way, like a classic B movie. They always have an energy that taps directly into what makes metal great. They celebrate metal, and on the face of it, I see no downside to celebrating metal.

The most obvious complaint people seem to have is the cheesiness and shallowness of meta-metal anthems. However, taste is subjective and shallowness is endemic in metal lyrics, especially in certain genres. Perceptions of shallowness are also subjective, but these are minor complaints. My major complaints about songs like “The Gods…” are that they are empty meta-commentary, that they celebrate metal, and that they tend to push an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. The songs are also dumb, but they’re so dumb as to preclude the need for discussing why they are dumb.

Art about its own artistic medium (meta) is interesting and vital to understanding the art form in question. Meta-art can also be integral in conveying a particular message. The Neverending Story relies on the reader understanding that the main character is a real boy reading and experiencing a fantasy novel. However, meta-art can be abused. It can become narcissistic, masturbatory, purposeless, or parodic.

I linked to some meta-metal songs below. I love all of the songs wholeheartedly, but I am forced to see them all as empty meta-commentary. They speak about heavy metal’s history, about why it is great, but they achieve no artistic goal that I can discern. (In all fairness, other musical genres produce meta-music too, so heavy metal is no worse for it).

There is valid meta-commentary on metal, but metal cheerleading anthems are not it. Songs that lecture about why metal is great or lecture about the genre’s techniques will not help us understand the genre better, so they serve no real purpose. Heavy metal’s strengths will make themselves known by listening to any good song. Manowar’s “All Men Play on 10″ is valid meta-commentary. It says ‘fuck you, we’re gonna play how we want, and we don’t care about record sales or public perceptions’. It rejects selling out and hair metal, one of ’80s metal’s bogeymen. Helloween’s “Heavy Metal Hamsters” addressed the band’s disgust with the way a former record label treated them. Finally, All Shall Perish’s “Songs for the Damned” takes the serious route to praising metal, ending with this line: “I don’t care if you get it, these songs still scream your name”. In other words, metal observes even those who don’t want its scrutiny.

Most meta-metal concerns itself with clumsily celebrating heavy metal. Again, on the face of it, I didn’t see a problem, but then I started thinking about why anybody would want to celebrate metal. Heavy metal is praiseworthy, but it doesn’t intrinsically need praise or celebration. Heavy metal’s merits are obvious to those who like it, and it has no merit to those who don’t. Non-metalheads will view the songs below as childish, delusional puffery. The songs won’t change their opinions and will probably reinforce them.

On a purely personal level, I don’t need to have heavy metal affirmed to me. It’s not my religion or moral code. It’s a hobby, but I like it, so why would I give a shit about what anybody else thinks of it? If I don’t need to have my belief system or my morals affirmed on a daily basis, why would I need to have something less important affirmed either?

At this point, I can’t conceive of myself not being a metalhead. I’m white and male through no choice of my own. Lacking any other perspective, I can’t conceive of personally being anything else. Likewise, Metal has worked its way into my identity so thoroughly that it’s just a part of me at this point. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of being white, male, or a metalhead, because I didn’t actually choose to be any of them. I am metal, therefore I am!

Because metal is such a part of me, I see no need to celebrate it. Since heavy metal’s merits are so obvious to me, songs that praise heavy metal strike me as heavy metal cheerleading. They push metal’s merits in my face, demanding acknowledgement. They preach to the choir. They’re awkward propaganda. They push a viewpoint that listeners should evaluate based on other criteria instead. This strikes me as a lack of confidence, something for which metal should never lack. Because metal’s merits are obvious to its fans, the genre perpetuates itself. We like it, so we pump money into it and recruit new metalheads. We can’t cheerlead people into liking it anymore than we can cheerlead ourselves into liking it more. Our best recruiting tools are enthusiasm and the music itself.

And if we’re recruiting new members into our genre, how much of an “us vs. them” mentality do we really want to create? Metal’s bar of entry is already high. The last thing we want to do is freeze interested parties out by appearing conformist, elitist, cartoonish, or close-minded. And Gods forbid we appear stupid. ‘Stupid’ is a major mainstream perception of our genre, and we do not want to perpetuate it. At best, it will bring in temporary fans and scorn. At worst, it will draw in the people we actually don’t want: the trolls, and the dishonest, and the uncreative. “Us vs. them” sends the message that we can’t rely on our genre’s strengths to speak for itself and that it needs to be defended. You can see this everywhere in society: “Hockey’s not just fighting!” “Chess is a sport!” “Video games aren’t mindless!” The best defense to attacks on merit is openness: “Door’s open, come in and see before you judge. We’ve got nothing to lose, and we can’t be persuaded that what we have lacks merit. If we have faults, we’re proud of them, because it is what it is. You have everything to gain, for you know not of what you speak”.

The “us vs. them” mentality also betrays a lack of self-confidence. If we’re as into metal as we claim in these songs, the songs are moot. Our dollars and our participation will affirm the genre, grow it, and defend it against outside threats. Remember the Parents Music Resource Center? Many of you won’t, but Judas Priest, Twisted Sister, Dead Kennedys, Wasp, and others do. The PMRC wasn’t defeated by legislation or debate or heavy metal songs about heavy metal. It was defeated by commerce and by the raw power of the dollar. Labels and bands weren’t scared, because they knew there was too much money in metal. Metal won and the PMRC lost.

Why, then, do bands keep writing these silly meta-metal anthems? I can’t help but feel unsettled that bands continually write these songs and that these songs seem to have no productive purpose. Manowar wasn’t serious about being serious (or were they?), but what about other bands? When Rocka Rollas want me to “metal poseurs to death”, should I take that seriously? Is it a joke or parody? The band’s delivery strikes me as earnest, so what does that say about Rocka Rollas? And would I want an outsider’s early exposure to metal to be that kind of silliness?

How is it that I can reject this heavy metal cheerleading and feel unsettled by it, and yet love the songs and hope that bands keep writing them? How can I approve of the message and yet find so many philosophical faults with it? Calling it hypocrisy shuts down any meaningful discussion. There’s something else going on here, and I want it examined. I want you to honestly think about it and come up with a deeper response. I see an issue with something that I love, a problem I can’t explain away but also can’t ignore. If somebody takes these songs seriously, what does that say about them? If somebody ignores them altogether, what then? And what does self-aware enjoyment of the songs say about the rest of us?

Oh, and one last thing…that Rocka Rollas album? It really is a masterpiece.

— Richard Street-Jammer

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Manowar – “The Gods Made Heavy Metal”

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Exodus – “Toxic Waltz”

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Darkthrone – “Raised on Rock”

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Rob Halford – “Made of Hell”

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Dream Evil – “The Book of Heavy Metal”

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Manowar – “All Men Play on 10″

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Helloween – “Heavy Metal Hamsters”

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All Shall Perish – “Songs for the Damned”

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