Backpatches & Elbowpatches #5: Metal Studies and Postcolonial Studies
For this Backpatches and Elbowpatches, I’m taking a look at Metal Studies and its intersections with fields within Postcolonial Studies, and particularly the work of my colleague and friend Nelson Varas-Díaz. Dr. Varas-Díaz’s research deals broadly with the social and structural production of stigmas regarding individuals and communities, including stigmas around diseases like HIV, sexuality and gender identities, and cultural practices including religion and metal music fandom. Over the last decade or so, Dr. Varas-Díaz and his team have produced a truly impressive series of documentaries on metal scenes in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. In addition, he has edited several collections on metal scenes, co-edits the Metal Music Studies journal, and organizes our international conferences. I do not know when this man sleeps, but I do know that he drops serious knowledge whether he’s behind a camera, writing articles and books, or giving talks and presentations. Check out his recent Metal Methodologies interview, along with our playlist of Dr. Varas-Diaz’s documentaries on metal in the Caribbean and Latin America.
I will say right off the bat that the field of postcolonial studies is also one in which I am personally not as well-versed as I wished. It casts a huge net that ensnares almost the entire world in one way or another, and its scholarly canon is similarly thick with numerous theoretical and critical concepts. One of the reasons I wanted to focus this month’s column on Dr. Varas-Díaz is that his research and documentary work has been a really valuable stepping stone for me personally because he provides insight into this body of scholarship and criticism through the study of metal. This stuff peels back veils and exposes hidden prejudices and power structures, sometimes making for difficult and discomfiting reading. But as the saying goes, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.
When I discuss the legacies of colonialism with my students, my pop-culture frame of reference is usually the Hunger Games books/films (although those are dating rapidly...but somehow these kids still all know about Friends). My main argument is that even after hundreds of pages of gruesome deaths and the bad characters finally getting killed and nobody getting laid, the ending is pretty pessimistic about the possibility of changing the existing social and political structure of the country. Although it flattens a lot of local complexities in the real world, that series illustrates that when you have an entrenched social and political structure that was built for domination and resource exploitation, just expelling colonizers and electing local leaders is never enough. Systems like that generate incredible profits for whoever’s in charge, so in many cases they have been perpetuated after “independence,” even in the face of mass suffering and deprivation. If the system remains intact, its immense political and economic inertia ensures its survival even after the “good guys” supposedly win, and in many cases colonial-style extraction still occurs under new names like “globalization.”
Decoloniality takes aim at this cultural inertia, but not just from a political/economic standpoint but looking at the very root of the production of knowledge, challenging the notion that Western European modes of thinking are universal and preferable. In this, it’s allied with postmodernist thinking that explores the underlying cultural assumptions that drive concepts of rationality and progress, and how those assumptions produce certain kinds of knowledge and value systems while excluding others. Perhaps the most foundational examples would involve acceptance of things like individualism and capitalism as inherently good, or at least inevitable.
Naturally, these sorts of concepts run into intense resistance, as can be seen in the frequent use of ethnic and indigenous studies programs as bogeymen, and the current know-nothing panics over Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project. While on the one hand it’s tempting to dismiss these sorts of things as just another entry in the revolving lineup of imaginary existential threats to society that politicians and talk show goons can trot out to stoke outrage and ratings, on the other hand it demonstrates the power of these ideas. After all, when decoloniality challenges the way knowledge is produced, it IS making an existential challenge to the existing matrix of power. Challenging the notion that the world is good and just is a scary proposition sometimes, especially if the world has been good for you. Naturally, the status quo also always makes a claim of neutrality, while any challenge to it is “political” or “divisive,” a framework that decolonial analysis aims to expose.
Those of us who are involved in metal can easily imagine how it would be an excellent vehicle for this kind of work, both in terms of artistic expression and community building. But the metal scenes that Dr. Varas-Díaz documents are active participants in local social movements. These various indigenous and decolonial movements across Latin America have faced real political persecution and violence for generations, and this metal cohort also steps directly into that fire.
For Metal Studies, however, Dr. Varas-Díaz issues a particular challenge and even a warning of sorts, in that we must be careful not to wind up mirroring the colonial mindset in our scholarship. In my broader field of musicology, this problem is particularly acute and salient in ethnomusicology, which historically would usually involve a scholar of European or American origin going off to a foreign land for a few years to learn about the musical culture there and then reporting his findings in Western journals or books. In any case, this was clearly an extractive and even colonizing process, and much the same could be said about any number of studies in a variety of disciplines that targeted marginalized populations of all stripes, even if done within an ethical research framework. For Dr. Varas-Díaz, the key to avoid replicating that kind of power dynamic and knowledge removal is to reconceive research subjects as research collaborators, to the point of granting co-authorship, and to ensure that the end results of the research are available to collaborators. Frequently this requires not only the use of low-cost or open-access publishers, since the academic paywall system works to deny access to people outside Western university systems, but also involves translations and other concerns. This is why Dr. Varas-Díaz’s documentaries are all freely available on YouTube, and is also behind the decision to host our next ISMMS conference in Mexico City.
I’ll end with what is perhaps my favorite example of decolonial metal that Dr. Varas-Díaz has ever introduced to me: the Mexican band Acrania’s song “People of the Blaze.” It is an effective blend of death metal with Latin jazz, including Afro-Cuban percussion along with sax and trumpet parts. This kind of musical fusion is a common tactic among bands wishing to highlight their local identities in one way or another, for a variety of reasons. In this case, however, the song is an indictment of the hidden history of colonial exploitation. But what makes this example my favorite is that near the end of the song the trumpet player introduces the melody from “Tequila” (1958), one of the first Latin-influenced rock hits in the USA. It’s a slightly humorous moment, but it’s also pretty sly as it seems to musically depict a sort of cultural overwriting, in which the histories of abuse and violence are effaced by stereotyped representations of Mexico and Mexicans in global pop culture. “Tequila” is ideal for this because it is instantly recognizable, especially for American audiences, and also because it evokes “Mexico!” without actually being Mexican in origin (unlike, say, “La Bamba” or “Cielito Lindo”). In any case, Acrania provides not only an excellent example of the decolonial mindset in metal music, but also a case study in the rhetorical potential of musical quotation.
Ross Hagen is a musicologist at Utah Valley University and is the author of A Blaze in the Northern Sky from the 33.3 series. Fun. Core. Mosh. Trends.
Graphic used under creative commons.
Toxophilus, CC BY-SA 4.0