Backpatches & Elbowpatches #7: On Nu-Metal, Subcultural Capital, and Homerpalooza
Hails and Aves,
I had nearly a whole other column written for this month, but I decided to put it on the back burner for something a little bit more timely...also, I decided writing this would be more fun.
The big music event of the last few weeks was obviously the 2021 edition of Lollapalooza in Chicago, one of the first major music festivals in the USA to successfully pull off a post(ish)-COVID event. Of course, the lists of acts on pop festivals become ever more inscrutable to me year after year. As Abe Simpson predicted in the “Homerpalooza” episode, I used to be with it, but then they changed what “it” was. At the same time I am also very much looking forward to deliberately and repeatedly mispronouncing the names of my kids’ favorite performers when they’re a bit older, especially in front of their friends. It’s all about the small pleasures in life.
But before the Andy Rooney vibes go too far, one of the things that was interesting to me was seeing the two high-profile instances in which metal showed up onstage over the weekend: the return of Limp Bizkit and the logos on Megan Thee Stallion’s custom bodice. Both instances (and the reactions to them) provide interesting points of reflection for metal culture and metal academia, particularly involving the twin forces of nostalgia and gatekeeping...and places where they intersect. And of course it also means we get to get into the weeds a bit on subcultural capital, bad taste, and music we love to hate. We’ll find that the status games of metal subcultures also find their way into academia as well.
Limp Bizkit and their fellow travelers in the world of late-90s nu-metal occupy a fairly marginal place within most histories of metal and within metal academia, in spite (and because) of their massive popularity. The “nu-metal” term does a lot of work, including such disparate acts as the more hip-hop influenced Korn and Linkin Park, industrial rock bands like Marilyn Manson and Rammstein, bands like Fear Factory and Slipknot that would be metal by any other definition, and finally groups like Faith No More, System of a Down, and Tool that just don’t seem to fit anywhere else. This diversity perhaps isn’t surprising since stylistic fusion seems to be one of the main artistic impulses behind nu-metal, and also one of the chief complaints leveled against it by more traditionally-minded metalheads. In many accounts of metal’s history, the 90s figures as a sort of time in the wilderness for “real” metal, until the hero’s journey comes full circle with underground metal’s resurgence since the 2000s. Given that metal academia began to coalesce during the same time, it makes sense that it inherited this mindset regarding nu-metal. It’s worth noting that in academia, studying something esoteric and transgressive also conveys its own sort of countercultural status. As such, nu-metal and its “-core” cousins are only recently becoming an object of study in their own right, rather than simply being used as a devalued Other that trve metal can use for oppositional self-definition.
Here we need to pause for a bit and get into the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and particularly his book Distinction, a book on the social workings of taste that is as old as I am but which still feels relevant. Broadly, it has to do with the way that taste functions as a form of status (“cultural capital”) and in-group identification, and also that the definitions of taste are defined by the dominant social classes and function as a tool for maintaining that dominance. When expanded from concerns about social class, this framework can be a useful tool for evaluating social relations like the status games endemic to ALL arenas of the arts and humanities. Indeed, in many of these situations the workings of taste become vastly more important than economic concerns in terms of establishing internal order and hierarchy within artistic subcultures, while also gatekeeping outsiders and interlopers. As with most workings of taste, distaste for bad or unwanted musical styles is often rooted in an underlying disregard for the people who presumably create and enjoy it. Likewise, if those “wrong” people begin enjoying our music, then the status conveyed by “good” taste is in jeopardy. The sociologist Sarah Thornton coined the term “subcultural capital” as a way to account for these workings of hipness and authenticity in music scenes, which was adapted to the worlds of metal by Keith Kahn-Harris in his book Extreme Metal.
Understanding the aversion to nu-metal in this way illuminates some of the reasons it’s long been a bit of a musica non grata for “serious” metalheads. With nu-metal in particular, there’s also more than a little bit of Sigmund Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” mixed in for good measure, along with Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject. Freud theorizes on processes of identity formation, in which we create our sense of self by magnifying the things that distinguish us from other people, even though we’re all pretty much alike. The proliferation of metal sub-subgenres and microgenres provides a case in point. Kristeva, on the other hand, focuses on the notion that reactions of disgust and repulsion are triggered by experiences that break down distinctions between Self and Other, such as viewing a corpse and being reminded that you’ll eventually be in that state. In order to preserve a sense of identity, whatever or whoever is abject must be rejected...particularly if it used to be a part of oneself. From these viewpoints, the thing that likely makes nu-metal unbearable for some metalheads is the fact that metal is clearly a fundamental part of nu-metal’s music and culture. This makes it ever more imperative to excise it from metalness in order to preserve a particular metal identity. The call is coming from inside the house.
Yet metalheads in the 21st century find themselves having to manage contradictory impulses in this situation. On the one hand, the drive to defend subcultural turf and maintain insider credibility remains strong and (at least to my mind) understandable, if not always justifiable. It’s the thing that makes a subculture… subcultural, which seems to be important even if nobody has ever been able to really define where subculture ends and mainstream begins. However, metal also engages with a competing form of “good” taste out there that is predicated on omnivorousness rather than exclusion and hierarchy. It’s easy to lose count of the number of times devoted metalheads swiftly declare that they “don’t just listen to metal” or even that metalheads in general listen to a wider spectrum of music than do fans of other genres.1 Then without a hint of cognitive whiplash we’ll say that we would listen to anything (for love?), but we won’t listen to that. Or conversely, there’s also a transgressive kind of subcultural capital to be claimed by actively listening to and defending music that’s considered to be abject, whether out of sincere enjoyment or not. In this case, there’s no doubt that Limp Bizkit’s set and Durst’s meme-able costume made some folks worried about the potential nostalgic rehabilitation of nu-metal (while also getting the riff from Ministry’s “Thieves” stuck in my head).
Basically, it all winds up being an endless circular game of No Trve Scotsman. As with many things in life, The Simpsons already addressed it, again in “Homerpalooza.”.
“How in the hell do you become kvlt? I feel like we’ve tried everything here!”
“Maybe if you’re truly kvlt, you don’t need to be told you’re kvlt.”
“Sure you do...how else would you know?”
Finally, there’s more than a little bit of this at work in Metal Studies and popular music studies more broadly as well. Although this point isn’t often appreciated, it’s normal (but not required) for scholars to study the musical styles and scenes that they personally enjoy or feel affinity for, which shapes the trajectories of those academic disciplines. For its brief existence, Metal Studies has always been more attuned to the extreme, avant-garde, and underground side of things as opposed to more broadly popular genres like 80s glam metal or nu-metal. Part of this might be a form of self-selection, just broadly considering that deciding to pursue the academic study of metal might in itself indicate a taste for the strange and unusual...and possibly a tendency towards unreasonable optimism and magical thinking. There are practical concerns as well. In my personal case regarding Nordic black metal, there were more obvious “hooks” and research angles aligning a distinctive musical style with local identity, which fit neatly within existing frameworks in ethnomusicology. This situation can also set up a bit of a self-fulfilling loop when one is doing literature reviews or using resources like the Metal Archives for research without accounting for their deliberate exclusiveness. As Keith Kahn-Harris noted in his article on “Landfill Metal,” it’s also actually incredibly challenging to write about mediocre and derivative music, as opposed to something more idiosyncratic or esoteric. But the metals of the mainstream are clearly beginning to knock on the doors of The (academic) Hall.
1 This may or may not be objectively true, but if so I’d venture that it has less to do with metal itself and is more because metal is not often a “first stop” in terms of someone’s personal history of listening habits.
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