What makes heavy metal so great -- beyond the obvious bombast -- is what I refer to as sonic neutrality. Like an auditory soup-base that can take any ingredient you throw into it to create something unique and beautiful. Metal can seamlessly incorporate every other musical genre or style and include every subject under the sun. It does all that while never losing its core identity as “metal”. For example: Metallica playing along to the London Philharmonic works beautifully and no one would mistake it as anything other than metal; rap and metal gel with ease in Rage Against The Machine, and Jazz/Fusion can be inferred in just about every tech/prog-metal band. Can that same adaptability be applied to other genres, like say, country? Probably. And you could also shove a box of electric eels up your ass -- will it feel good? No. Trust me.
With regards to subject matter, Metal can be a vehicle for pretty much any topic, from mundane things like love and relationships, to the most transgressive aspects of death, sex, religion, politics, horror, nihilism, fantasy/sci-fi and everything between. The last one making it one of the more obvious accouterments to playing Dungeons and Dragons, as opposed to something like, say, hip-hop, where a magic-user has to roll above a 16 to execute a successful drive-by shooting.
Dissenters will argue against the merits of metal for a lot of reasons. But for every accusation of Metal lacking melody and hooks I can find a metal tune that’s so catchy it makes Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" sound like a Philip Glass abortion. To those that would call it unsophisticated, I’ll show you a metal band right now that is pushing the limits of technicality and composition into places that were previously reserved only for Jazz cats with endless access to cheap smack.
“But, Marc?” you say. “What do you have to say about the fact that the vast majority of metal musicians and consumers are made up of straight white males? Isn’t that problematic, racist, homophobic, bigoted, misogynistic, sexist, ableist, blah blah blah, fucking blah blah?” No. But I'll address it anyway.
Racism in metal: European Classical music is a big part of what makes Metal “metal”, but the fact remains that metal sprung from rock and roll; which sprung from jazz/blues; which sprung from gospel; which sprung from “race music”; so yeah, black roots -- and the silver lining on the most shameful part of American history.
These days more and more black people are starting to surface within the metal scene -- they were always there of course -- see Living Colour, Suffocation, 24-7 Spyz, Militia Vox, Cyclone Temple, Kings X, Tony Macalpine, Thin Lizzy, etc. And I would argue that no one alive is more of a torch carrier for metal and universally embraced by the metal community than a brother by the name of Katon De Pena, of the band Hirax. He is the essence of metal in human form. Very few match his passion for the scene, and his dedication and desire to see it thrive is unmatched.
If you’re wondering why I focused on African Americans vs. other ethnicities, it’s simply because they are the least represented in metal as far as actual numbers. Central America, Asia, and even the Middle East all have healthy metal scenes (some areas of the Middle East not so much, but there are a few bands in those places that are willing to risk decapitation -- the punishment, not death metal band from Poland -- for metal). In my opinion, the fault for low numbers of black participants in heavy metal lies with mainstream, progressive pop-culture media that has spent decades corralling black people into the hip-hop/R&B box, but that’s changing. Technology has reached a point where individuals are more in control of what they consume (and create) musically, and naturally, more are choosing metal.
Sexism in metal: Inflated machismo; lyrical depictions of wild sexual conquests and extreme violence; camouflage cargo shorts; bulging moose-knuckled denim, leather and chrome studs; loud guitars wielded like stringed phalluses pointed heavenward; an army overwhelmingly comprised of sweat drenched sausage smugglers. Surely, this environment must be more hostile to women then a night at the Weinstein compound with Bill Cosby/Clinton, Ed Hardy Boys and the cast of Porky’s Revenge, right? Not exactly.
Compare a typical metal festival with something like Woodstock, Warped Tour or Lollapalooza and pretty much any EDM show, you’ll find that cases of sexual assault are virtually non-existent at even the largest metal shows. A fact made more ironic as the subject matter in metal is often considered the most misogynistic of all genres -- the exception being rap music.
Women who are entrenched in the metal scene, as either performers or spectators, are something special. They’re strong, independent, sexually liberated and free-thinking -- very much a yin to the metal male’s rock hard yang. When it comes to heavy metal, the males, with a few exceptions, are fairly homogeneous in their uniform and attitude. The females on the other hand are walking vessels of self-expression. At a typical metal show you’ll see a variety of unique female representations: the nymph in fishnets and heels; leather laminated dominatrix; a queen, a warrioress, a vixen, a blood sucking goth, a sorceress and even the “just one of the guys” high top and denim donned thrasher. All unique, but more importantly, unashamedly female.
These fierce Valkyries project what could be described as an almost hyper-feminine quality, especially when contrasted against the sea of salami that makes up a typical heavy metal crowd.
More and more women are getting involved in metal and it’s a beautiful thing. The best part about the proliferation of women in the scene is that it happened organically. There were no marches, no shame mobs demanding inclusion, no government mandate, no forcing men to change or dilute their identity to accommodate ... there were no pussy hats. And they let boys be boys. These women simply showed up and started kicking ass.
I can think of no one more worthy than Doro Pesch to represent women in heavy metal. She’s the Margaret Fuller of the genre. Yes, we had the Runaways and Girlschool, but Pesch is a pioneer in that she is arguably the first to become a fully realized female metal icon. Her commitment to the scene is legendary. She's a lone wolf; with her band mates and fans being her only family. The road is her home, and after more than three decades of dedication to the music, her passion shows no sign of waning. Simply put, she is metal’s matriarch. Worship her or die.
Homophobia in metal: Three words: Rob. Fucking. Halford.
The most iconic figure in metal and the only one to be given the exclusive title of “The Metal God” just happens to walk on the other side of the fence. Halford came out of the closet in 1998 -- which is technically fairly late in the game, as Judas Priest were about three decades into their career by then. Obviously us metal heads were super homophobic up until that point right? And maybe … just maybe, in 1998, we hetero-cis-male-metal-brutes were finally at a point where we were enlightened enough to swallow the bitter jizz coated pill that a *gasp* homosexual man could represent our beloved genre — you could consider that, OR, you can take a look at this picture from around 1980.
Freddie Mercury could crab walk out of his ass and it wouldn’t be any more obvious.
Let's not kid ourselves, when Halford came out of the closet in 98’ the only people who weren’t shocked were Judas Priest fans.
Are there homophobes, racists, sexists, etc., in metal? Of course, just like everywhere else. Those attitudes are allowed to exist within the scene, but will never dominate. Heavy metal is the celebration of the beauty AND ugliness -- which is in all of us. Metal provides an environment that lets us look in the mirror and recognize our own inner monster, validate it, then quarantine it in a healthy way. If you aren't willing to do that, those dysfunctional qualities will come out in much more damaging ways -- see social justice warriors. Metalheads are probably the most tolerant individuals you'll meet. The only thing we won't tolerate is someone trying to force their petty, ridiculous standards and rules into a genre that exists solely to spite things like rules. In other words: social justice warriors should do us all a favor and cut their own fucking heads off, stuff them into a garbage bag full of CO2 while Yngwie Malmsteen solos down their stupid necks. The only qualification you need to be accepted within the metal community is a love for metal. Everything else you define yourself by is superfluous. We metal fans found metal because we don't quite fit in anywhere else. Like misfit moths drawn to the reddish glow that lies beyond the safe beige warmth of the mainstream porch light. We're happy to show you around if you're curious, or politely show you the door if you're not. We’re perpetual outcasts and we would like to keep it that way.