Heavy Metal, Popular Culture, and Academia

Metal Conference Logo

By Laura Wiebe

A few days into April, Sarah Kitteringham and I loaded into Adam Wills’s car for a heavy metal road trip to Bowling Green, Ohio. Our destination wasn’t a concert, although live music was involved. We were headed to Bowling Green State University for an international academic conference on Heavy Metal and Popular Culture. Both Sarah and I were presenting (Sarah on women in extreme metal and on metal community, me on Voivod and science fiction); Heavy Metal Adam was along for the photos and the ride (he also tweeted some of the events with the hashtag #bgmetalconf).

The four-day conference involved a range of events, from individual talks to round table discussions, a visual arts and media exhibition, and multiple panels featuring scholars and specialists speaking on diverse aspects of metal music and culture. Evening activities included the aforementioned live music from local performers, plus a special research presentation on the heavy metal t-shirt and a short documentary film called Motörhead Matters. A planned keynote by Dan Spitz (ex-Anthrax) and concert by his band Red Lamb fell through near the last minute when Red Lamb’s spring tour was suddenly cancelled.

As the conference opening remarks indicated, the field of academic work that has come to be known as “metal studies” is most often traced to the publication of two books in the early 1990s: Deena Weinstein’s Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology (1991, revamped as Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture in 2009) and Robert Walser’s Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993). Walser didn’t make it for his opening keynote – Niall W. R. Scott from the UK stepped in with a paper on ecology and black metal called “Blackening the Green” – but Weinstein was present for many of the events, adding her voice, insight and metal appreciation to a round table on the Origins and Meaning of Heavy Metal as well as to the Q & A discussions following each panel.

Other keynote talks took place as planned and were both provocative and satisfying – demonstrating a deep understanding of the worlds of metal, the strengths and weaknesses of these worlds, and the challenges metal genres, scenes, and communities face.

Laina DawesAuthor (and Hellbound contributor) Laina Dawes gave a keynoted titled “Race, Gender, and Cultural Authenticity in Extreme Music,” introducing the audience to the subject of her recent book, What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. Moving with ease between intellectual authority and street credibility, Dawes outlined enough of her writing and research to cover several important issues shaping the experiences of black women who are metal musicians and fans. But she also left us understanding the need for more research and wanting to learn more.

Keith Kahn-HarrisKeith Kahn-Harris, author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, provided the other conference keynote, a thought provoking talk titled “Metal Beyond Metal: What Happens Next?”. Kahn-Harris addressed the purpose of metal studies and its relationship with the metal scene(s), suggesting that metal scholars ought to play a role in helping metal look and adapt toward its own future. Finding value in metal beyond a core of highly recognizable musical and cultural conventions, Kahn-Harris urged us to consider how metal might avoid the threats of dissipation and ossification, and asked us what it might mean to extend the definition of metal beyond this historical core. (I’m speaking abstractly, but Kahn-Harris is developing these ideas in a forthcoming publication, which I’m sure will explain them much more cohesively than I can represent here).

Out of the other events, I’d have a hard time pinpointing particular talks and panels that struck me more powerfully than others, and if I were to list and describe my favourites I’d end up reciting most of my notes (many pages of handwritten scrawls in need of some serious deciphering). But in general I found myself enthralled with the wealth of new information I gained about metal performance and appreciation as these things manifest across and among so many (and so many different) worlds and communities – to mention examples like Madagascar and black women guitarists is to give you only the tiniest glimpse of what I’m talking about. In addition, some of the round-table discussions – on metal origin stories, community in metal, and the Toledo metal scene – most clearly brought scholars and non-academic metalheads into conversation, a valuable form of interaction that enhanced the conference’s overall value.

Importantly, the presentations often approached a generalized assumption that some group or groups of people hold about metal music or culture only to complexify the issue, demonstrating how research in particular locations, milieus, and demographics reveals the diversity in the ways people understand and engage with metal. It was also significant that not everyone at the conference was a diehard metal fan, not even necessarily a fan at all though generally a sympathetic ally. It became clear that outsider perspectives have something crucial to add to and ask about the metal studies conversation, and we’d be foolish to shut ourselves off from that kind of dialogue.

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I gather that not everyone, metalhead or not, agrees that metal is a field that should be studied. I’m not surprised, but thinking back to my own introduction to academic work on heavy metal I don’t remember ever questioning whether this stuff should be done. I was just amazed and thrilled that it could be. And I immediately wanted to contribute to this work myself. Well, I’ve been doing that for a while now, and the Bowling Green Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference reminded me why. I came away from the four days reinvigorated by the creativity and vitality of metal music and culture, a vitality challenged but not diminished by the less savory aspects of the scene. I also left reminded of the creativity and complexity of the work being done in metal studies, with my own commitment to metal music, culture and scholarship reaffirmed.

For more information of the burgeoning field of metal studies, check out The International Society for Metal Music Studies and the forthcoming journal, Metal Music Studies.