Spring of 2021 feels like as good a time as any for a personal audit. The sticky “who am I?” question beyond the manner in which our labour is sold. What is metal fandom? How do I practice it? Does any of it matter?
For the disaffected youth, the escapism of alternative culture provides an important outlet of expression. As time has its way however, and the so-called real world begins to list its demands, it can have odd effects on our relationship with the fandom of youth. What was once the sole source of our identity – providing us with esoteric knowledge that the bullies at school were not privy to – is now a mere toy, a plaything you should have long outgrown by your twenties.
For those of us unable to secure a career in the creative industries, a tense push and pull haunts this extended adolescence. Do you jettison your black clothes and hair dye for the sake of a desk job and a quiet life? Do you attempt to balance the two, claiming that alternative culture (in whatever form) is a mere hobby, entirely compatible with a nine to five lifestyle? Or do you take your hobby further, and turn into a form of activism? A parallel life of organising gigs, forming bands, promoting music, using any surplus time on pursuits that go way beyond the common understanding of a hobby.
I’ve gone through all three of these stages at some point in my adult life. As a teenager I was fiercely territorial about the music I loved. I planted my flag there because it gave me a feeling of worth beyond the mundanities of rural Surrey and people I could not relate to at school. It offered a private world of inner freedom. As the iron cage of rent and work closed in however, I compartmentalised this love of music. There was the real world made up of real transactions with real people. And there was metal, something I consumed in my spare time.
But this equilibrium was short lived. Beyond citizen worker, citizen taxpayer and citizen consumer, even beyond any involvement in political activism, there was metal, and metal had to mean something more than a pastime. Like any artform, it cannot exist as a passive object of consumption. There are values to metal, we feed it ideas and concepts and it reflects things back at us about the universe and our place in it.
But how to contribute to this process beyond a barely sentient consumption? I’ve never been much of a musician; I lack the networking skills required to run a label or promote gigs. So I began to write in earnest. I wrote about what metal was, is, and could be. I began to look at specific releases. I offered criticism into the aether. An underlying and troubling thread began to emerge beneath a lot of these essays however. A long dead chip on my shoulder.
The protectionism of youth had never been fully expelled, but was rather lying dormant, awaiting a resurgence. This is commonly called elitism or gatekeeping. And it presents problems for many alternative cultures well outside of metal and even outside of music. Geek fandom – like many aspects of modern culture – has recently had to contend with its own mixed legacy, reassessing toxic behaviours and splitting into pieces as groups rally under competing banners.
Metal has been at the centre of many of these storms. The subtext to a lonely kid finding solace in an alternative world of extreme music is that it plants the seeds of elitism. Not just elitism in the sense of laying down arbitrary musical hierarchies, but a genuine “us and them” mentality that can lead to a more serious complex in adulthood. A conviction that you are not like others, that society done you wrong, that only you and a chosen few know the path to truth.
Geek culture is rife with such resentment. At its worst it can take the form of deeply held prejudices against specific groups. A hotbed of misdirected energy. Metal in particular has been confronted with this many times over the years. Fascism has all too often found a home in various metal scenes across the globe. Its rampant sexism and homophobia is well documented. The arcane imagery and pagan symbolism common to metal is often appropriated by far-right groups, who use it to converse in public via this coded language.
It is into this world that we must once again insert ourselves, and make a choice about what kind of fan we wish to be. At one end would be the apolitical enjoyer: “Yes, metal has problems, but they’re in a minority. It’s just music, it’s just a form of escapism, like you what you like and live and let live.” At the complete other end of the spectrum would be committed activism. Changing hearts and minds through music and the surrounding ecosystem of journalism and promotion that has an explicitly political axe to grind.
Where does quietly reviewing new releases and discussing different metrics of composition and music philosophy sit with all this? In the face of the unwieldy and urgent crises that the world faces and the many genuine forms of political engagement people sign up to in response, it begins to look pretty pathetic. Especially for those of us with strongly held political convictions. At best it is an utterly benign hobby, one step up from passive consumerism. At worst it actually props up the coded language and hidden shibboleths of the far right via the language of what constitutes legitimate artistic expression. Laying down such rules is easily translated into thinly concealed white supremacy.
As this point I would be tempted to make a case for the legitimacy of metal – and surrounding subcultures – as an artform, and the role music criticism can play in a dialog on what art is, and its contribution to our understanding of the human condition. But if I wanted to plant my flag in metal and spiritually similar artforms, and declare to the world that here is a piece of myself, I’d better be damned sure that it at least pretends to connect up with something beyond personal enjoyment, beyond merely “liking the beats and the yelling”. Moreover, it had better connect up with my understanding of what a responsible citizen in 2021 looks like.
We will be discussing the relationship between morality, fandom, art, and entertainment for a long time. Kids have always wrestled with their relationship to alternative culture and fandom, at least since the zenith of Generation X in the late 1980s. And with each new generation comes a new understanding of what exactly committed fandom amounts to in the bigger, societal picture. I will remain sceptical about atomised and inert consumption of art “in our spare time” (is art that can be consumed inertly even art?). But I remain equally sceptical of art that does not provide space and solace from the grinding pressures and political causes of the “real world”, no matter how sincere and heartfelt the motives. Surely there is room for both? Like any artform with lasting resonance, metal can embody the best and worst aspects of what it means to be human. And much like the creative process itself, the activity is often what gives it meaning. Whether art and morality mesh or collide, we must continue to find a voice within this dialog.