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Wesleyan University Press
Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music / Edition 1

Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music / Edition 1

by Robert WalserRobert Walser


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A Choice Outstanding Academic Book.

A musicologist and cultural critic as well as a professional musician, Robert Walser offers a comprehensive musical, social, and cultural analysis of heavy metal in Running with the Devil. Dismissed by critics and academics, condemned by parents and politicians, fervently embraced by legions of fans, heavy metal music attracts and embodies cultural conflicts that are central to our society. Walser explores how and why heavy metal works, both musically and socially, and at the same time uses metal to investigate contemporary formations of identity, community, gender, and power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819562609
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 04/01/1993
Series: Music/Culture Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 254
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

ROBERT WALSER is Professor and Chairman of Musicology at UCLA. He is editor of Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History (Oxford University Press, 1999) and of the journal American Music.

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Genre, History, and the Construction of Heavy Metal

* * *

I have been invited to try my hand at explaining heavy-metal music. First, heavy metal is power. ... — Rob Halford of Judas Priest

The Oxford English Dictionary traces "heavy metal" back through nearly two hundred years. In the late twentieth century, the term has two primary meanings: for chemists and metallurgists, it labels a group of elements and toxic compounds; for the rest of us, it refers to a kind of music. But these meanings are not unrelated. Even in the nineteenth century, "heavy metal" was both a technical term and a figurative, social one:

1828 Webster s.v., Heavy metal, in military affairs, signifies large guns, carrying balls of a large size, or it is applied to the balls themselves.

1882 Ogilvie s.v., Heavy metal, guns or shot of large size; hence, fig. ability, mental or bodily; power, influence; as, he is a man of heavy metal; also, a person or persons of great ability or power, mental or bodily; used generally of one who is or is to be another's opponent in any contest; as, we had to do with heavy metal. (Colloq.)

"Heavy metal," in each of its parts and as a compound, evoked power and potency. A "man of heavy metal" was powerful and daunting, and the OED vividly confirms a long-standing social conflation of power and patriarchal order. The long history of "heavy metal" in the English language resonates with modern usage, even as contemporary musicians converse with the musical past in their work. "Heavy metal" is not simply a recently invented genre label; its meaning is indebted to the historical circulation of images, qualities, and metaphors, and it was applied to particular musical practices because it made social sense to do so.

"Heavy metal" now denotes a variety of musical discourses, social practices, and cultural meanings, all of which revolve around concepts, images, and experiences of power. The loudness and intensity of heavy metal music visibly empower fans, whose shouting and headbanging testify to the circulation of energy at concerts. Metal energizes the body, transforming space and social relations. The visual language of metal album covers and the spectacular stage shows offer larger-than-life images tied to fantasies of social power, just as in the more prestigious musical spectacles of opera. The clothing and hairstyles of metal fans, as much as the music itself, mark social spaces from concert halls to bedrooms to streets, claiming them in the name of a heavy metal community. And all of these aspects of power provoke strong reactions from those outside heavy metal, including fear and censorship.

The names chosen by heavy metal bands evoke power and intensity in many different ways. Bands align themselves with electrical and mechanical power (Tesla, AC/DC, Motörhead), dangerous or unpleasant animals (Ratt, Scorpions), dangerous or unpleasant people (Twisted Sister, Motley Crüe, Quiet Riot), or dangerous and unpleasant objects (Iron Maiden). They can invoke the auratic power of blasphemy or mysticism (Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult) or the terror of death itself (Anthrax, Poison, Megadeth, Slayer). Heavy metal can even claim power by being self-referential (Metallica) or by transgressing convention with an antipower name (Cinderella, Kiss). Some bands add umlauts (Motörhead, Motley Crüe, Queensrÿche) to mark their names as archaic or gothic.

If there is one feature that underpins the coherence of heavy metal as a genre, it is the power chord. Produced by playing the musical interval of a perfect fourth or fifth on a heavily amplified and distorted electric guitar, the power chord is used by all of the bands that are ever called heavy metal and, until heavy metal's enormous influence on other musical genres in the late 1980s, by comparatively few musicians outside the genre. The power chord can be percussive and rhythmic or indefinitely sustained; it is used both to articulate and to suspend time. It is a complex sound, made up of resultant tones and overtones, constantly renewed and energized by feedback. It is at once the musical basis of heavy metal and an apt metaphor for it, for musical articulation of power is the most important single factor in the experience of heavy metal. The power chord seems simple and crude, but it is dependent upon sophisticated technology, precise tuning, and skillful control. Its cwerdriven sound evokes excess and transgression but also stability, permanance, and harmony.

But what is the nature of this power? Where does it come from, how is it generated, mobilized, circulated? How can heavy metal music articulate claims to power, and what social tensions are addressed or mediated by it? These are the issues that animate this book. In chapter 2, I will take up the problem of defining heavy metal structurally, as a musical discourse comprising a coherent system of signs such as power chords. In this one, I will be concerned with a more functional view of heavy metal as a genre, with the processes of definition and contestation that go on among those concerned with the music. In other words, I will be focusing here on how heavy metal gets construed — by fans, historians, academics, and critics. The essential characteristics of heavy metal not only vary according to these different perspectives, but the very existence of something called heavy metal depends upon the ongoing arguments of those involved. Heavy metal is, like all culture, a site of struggle over definitions, dreams, behaviors, and resources.

Genre and Commercial Mediation

Discursive practices are characterized by the delimitation of a field of objects, the definition of a legitimate perspective for the agent of knowledge, and the fixing of norms for the elaboration of concepts and theories. Thus, each discursive practice implies a play of prescriptions that designate its exclusions and choices. — Michel Foucault

I hate that term "heavy metal." — Angus Young, AC/DC

Heavy metal began to attain stylistic identity in the late 1960s as a "harder" sort of hard rock, and a relatively small but fiercely loyal subculture formed around it during the 1970s. Because heavy metal threatened to antagonize demographically targeted audiences, metal bands received virtually no radio airplay, and they had to support their album releases by constant touring, playing to an audience that was mostly young, white, male, and working class. The 1980s was the decade of heavy metal's emergence as a massively popular musical style, as it burgeoned in both commercial success and stylistic variety. The heavy metal audience became increasingly gender-balanced and middle-class, and its age range expanded to include significant numbers of preteens and people in their late twenties. By 1989, heavy metal accounted for as much as 40 percent of all sound recordings sold in the United States, and Rolling Stone announced that heavy metal now constituted "the mainstream of rock and roll." By then, metal had diversified into a number of styles and influenced other musical discourses. The term "heavy metal" itself became an open site of contestation, as fans, musicians, and historians struggled with the prestige — and notoriety — of a genre name that seemed no longer able to contain disparate musical styles and agendas.

Thus, heavy metal is not monolithic; it embraces many different musical and visual styles, many kinds of lyrics and behaviors. "Heavy metal" is a term that is constantly debated and contested, primarily among fans but also in dialogue with musicians, commercial marketing strategists, and outside critics and censors. Debates over which bands, songs, sounds, and sights get to count as heavy metal provide occasions for contesting musical and social prestige. "That's not heavy metal" is the most damning music criticism a fan can inflict, for that genre name has great prestige among fans. But genre boundaries are not solid or clear; they are conceptual sites of struggles over the meanings and prestige of social signs.

Fans care, often passionately, about difference; they find certain bands and songs meaningful and relevant to their lives, while others leave them indifferent or repulsed. But there are institutional pressures for a kind of generic coherence that effaces such distinctions. Fan magazines try to apply "heavy metal" very broadly, to attract as many readers as possible. But their editors must negotiate discursive boundaries cautiously. Magazines that define themselves as wholly or primarily about heavy metal strive to appear as inclusive as possible, in part to advise fans on new bands or even to market those new bands for the sake of record company sponsors, but also because every fan wants to read about (and look at pictures of) his or her favorites in every issue. On the other hand, to include bands that fans do not accept as metal would weaken the magazine's credibility and the fans' enjoyment of the heavy metal "world" portrayed.

Record clubs ("Grab Ten Headbanging Flits for 1¢!") and fan merchandisers work to produce a notion of heavy metal that is inclusive and indiscriminate, just as in classical music, where orchestra advertising, music appreciation books, and record promoters campaign to erase historical specificity in order to stimulate consumption. And just as the promoters of classical music offer encounters with unspecified "greatness," those who market heavy metal present it vaguely, as participation in generalized rebellion and intensity. But in both cases the coherence of the genre and the prestige of its history are crucial concerns of the music industry. An executive for Polygram Records describes the company's success in mobilizing a sense of heavy metal history as a marketing tool: "We used an in-store campaign for Deep Purple that emphasized peer pressure. Many of the potential buyers of DP records are too young to remember the band in its previous incarnation. So we had to instill in these young metal fans that they were not really hip, not dedicated headbangers until they knew about Deep Purple. The campaign was very successful."

Rigid genre boundaries are more useful to the music industry than to fans, and the commercial strategy of hyping cultural genres while striving to obliterate the differences that make individual choices meaningful often works very effectively to mobilize efficient consumption (nowhere more so than in classical music). But not always. The consequences of such a coarse view of heavy metal can be seen in the failure of the biggest metal concert tour of 1988. Touted as the heavy metal event of the decade, the Monsters of Rock tour during the summer of 1988 was a mammoth disappointment for fans and promoters alike. At the moment of heavy metal's greatest popularity ever, several of the world's most successful heavy metal bands were assembled for a U.S. tour: Van Halen, Scorpions, Metallica, Dokken, and Kingdom Come. These were some of the biggest names in metal, yet attendance throughout the tour was surprisingly light, and it became clear that the promoters who had assembled the tour suffered substantial losses because they had misunderstood the genre of heavy metal: they saw it as monolithic, failing to realize that heavy metal and its audience are not homogeneous, that fans' allegiances are complex and specific. Many fans came to the Monsters of Rock concerts just to hear one or two bands; many Metallica fans, for example, despise bands like Scorpions and Kingdom Come. Waves of partisan arrivals and departures at the concert helped defuse the excitement normally generated in full arenas, and the fans' selective attendance undercut the concession and souvenir sales that are so important to underwriting tour expenses and profits.

The crude assumptions about genre that sank the Monsters of Rock tour are also endemic in writings about metal, from the rectitudinous denunciations of would-be censors to sociologists' "objective" explanations — nearly everywhere, in fact, but in the magazines read by the fans themselves, where such totalizing errors could never be taken seriously. Outsiders' representations of heavy metal as monolithic stand in stark contrast to the fans' views, which prize difference and specificity. Because the magazines present heavy metal as exciting and prestigious at the same time that they apply the term more broadly than most fans can accept, the magazine itself becomes a site for contestation of the term. Writers of record reviews and articles gain credibility with their readers by arguing for distinctions that may contradict the inclusive stance of the magazine itself. But fans also contribute their perspectives directly through the letters columns that begin each issue. For example, one fan wrote to offer his canon of the best metal bands; his letter is emphatic about the importance of genre, and he sees "heavy metal" as a distinction of great value, something that can be attained and then lost:

Some other good groups are Accept, from Germany, and Exciter, Heaven, Twisted Sister, Girls School, Wild Dogs and so many others. Van Halen was once Heavy Metal but they got stuck on themselves. Van Halen is now what we refer to as "Bubblegum" hard rock. Loverboy, ZZ Top and Zebra are all hard rock. There is a difference between hard rock and Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal is actually a "New Wave" music for the 80s.

Another fan addressed the controversial split between glam and speed metal, rebutting the many hostile letters that disparage one side or the other. She takes a liberal stance that retains the label "heavy metal" for her favorite band but acknowledges the merit of its incompatible cousins: "Poison and Metallica shouldn't even be compared really. Poison is heavy metal. Metallica is speed metal. Poison is good at what they do, and Metallica is good at what they do." The letters columns of magazines like RIP or Hit Parader also serve as forums for other kinds of debates, including discussions of sexism, homophobia, and racism. Fans often write in to critique the representations of gender and race they find in heavy metal lyrics, interviews with musicians, and journalism.

Musicians who are considered heavy metal by their fans may vary greatly in their allegiance to the genre. Judas Priest's goal has been "to achieve the definition of heavy metal," while members of AC/DC and Def Leppard claim to hate the term, even though all three bands are mainstay subjects of heavy metal fandom. Many writers and fans consider Led Zeppelin the fount of heavy metal: "Quite simply, Led Zeppelin is, was, and will always be the ultimate heavy metal masters." But Zeppelin's lead singer, Robert Plant, rejects that characterization, saying, for example, of the band's first album, "That was not heavy metal. There was nothing heavy about that at all. ... It was ethereal."

There are many reasons for bands to position themselves carefully with respect to a genre label. Their account of their relationship to heavy metal can imply or deny historical and discursive connections to other music. But more important, it situates them with respect to audiences, interpretative norms, and institutional channels. Guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen denies any connection with metal out of contempt for a genre that he views as technically and aesthetically inferior to his own music. Malmsteen hopes to gain greater prestige as an artist than is normally granted to metal musicians, but he is also bidding for the radio play that is often denied them. Iron Maiden has ahvays depended on selling tickets and albums to hard-core metal fans; they have no other audience. Yet the group's singer, Bruce Dickinson, affects nonchalance when discussing the genre and their place in it: "What is your viewpoint? I wouldn't call UFO a heavy metal band, but if you happen to be a fan of Human League, they probably are. And if you're a fan of Motörhead, UFO aren't heavy metal. If we said we are heavy metal, it wouldn't matter much in the way we sound. It's a category." Many artists bridle at genre categories because they see them as restrictive stereotypes, implying formulaic composition. Dickinson resists being pigeonholed by pointing to the relative, rather than absolute, nature of genre distinctions. But he must feign indifference to the meaningfulness of genre to fans and institutions in order to claim this appearance of artistic freedom.

The music of Rush meets the criteria of the definition of heavy metal held by most outsiders but fails the standards of most metal fans. Geddy Lee, the band's singer and bass player, muses on the problematic status of his band: "It's funny. When you talk to metal people about Rush, eight out of ten will tell you that we're not a metal band. But if you talk to anyone outside of metal, eight out of ten will tell you we are a metal band. Metal is a very broad term." There is, of course, a great deal of coherence in the genre of heavy metal; there are many bands that would be considered metal by virtually all fans. But genres are defined not only through internal features of the artists or the texts but also through commercial strategies and the conflicting valorizations of audiences. These debates over heavy metal are grounded in historical formations of meaning and prestige. To understand the priorities and values of heavy metal musicians and fans, we will need to examine their history.


Excerpted from "Running with the Devil"
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Copyright © 2014 Robert Walser.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements Introduction I. Metallurgies: Genre, history, and the Construction of Heavy Metal Genre and Commercial Meditation Casting Heavy Metal Heavy Metal in the 80's Headbangers
"Nasty, Brutish, and Short?" Rock Critics and Academics Evaluate Metal II. Beyond the Vocals: Toward the Analysis of Popular Musical Discourses Genre and Discourse Musicological Analysis Writing about Music Metal as Discourse
"Runnin' with the Devil"
Negotiation and Pleasure III. Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity Classical Prestiger and Popular Meanings Ritchie Blackmore and the Classical Roots of Metal Edward Van Halen and the New Virtuosity Randy Rhoads: Metal Gets Serious Yngwie Malmsteen: Metal Augmented and Diminished Popular Music as Cultural Dialogue IV. Forging Masculinity: Heavy Metal Sounds and Images of Gender Behind the Screen: Listening to Gender No Girls Allowed Exscription in Heavy Metal The Kiss of Death: Misogyny and the Male Victim Living on a Prayer: Romance Nothing but a Good Time? Androgyny as a Political Party, "Real Men Don't Wear Makeup"
V. Heavy Metal and Postmodern Politics Professing Censorship: The PMRC and It's Academic Allies Attack Suicide Solutions Mysticism and Postmodernism in Heavy Metal Horror and History Guns N' Roses N' Marx N' Engles

What People are Saying About This

Sherry B. Ortner

“An eye-opening account of the world of heavy metal, as well as a model for how Cultural Studies work ought to be done. Walser lays bare the vision embodied in metal as a total cultural phenomenon—music and words, performers and fans, critics and devotees. The book is exemplary in its rich material, subtle positionings, and elegant writing.”

Simon Frith

"Essential reading in all popular music (and cultural studies) courses."

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Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
danconsiglio on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting (and incredibly in-depth) review of many aspects of metal music and culture. I borrowed this book knowing that it was about 80s popular metal, though I was a bit disappointed Walser did not spend more time with some of the underground metal that has come to be much more popular today. He explains the decision as a desire to create as broad a view as possible, and, hey, he's the dude writing it, I just read.I really enjoyed the discussions of musical forms and his defense of metal as legitimate. He also casts an interesting picture of metal as a counter-culture movement that is more about empowerment than rebellion. These early chapters, however are the ones that are probably most dated. He holds metal up as a genre that accepts women readily and actively seeks multi-cultural influence. I believe that these two aspects of the culture are less true today than they were 20 years ago.All in all, an enjoyable read to someone already familiar with the genre, but a bit dated to provide much understanding to a complete metal outsider.