Notes on Metal as an Academic Subject

I’m an academic by nature and by choice. This is neither popular nor entirely comfortable to admit, but it’s the truth. To call something academic is to call it merely sufficient, an acceptable rote exercise. To be an academic, self-identified or otherwise, is to recognize a certain, indirect usefulness that your knowledge, “pertaining to areas of study that are not primarily vocational or applied,” is considered by most either a luxury or a lifestyle choice. Academics may know a lot of shit, but nobody gives a shit about what they know. Furthermore, common belief has it that all you’re really good for is passing on this questionably relevant information, inflicting your poor life choices on any and all with the misfortune to cross your path. Still, even in this period of aggressive anti-intellectualism, having some letters after your name can command an iota of respect in most circles, at least the circles you’d be comfortable sharing them in. My family, for instance, doesn’t much care about what I do, how I do it, or why. But they know I’m doing something, and so I can keep my chin up at Thanksgiving.

I say that to say this: most academics, particularly those in the humanities, are preening, self-absorbed, damaged souls with chips on their shoulder the size of Gibraltar. You can try to knock it off, but rest assured you’ll be cut down by a vicious combination of jargon and halitosis. It’s a petty, ugly and occasionally brutal world, which is to say it’s rather ordinary. What makes this particular intersection of work-a-day life and human frailty unique is its common location, the state or private college or university. The feelings of uselessness, the backbiting and bickering, the idiosyncratic tics and self-hate are exercised in an arena designed to educate and enlighten the young. Bullshit office politics, systemic inequities and personal agendas are acted out in the company of a live, paying audience. An audience which we are increasingly urged to “engage,” presumably so they’ll tell their equally federal education loan eligible friends they had a “good time” in a “cool class.” How is this done? Popular culture courses. This is how metal gets taught in school.

In the interest of full disclosure I’ll tell you that I’ve designed a college-level metal course, but haven’t had a chance to teach it. I’ve also worked to bolster popular music classes which taught metal as a unit. I don’t see anything wrong with studying metal, or any genre of music or medium of popular entertainment, for that matter. In fact, I think it’s absolutely critical. Too much is at stake politically, economically, socially, culturally and morally (I don’t mean religion) to ignore these areas. In some ways I think it’s the only work worth doing. It’s also really, really easy to fuck up. Indeed, disaster is almost inevitable.

Both the structure of higher education and the culture of academics works against metal being taken seriously or treated with respect as an academic subject. Because colleges and universities are hoping to retain students, and because programs and departments try to meet students “on their own ground” with course offerings focused on pop culture subjects, nobody really cares about these classes, with the possible exception of the instructor and some students. They are almost always electives, and they are roundly considered unserious by both faculty and administrators. I know this because I’ve taught similar courses. They only exist to generate revenue in the form of majors and minors. The more students committed to your department, the more money you get, and pop culture courses are seen as both interesting and, most importantly, easy.

If the economic imperative of higher education dictates metal and other such subjects be relegated to soft-drink status on the course menu, the people serving it are equally marginalized, though for different reasons. These types of courses are usually taught by instructors or faculty who are fans themselves. They overcome the stigma of teaching an “easy” class by force of will. This is as true of comics, movies and television as it is for metal and usually it’s a goddamn nightmare. Putting aside the likelihood of a generation gap, the problem with fans teaching courses on what they love is there is almost no scenario in which their power as instructor won’t imbue their opinions with unwarranted authority. This scenario also predetermines the line of investigation for any given student, as they will more than likely identify the appropriate subjects/bands/periods to study based on the instructor’s personal taste, offering them what they want to hear as opposed to what the student is interested in. A class that could be great quickly becomes a more formalized version of a record store pissing contest, and with the added demand of earning a good grade.

Good instructors will be careful to reign in their opinions and create space for students to express their own. This shit’s subjective, after all, and there needs to be room for discussion. Sadly, for every one great instructor (I’m lucky to know several) there are many, many more who are the worst, most myopic, opinionated assholes you’re ever likely to meet. The classroom is their octagon and so help you God there is no escape. You will submit to their understanding of what is good and what is bad, regardless of how old, indirect or non-existent their experience. You will bear responsibility for their knowledge, their personal taste and their insecurities. I wish I could say this doesn’t pass for scholarship or pedagogy, but it does and it’s a shame.

Given the current state of higher education and, the people who are attracted to it and the atmosphere it breeds, it should come as no surprise that some instructors and faculty take the limited opportunity presented by teaching a metal course as a chance to draw a bit of attention to themselves. Studying metal is a good way for some academics to make themselves appear “cool” to both colleagues and students, at least to those who care. The palpable need for recognition surrounds these folks like a halo, but they often don’t contribute very much to scholarship or civilization. They’re into metal, but they could just as easily be into food, social media or reality television. Basically, they’re looking for a subject that helps define them as on the ragged edge of some new area of study.  They have views.

I’m not saying metal can’t be treated with enthusiasm and respect, grounded in good scholarship and presented openly. It’s just that it so often isn’t. Metal is comprised of a vibrant collection of relationships, the root of which is anchored squarely in the ground most often claimed for cultural studies. There are wonderful, engaged books by authors who care deeply about the communities they’re a part of, and by others who have an unvarnished respect for the music, the musicians, and the fans. Only some of these folks are academics, and I’m not one of them. I’ve resigned myself to the fact I’ll never teach the course I designed, and I decided long ago not to write on metal academically. I love it, but it serves a very different role in my life than anything I study. The part of me that is identified by what I listen to is largely distinct from my work as far as anyone else is concerned, and I’m fine with that. Ultimately, the value I find in metal has nothing at all with what I do with it, but with what it does for me.

Only a few people have made decent careers out of studying metal, or popular music in general. For most, their passion and respect for what they’re studying transcends their work and distinguishes it from the rest of what’s out there simply by being honest. But because culture and cultural products are moving targets, a lot of academic work dealing with any type of entertainment is usually either outdated as soon as it’s published, or quickly will be. The canon of metal scholarship is distinguished less by any intrinsic value or methodological novelty than by the hype generated at the time of release. Walser’s Running with the Devil (1993), for example, is still a touchstone, despite dealing with a strand of corporate metal which hasn’t really been relevant in twenty years.

Still, metal is a vibrant area for study, due in part to the fact that, like an iceberg, there is always much more under the surface than visible above it. For every brief period of exposure or mainstream success, there are always other scenes and styles which don’t break cover. So by the time death metal or black metal were beaten to death in the popular press and academia (and it always occurs in that order), there were a whole slew of hybrid bands, hard rock bands, thrash reboots and ­­­­­________core acts to cut our horns on. This may simply illustrate style turnover, the natural evolution of adaptation and invention, but it’s hard not to think that by studying something you necessarily disrupt, damage and distort it. Think of it as a kind of cultural studies Heisenberg principle.

I don’t think this is true for people who study popular music generally, or are more interested in modes of production and distribution. Studying metal is, for me, more akin to genre studies. The largest difference between studying metal and say, romantic comedies or sitcoms, is that creative control is held almost exclusively at the bottom, in the hands of the musicians. Hybridization, genre mashing and adaptations of style are not the purview of a record company executive. Few metal acts make it that far, and when they do it can usually be attributed directly to their novelty or genre-spanning appeal. For every Mastodon there are dozens of well known, respected bands happy to spend their entire existence on an independent label.

This says nothing, however, about the complex, interdependent system of definitions which allows bands like Agalloch and Judas Priest both to be considered metal. Though marked by a decentralized system of production and distribution amongst independent labels, musicians and fans do not often view this as critical to their appreciation of a given band. Bands with major label support are not often viewed as sellouts, and there is no penalty (save within specific scenes) for liking both Slayer and Amon Amarth. In fact, you’d probably be considered a bit of an idiot if you didn’t. It may be useful, then, to consider metal in terms of genre rather than reception or subculture. Metal is an overarching category comprised of many other, inter-related and interdependent subgenres.

Genre labels help distinguish between bands and styles, but the sheer number of them makes it difficult for academics who are only superficially engaged with the community at large or a specific scene or subgenre. This makes it difficult to orient metal as a subject of study for people who aren’t interested, or people who are simply skeptical about the value of work focused on metal. And honestly, I hope it stays this way. Academia is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to popular culture subjects, and the sad fact is most folks lack the background, interest, opportunity and selflessness to do the topic justice.

With increasing attention being paid to the bottom line by administrators and students alike, this is, in the end, a very good thing. Popular culture study in the United States is only so far away from marketing, and the fewer people there are appropriating experience for profit the better. So while I lament a missed educational opportunity, I think the reality is teaching metal does more harm than good. Though hardly a war crime, sapping the life out of something so dynamic just to get asses in the seats is fucking awful.

No comments: