I'm Hot Cuz I'm Into Metal. You Ain't Cuz You're Not
Allright, so here it is: my first blog. I've been working on this essay for quite a while now (a few months to be precise). At first, it was the intention to write this as an article, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is just a personal interpretation of some personal thoughts, so none of the following has any real factual accuracy. Hence the decision to post this text as a blog. There has been put a lot of work in this blog, so I kindly ask the reader to take his/her time to read this essay carefully and to think with me about this subject. I know this will not always be that easy, so thanks on beforehand for your efforts. Here goes.
All around the world it is very easy to tell at a single glance at one's outward appearance whether that one is a metalhead or not. This outward appearance of an average metalhead lays in the looks (long hair, other facial hair, corpse paint), any possible gadgets (spikes, chains, necklaces and rings, weapons, patches, tattoos), but most of all in the clothing (leather and denim, jeans coats, long black coats, band t-shirts and band sweaters). The main question I want to try to answer in this article is why we, as metalheads, überhaupt give that expression of the fact that we're a metalhead in our outward appearances. Why do we necessarily want/need to show that we're metalheads, and thus that we're different from others? Is it because we want to draw attention on ourselves? Or because it's a trend and everybody else with the same taste in music does it? Or is wearing band merchandise only a loyal personal support to one's favourite band? Or is it a certain form of provocation? Or a form of distinction? Or is it a mix of all those variables and some other unmentioned possible factors? In this article however, the main focus in the explanations lays on the distinction aspect. And this for a big part based on some of the ideas and works of French philosopher and sociologist Marcel Gauchet. Of course Gauchet's work and ideas have absolutely nothing to do with metal. It will be the worthy attempt of this blog to use these philosophical ideas as a possible explanation for the presented metal related question.
Please know on beforehand, I do not want to pretend that I know it all and/or that I know it all best, and what I'm about to say is all right and true. This blog contains some hypothetical thoughts and personal arguments and reflections. The intention is not to come up with a scholarly theory, but rather to - at least for my own - straighten some things out and to let you all think and reflect about this subject too (IMO that is one of the main intentions (next to being informative) of these blogs here on Metal Storm).
Exhibit 1: The beliefs about the stereotypical metalhead
Before starting with the actual article, I first want to stand still a bit at a few stereotypes about metalheads. Commonly, metalheads are seen as big, mean and dumb longhaired weirdo's. Most of them are drunks and listen to horrible music and at live shows they fight and headbang all the time. Anyway, I'm sure you all know about what kind of stereotypes I'm talking about. Just to get the idea, let me refer to the following Wikipedia passage about metalheads where a few movies are mentioned where this stereotypical image of a metalhead is portrayed.
"Even though they are stereotypically portrayed in films such as Airheads (1994), Bill and Ted Excellent Adventure 1989 and Bill and teds Bogus Journey, This is Spinal Tap (1984), Wayne's World and, perhaps most infamously, in the 1990s MTV cartoon series Beavis and Butthead, this level of escapism should not suggest that metalheads are any less intelligent or distanced from the real world as any other subculture, although their often shabby appearance and level of indifference to outside influences can be mistaken for dim-witted ignorance. Further examination of the metalhead as a humorous stereotype can be found in the 1986 documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot. The 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey and the 1999 film Detroit Rock City are more factual portrayals of heavy metal and the metalhead sub-culture."
According to French philosopher and sociologist Marcel Gauchet, we find ourselves in a society of autonomous individuals since the end of World War II. Nowadays, we are no longer connected to authorities (state and politics) and most of all to other people of our community and thus also no longer to the living community values. Now, we are rather secularised from all those things. Gauchet talks about this in terms of a "disenchanted world". The loss of meaning and sense for any form of community regulation and also the prominence of the individual, are according to Gauchet very remarkable in the way the individual experiences and defends his convictions and beliefs. Nowadays the individual identifies himself with what he beliefs and where he stands for. Disconnected from the worldly, common and shared values, the individual experiences a lack of identity. Totally cut off from everything and everyone and totally relying and depending on himself, the individual no longer searches for an identity that goes beyond him (this means shared with the whole community) but he now searches for an identity that characterizes, distinguishes and typifies him! These days, people don't ask to be a citizen anymore, but to be themselves. These days, people choose to identify themselves to the membership of a certain group. And it's the peculiarity of the group that exactly makes people to what they are. Convictions become identities. (Marcel Gauchet speaks of "subjective singularisation" here). Today people are vegetarian. These days people are anti-globalist, people are homosexual, people are catholic or muslin. We are metalheads! Metal is no longer the music we listen to, it is (or at least partial) our identity.
Now that I gave you the basic idea, I'll extend Gauchet's point with my own additions and some anecdotes, and will now focusing more on metal.
It must be clear by now, that it is by being diverse that you stand out nowadays. So, if you turn it the other way round, it is by being diverse (in this case dressing up as a metalhead) that you give expression of the fact that you are a metalhead. And so, that you want others to know that you're part of the metal community. It is because you dress in that way, that you want to be part of, and eventually also are part of the coherent metal community. In other words, that you are one of them.
A first simple confirmation of my thesis, which may sound familiar to most of you, occurs when you're randomly walking the streets somewhere wearing clothing merchandise of one of your favourite bands. Most people you cross will be ignoring you or looking at you in a strange way. But you'll also cross people who'll nod their head in a subtle way at you, or who'll be looking at you with a knowing glance, most of them also dressed in "metal clothing". Why is that? The answer is simple: because the two of you share something common, and you both know it. The both of you share something totally different than all those other people. It is because you prefer other tastes (most likely not only in music, but also in general), other habits, other behaviour, … yes, because you're sharing a totally different (sub)culture.
A second development of my idea comes from my own experience, but I'm sure you can get the picture of the story or have already experienced a similar experience. In 2004, I went to the Graspop Metal Meeting at Dessel, Belgium for the first time. Graspop can be considered as one of the biggest metal events in Europe/the world. Annually, ten thousands and ten thousands of metalheads come down to the festival, of course all dressed in black. Though I remember this one guy who was wearing a colourful Hawaiian shirt, ditto Bermuda shorts and sandals. Needless to say the guy attracted a great deal of attention. Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing such clothes, but somehow, this guy just didn't fit in there, despite the fact he was really metal minded (what else are you doing on a metal festival?). Because of that particular remarkable dressing style, he somehow created a certain distance between him and the rest, eventually making him not belong there.
A third, more extreme example is that of the guy carving the word "Slayer" into both of his arms. Not taken into account whether he was actually sober when he decided to do that, and not taken into account the fact he became a big attention-seeker by doing that (he also filmed it and put it on the internet), why would he do such an extreme thing? Probably because he's a Slayer fan and wants to show he's a fan and so want to show his devotion to Slayer. In other words, because he wants to be seen as a Slayer fan. And why? Maybe because Slayer and the music that Slayer's make, stand for a certain calibre of aggression, brutality and extremeness. And by showing he's a fan of Slayer by carving that word into his arms, maybe he wanted to show also he stands for that same aggression, brutality and extremeness. In other words, in his deed he identified himself with Slayer. In that moment, Slayer became part of his identity, of who he actually was.
Exhibit 2: The phenomenon of the Metal Festivals
Earlier I shortly mentioned something about metal festivals, and in this exhibit I want to focus a bit more on this subject. It is pretty remarkable that on metal festivals there is all in all a peaceful, companionable and enjoyable atmosphere. And also the solidarity is high: fights are exceptional and when you fall inside a mosh pit, there are immediately people helping you getting up again. Let it be clear that these things are real facts and that I do not make them up. People who've been on metal festivals before can hopefully agree with me on this one.
I once talked to an ex-festival safety agent, who has surveyed on all the biggest festivals in Belgium for many years. This guy confirmed that Graspop Metal Meeting was without a doubt the biggest open-air show in Belgium where the fewest fights and disturbances took place! And that's really something, certainly if you take into account the mentioned stereotypes from the first exhibit.
If we stay in the same way of thinking as in this article here, an explanation for this phenomenon is easily given. Metal festivals are an ideal gathering and meeting place for people from the world wide metal community. From all around the world, metalheads come down to attend those festivals, especially the really big ones like Wacken Open Air, Graspop Metal Meeting, Hellfest Open Air or Metalcamp, to name only a few. The key to the fact that going to a metal festival - apart form the music - is an unbelievable experience, lies in the unanimity and harmony among metalheads. I do not claim we are all the same and that we are all the same type of metalhead, but I do claim we share a common understanding amongst each other. It is because we are part of the same metal community that the atmosphere on metal festivals (and events) is so agreeable and fraternal. Sure you can meet annoying drunks or easily agitated people, but that doesn't mean the overall atmosphere is still friendly and enjoyable. The most striking example is probably Wacken's famous Biergarten (beer garden). In short, the Biergarten stands for beer, karaoke, polonaises and thus atmosphere and fun. No need to say that, when you mix this kind of atmosphere together with the various concerts and live music, you get a sublime metal cocktail of all the things a metalhead would need on a metal festival.
In conclusion, metal festivals are another great example of the unity and coherency of the metal community I was talking about earlier in the first section.
Let's return to the main thread of this article. In this second section, the cited idea of Marcel Gauchet gets elaborated more, as the final link between metal and identity will be made.
According to Gauchet, every conviction wants to have a universal range. In other words, a universal meaning for the whole society. But when convictions become identities, they have to give up this claim for universality. For it is useful to assert that a conviction is universally valid, but this is obviously not the case for identities as identities don't have any universal value. You can argue about convictions but not about identities. Identities don't want to convince, they want to be acknowledged. And this is exactly the second point I want to discuss here. One wants his identity to be respected and taken seriously. It is not that one becomes someone as part of a certain group, but because one becomes his self in that group and one wants to be respected for that. In short, one's individual choice needs to be respected. And a good way to express one's choice of identity is in that one's clothing. And also for metalheads the most common way to show their identity is the way they dress. Not only do metalheads want to stand out by the way they dress, but that same dressing style is at the same time also a confirmation of their identity. Sociologically and psychologically spoken there are thus two functions to discern when studying the clothing style of metalheads: distinction and expression. It is by their clothing style that metalheads express their identity to others, so that those others see and understand in what kind of way that person should be treated and also respected. One wants to be classified and respected as a metalhead because that one also gives expression of being a metalhead. This is the basic idea of this first part of section two. The idea is plausibly also more arguable than the one in section one. More explanations could be possible, but as mentioned in the introduction, the main intention was merely focusing on this single distinction explanation. Also the questions whether image is important in metal, or whether clothing is a necessary condition for being a metalhead are not for discussion here as they are wrong conclusions of the expounded idea. So, it is very important to understand that, if you turn things the other way 'round, it is NOT because you don't dress as a metalhead that you aren't one, you just won't be seen as one.
Another in-depth nuance that gains a lot of relevance when discussing this matter concerns one of the ideas of Gillmann. Gillmann came up with his own alternative variant of the Labelling Theory in 1988, asserting that people have the irresistible inherent inclination to think into "us" versus "them"-schemes. It is thus very common to the human psychology to think in such "separating"-schemes. When people have about the same characteristic features (like looks, beliefs, symptoms or whatever - in other words, when they share something common) they'll immediately think in schemes of belonging to the same group or category of those people and will automatically see others (who don't share those common characteristics) as not part of the same group and/or part of another group. So, when meeting metalheads, we'll normally see them as part of the same group (the metal community) and we'll certainly look at them and treat them in a different way than people who do not seem to have those same distinguishing metal features. Also this reflection could help explain the reason for the friendliness between metalheads inside the metal community, and certainly on metal festivals, as explained in the second exhibit. Later Gillmann extended his proper labelling theory variant by saying that thinking in terms of "us" versus "them" intensifies the own identity. In such thinking you search for coherency with others, only making your believes stronger. This thinking in terms of "us" versus "them" only makes the distinction stronger and more visible, and thus also more and more appealing to others who share something common.
One last small thought I want to spread out here is that distinction between people also leads to status, standing and thus social power in a certain group. By distinguishing yourself you get a place in the social communal amalgam, but also inside the social group you belong to. Let me give an example to clear this point out. When you wear a Slipknot sweater, you might earn some status as "heavy metalhead" in the global community. But inside the metal community itself, that sweater won't be held in high regard. There, the same status is probably not guaranteed. There is even a certain risk of being mocked, or, of being labelled as a poser or wannabe. And this contrary to wearing Opeth, Death, Judas Priest or Nortt, Deicide and Burzum merchandise. Because those bands are, or highly respected in the whole metal community, or are concerned to be a bit more "grim" or "kvlt" or controversial (that is, controversial to people of the same social community as the reputation of those bands is unknown to most of the people of other social communities, and thus wearing t-shirts with those band names on it won't mean anything special to other unknown people, except if the image is highly provocative or disturbing). In order to gain status in a certain group it becomes important what (kind of bands) you wear and what (kind of bands) you listen to.
On another note, it is also very common in the metal culture to distinguish things into further sub-cultures according to the genre. People are metalheads, but in the first place rather a Death Metal fan, a Thrash addict, a Black Metalist, a Power Metal lover, a Prog appreciator, and so on. The specification of the music is also a specification in the personality as there are very different kinds of metalheads. Maybe this specification is not that clear for unknowing other people who are part of other subcultures, but the more for people who are actually familiar with the metal culture and of course also the people who are part of that culture.
Let me give an example to expound the latter point. A few months ago I got a press accreditation for A Night Of Pure Fucking Thrash, a concert with five sublime Thrash bands on the line up, playing old school and/or Bay Area Thrash. In the press pit there was this one reporter who was wearing a bombastic Manowar t-shirt. I won't focus here on the whole Manowar discussion, as tastes differ and each to his own of course (even if it is Manowar). But the point is that the reporter didn't really fit in the total "Pure Fucking Thrash" image. Sure, there were a lot of people wearing merch of non-Thrash bands, but still somehow only the Manowar shirt didn't really belong there at all. This concert was a totally different type of musical event that didn't go together at all with the cheesiness Manowar stands for.
Final remarks and conclusions
The main point I wanted to discuss here, is that dressing up like a metalhead, by following the reasoning of Marcel Gauchet, stands equal to showing that you are part of that specific subcommunity because you find your identity in that subcommunity. Dressing up like a metalhead is expressing yourself as who you are: a metalhead. You chose to dress up like that because you chose to be a metalhead, and in this way want to be recognized and eventually also be respected like one.
The other side of the coin is that because of the way metalheads dress, they immediately get stigmatised and characterized, and sometimes have to deal with a lot of (false) prejudices (like mentioned in the first exhibit). And as often is the case with prejudices, they are really hard and almost impossible to refute or to correct, as those prejudices are also forms of conviction, which are also becoming identities nowadays. And as said, you simply cannot discuss about identities. If you say to people their convictions are wrong, you at the same time say their identities are wrong. And who will truly admit he indeed has a wrong identity?
PS: some open-minded and attentive readers may have noticed I based the title of my blog on the - let us be honest - horrible song 'This Is Why I'm Hot' by an individual known as Mims. I heard the song on the commercial radio and television a couple of times already, and at the time I was working on this blog (as said, it took me a few months), I just knew it'd become a highly irritating summer "hit" (I was right), and presumably also the worst and crappiest song of the year by far. But after reading the whole article through, all those attentive readers will (hopefully) also understand the reason why I'd choose that particular sentence, which was initially only meant as a working title.
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