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Taking Metal Music Seriously
An Interview with Deena Weinstein and Gérôme Guibert


Over the past twenty years, a new field of study has developed: metal studies. The scholars in this field are often also music enthusiasts, investigating their own passion. How can fandom be articulated with academia?

Deena Weinstein is a professor of sociology at DePaul University. Her research focuses on popular culture and on mass media. She has written (among others) Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology (1991), the first academic book published on metal, and of Rock’n America: A Social and Cultural History (2015).
Gérôme Guibert is a sociologist specialized in the study of popular music. An associate professor at the Université Paris 3, he is namely the author of La Production de la culture. Le cas des musiques amplifiées en France (2006). He co-founded Volume ! The French Journal of Popular Music Studies and was the convenor for the fourth international conference of the International Society for Metal Music Studies.

Books & Ideas: How does one become a researcher specialized in the study of metal music?

Deena Weinstein: I was trained in many fields—biology, biochemistry, sociological theory and anthropology, and as soon as I got my PhD I started learning history and philosophy. And I started teaching a mass media course and learning about what I’d missed in my adult life about rock music and finding certain strains of it that I liked and some that I loved—metal was one of them. By 1981, I was a full blown metalhead. I listened to it constantly, I was going to record stores… And I was teaching a class in rock. In teaching the rock class I had to grasp a structure—I always really go for the structure first, and then put the muscles and flesh and skin. The first two times I taught the rock class I was a bit shaky on conceiving it from a theoretical point of view, though I was a theorist. But the structure came out of Arthur Bentley’s work. He was a colleague of John Dewey with whom he wrote a book, Knowing and the Known [1], an epistemological piece. And he had this notion of transaction, which coincided Simmel’s theory on interaction between people.

I’m a sociologist, so with rock music, it’s not only the music that matters. With this transaction model, you have fans, creators, and—at least as important in shaping what comes out— are the mediators, from the record company and producers to television etc. So rock is a transaction, a set of exchanges between those three parts or social actors, and the resultant is the music. The fans contribute to the mediator, they give money to the mediator: they buy the albums, the t-shirts… They don’t give money to the artists. They give a claim, adoration, feedback to the musicians, and the mediator brings the artist into contact with fans, and also gives them some of the money—often not much of it. And the artist gives the mediator something to sell, and the artist gives the fan something to take pleasure in. So the structure of rock is these six exchanges between these three positions and social actors, and the outcome is whatever the music is at that moment.

I had this structure for the rock class, and then my friend George Ritzer asked me if I could write a book. At the time, Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) [2] were doing awful things to punks and metalheads, and the reasons why they were doing it—just to advance Al Gore’s career with religious people—were really shocking to me. So I thought “ok, heavy metal can be seen as a social problem” and I decided to write Metal Music. A Cultural Sociology. I used the structure I had found for the rock class and shifted it to heavy metal.

Gérôme Guibert: There were several factors. I discovered the sociology of popular cultures, and the idea of a dialectic between on the one hand, economic or political power relations, and on the other hand the ideas of resistance and emancipation mentioned in the discourse of the actors. I was trained in sociology and influenced by Jean-Claude Passeron’s work, namely Le Savant et le Populaire [3], but also his analysis of Richard Hoggart. While I was studying the musical practices of youth, I discovered the Birmingham school, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and the works on subcultures. And the question of heavy metal resonated with me in a special way as I had been listening to this music in the 80’s as a teenager. These theoretical tools allowed me to analyze my own experience. So I first used them to realize my socio-analysis in a way, and this led me to ask questions which would direct my research. Then, Volume!, the journal on popular music I co-founded in 2002, and the publishing company we created for it, also helped discover other scholars in the same field. I met Fabien Hein, who was a doctoral candidate at the time, and we published his book Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Metal. [4] We had the feeling we were working on an uninvestigated field, which was very stimulating.

Books & Ideas: Metal studies is a fairly new field, but studying metal from a scholarly perspective means dealing with discourses that are not scientific. How did you deal with the other discourses on metal?

Deena Weinstein: There were almost no academic writings on metal, but there was the literature on the sociology of popular music—one book that made it possible to teach a course on the sociology of rock was Simon Frith’s Sociology of Rock, [5] his PhD dissertation. But there were other discourses. I discovered specialized metal magazines because, at first, when I was in the process of discovering metal, some of my students were telling me about interesting bands. But then they graduated and I was on my own, so I bought magazines. And there were those reviews… This was a discourse I’d never read before, totally different from the philosophical or sociological discourse, but it was a discourse. There was also rock criticism and that became a major discourse for me to learn. They hated metal with passion, and I read what they wrote on metal from Lester Bangs on and I needed to analyze why rock critics disliked heavy metal—which is different from the reasons why religious people and the PMRC hated it. I felt it was important to take these anti-metal discourses into account, as another mediation between metal and listeners.

There were also other discourses: those from metal fans. I was trained in anthropology, and at that time, anthropology meant doing fieldwork with people from another culture. Metal was another culture, and I went native; it happens to anthropologists. I learnt by standing in line for concerts, going to record stores and talking to the kids. They were really unjudgmental because I liked their music. Metal was another culture, and I went native; it happens to anthropologists. So I learnt the norms and values of metal in interacting with them. When I first started the research, I was not knowledgeable. But all of these anonymous kids—all men of college age, basically—were perfectly happy to share with me their sense of what the best album of a certain band was. I now look back at this attitude, which wasn’t modern individualism, as what allowed them to teach me the culture and but also allowed me to appreciate it metal concerts. Kant says you can have too much of anything except for good will, and I think metalheads have a lot of good will.

Fortunately I had experience in studying cultures and understanding in how rock and mass media works, and I knew these were things I needed to address within each of these parts of my framework. And I didn’t take it past that basic framework. There’s a whole chapter on the fans, on the creators, on the outcome… So the transactional structure is what helped me organize these discourses and see what status they had.

Gérôme Guibert: Most of the important texts were in English, and at the time it was difficult to have access to these books. So I was reading every French sociologist hoping they would write at least one sentence on the subject… But I had known about Deena’s book, Heavy Metal, a Cultural Sociology [6] through its review by Simon Frith in the American Journal of Sociology [7], and this book was very important for me. In 2006, we decided to coordinate a Volume number on metal and connections were made with other researchers, including Keith Kahn Harris or Harris Berger or Sylvia Martinez, met through the IASPM biennal conferences.

Then it was the fieldwork that gave me a certain knowledge of the discourses around metal, and most of these discourses were either from journalists, either from people criticizing the culture. In France, an important area for investigation was the controversy around Hellfest festival in 2007, fueled by Catholic groups who found metal to be blasphemous and thought it should be banned. I had to take part in debates with priests (who were pro or anti-metal) and politicians or members of civil society. So I read a lot at that time, and I listened to many people defending their point of view. The methodological tools of sociology were of great help in order to move beyond essentialist confrontations of musical genres and of the values associated with them. Contextualizing scenes, taking the history of the music into account as well as the multiplicity of reception processes allowed me to see more clearly. The distinction—as far as the audience and the bands are concerned—between “commitment” and “distancing” was also useful. Having been involved in metal as a teenager, I had a good knowledge of the culture, but these tools allowed me to put it at a distance and to relate to it not only as a fan, but also as a scholar.

Books & Ideas: When you started your research, the meeting of academia and the metal world hadn’t really happened yet. What were the reactions within the academic world?

Deena Weinstein: In academia, they respect something that is published. And I had published a number of books before, and I was a full professor by the time it got published, and therefore they simply assumed it was something worthy, but they weren’t going to look at it. I remember one of my colleagues—who had seen me standing in line for a metal concert—asking me “weren’t you afraid, to be with those long-haired people with black leather jackets?”. And I said “I always think it’s the safest place in the world.” The reactions from the rock music academics were good, but that was a fairly new thing in the 80’s. But to me what mattered to me was that the kids agreed with it. The PMRC’s experts called me a Satanist. The American medical association had asked me give a talk on metal, in which I showed that contrary to what the PMRC was writing, metal saved these kids’ lives, their sanity, and was a type of self-medication. From the questions that came after, I thought I had convinced them. But the conclusion of the report that came out was: “it makes them become Satanists”…

Gérôme Guibert: In French sociology, most researchers like to say that all objects of research are equally valid. But, at the same time, sociology points out the inequalities in symbolic power. The term “popular” is often criticized. But as Stuart Hall recalls, this term becomes relevant as soon as we deal with relations of power and inequalities—whether real or related to representations. As metal is the most disliked musical genre in France [8], pp. 884-899, these symbolic inequalities are tangible, and working on this subject is not the easiest task: metal is either mistrusted or mocked. What is interesting, though, is that sociology can help shift these representations, especially when the research is covered by the press [9] Some question the usefulness of scientific research on such a marginal culture. But actually some contexts demand a sociological approach. When there is a crisis, which was the case for Hellfest, a sociologist can come in handy. It allows the organizers to answer some questions, such as “Where does my audience come from? What are the effects of metal on individual trajectories?”

Books & Ideas: Do you feel that studying this new object has helped change or reframe some sociological concepts? Did this new object and new field of study affect the way you were using sociological tools?

Deena Weinstein: Writing anything changes and alters your theory. The book was a test in application for my framework, and what I learnt on the field made me change some elements in the framework. But the main thing it taught me, because I kept upstudying metal, was that I saw change. I am now more of a cultural historian—I am so fascinated by the various factors that make the change. Had I not done this book as pure structure, I would not have been aware of how it was inadequate for grasping change. That is why I later added a last chapter to the book [10] which was diachronic while the rest of the book had a synchronic point of view. I would say metal and the way it has changed made me more of a historian.

Wolves of the Throne Room, an example of Cascadian black metal

Gérôme Guibert: The evolution of metal is interesting, and I think it definitely has influenced the research on it.For instance, in black metal, the emergence of a genre called cascadian black metal, which deals with nature, spirituality and ecology, has prompted some scholars in religious studies to write on this subject. There definitely is a proximity between metal and religious studies.

Books & Ideas: What are the defining features of metal studies, and how do you look at the development of this field?

Deena Weinstein: Metal studies is an undisciplined field: it has no methodology, no ground assumptions. I would say metal studies are a kind of theoretical bricolage… I don’t think it should be more structured but I do want to know the cartography of it: there are corners in metal studies and getting the geography of metal studies is a worthy discussion to be had or to write a paper on. As for the evolution of metal studies, coming from biology, I have an evolutionary view on its history: here we have the dissolution of the recording industry, and live music that became the dominant form… But I do feel it would be more interesting if people came from the disciplines they were trained in and used the tools of these disciplines first, using metal studies additionally, to enrich their research. That being said, I think it is very important to have themes—such as the theme of location chosen by Gérôme for the conference—to get a common discourse among ourselves. I would like to see that developed a bit more.

Gérôme Guibert: I notice two phases in my analysis of metal in the public sphere, and I think it reflects the evolution of the field. At first, it was necessary to show why this culture was misunderstood. Using the tools of pragmatic sociology, I felt it was important to understand the perspective of metal fans, which has its own coherence—to understand why they loved this music, and to set aside a disqualifying norm. In fact, this kind of debate began at the end of the 1980s in the United States with the PMRC. And Deena Weinstein’s methodology, which used comprehensive sociology (Weber or Simmel) was a milestone in the development of studies on metal. In France, the controversy developed with Hellfest around 2007, making this culture visible.

But then, with the development of research on metal, and with the birth of the International Society for Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), we started focusing more on what can be problematic in the metal culture, especially inside. culture, from a comprehensive point of view (the representation of women, the aesthetics of war, the references to political totalitarianism ...). But these are limits or paradoxes that exist not only in metal culture, but in any cultural “system”. Metal studies are still in their infancy.That being said, there are still very few researchers in metal studies; we are hardly a hundred or so worldwide. As a result, the conferences—such as the fourth ISMMS conference—remain multidisciplinary. This must be supplemented by specific studies in the disciplines of origin. Some scholars regret the fact that too many researchers involved in metal studies are not aware of the work on subcultures, local scenes, sociology of art or popular music studies for example. Metal studies are still in their infancy.

by Catherine Guesde, 4 July

Further reading

All photos were taken by (c) Corentin Charbonnier at the ISMMS 4rth biennal conference. Cover picture: Zinewall of Death by Samuel Etienne.

Simon Frith, Sociology of Rock, Legend, 1978

Gérôme Guibert, La production de la culture. Le cas des musiques amplifiées en France : Genèse, structurations, industries, alternatives, Ed. Mélanie Seteun/IRMA, 2006

Gérôme Guibert (ed.), Volume! The French Journal of Popular Music Studies, “Paradoxal Metal”, 15-2, 2018

Gérôme Guibert, Jedediah Sklower, “Hellfest : “The Thing That Should Not Be” ? Local Perceptions and Catholic Discourses on Metal Culture in France”, in Hjelm et al., 2011, p. 103-118.
—, Dancing With the Devil. Panorama des Metal Studies, La Vie des Idées, 5 November 2013

Fabien Hein, Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Metal. Histoire, culture et pratiquants, Ed. Mélanie Seteun, 2004

Keith Kahn-Harris, Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, Oxford, Berg, 2007

Deena Weinstein, Heavy Metal, a Cultural Sociology, MacMillan, 1991
—, “How is Metal Studies Possible?“, in Journal for Cultural Research, 15(3), July 2011, 243-245

To quote this article :

Catherine Guesde, « Taking Metal Music Seriously. An Interview with Deena Weinstein and Gérôme Guibert », Books and Ideas , 4 July 2019. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/Taking-Metal-Music-Seriously.html

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team (redaction at laviedesidees.fr). We will get back to you as soon as possible.

Footnotes

[1John Dewey, Arthur Bentley, Knowing and the Known, Boston, Beacon Press, 1949

[2The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was an American committee formed in 1985 in order to increase parental control over the access of children to music deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes.

[3Claude Grignon, Jean-Claude Passeron, Le Savant et le populaire, Paris, Seuil, 1989.

[4Fabien Hein, Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Metal. Histoire, culture et pratiquants, Ed. Mélanie Seteun, 2004

[5Simon Frith, Sociology of Rock, Legend, 1978.

[6Deena Weinstein, Heavy Metal, a Cultural Sociology, MacMillan, 1991.

[7Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology” by Deena Weinstein, American Journal of Sociology,
Vol. 98, No. 3, Nov., 1992, pp. 706-708.

[8According to the national survey on the cultural practices of the French: Olivier Donnat, Enquête sur les pratiques culturelles des français à l’ère numérique, La Découverte, 2008. See the section on musical taste. The results are similar in some other countries. See Bethany Bryson: “Anything But Heavy Metal”: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes", American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 5, Oct., 1996.

[9See namely the interview of Gérôme Guibert by Sofian Fanen for the French newspaper Libération.

[10The book Heavy Metal, a Cultural Sociology was reedited in 2000 with a new chapter, and the title was changed to Heavy Metal, the Music and Its Culture, DaCapo Press, 2000