Monday, October 10, 2011

Why is Metal Not Popular?

The term "heavy metal" was first used in a musical sense in the '60s song ‘Born to Be Wild’ by Steppenwolf when they referred to "heavy metal thunder."  The genre was derived from blues-rock and psychedelia of the late '60s and began in prototype form with Black Sabbath.

Metal is a hugely diverse genre which can incorporate the melodic, the atmospheric, the avant-garde, the complex, and the out-and-out pummelling. It is so varied that there is very little (sonically) in common between the full-frontal attack of death metal and the gentle hurdy-gurdiness of European folk metal. The genre is the most inclusive 'world music' bar none. Despite the lack of radio airplay or MTV exposure, metal remains a vital force in music today, with sell-out concert tours and CDs selling impressive numbers of copies.

Ronnie James Dio popularized the sign of the horns in heavy metal.
Given that other perceived niche genres such as dance or hip-hop are well represented, if tokenistically, you have to wonder why there is still such a stigma and snobbery around the canonization of metal.

Since its genesis, metal music has been an ‘outsider art,’ looking inside society from the basic position of ‘I don't like what I see.Metal appeals to the darker recesses of human nature. Society fears the outsider and aims to suppress or hide humanity's dark side.

The majority among the population just want a catchy beat- because it's easy, turn on the radio and there it is. Finding great music takes a lot of time to dig through and a good chunk of the people just don't care to do so. The top-40 radio is the poppy end of the scale, easily recognizable and simplistic, repetitive melodies, lyrics and concepts which your average, not particularly fussed, music fan can understand.

There are plenty of reasons why the mainstream press won't touch it though. For a start, the ten-minute epics, complex song structures, and odd timing used by bands like Tool or others, does not generally lend itself to radio play or the dance floor.

Most people don't really understand what metal is about and can't get past the noise, aggression and perceived lack of melody. It takes either a concerted effort or repeated exposure to get into and appreciate metal. Often with metal, the more commercial it is, it is inevitably a watered-down version; metal is an extreme and confrontational sound that if watered-down would simply not be metal anymore.

Distribution of Metal bands by countries

What is quite irksome is the sheer narrow-mindedness of people who say things like 'all metal is rubbish and nothing will convince me otherwise', or ‘metal is for dummies, it all sounds the same, it's for adolescent males, etc. I fail to see how people can praise ‘musicians’ like LMFAO who sing banal lyrics about partying or, syrupy slop of auto-tuned nothingness of Akon and Black Eyed Peas; yet say that bands like Gojira, who write music far surpassing mainstream bands in its virtuosity and complexity, are bereft of musical merit.

The general public has held a stereotype of metal fans being suicidically depressed and a danger to themselves and society in general. Not all metal-heads are sociopathic trench coat-wearing outsiders; people are often shocked when I mention my music tastes as outwardly I am pretty far away from most people's idea of a metal-head. No tattoos, no piercings- pretty ordinary, in fact.

In terms of skill, it is very intricate, and one of the most difficult forms of music to play. When it comes to bands like Opeth, the music can be like mini-symphonies, and the arrangements share a lot with classical music and jazz, including a lot of the keys and scales. It's not always easy to listen to, and like any genre, metal has some awful pap. The difference tends to be that those who are not into metal seem only to identify metal with some of the worst stuff. Metal is a genre that's easy to mock, but it's also hugely fun and welcoming. And the skill with which most musicians ply their trade is simply breathtaking.

Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah playing at a concert.
Unlike other genres, metal bands have a tendency to be very long lived while most popular artists come and go. Now, imagine what it would mean for the music industry was forced to negotiate mostly with highly successful metal artists who have a large fan base. Such artists would have a much stronger position in negotiations than ‘one hit wonders’. I cannot imagine that the record industry likes this thought. There is longevity in most rock/metal bands, whereas the tripe in the charts is made just for a quick fix.

Then there’s the fashion element. In metal, there is no requirement for fans to submit to it, nor is it changing fast. In other words: there is simply no pressure for fans to always buy the latest metal fashion and THAT is really bad news for fashion designers! The hip-hop fashion seems to be changing regularly while the two biggest developments in metal were the disappearance of spandex pants and the abandonment of ‘hair spray’. To me, this does not sound as if metal fashion could ever be a big earner.

The ‘proud to be ugly’ attitude that you find a lot in the metal scene only adds up to this. On a serious note, how do you want to get a music scene excited about ‘good looks’ when most fans could not care less about whether somebody has a pot belly or not? Different looking individuals and bands are thought of as just that - different. Image counts for very little in metal - the fans can see beyond the image where the music is all-important, something that in pop music by definition will never happen.

In spite of having clocked more than 40 years of existence, the genre has continued to captivate the attention of fans of all ages, all over the planet. It will continue to do so for a long time to come; a very long time to come.



The Rudy said...

dude!!, nice post. I agree with you. I would also like to point out that one of the reasons that people like Pop-music is the predictable catchy tunes/notes. These tunes trigger the pleasure centers of the brain and then, the brain doesn't care if it is actually good or not, it just goes apeshit. Your brain expects a familiar tune/note to be played and when it is played,there's a rush of dopamine that is released from different parts of the brain.It gets it's fix of dopamine when the tunes are simple, catchy, predictable and repetitive and the brain then does not care about your artistic views, it just says 'piss off am high'. The record companies have cashed in on this and thus we see one-hit wonders. Metal on the other hand just grows onto you as we keep listening. Read this

Vic said...

Hi, Nice post & detailed explanation.