Thursday, October 24, 2013

Masculinty, Inhumanity

I've noticed over the years of participation in the Heavy Metal subculture that there is an implicit consensus by fans on bands that may been once considered Heavy Metal but have over the years lost this status. They're usually relegated to the bargain bin of 'rock history', whatever that may mean, and though the more historically minded proponents of the scene may pay them lip service as forefathers (choice of term very intentional), it's understood that a modern metalhead would not think of them as hard or heavy enough to qualify as metal.

Of course there are those who wholeheartedly embrace the 'weak' Heavy Metal of yesteryear because they do not only like it for what it is but also enjoy being contrary to the mainstream assumption of metalness. If there's one thing that the Heavy Metal mistress demands - aside from a metaphysical holocaust or two - it is that potential suitors be petulant teenagers at the perpetual cusp of a rebellion that is not just without-a-cause but without-an-effect as well. No other rebellious symbol would best do the job that debating the is-it-or-is-it-not of metal itself. Useless.

But for the sake of clarity, let's not discuss this contrarian obligation of metalheads now. It's a subject for a different article altogether. Let's instead assume that the internal debate over the metalness of the rock bands of the past is a surface activity that has different goals than to actually ascertain such metalness; Let's take it for granted that all sides of the ongoing debate really in the end know and agree that these old rock bands are indeed no longer metal bands in the eyes of the new. They just like to disagree.

Case in point: Rush.

Rush are an interesting band because they were late to both the Heavy Metal party and the Progressive Rock party and though they straddle an uncomfortable place in the middle, they're wholly an entity into themselves (or so became in time, at least). People that love Rush might not love Heavy Metal. Or they might not love Progressive Rock. But they must certainly love one of the two. In this way, Rush are a bridge between two strands of rock music that share certain aesthetic assumptions but are divorced by very real ones as well.

Our particular interest in Rush here is this: from the vantage of a mid-'70s metalhead, Rush would very much be considered a Heavy Metal band. For the modern metalhead, Rush cannot anymore be considered such.

The argument that is often made on this subject is that the standards have shifted in sound production & design, so anything that doesn't have enough distortion, double bass, screaming, wild solos or whatever else is no longer metal. This argument rests on an erroneous assumption that dead-ends the discourse: that these shifts in standards come about naturally, as if Heavy Metal is an organism that evolves towards a best state for survival in its environment and that's that.

This is not only false within the normative boundaries metalheads like to discuss their culture and music (see the vapid Metal: A Headbanger's Journey for more of this anthropology-for-idiots approach - or don't) but it is, more importantly, specifically designed an approach so as to not touch on the forces that actually do shape culture.

I will posit here that the prime activator of movement in what is considered heavy and metal enough is the heteronormative concept of masculinity. Let's consider again, Rush in this light.

Rush have very high, falsetto vocals with a very rapid vibrato. Geddy Lee looked up to Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin, whom also often sang in a high fashion. Robert Plant was considered a very masculine rock n' roll icon and enjoyed great success with female fans. However in the '70s rock and glam context, a degree of androgyny was manufactured as a further staple of male sexual prowess. Latent homoeroticism (and not necessarily homosexuality) was seen as a further boundary of exploration of the male libido. Surely, a 'rock god' would embody Otherness, would shapeshift according to desire. Desire, in the '70s was a inner and outer cosmic exploration, after all.

For Geddy Lee, I am certain Robert Plant was a sexual God in the same way that it was for any of their hundred thousand female, heterosexual groupies. I do not think for a second that Geddy Lee thought "gosh, Robert's singing pretty high in this, I would tone it down if I were him, I wouldn't want to be considered a fag or anything".

Yet, Robert Plant vis a vis Geddy Lee becomes a different thing. The rapid falsetto gives him an edge of hysteria, his vocal phrasing and - of course - the libertarian lyrics he was to sing, as penned by drummer Neil Pert, gave him a decidedly non-sexual tint. Not even that, Rush sounds decidedly hostile to sexuality. Robert Plant would coo and moan his way through your back door whereas Geddy Lee would be the guy with the clipboard politely but insistently knocking on your front door because he just had to let you know.

The audience of Rush mirrors this psychodynamic archetype. Lonely nerds as much into D&D and sci-fi as they were wary of girls. They would be into Heavy Metal exactly because of the homoerotic tension therein that subliminally conveyed that the dignity and strength required to go on an ingressive journey must necessarily be gathered by sublimating the libido. Robert Plant would writhe around his microphone, semi-erect in his tight pants and occasionally touch the godhead due to natural grace - but his raison d'etre was always to capture the attention of female fans. For Rush, there was nothing natural about Rush. No grace and no groupies. There was only effort, concentration, structure. They did not want to catch a sideways glimpse of the divine by fortuitous accident, engrossed in the dionysian splendour of rock n' roll excess. No. They wanted to build a bridge there. A Tower.

You can traverse a bridge and you can climb a tower, if you're strong enough. And the tower will not collapse. The bridge will hold you as long as you believe it can hold you. The carnival of rock n' roll excess provides no such stability.

Rush are nerdy like a Heavy Metal band. Rush are strong like a Heavy Metal band. Rush are lonely. Just like you.

But Rush are no longer considered a Heavy Metal band. Why? Vocals too high. Not enough distortion. Not enough riffs. Look at a solution an ironic fan came up with, it's very illuminating:

Rush slowed down, pitched down. Everything slower, harder, more masculine. Now, Rush can be a Heavy Metal band again. through this revisionist lens.

Why did this happen, and for what reason? Before we continue, I ask you to listen to the real Working Man if you haven't. The contrast is very startling. Can you take '70s Rush seriously, just this second, just this very moment right after you've heard the grown-up Rush, with hairs on their balls and the swagger required to take their time?

I believe this current concept of what Heavy Metal must be comes from the cultural shift from the '70s to the '80s and beyond and is very much connected with that Heavy Metal survived shifts in trends in the music industry exactly by fantasizing about its own metalness and fashioning a guide for it to remain inalienable. And I believe that the "Heavy Metal guidebook" is very much concerned with heternormative masculinity.

In a previous article I briefly explored sexism in Heavy Metal, exclaiming some suspicion as to why a culture built on individuality and rebellion towards authority would buy into the heteronormative concept of masculinity and femininity so completely wholesale. How could music that proclaimed it was all about providing and celebrating the tools for any one human being to find their own way through the epistemological haze by pure willpower would append to that glorious premise in tiny print "if you're a guy and no homo, though...".

Looking at the culture shift in the mid'80s in Heavy Metal for the answer. The Grand Narrative that metaldom devised can be found in the moment (or series of moments) where glam metal and thrash metal were trying to find market footing as dialectic entities in the Regan/Thatcher era. At the moment where metalhead would look upon another metalhead (a mirror to themselves) to see if there were any chips on their armor, if they enjoyed any of these power ballads, if they thought girly makeup would get them girls, then they weren't true enough.

There is no truth or false in an aesthetic concept. So 'true' in Heavy Metal terms must not be about aesthetics in themselves, it must be about an ethical axiom that the aesthetics either support or betray. I posit that any concept of 'true metal', is inquiring as to its affirmation of a gendered stereotype of masculinity. Either you are a man, strong, determined and alone, or you're a woman, weak, dependent on a group and willing to follow orders. There's good and there's evil, and there's no in-between. Heavy Metal is conservative in values and that's the only throughline that goes from the '70s to today. It could be said that it's why it survived the '80s at all and why it had such a difficult time in the '90s.

The conservative metal '80s built on this foundation of masculinity in metal. Every year metal must now become harder, deeper, more machine-like, more blatant and more direct to be understood as 'true'. In this constant push-pull of structure, a band might become overtechnical and then be considered false because they're no longer direct enough. Or they may become too clean-sounding and considered false for not being savage and filthy enough. Or they may become so fast and hard they're no longer considered coherent enough. As with any concept of masculinity, it's a tall order that nobody can adhere to for long. Every band that is trying to prove their trueness is therefore destined to fail - because the fantasy of masculinity is built on the very real failure to be masculine. Heavy Metal bands that are considering themselves as this in the modern context will either have to stop being Heavy Metal bands to do any self-examination on the issue of masculinity, or they will embark on this priapic journey of being ever-more-true every time they play, record or release anything, with always diminishing returns.

What is the end-game, here? Well, this can be seen, historically, that it is death. The outmost request of the mistress is, after all, holocaust. Mars, the god of war, masturbating in rage cuts off his own penis and testicles and bleeds a long river of decay. Beautiful flowers bloom in the carnage, irony irony, such is life, oh well. Heavy Metal reached every peak of masculine terror it could, with all its various shapes of brutal death metal, cavernous cacophonies of black metal and such. And now the godhead has hardened into a gigantic fossil for all its progeny to look up to and feel inferior to its inches. New bands are putting on their museum of natural history freakshows, reprising past glories or incestuously mixing and matching and pretending they're making something 'new'.

As long as Heavy Metal holds inside it a certain stereotype of strength, based on whiteness, heterosexuality and right-wing, libertarian politics, it will never create anything 'new'. 'New' cannot even be a concept within that stagnant epistemology. There is no history, there is no change, all there is is power. Borrowed power, look up to your elders with respect. Pitch them down and slow them down if you have to, because now you're grown up and your own tenor matches that of your father, so what is there to elevate them as patriarchs? If there is nothing, we must surely invent something. Can we put double-bass under Rush's Working Man? Can we put a more screaming solo? Perhaps some death growls? Let's do that in 2020 and commend ourselves for keeping Heavy Metal alive and well.

In that bleak picture let me daub aimlessly with the garish brush of hope, if you don't mind. I do mind, I loathe it, but I must say that throughout the late '80s, all of the '90s' and some of the '00s, artists in the genre were trying to find a way out of this conundrum, even if they didn't actively think of it in the terms I am presenting here. They were trying to break out of the masculine stereotype, so to speak. The types of music they created were canonically weird and because they were confused they often sent mixed messages about it all. Look at Norwegian black metal, with its vague ambiguous musical landscapes, its reverberating witchy vocals in full hysteria - this cannot be said to be the masculine path that death metal took. Yet, very much invested in being considered Heavy Metal studs, the artists in that scene overcompensated for the queerness of their music by making loud statements in the press about their sexual prowess, about their hatred of women and so on.

Better fared certain artists of the progressive metal genre whom retained vestigial characteristics of masculine metal in their instrumentation and approach but consciously tried to tackle modernist topics in their lyrics and with a vocal approach altogether divorced from the usual rigidness. But in total '90s fashion, this ambiguity could not a tower hold, so the best of these artists escaped the Heavy Metal trajectory completely, only recently returning with their tired reunions and live shows showcasing a record they made when they were 19 in its entirety, for goodness' sake.

Of course these outliers will in the future be considered not-metal-enough, if they're not already. Do Mayfair register at all as a Heavy Metal band to listeners in 2013? Do Dornenreich count as a viable solution outside of 'trueness'? Or have we constructed enough language as metalheads to pretend that the grand evolutionary tree of Heavy Metal has branches that are alive and ones that are dead and the selection that chooses which is which is natural and faceless and not subject to market and culture forces?