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Heavy Metal and Ideology

Dan Franklin (2020) and Slavoj Zizek (2012) both use the sunglasses from They Live as a representation of ideological perspective. It's the filter you need to put on, not a blindfold to take off and see 'the truth'. What we refer to as truth can only be experienced ideologically. To deny the existence of ideology in the world is itself an ideological position.

Metal is an alternative ideological perspective - it recognises ideology as present in everything, and performs this through a series of negations of those ideologies. Nothing is sacred to metal, by which we mean nothing is safe from desecration, from denunciation, from defilement (Unger 2016). We might rail against governments and the unfairness of the universe (Wilson 2014), but also against manners and consumerist affect. Thus the choice of metal fans to dress unconventionally (for example) is an expression of this awareness of ideological omnipresence, and attempting to replace the conventional symbolic frameworks of fashion with symbols which are the negations of current ideologies - anti-religious (inverted cross, pentagram), anti-state (nuclear destruction, fallen soldiers), anti-life(corpses, zombies), anti-health (gore, drug use). We enjoy seeing the world in these abject abstractions in metal, and doing so assumes the world as ideological, as the externalised Lacanian fantasy Zizek describes in The Sublime Object of Ideology (2008). The cultural output of the metal scene, from album artwork to gig to lyric, is a knowing, willful attempt to create literal and figurative fantasies externally, whilst continuing to live within neoliberalism; in this way too, metal is a catharsis for its participants.





This quite neatly proves Zizek's argument that ideology is essential to the human condition, as even in metal's clear resentment of dominant Ideology, it cannot be abolished symbolically or concretely; only symbolic oppositions can be resurrected and used as a defence mechanism, a coping strategy against inescapable structures. Metal offers up a micro-semblance of ideological state apparatus in the independent label, promotion and venue system, in its associated journalism and creative labour, wherein scene participants can take direct control over their culture, effectively roleplaying as hegemonic media. We are giving ourselves the opportunity to present our nightmarish “reanimations”(Walser 1993) of Ideology to each other, though in a mediated capacity, via the independent culture industry that we create – an industrial-scale version of Bakhtin’s carnival (Halnon 2006). This, then, reflects metal's long-established tendency towards power; we should redefine this as accessible power, power (economic, creative, social) that is in reach of both the whole community and individual participants, to make use of freely, but within the confines of the late capitalist condition.


We must then distinguish this kind of performed ideology from Althusserian (1970) and Zizekian Ideology proper; the state apparatus as such is far more limited and dispersed, with its major centres being in the largest record labels, the very biggest bands and venue-promoter networks (and thus secured to capital), but despite this the extreme metal scene thrives on an extremely limited economic base, in part due to its high rate of participation amongst fans. One could easily argue that Weinstein's (2000) reading of the 'metal god' ideal still holds true in a scalar, multifarious form - some still genuinely see themselves as guitar heroes performing at arenas, but others imbue their first week of sleeping in a van with similar significance. The ideal, increasingly throughout the genre's lifespan, is to be an active part of the subculture - to act as a component in the metal machine. Power is therefore unevenly distributed and fluctuant within the broader metal community, indeed it is a site of constant contestation for fans, who are also noted for their awareness of the gradation between 'mainstream' and 'underground', between 'true' and 'false' metal (Kahn-Harris 2007). The struggle is between the authenticity of the underground, and its simulation as presented by Capital. This continues to reveal metal's ultimate dependency upon the culture industry, and as such its ultimate inability to escape the ideology it symbolically revolts against. But still the culture rages on – such is its paradoxical nature.


David Burke is a PhD candidate at Bath Spa University, specialising in heavy metal studies, existentialist philosophy and critical theory. Find his work here: https://bathspa.academia.edu/DavidBurke




Works Cited


Althusser, L. (1970) ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, La Pensée. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm (Accessed: 14 October 2020).


Fiennes, S. (2012) The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. P Guide Films.


Franklin, D. (2020) Heavy: How metal changes the way we see the world. Constable.


Halnon, K. B. (2006) ‘Heavy Metal Carnival and Dis-alienation: The Politics of Grotesque Realism’, Symbolic Interaction, 29(1), pp. 33–48.


Kahn-Harris, K. (2007) Extreme metal: music and culture on the edge. Oxford ; New York: Berg.


Unger, M. P. (2016) Sound, symbol, sociality: the aesthetic experience of extreme metal music. London: Palgrave Macmillan (Palgrave Pivot).


Walser, R. (2014) Running With the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. 2nd edn. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.


Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture. 2nd edn. Da Capo Press.


Wilson, S. (2014) Melancology: black metal theory and ecology. Zero Books.


Žižek, S. (2008) The Sublime Object of Ideology. Nachdr. London: Verso (The essential Žižek).


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