I’ve been watching something interesting. It’s a show called “Metal Evolution”, which traces the roots of Heavy Metal, and its two hundred or so sub genres. What I found remarkable is that while the popular stereo-type of the heavy metal fan is a violent, thuggish twit, with no musical taste and little real appreciation of the arts and beauty, that view might be wholly wrong. In my experience of heavy metal fans, it almost certainly is wrong.
Heavy metal isn’t just a kind of music that you hear. Because of its amplification and strong beat, it’s music you experience through your sense of touch. You can literally feel the hairs on your arms vibrate in response to the music. The bass drum thuds literally punch you in the chest. It’s visceral. It’s difficult to prevent yourself from moving to the beat. The dance enters your body from your ears first, propagating throughout your body via the surface of your skin. This music is about excitement, power, a feeling of winning and a willingness to be who you are, to state your preferences without shame or intimidation and to demonstrate your emotions in a public way.
Consider the emotional release that accompanies the full body enjoyment of heavy metal. Consider the sublime, ecstatic rapture that listening to a guitar hero shredding can evoke. Think about how pure the feelings are, how powerful, how honest and how raw the expression is. Isn’t that the very definition of an aesthete? Somebody who feels deeply? What could be more whole-hearted? What could be a more profound and soul shaking feeling than a magical power chord? In the excess is a willingness to immerse oneself in an emotional experience of great intensity. Imagine if we could all appreciate our own favourite styles of music, or paintings or poetry with the same depth and comprehensive, all-enveloping dedication to experiencing the moment that heavy metal fans seem to be so adept at.
The heavy metal gig is one of the few places on earth where you can express and experience drama, the fullest range of mood swings, extreme emotions, histrionics and strong, deep emotional highs and lows, in a socially acceptable way. Isn’t that a healthy thing for one’s emotional life? Surely it’s healthier than bottling up frustrations, desires, lusts, aggression, fear, threats, competitive instincts and violence. I rather distrust people that are so emotionally controlled that you can’t tell what they feel. I fear they feel nothing. I can think of few things more dangerous and threatening than a person that feels nothing, has no empathy and feels indifferent to the suffering or joy of those around them.
Metal fans are a sort of unofficial brotherhood. They are united by a common cause and a common passion. They wear the uniform. They identify, in solidarity, with one another. Yes, it may be tribal, but it’s also highly social. As a form of legitimate male bonding, only sports can rival it. When males bond, what they are actually expressing is fraternal love, albeit in a masculinity-preserving form. Who could plausibly argue that the world needs less love? The acceptance and non-judgementalism of fellow metal fans can give one the sense of belonging, being ok and being a part of something bigger than you.
It might be that this emotional release is a positive means of dissipating and diffusing feelings of violence, aggression, frustration, anger, dominance, insignificance, injustice, resentment, alienation, powerlessness and oppression. Think about that. In past centuries, such feelings may have lead to war, pillage, conquest, rape, massacre, genocide and bloodshed. Our reptilian brain still reacts to feelings of fear and imminent threat with violence and aggression, often to the detriment of the person feeling those fears, not to mention the anti-social consequences of such an outburst to everybody else. How wonderful would it be if the venting of those dangerous emotional drives, through the music of heavy metal, was an evolutionary adaptation to lessen the killing? Is it possible? You bet!
So next time you see a mosh pit full of (usually) young men, head-banging to the beat and mock-brawling, see them for what they are. Peaceful. Despite their posturing and efforts to look dangerous, here are testosterone-fuelled, strong, virile, powerful, young people choosing to release their rage in as harmless a way as is possible – through music and dance. They’re not killing, they’re not grinding their competitors into the dirt, they’re not deceiving, cheating and lying, they’re not trying to control or exploit other people, to subjugate them or to enslave them. They are simply trying to be as free as they can be. If that takes a few loud amplifiers, some guitars and drums, some screaming vocalists, some smoke bombs and a light show, isn’t that better than tanks, guns, nuclear weapons, cynicism, unfeeling exploitation of “weaker” people and a callous indifference to collateral damage?
Be grateful for heavy metal and the people that worship it. They just might be the most caring people in society. They might be saving the planet from self-destruction through endless wars. They’re making themselves harmless by releasing their negative urges through music. They are demonstrating, in a practical, imitable and obvious way, that war is entirely avoidable and the reptilian brain can be satiated, without the negative consequences. What a wonderful, surprising and unexpected evolutionary adaptation.
Long live rock and roll!
Tragic caveat: Some so-called soldiers go on to commit war crimes and atrocities, while listening to heavy metal. This is misuse of the art form to amplify those negative human traits, before unleashing them on their unsuspecting victims. These creatures are not true heavy metal fans. These are lovers of destruction for its own sake. They’ve missed the point. Evolution will filter them out.