News Segment


February 27, 2006

A new doc complains that heavy metal is unfairly stereotyped and dismissed. But, J. D. CONSIDINE argues, true headbangers don’t actually want your approval. So what’s the problem?

Sam Dunn, the narrator, co-director and uber-fan behind Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, doesn’t mess around when it comes to heavy metal’s image problem. His documentary is barely under way before he begins to enumerate the ways in which metal is denigrated. “Critics thought it was unsophisticated music for unsophisticated people,” he says, adding that the music’s fans “were considered lowlifes, dead-end kids, the bane of society.”

It’s the perfect evocation of us-against-them fandom, with Dunn — a University of Toronto-trained anthropologist and lifelong headbanger — coming down squarely on the side of the lowlifes and dead-end kids. As such, A Headbanger’s Journey is not so much an introduction to modern metal as a plea for understanding.

In the film, which opened on Friday in Toronto and Vancouver, Dunn and his camera crew don’t just interview the music’s stars; they go into the mosh pit and talk to fans, ranging from a thirtysomething, tattooed ex-Marine to a teenaged girl from Quebec who says metal “gives you confidence.”

Despite their long hair, abundant body art and monochromatic wardrobe, the movie says, metal fans aren’t lowlifes — they’re just misunderstood, marginalized by a mainstream that can’t take the extreme volume and is, frankly, rattled by some of the music’s fascination with death and dismemberment.

Yet as artfully as Dunn and company lay out their case for poor, misunderstood heavy metal, there’s one point they forget to make: Metal fans don’t actually want your company, unless you’re willing to be like them.

Some of that seems to stem from the fact that metal fandom is generally all-encompassing and as permanent as a tattoo.

“No one ever goes, ‘I was really big into Slayer one summer,’ ” rocker Rob Zombie says in the film. “I’ve never met that guy. I’ve only met the guy that’s got ‘Slayer’ carved across his chest.”

But there’s also something deeply tribal about metal, something that marks a person as either in or out of the group. Dunn, for his part, has no trouble with this. In the film, we see him walking around the grounds at Wacken Open Air, a massive German heavy-metal festival, and as he talks to fans or wanders past stands selling CDs and T-shirts, the headbangers seem a very friendly tribe, indeed.

Then again, Dunn looks like one of them. He has the same long hair, the same black T-shirt and slacks, the heartfelt enthusiasm. At times, he almost seems to forget that he’s making a movie.

He lets his fannish love for the music carry him away.

Sadly, merely liking the music isn’t enough, as I’ve been reminded over many years of covering metal as a part of the mainstream music press. In 1987, when Dunn’s love for metal was still being formed, I was sent to cover the Monsters of Rock tour, a stadium extravaganza featuring hard-rock superstars Van Halen, the Scorpions, Dokken and, opening the show, a then-little-known thrash band called Metallica.

Personally, I was keen to see Metallica, and made sure to get to the stadium early. But being a 30-year-old in a sports jacket, I stood out among the T-shirted teens, a few of whom approached to ask with bewilderment, “You don’t actually like this music, do you?”

The message was as clear then as it is now: How could you possibly share our values if you’re not one of us?

Variations on that theme have repeated ever since, most ironically during a Metallica-headlined stadium tour 20 years later, where the teen fans found it equally hard to believe that someone as un-metal as me might like that night’s opening act, Korn. No matter how often metal musicians would insist in interviews that their music was aimed at outsiders, metal culture itself made it quite clear that the only outsiders they really wanted were, well, outsiders like them.

It wasn’t always this way. In the eighties, when Dunn discovered metal, the music actually was part of the mainstream. This was metal’s big-hair-and-spandex era, when the charts were packed with albums by Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, Poison, Van Halen, the Scorpions, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne. Dunn goes so far as to say that metal had become “the most popular music in the world” — he seems to have forgotten the contemporaneous success of Michael Jackson and Madonna — and paints the current metal scene as a sort of life after the fall.

Metal, says Dunn, goes ignored despite the size and loyalty of its audience, and he has a point. Albums by Metallica or Korn routinely sell in the millions, and yet such groups are portrayed as marginal or fringe acts by the mainstream music press — when they get mentioned at all.

Certainly, metal remains a blind spot for most rock critics. Although metal fans would argue that 2005 was a banner year for their music, pointing to the popularity of such aggressive and adventurous acts as Lamb of God, Shadows Fall and Mastodon, when The Village Voice polled 795 critics on the best albums of 2005, only two metal acts made the Top 100: politicized hard rockers System of a Down and the Swedish death-prog combo Opeth. Mastodon finished 750th; Lamb of God and Shadows Fall got no votes at all.

But there’s something oddly self-perpetuating about that lack of critical respect. Although Dunn does interview a few music journalists (including Toronto’s Martin Popoff), most of his movie’s screen time is given to rock stars and fans. The stars tell funny stories, and the fans laud metal for being “a strong kind of music,” as Montrealer Sam Guitor puts it. But when Dunn wants real insight, he turns to a pair of academics: UCLA musicologist Robert Walser and DePaul University sociologist Deena Weinstein.

Both are, believe it or not, metal experts. Walser’s 1993 study Running with the Devil (which, early in the film, Dunn flips through at the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library) draws musical parallels between heavy metal and classical virtuosity, while Weinstein’s 1991 tome Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology not only lays out the history of the music but explains the societal forces that formed it. They clearly like the music, and have thought long and hard about it. They don’t define themselves by it, however, and as such are able not only to see how metal works as culture and music, but recognize where and how it fits in the larger culture.

Dunn, on the other hand, offers only the knowledge and enthusiasm of fandom. So when he tries to sum up metal’s appeal, the best he can do is suggest lamely, “You either feel it, or you don’t.” Not exactly a doctoral thesis, is it?

If metal is ever to attain the respect and attention Dunn believes it deserves, it needs to rely less on the sort of craven fandom and identity politics A Headbanger’s Journey enshrines, and recognize that one needn’t be part of the tribe to “feel it.” Until then, headbangers will be stuck in a ghetto of their own making.

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