"That's Not Metal!" Diagnosing A Nasty Strain Of Heavy Metal Elitism
Band Photo: Slipknot (?)
“THAT’S NOT METAL!”
One of the most oft-hurled accusations among metalheads, to a point where people waste inordinate amounts of time bickering over this crucial distinction on which one’s very identity seems to depend, usually online.
Why? What’s hanging in the balance here? For let’s face it: at the end of the day, this is music we’re talking about – an art form, subjective by definition, and utterly dependent on individual taste. While arguments over politics and religion can get pretty silly, the importance attached to such views is still far more understandable than the absurd fervor with which many fans defend metal’s imagined gates of purity.
For all the fun metal has to offer – heck, I wouldn’t be writing about it were I not an avid fan – its overall fanbase is popular music’s most self-loathing and self-destructive, collectively and metaphorically speaking. In fact, many metalheads may take issue with my inclusion of metal in the “popular music” category, which itself is, I believe, the root of the problem.
Examining the sometimes-bizarre pathology of metal’s less-than-savory fanhood has long been an interest of mine, and while I don’t have the space (and you certainly don’t have the time) to unravel all my thoughts here, I will submit this: “That’s Not Metal,” quite often, is a smokescreen, a self-deluding attempt to marginalize an album, band, or entire subgenre one doesn’t like or doesn’t feel represents him.
It is a cultural form of denial. For when one identifies himself as Metal – and it’s a strong, dominant form of expression – all it takes is a ladle of insecurity to send him scurrying to defend the uniqueness and purity of his very identity.
I will now evaluate a pivotal development in metal history that may help explain the origins of this splintering trend within the genre.
The Black Album: The Fissure Opens
Many of us never forget our first heartbreak, that inevitable initiation ritual into the rough-and-tumble realities of relationships. Our first time on the receiving end of a breakup, or our first time facing infidelity – or both – really hurts. It’s a betrayal. And if we aren’t careful, it can leave us bitter.
Our relationship with music is like that sometimes. Metal, in particular, is a powerful, cathartic experience rarely rivaled in its ability to marry fans to their emotions surrounding the music. So it’s no wonder that Metallica’s release of 1991’s phenomenally successful “Metallica” forged a bitter rift that has widened ever since.
The so-called “Black Album,” to use the relationship model, was the First Betrayal, the first heartbreak. Sure, the terms “poseur” and “sellout” had been thrown around liberally in the ‘80s thrash movement. Of course, diehard fans literally spat upon Metallica members after the 1988 release of the “One” music video. But all this merely highlighted an entrenched antipathy toward anything “mainstream,” anything outside of the surging thrash or fledgling death metal subgenres.
The Black Album, on the other hand, with its slowed, anthemic tempos and catchier vocal lines, merged two universes. What had been undoubtedly metal had now BECOME mainstream. Benedict Arnold himself couldn’t have dreamed up worse.
Is it really any wonder, then, why Metallica is still so despised in “true metal” circles 23 years later, while several bands committing comparable musical transgressions have escaped such broad condemnation?
I certainly understand disliking “Load”  and “Reload.”  It’s a matter of taste with those two, which essentially are solid hard rock records. “St. Anger”  might as well be the psychotic result of a bad coke binge, though that’s not to say there isn’t entertainment value. “Death Magnetic”  suffered from lackluster production and some overcooked song ideas, and with the Lou Reed collaboration “Lulu,”  the less said the better.
But lumping the Black Album in with what followed is akin to viewing every rocky relationship in one’s life through the lens of that First Betrayal, branding it as the fateful turning point after which there came nothing but disappointment. And ignoring the truth, which is that “Metallica” is a very well written, well-performed, well-produced album. It’s also undeniably a very heavy metal album, heavier than “And Justice For All,” without question. There’s just no getting around this.
But it’s “mainstream.” Its release elevated Metallica to arena-band status. Its singles remain in regular rotation on many radio stations to this day. “Enter Sandman” features a signature riff that your grandmother, or even your local church pastor, might whistle. Therefore, given many metalheads’ frantic need to dissociate themselves from the rest of culture, it “sucks” by default. It’s persona non grata.
Granted, not all metalheads literally think this way, and the stubborn war cry of “That’s Not Metal” came along considerably later. But its seeds were planted in that First Betrayal, the melding of True Metal (thrash, in this case) with mainstream rock, that left many thousands disillusioned, exposed, and struggling to protect the castle walls.
2014: The Fissure Widens
Flash forward to today. The Black Album’s legacy lives on, not just in its continued airplay, not just in Metallica’s performances, not just in the bands it inspired, but also in the bitter undercurrents of disdain that informed the conventional wisdom of many a metalhead.
“That’s Not Metal” is often code for “That’s mainstream. Too many people like it.” The more people that love a band a metalhead loves, the less different and special he is for loving that band. And since Metal, as an identity, MUST mark one’s distinction from the rest of culture, that band must be excommunicated.
Herewith, I’ll address three current common targets of “Metal Excommunication Dissociative Syndrome” (MEDS). To keep things even and fair, I’ll include a band I dislike and a band toward which I’m more or less neutral.
Their name is a punchline among many metalheads. They’re the constant butt of scoffing, knowing inside jokes. One barely has to discuss the music to grasp, instinctively, the meaning of an unflattering comparison to Avenged Sevenfold. It’s simply understood. The most common accusation, typically leveled when the band is listed among a group of “approved” names, is… “That’s Not Metal.”
But are they metal? Yes, indeed they are.
I missed the boat with Avenged Sevenfold back in 2003 when they released sophomore effort “Waking The Fallen,” their first album to garner serious nationwide attention (MTV2’s resurrection of “Headbanger’s Ball” that same year certainly helped). By that time, my excursion into the prime offerings of metalcore had all but ended, though the flagship bands of that movement – Killswitch Engage, As I Lay Dying, Unearth – would remain near to my heart. But Avenged I missed. I explored selections from their catalogue years later, found myself rather unmoved by the songwriting, and decided it wasn’t for me.
But heavy metal is the band’s dominant trait. How could it not be? Metal is always the dominant X chromosome (ironic, given the genre’s mostly male population) that overpowers other present influences. We call Eluveitie a “folk metal” band, not a “metallic folk” band. The same is true of Avenged Sevenfold, who have incorporated hardcore, punk, glam rock, and other styles into their sound over the past decade-plus. But the end result is almost always heavy metal, and if recent single “Hail To The King” isn’t metal, then neither was Dio.
Again, to be fair, I find Avenged Sevenfold’s songwriting to be more or less unaffecting, and I’d just as soon toss out “Hail To The King” and listen to Dio. But metal it certainly is.
If Disturbed aren’t metal, then neither are White Zombie, Pantera, or even Ozzy, just to name a few musical influences on this oft-maligned band. Heck, since MEDS invariably targets acts with mainstream singalong appeal, then neither would the Black Album be metal – and we’ve already covered that.
I owned a copy of “The Sickness”  back in the day and played it quite a bit, but by the time “Believe”  arrived, I was already eyeballs-deep in the thrills of melodic death and black metal, and had lost interest in Disturbed. However, I could never summon the energy to dislike them, even all these years and musical discoveries later – much less brand them “Not Metal.”
“But they’re nu-metal. That’s not a legitimate style of metal.” Ah, that old MEDS escape clause.
After Korn’s “Follow The Leader” blew the whole movement into orbit in 1998, nu-metal produced some ridiculous bands, to be sure. And to be fair, plenty of them dwelled in the realms of corny rap-rock and dull alternative radio rock with the occasional heavy riff or tendency to scream, making their designation as “metal” quite dubious indeed.
But the movement also produced plenty of heavier bands with primarily metal influences, some of which survived the trend’s 2003 demise and were absorbed into the greater metal canon, for better or worse. Disturbed cannot be said to reside anywhere but the latter category.
Of course Slipknot are metal. What else would they be?
“No, they’re nu-met – “ Shut up. Just shut up with the nu-metal thing already. Nu-metal was a trend, a movement that had its run and then died. It took influences from previously existing styles, put a stamp on them, and as a parting gift, sent the stronger ones out into the Darwinian metal world to be picked up by later generations. C’est la vie.
Slipknot’s role, which no other band of the era can claim, was to encourage popular American metal to get heavier again. Initially working within the confines of the then-current trend, the band blazed a path into more extreme pastures that left contemporary audiences far more receptive to the “American New Wave” and thrash revival that followed. 20/20 hindsight reveals this development for what it was: a timely and elegant coup.
The band’s wild popularity, as with Disturbed’s and Avenged Sevenfold’s, has naturally earned Slipknot legions of savage critics. That’s understandable. It’s tempting to lambaste a mainstream band noted for costumed theatricality that GWAR perfected in the cult underground for decades. It’s easy to dismiss Slipknot’s signature image and enlarged lineup as cheap gimmicks, and such criticisms are not entirely without merit.
But Slipknot’s music is certainly metal – even “Volume 3: The Subliminal Verses”  and “All Hope Is Gone,”  which expanded the band’s sonic palette to include more traditional and progressive influences. The army of critics often seems split between two factions: the “nu-metal” naysayers, and those disappointed that the later material wasn’t heavy enough.
It’s still metal.
One does not have to like any of these bands to acknowledge their places in the metal universe, and that may seem a piece of obvious wisdom, but far too many metalheads routinely fall in line with the old prejudiced MEDS script. “That’s Not Metal” is an ingrained gut reaction.
The problem, as I stated previously, is the long-running desperate struggle to keep one’s clique, one’s cult – one’s very cultural identity – segregated from the broader culture, the mainstream. Without such segregation, being a “true metalhead” carries no meaning. That can’t be allowed.
It’s a form of denial, because the accusation is very often patently false. Whether one enjoys them or not, Avenged Sevenfold, Disturbed, and Slipknot – not to mention the Black Album – are just as metal as any classic or underground metal band with a variety of influences. The major difference is a few hundred thousand, or a few million, record sales.
There, again, lies the rub. Many metalheads are perpetually stuck in an endless, flailing cycle of contradictions, trying to preserve the imagined integrity of their elite levees of purity and superiority. “No Irish Need Apply” to our shop, “No Jews Allowed” at our country club, “No Niggers At Our Schools.”
“No Mainstream Garbage In Our Metal.”
The greatest irony is that like it or not, the overall metal genre NEEDS the “mainstream” as a constant foil for its rebellious posturing. I’d call it a symbiotic relationship, but to be brutally honest, I’m not sure the “mainstream” really much cares. Such is the tragedy of MEDS.
Why am I critiquing metalheads so harshly if I’m one of them? Well, I never claimed to be above these strange pathologies. I’ve gone through my phases of elitism and purism, and to this day I labor painfully to stomach and accept the fact that Motionless In White – a popular band I REALLY dislike – is, for better or worse, metal.
As of late though, I’ve tried most of all to simply enjoy heavy music that I find fun, entertaining, interesting, or challenging – without letting the kneejerk cries of “That’s Not Metal” spoil it for me.
And if I don’t like the band, no sweat off my back if it’s still metal. I’m not 17 anymore and just don’t have the time.
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