The Political Resistance Behind Heavy Metal – The World Order

Born between the seventies and eighties by the hand of a youth from the working-class neighborhoods of industrial cities in the United Kingdom, heavy metal expanded throughout the world and gave rise to a multitude of musical subgenres that had one thing in common: pride subversive of being outsider. After more than forty years of existence, the metalera is the longest urban tribe that exists. At the end of the article you can enjoy a playlist with a selection of the milestones of the genre.

The rules are the expression of a social consensus on what is admitted and forbidden, and they are presented in two ways: a legal one, in the behaviors typified as crimes in criminal codes; and another social, a set of behaviors admitted as "normal" through the unwritten consensus of the members of a society. The outsider (translated from English as ‘rebel’ or ‘misfit’) is the one who breaks the norm. And if there is a community and a musical genre that can be described as outsider, that is heavy metal.

Throughout the twentieth century some groups associated with a particular musical manifestation have suffered social contempt. This is the case of genres such as jazz or blues, which suffered discrimination on political and racial grounds, since their first members came from the Afro-descendant population of the United States. UU. However, under the logic of record capitalism, the social norm later succeeded in owning and bleaching both genres by putting white artists at the forefront.

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The heavy metal, musically descendant of these genres, is possibly today the longest-lived urban tribe, with the handicap of failing to eliminate the pejorative content of its outsider label. Born in the seventies of the working-class neighborhoods of industrial cities such as Birmingham (United Kingdom), he seduced thousands of Western youth for decades, who formed numerous bands and diversified their sound into countless subgenres. He also arrived in Spain in the middle of the transition to democracy, serving as an escape valve for a generation of young people who, from the working-class neighborhoods, took liberty in a hedonistic way as well as claiming.

In addition to artistic developments, heavy metal has suffered numerous setbacks, from the onslaught of the record market in the eighties, when they tried to buy it, to numerous chronicles announcing their generational death. But how is it possible for an audience to remain faithful that, apart from the canons of the record industry, maintains that even today we can see live bands as long as Iron Maiden, Baron Rojo or Metallica?

To expand: The History of Heavy Metal, Andrew O'Neill, 2017

The industrial revolution of heavy metal

Before the birth of heavy metal, the term existed under pejorative connotations. From the most influential press, in the late sixties, the term was used to refer to bands that had a heavy sound and that, according to the most misplaced chronicles, played with little musical talent. Hard rock bands such as the British Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, or the American psychedelic Blue Cheer, were cataloged as such, all of them rejecting that denomination.

Black Sabbath Bridge, in Birmingham. The bridge is a tribute to the city band, pioneers of heavy metal. Source: Wikimedia

Heavy metal makes its first appearance on the scene in the seventies with the unmistakable hand of Black Sabbath, a band founded in the working-class neighborhoods of the industrialized British city of Birmingham. Paradoxically, the metal sound of the group was achieved due to an accident suffered by the band's guitarist, Tony Iommi, in 1968. When he was at his job in a metallurgical factory, Iommi lost part of the fingers of his right hand – the one used to step on the strings of that instrument— and the group was forced to lower the tuning for the guitarist's comfort, thus achieving a heavier sound than they initially intended to achieve, since Iommi sought to play blues.

With Black Sabbath, the metal community emerges, born of a mainly male, white and working youth of a United Kingdom plunged into a strong economic slowdown. That youth found in the heavy metal a way out of the succession of traumatic events that since World War II did not stop generating precariousness and social vulnerability among the most disadvantaged classes. Black Sabbath's own lyrics, dark and pessimistic, reflected the disaffection of a generation devoid of identity and disconnected from a system that offered them nothing: metalheads will assume the label of outsider from the beginning.

The musical genre is consolidated in the mid-seventies and the rapidly growing metal community generates new bands that would enhance and give credibility to heavy metal. The so-called “new wave of British heavy metal” (known by the acronym in English NWOBHM) was born from the same working quarters that Black Sabbath was born. Bands such as Judas Priest, Saxon or Diamond Head shaped this new metal wave, whose lyrics ranged from the exaltation of rebel pride and themes such as science fiction and fantasy, serving as an escape from an adverse reality. The most representative band was undoubtedly Judas Priest, who not only evolved into a heavier and faster sound; They also gave the metal community an identically and aesthetically rude way of dressing through the style of their singer, Rob Halford. A style marked by leather jackets, tight pants and silver studs.

To expand: Heavy, the history of metal. Welcome to my nightmare. VH1

Rob Halford, singer of Judas Priest, wearing the clothes that would later mark part of the visual identity of the metal community. Source: Wikimedia

These clothes came from the homosexual sadomasochistic world, although Rob Halford always said that this aesthetic did not take it by affinity to sado, but by chance. This influence is significant and paradoxical while heavy metal is born as a gender dominated by men and that highlights, in a way, masculinity. In this sense, only one band of the female NWOBHM managed to have some success in the eighties: the Girlschool. In spite of everything, when Halford made his homosexuality public in 1998 it was not a big problem or a significant controversy for the metal community.

From the same British sociopolitical context of the seventies, other musical expressions arise in the underground sphere, such as punk. Groups such as Sex Pistols or The Clash are also born among the same young working class. For a time, punk connected generationally better than metal for its greater musical simplicity and for having a more direct message that made its anti-system character clear. This made the heavyweight evolve, since upon receiving punk influences the groups reconnected with their audience, and after the outbreak of the NWOBHM, the heavy metal and its outsider identity will be able to expand throughout the western world evolving musically and socioculturally.

To expand: Heavy Metal Britannia on BBC, 2010

The counterculture of the Spanish Transition

Despite being born in working-class neighborhoods in response to the effects of neoliberal policies, it is true that heavy metal was never a particularly politicized movement. At the beginning of the genre in the United Kingdom, the groups expressed their dissatisfaction with mainly abstract lyrics, although some political and anti-systemic character can be seen in groups such as the markedly anti-fascist Napalm Death, or in lyrics like the song Black pigs War Pigs, which speaks Frontally against the Vietnam War.

In an era in which heavy metal extended throughout the western world, it arrived in Spain under the influence of the NWOBHM, and stood out among a community similar to the one that had made the genre emerge: the youth of the working-class neighborhoods. In addition, these were influenced by an economic and sociocultural context very similar to that of gender in the United Kingdom. However, in Spain the metal would adopt a much more vindictive character than in the British case.

Spanish heavy metal emerges in the late 1970s, but it does not consolidate until the early 1980s with bands such as Barón Rojo, Muro, Banzai, Obús or Ángeles del Infierno. It was born in a social context of transition marked by the end of Franco's long dictatorship and the arrival of greater political and social openness to Spain. The so-called “Madrid movement” – a hedonistic movement, influenced by disco and rock music, and commanded by artists such as Alaska, Mecano or Radio Futura – became the expression of the desire for freedom by a youth that until a few years ago It was limited by dictatorship. Almost at the same time, and mainly from the working-class neighborhoods of big cities, Spanish heavy metal is born, which will share the hedonistic and festive spirit of the Madrid movement, but will acquire a more vindictive and combative character than this.

During the Spanish Transition, in addition to heavy metal, punk rock proliferates, a countercultural scene commanded by bands such as Scar, La polla records, Kortatu or Eskorbuto. These were groups of the so-called Basque radical rock, who write markedly vindictive and politicized letters attending more strongly to discontent and social combativity than their British punk counterparts. This greatly influenced the lyrics and style of hard rock and Spanish heavy metal. In fact, it is still common today that both punks and metal bands perform at the same festivals. While many songs tried to create community and metal pride – from which some rebellion and class claim can also be inferred – such as Iron Curtain Wall, many others explicitly claimed themes such as ecology or anti-Francoism, with songs like Nuclear Nightmare from Obús, or many others from groups such as Asphalt hardrock players.

To enlarge: Metastasis. Evolution of heavy metal in Spain. 2014

The record market attacks, the metal resists

After its internationalization and evolution, heavy metal lived during the eighties its sweetest years. Despite this, during those years the community, rebel and outsider character that characterized him since his birth was in danger. Andrew O'Neill, a renowned British humorist and metalhead, points out in his book The History of Heavy Metal that "something frightening happened in Los Angeles" referring to the early eighties and the birth of the glam metal subgenre. The glam metal is inspired by the colorful and extravagant aesthetics of the British glam rock of the seventies — represented by artists such as David Bowie or Marc Bolan — mixing with some musical rudeness of the NWOBHM.

Mötley Crüe was the most recognized band of the glam metal movement during the eighties. Here, at a concert in 2012. Source: Wikipedia

During the 1980s, in the Anglo-Saxon countries where heavy metal was born, a conservative and neo-liberal alliance was forged between the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the US president. UU. Ronald Reagan, who installed a sociocultural logic based on excess, free market consumerism and obsession with success. It is under this ideological prism that glam metal was born, a subgenre of metal that broke with all the logic previously built by the metal community, since, above the musical quality and the community, the economic benefit and aesthetic aspects of the bands.

The birthplace of glam metal was Sunset Strip, a wide street in Los Angeles where the voracious hegemonic record market put the spotlight throughout the decade, shaping countless bands like Mötley Crüe, Poison or Warrant, putting them into fashion through a sound and more digestible aesthetics for mass consumption. The most representative group was Mötley Crüe, in whose song Girls, girls, girls you can see the consumerist and sexist logic installed in the glam genre during the eighties.

The commodification and massification of glam metal was able to end the heavy metal movement as it became a mass product with an expiration date. However, the only thing that perished was the glam itself because, immersed in a mercantilist bubble, they neglected the essential aspects that made heavy metal a genre born to survive: community, identity and musical creativity. Since then, "sold" may be the worst adjective that can be launched to a metal group. The metal ecosystem survived thanks to the evolution in new subgenres. In parallel to the glam and in the same California the thrash metal of the guitars of the Exodus, Metallica or Megadeth groups is born in the San Francisco Bay and, from Los Angeles, the Slayer band.

The thrash, returning to the traditionally rough aesthetics of heavy metal, injects aggressiveness and speed into the sound of the NWOBHM, while shaping the genre with influences from hardcore punk, a genre defined by its speed and anti-system character. It is born quite possibly as a reaction to the deterioration that glam meant for the heavy metal ecosystem, thus retaking the philosophy of identity and rebel pride, which is felt both in aesthetics and sound. In addition, in a Cold War context where one of the main fears was a nuclear war between the USSR and the US. In the US, the lyrics of thrash metal groups focused mainly on war and nuclear terror, showing a morbid and provocative message, as well as apocalyptic and pessimistic.

This attracted the attention of numerous young middle class rebels, who adhered to the genre by swelling the community and diversifying heavy metal in numerous subgenres. The most representative are death metal, with a heavier sound than thrash, a powerful guttural voice and even more provocative lyrics; and black metal, which is widespread when arriving in Norway with groups such as Mayhem or Darkthrone, and is characterized by the use of squeaky guttural voices in a dark atmosphere and provocative lyrics of satanic inspiration.

To expand: Metal evolution, Extreme Metal, 2011

Outsider pride spreads

Although it has generally maintained a progressive and anti-capitalist character, the metal was never especially politicized nor has it maintained a clearly defined political orientation. That is why within the genre, although minority, there have also been conservative voices. In the black metal subgenre, mainly Norwegian, it is where we find the greatest presence of the extreme right today, even the NSBM category (corresponding to the Nazi black metal acronym), whose label groups are accused of doing so.

The Norwegian black metal scene became popular in 1992, when the far-right Varg Vikernes – a member of Mayhem and founder of the Burzum group – burned a dozen Christian churches in Norway accompanied by other blackmetaleros, arguing that they were built on Viking temples. These facts have served to stigmatize a group for actions that are outside the music. Taking advantage of this stigma of violence and marginality, white supremacist and ultra-right groups have achieved some relevance within the genre to spread their message. However, from within the metal there are initiatives that fight the extreme right-wing metal, such as the New York Black Flags festival, created by the anti-fascist metalhead and columnist Kim Kelly.

To expand: “Heavy metal confronts its nazi problem”, Colin Moynihan in The New Yorker, 2019

Angela Gosow, the then singer of Arch Enemy, during a concert in 2012. Source: dr_zoidberg

Despite proudly bearing the outsider label, heavy metal, as a product of a patriarchal and macho society, has also taken aspects in which it has not broken the norm. The inclusion of women in heavy metal has always been a pending issue: although there has always been a female presence, it has been taken as anecdote, sexualized or made invisible by some metal magazines.

However, the advance of the female presence in metal is a fact, although the scene is still widely taken by men. After the Swedish Angela Gosow took charge of a death metal band, Arch Enemy, in the early 2000s, the inclusion of women in the genre has been normalized. Thanks to the democratization of the internet, this is the time when more bands are born every day, and many of them do so with a female presence.

Historically, heavy metal has had a strong reception in Europe, Western English-speaking countries like the USA. USA, Canada or Australia, and in Latin America. In addition, in recent decades the genre has broken its usual borders and bands have emerged in countries with little metal tradition such as Myrath from Tunisia, Acrassicauda from Iraq, or the large metal scene in India.

Number of metal bands per million inhabitants, distributed by countries in Europe, 2016. Source: Jakubmarian.com

Despite the musical and geographical expansion, and the greater female inclusion, since the seventies there have been voices that have left heavy metal for dead. However, this genus has survived by evolving in numerous subgenres. The longest-lived urban tribe is not sure how long it will last, since today young people connect better with styles such as the trap and the reference bands will not be able to continue playing in perpetuity. But there is one factor that remains unscathed over time: those who adhere to the metal community often proudly acquire the status of outsider. It may be because of an exercise of individual rebellion, but the identity and community value remains inalienable. Not surprisingly, according to Spotify, the most loyal listeners in the world are metalheads.

This list compiles some of the most representative songs of the genre, including the origins with Blach Sabbath and even the most recent Arch Enemy.
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