From Mötley Crüe to Maiden, from Metallica to Mayhem, the metal and marginalisation symposium at the University of York took us right to the heart of the dynamic complexity of heavy metal as a genre. Its contradictions and tensions were amply highlighted through the day. Its status as marginal provided a unitary theme, yet as many papers highlighted there were ways in which metal studies can speak to wider societal concerns and issues (around race, class, gender for example)
The day began with our own paper which was exploration of the ways in which heavy metal can be both empowering and misogynistic in content and for audiences. Laura Wright then offered an analysis of the ways in which audiences’ responses can be read through the lens of queer theory. We heard a snippet of awesome death metal guitaring from Jasmine Shadrack, who asked us to shut our eyes and say what we heard. As she noted, what we couldn’t hear was the gender of the guitarists, and she went on to provide a fascinating analysis of her experiences as a female guitarist in death metal – the most masculine of the sub-genres
In the second session Yuan Wang gave a compelling account of the terrain of heavy metal in China, it was fascinating to hear of the growth of this marginalised genre there. masculinity was another key theme that was returned to through presentations and questions and Keith Kahn-Harris’ offered an insightful analysis of men/ boys who made not very good music….it was refreshing to see a discussion of the mediocre/ poor – but it raised questions as to whether women musicians may be able to perform in this way (from Jasmine’s earlier paper, the answer is highly unlikely!). Wiebke Kartheus offered a semiotic analysis of the ways in which metal is used to emphasise masculinity in war, but questioned whether this was a unitary narrative, in her analysis of Metallica’s ‘5he Day that never comes’.
Throughout the day questions from the floor were insightful, well informed and thought provoking, asking us it reflect on the extent to which the successful artists we discussed were really marginal, embroiled as they are in a capitalist system, to what extent do their differences from the mainstream function as a mechanism to make money…?
After the lunch, for the third session Laina Dawes joined us by Skype, and provided a compelling account of black women in rock. At the margins yet empowered, and powerful, she also invited us to question whether it was possible to be aware of the racist elements more widely in some music, yet be able to identify or be a fan of a band. Julian Schaap explored fans responses to fan made music on YouTube, with quite a refreshing set of results which suggested here was an online sphere where people were generally pleasant to each other (in contrast to some of the vicious trolling in other areas!). Bill McGrath gave a fascinating account of fans of metal fandom in Botswana, race played a central role in the analysis, as he highlighted that it was more likely to be black rather than white men who formed the majority of the fan base (although notably women were absent here).
After the coffee break Karl Spracklen opened the final session with a thought provoking analysis of folk metal – an under explored genre, yet one which is rife with Viking imagery and iconography, but which very much played one a reinforced a particular kind of masculinity, but this was rife with contradictions and as he insightfully observed that which metal is part of a wider commodification of leisure, nevertheless, that folk metal served to both make the power of instrumental white western hegemonic masculinity invisible, while at the same time, keeping it plainly in sight. Ben Andrews and Pete Bennett’s paper explored the recent Home of Heavy Metal exhibition in Birmingham through literary metaphor and some lively debate ensued. The final session was from Eliza Gregory who showed us some video footage of her performances and offered her reflections on her role as a musician.
All in all this was an incredibly thought provoking day, we came away inspired and enthused. We were keen to keep momentum going so it was suggested that following the IASPM conference in Rotterdam, 2014 and the Helsinki conference in 2015, that 2016 would see the symposium held in Bournemouth – with a possible theme of ‘the politics of heavy metal’. Watch this space. In the meantime the day was wonderfully organised by Rosemary Lucy Hill, Gabby Riches and Caroline Lucas and was supported by the Centre for Women’s Studies (University of York), the International Society for Metal Music Studies, and the Metal Music Studies journal. So a big thanks to them: you certainly made this a day to remember.