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The Anthropology of Heavy Metal

Lindsay Bishop has conducted an eight-year, on-the-ground study into the communities surrounding heavy music

The stereotype of the metalhead is one as old as heavy music itself. Brutish, beer-guzzling, bearded and overwhelmingly male, metal fans are seen to fit into a very specific box. One researcher at University College London, however, has spent the last eight years disproving that outmoded stereotype.

Lindsay Bishop, an anthropology PhD student at UCL, used a lifetime of heavy metal fandom (as well as more formal research, which began way back in 2010) to conduct the study, including bands such as Fear Factory, 3Teeth, Mortiis, Pig and Combichrist in her research – and she soon found that the established perception of metal fans couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Instead, Bishop found that metal thrives on its sense of community. The fan community, she found, features a supportive and knowledgable social hierarchy which passes down customs and traditions (think ‘mosh pit etiquette’) from generation to generation. Elsewhere, she also found that – despite that masculine stereotype – metal fans are (on average), a third female, and a gig near you is likely to boast an array of older adults, families, disabled and LGBTQ people, too.

It all adds up to a perception of the metal community that couldn’t be further from the denim-clad, stinky stereotype that’s plagued the genre for decades. NME caught up with Lindsay Bishop to discuss the research, her findings, and how this research could remodel metal’s longheld perception and have an impact on inclusivity in music communities across the board.

“The trust you are placing in people as you crowd surf really is quite remarkable”

Talk us through these findings – what were the biggest surprises, for you?

Lindsay Bishop: “As a veteran metalhead I – naïvely – wasn’t expecting to be too surprised by this fieldwork, but experiencing these performances as a researcher has altered my perspective drastically. Reconciling patterns of behaviour in sometimes very distant communities to that in heavy metal has given me a far more nuanced understanding of the commonalities of human culture while still appreciating what makes these communities unique.

“As a researcher I found I was able to more easily approach people in the audience, not to mention musicians and crew members, in order to better experience and comprehend a range of perspectives that I hadn’t been privy to in the past. I’ve since toured extensively with musicians and engaged with audience members across genders, ethnicities, politics, beliefs, and sexualities. All of whom have found a place of expression in metal. That is not to say that this massive community is an egalitarian paradise – there will always be those who disrespect the social structure. What I am recognising are overriding patterns of behaviour that unite and transcend geographical and sensory boundaries.”

How did you conduct the research?

“I’ve been touring with bands and speaking with audience members in their homes and at venues as part of this research since 2010. For me, what sets anthropology apart from other disciplines is that to represent the people we are exploring, we relocate and live within the community, sometimes for years. This enables us to better understand and interpret cultures from their point of view. To understand the experience of touring with 15 people on one bus, you need to wake up on that bus every day, eating, drinking, and working with the same people, sometimes for weeks or months on end. You cope with the smell and the discarded underwear while appreciating the novelty of a hot shower and fresh socks like never before.

Does that mean you got stuck into the mosh pit too?

“Yeah, until you have been in the thick of it, it’s impossible to comprehend fully. Again, as a researcher I was made more consciously aware of the sensations of standing in pitch blackness pressed up against total strangers from all sides, being blasted with music at such a volume you can feel it in your bones. All you have in common in the crowd is a shared love of the music, and that’s enough. Taking a step back and thinking about the trust you are placing in people as you crowd surf really is quite remarkable, and not something I had fully comprehended as a teenager!”

“I witnessed grown men moved to tears listening to a song performed live”

How do the metal fans you studied go against the stereotypical idea of a heavy metal fan?

“Within the audience I witnessed grown men moved to tears listening to a song performed live for the first time in 20 years, people brought their children or grandchildren, I even witnessed a woman with crutches crowd-surfing. Patterns quickly emerged in relation to growing up with metal and continuing to engage with the culture into adulthood. Often people were introduced to the music by family members, effectively rendering the ‘teenage rebellion’ stereotype untrue. These are varied audiences, far from the stereotype of metal being the exclusive domain of angry white adolescent boys.”

And what about within the structures of the bands and road crew?

“The people I’ve been living and working with challenged all prevailing stereotypes and many of my own preconceptions. As an avid non-musician, I feared the worst when I began touring as part of the crew. Popular culture would have you believe that the presence of a woman on a tour bus would transform men into testosterone fuelled Neanderthals. When the exact opposite was true. I’ve toured with all genders, in everything between double decker tour buses to much smaller splitter vans, and on one occasion a plucky, rust-coloured Skoda that took us from each end of the UK to Ireland and back again. The most uncomfortable situation I found myself in was trying to sleep on the floor of a ferry with nothing but a thin jacket to keep me warm. That is not to say all musicians and audiences are well behaved and I’ve certainly experienced unwelcome advances from people at gigs in the past. But these are by far and away a rare occurrence.”

Would you like to see those stereotypes change?

“I think given the longevity and global scale of heavy metal today, I would say that addressing these stereotypes is critical. Often people talk of the safe space that metal performances give them that they couldn’t find anywhere else. The damaging perception of metal as a hive of violence and cruelty results in many bands and performances being cancelled or outright banned, which is essentially removing this safe space or access to the community. That we can locate a substantial metal community in most countries in the world should demonstrate that it provides something fundamental to people regardless of role in society.”

“Often people talk of the safe space that metal performances give them that they couldn’t find anywhere else”

Catharsis is often cited as a key factor in people’s love of heavy music – how did you see that reflected in the study?

“Without a doubt, catharsis is a major component in live metal music. There is a surprisingly complex divide between what metal looks like to those outside of the community from those who are integral to it. Mosh pits appear chaotic and vitriolic, when in reality people bond and find release through these experiences. Burton C Bell of Fear Factory told me: “[Mosh pits can appear to be ferocious] but they’re controlled, I remember when I used to go into the pit. It wasn’t about hurting anyone else it was about releasing and that’s exactly what they are doing. I’m glad they have an outlet, where they enjoy this mass hysteria, enjoy this whirlpool of energy and just let it go and let it coalesce inside this pit of music. It’s very tribal and very primal, it’s almost prehistoric.”

Your study finds that heavy music and classical music are perhaps a lot more similar than you’d expect – a fact that would probably come as a surprise to most Proms fans. How do the two intertwine, in your findings? 

“Heavy metal is founded first and foremost on a connection with the music. The imagery and the lyrics certainly gain more attention from the PMRC [the organisation that created the ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker], but it is a sincere and profound connection to the music that provides the lynchpin to the community. Throughout the decades metal has evolved and developed into a wide variety of sub-genres that experiment and push the boundaries of virtuosity, rhythm, speed and harmony. Most people who have spoken with me about their relationship to heavy music also cite classical as a substantial influence. Externally this can appear to be a surprising revelation; the live performances and aesthetics of the audience could not be further from each other. However, the dedication to developing their skill and the intensity experienced at live performances, in comparison to recordings, are very similar.”

Metal and heavy music have a reputation as a bit of a ‘boy’s club’. Is that something that you saw within your studies, or is that an unfair stereotype?

“I have been to gigs where women outnumber the men, but those are rare events. Overall in my experience, there are certainly more men than women in attendance. However, that is not to say that it’s a ‘boys club’. There is a perception of metal as being brutish and misogynistic which is an unfair stereotype, and I believe that is at the root of the imbalance. I’ve witnessed a steady increase in women attending metal gigs, bars and clubs, not to mention women crowd surfing and holding their own in the mosh pit.”

“However, it cannot be denied that within some sub-genres there is a more hostile environment than others. The variations of sounds throughout the sub-genres also reflects varied audiences. Metal incorporates right wing politics in some sub-genres and extreme socialism in others, there is no singular class of people or ethnicity or taste. The extremists as with any culture are the minority, and throughout the years of research I rarely encountered any hostile groups – but it would be remiss of me as a researcher to dismiss anyone because I disagreed with them. Fundamentally though, fantasy and fiction play a larger role in the aesthetics of metal, resulting the in subgenres of Viking and Pirate metal for instance.”

“The metal community I’ve experienced en masse is inclusive, the only prerequisite is a sincere connection to the music”

Female empowerment and inclusion within music communities is quite a pertinent topic at the moment – particularly with regards to representation on festival line-ups. Do you think your research could help with those issues?

“The issue of women in metal has been ongoing for many years now. Even though there are many incredible, well-respected female musicians within metal, there remains a compulsion in the press to highlight and define them as ‘female’ metal musicians. I believe this has gone some way to perpetuating the perspective even within the community, that to be female on a metal stage is to be ‘other’. You are a ‘female guitarist’ not a ‘guitarist’. An additional argument is that bands put women on stage purely as a means to attract men into the audience, which in my experience results in the complete opposite. Metal bands with a female presence has perpetually encouraged more women to attend the performances.”

Are there any other music communities you’d like to explore? 

“I’ve done some work with gaming and horror communities in the past that I intend to return to. For now, I’m focussing my energies on metal!”

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