Thoughts: Beyond The Aesthetic

It is in some ways lucky that Billboard’s recent ‘Stars In Spikes’ feature has largely escaped the notice of the bulk of the metal fanbase. Twitter feeds would most likely erupt with complaints, causing widespread mild annoyance to all within the scene for at least a few hours. The article, such as it is, is at best a naïvely written piece that is likely to inadvertently offend those who like their guitars loud and their vocals yelled. Suggesting that pop and hip-hop stars’ recent proclivity for the merchandise of classic metal bands is likely to have a knock-on effect that reignites metal’s mainstream appeal, the article ignores metal’s ongoing credibility and global appeal. At one point, Megaforce Records co-owner Missy Callazzo even claims that “Lady Gaga has probably done more for metal in the last four years than anyone else.” Nevermind the infinite amount of dedicated artists keeping the genre fresh and exciting, or the global legions of fans funding the scene and proving that the market for the genre is consistently strong.

Perhaps the most gleaming issue with the article is that it appears to be the mainstream’s take on a genre that prides itself on being everything the mainstream isn’t – it even praises Volbeat solely for being “not inaccessible,” compromising any notion that it understands metal as a scene, which largely embraces inaccessibility. Metal may have proved itself trendy amongst pop and hip-hop artists in recent years but to the metal faithful that means precious little, and thinking that Justin Bieber’s embrace of metallic fonts will have any lasting (or even temporary) meaningful effect for the metal world is, at best, innocently misguided. If anything, metal proves that music can be popular without being filtered into the mainstream, as fans are happily ignored by media outlets despite groups selling out arenas and topping charts.

Importantly, mainstream artists’ appropriation of metal artwork is, undoubtedly, a bit of a fad. In this regard, ‘Stars In Spikes’ writer Bobby Olivier fails to counter for the huge differences between the genres and the ways they operate. As is often noted, in pop and hip-hop artists can have one or two big albums and vanish, but metal allows room for its bands to develop. A band can be headlining arenas for their first time after six or seven albums, and that simply doesn’t happen in other genres. The longevity of metal, coupled with the loyalty of its fans, has allowed it to thrive for almost 50 years. Genres have come and gone, but metal has remained a voice for the disenfranchised throughout – even punk, similarly lauded for its rebellious nature, faded out as it was replaced by new wave. Warner Music’s Matt Young may claim that metal has “gone away and gotten dangerous again,” but to many, it never went anywhere.

Metal is not a fashion trend so much as a community-based culture that often prides itself on an anti-mainstream perspective. To an extent, therefore, the misappropriation of metallic artwork by those outside the genre serves to almost make a mockery out of it, at least in the eyes of some metal fans. Boiling heavy metal culture down to a certain edgy fashion statement is, in many ways, insulting to the people who dedicate their time and money to it. The inescapable truth is that when the people behind Justin Bieber’s wardrobe are done appropriating Iron Maiden fonts and Rihanna stops using her black metal-esque logo, this fad will be all but forgotten – metal fans will continue to love metal unfazed by the actions of mainstream stars, who will go back to forgetting it exists.

Olivier comes across as someone who knows little about metal and its various subgenres and subcultures, and the view of metal the article, and indeed the celebrity subjects of it, seemingly have is outdated and borderline stereotypical. If Lady Gaga has revitalised a section of metal, then it’s an outdated one that thinks Metallica is a hip, young band about to take the world by storm. The truth is that metal has consistently upheld an underground credibility for fans across the globe, who are mostly uncaring of whether it is perceived as relevant or not by others. Even during the period in which the article references nu-metal artists experiencing regular rotation on radio channels like MTV, metal’s more extreme underground was trudging along, ignored by the mainstream but adored by a surprisingly large and endlessly devoted fanbase.

It is, in fact, almost comical that this trend is a new thing for mainstream music, as it largely appropriates the aesthetics of classic metal bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden, updated with a slightly more modern edge. As was proved when high street stores like H&M began stocking metal shirts, including those with non-existent metal artists, the mainstream straight-out sucks at appropriating metal imagery and fashion. Sure, metal style can be cool (leather, studs, denim etc.) and designers are undoubtedly going to take inspiration from that world, but taking inspiration from it is very different from ripping it off – remember these monstrosities? The mainstream’s embrace of metal’s imagery perfectly highlights its lack of even a passing thought for the genuine metal scene. You can buy awesome-looking merchandise from a ton of hard-hitting bands and contribute to the scene at large, but high street companies and pop celebrities would much rather charge ridiculous amounts for tat, as metal fans stand by and witness a corporate giant exploit their passion for profit.

The article once again proves its naivety when insinuating that metal fans need to catch-up and use streaming services. If metal fans do cling to an album format, as the article implies, it’s out of a genuine adoration for the music, but results from Spotify and other streaming services have, in fact, proved that metal is dominating the online airwaves as well. Across the globe, metal frequently features in the top five most listened to genres on Spotify, and further research unveiled that metal fans are the most loyal.

Written with good intentions, but as if metal has been lost to the myths of time (soon to be rekindled by rappers with a licence to Make Metal Relevant Again because they’re rocking a Metallica shirt), let’s just hope articles like this come rarely, or are at least accompanied by more research, in the future.

Words: George Parr

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