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In the age of Obama, will heavy metal suck again?

I am a heavy metal fanatic. Well, I suppose I should say that I was a heavy metal fanatic when I could afford to be a fanatic about something other than library books. I recognize there is a rather stark contradiction between my conservative beliefs and demeanor, and my impulse to remove the sleeves from all my t-shirts, headbang to the point of whiplash, and air guitar until dawn. I can’t read Richard Weaver’s description of his era’s popular music (jazz was “a triumph of grotesque, even hysterical, emotion over propriety and reasonableness.”) without getting a little uncomfortable. If he hated jazz, I’d rather not hear his opinion of melodic death metal.

My CD collection required an update because long car rides require distorted guitars, and I was about to embark on an excellent road trip through Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. Before leaving, I decided it was time to buy some new music; my own collection has stagnated since I left the Beltway and began my penurious life as a PhD student. I was not particularly optimistic when I recently started looking for new bands, and assumed I would have to order off the internet anything worth buying. To my surprise, a substantial number of really good albums were released in the final years of the Bush administration and were available at Best Buy. This spurred an examination of my own collection, leading to an epiphany: during the last 30 years or so, the popularity of good, fun metal was associated with Republican electoral strength. Although I was pleased to finally have a good reason to support one of the major political parties, it saddens me to think that the apparently permanent Democratic majority will lead to the genre’s demise.

(A sidenote: were I writing this post about ten years ago, this is the paragraph where I would pretend I enjoyed Dark Funeral, or some other icon of extreme metal, in order to avoid being castigated on some metal forum for only liking wimpy, mainstream metal that in no way “hails.” Alas, I don’t really care for the stuff, and am no longer perturbed by such criticisms. Perhaps this is a sign of nascent maturity on my part.)

Headbangers are notorious for creating “rules” for heavy metal. I have only two: heavy metal should be fun, and a self-indulgent guitar solo is always a good thing. During the 1980s, these rules followed religiously by popular metal acts. Then, as Reagan’s time in office came to an end, things began to go horribly wrong.

Grunge acts like Nirvana and Alice in Chains brought the demise of glam (hair)  metal. This was not necessarily a negative development, as hair metal had become utterly buffoonish by the end of the 1980s. Unfortunately, when hair metal fell victim to its own excesses, it was not immediately replaced by anything good. During the first years of the Clinton Administration, it appeared that most Americans were finished with heavy metal.

The metal that found a mainstream audience a few years later was unrecognizable from that which prevailed a decade earlier. “Nu Metal,” which was really just hip-hop and funk combined with electric guitars, can barely be described as metal at all. Heavy metal lyrics also took a strange turn. Whereas popular metal was previously about cheap beer, loose women, and unnecessary brawls, metal lyrics in the 1990s were dominated by very different themes: whining about high-school bullies and whining about strict parents.  See every Korn song ever written for examples. As far as I’m concerned, heavy metal was better off dead.

I see now that things largely turned around by the middle of the Bush years. Ozzfest 2001 (which I had to drive eight hours in my clunker in order to attend) represented Nu Metal’s high water mark, with rap-metal acts such as Slipknot, Papa Roach, Linkin Park, and Crazy Town on the main stage. Almost immediately thereafter, Nu Metal began a welcome decline. By 2005, Ozzfest was headlined by Iron Maiden, which represented a triumphant return to roots.

My most recent investigation into the last several year’s popular metal revealed a tremendous amount of really good albums, mostly by European bands. Dragonforce, which is clearly influenced by popular 80s metal, is one of the most entertaining metal acts I’ve ever encountered and has enjoyed much-deserved commercial success in the United States. Epic power metal acts like Nightwish also found a large American audience. Bands like Sister Sin sound more like Motorhead than Papa Roach. Ronnie James Dio and Judas Priest (with Rob Halford back in the band) were again headlining major North American tours. I am less thrilled with most of the new American bands, but even popular American “metal-core” music is pretty good — though much of it sounds ripped off from what In Flames and other Swedish bands were writing fifteen years ago.

There has also been a decine in the puerile satanism that once dominated metal lyrics. I wish I could ascribe this to an increased reverence for Christianity. I think it more likely that anti-Christian themes have waned because Christianity itself has waned; the number of people who can plausibly claim that Christianity oppressed them is now so small that songs on that subject no longer have much of an audience. Lately, when good metal deals with religious themes at all, it is usually advancing some variety of chest-thumpingpaganism.

I don’t really have a good explanation for why America’s taste in metal seems to change along with the nation’s political trends. One possibility is due to the fact that both heavy metal and the Republican Party are primarily favored by white men (which is not to say that everyone who likes one will also like the other).  A Democrat in the White House suggests that the political and cultural power of white guys is on the decline, and the political tastes of American white guys may change accordingly. This results in either efforts to shed a little bit of their “whiteness” (hence the hip-hoppification of metal in the Clinton years), or outright despair (hence the glut of popular songs during that same period that can only be enjoyed by the type of people who cut themselves in the dark). If this is true, however, it seems similar trends should prevail in country music. This does not appear to be the case (though I admit to knowing hardly anything about country). Perhaps this is because country fans are more confident and comfortable in their own, um, skin.

Whether surges of Republican popularity are good for the nation I leave for another time. I am increasingly convinced, however, that Republican presidents are good for heavy metal. Since we probably won’t have another one of those for a good, long while, we are probably doomed to another long period of crappy metal dominating the ariwaves. This does not appear to have happened yet, but the fact that Limp Bizkit and Primer 55 appear poised to release new albums seems to confirm this intuition.

Had I recognized this trend a year ago, maybe I would have voted for McCain.

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