If there’s a genre of music that is misunderstood today, it’s heavy-metal. It’s no longer fashionable, not that it ever truly was in the first place. It also is very closely associated with spoiled white kids in the suburbs, which doesn’t help. Other stuff that used to be the domain of white kids in the suburbs like comic books, fantasy, and videogames have all become mainstream. Heavy-metal never did, as it was phased out in favor of alt/grunge and hip-hop. These days outside of its aging niche it’s mostly the butt of jokes. Someone like Jack Black and Tenacious D epitomize today’s market for metal being reframing it as nostalgic camp.
But I’d like to offer my opinion on why it is metal became popular in the first place and why it gets so little respect.
The one thing that characterizes living in the suburbs (speaking as someone who grew up in one) is a sense of security. It’s a good thing and yet at the same time boys (and let’s face it, the genre appeals mostly to boys) feel a need for adventure and risk-taking. If there’s no adventure to be had, then you begin to seek it out through the imagination. In this respect it’s no different from Dorothy dreaming of Oz in the flyover-country of Kansas. It is an inherently coming-of-age genre in the sense that it appeals mostly to kids who haven’t experienced the pressures of adulthood. Therefore the kinds of struggle they cook up are larger than life battles between supernatural forces. It’s the same impulse that led to nerdy activities like Dungeons and Dragons, comic books, and sci-fi movies. It’s just that metal tended to also appeal to more dominant boys, not just nerds.
The 70s were when theatricality entered the rock lexicon. This started mostly through glam but it crossed into heavier territory through things like Alice Cooper. The earliest metal acts like Black Sabbath didn’t have the sorts of Spinal Tap stage shows that would come later. What they did have was the sturm and drang tonalities of horror movies. It was the soundtrack of horror with the stage presence of the warmed over hippie-era.
All of this began to congeal in the late 70s “New wave of british metal” era. Metal as a coherent genre really starts there, and then spawns thrash and hair-bands in the early 80s.
There was a magic period from about 1980 to 85 or so that was the golden era of this fantasy-laced metal, also coinciding with the rise of music videos.
What was also going on around this time was the rise of Heavy Metal magazine. The magazine was essentially a form of soft-porn wish-fulfillment for hormonal teen boys, as it portrayed your every-perv thrust (no pun intended) into exciting and usually sexually-tinged situations. High art? Maybe not. But it provided a sandbox where boys could be boys.
What passed for R-rated back in the day in hand-drawn cel-animation feels positively childish compared to the level of graphic realism in Grand Theft Auto or Tom Clancy style games of today.
I would say the two acts that really “got” the atmospherics of heavy-metal the most were Iron Maiden and Ronnie James Dio. Iron Maiden took a more history-lesson approach. Before it was possible to play immersive videogames these songs sort of projected you into a different time and a different place.
A hallmark of this period is the use of the 2nd person perspective. Lyrics constantly say “you” are this and “you” do that. This is, again, this projection of the listener into an imaginary world. If there’s any one video that really summarizes that moment in time, that reaching out of metal artists to suburban teens, it’s this, complete with a kid on a bike with a basket in front like ET and a nightmare dreamworld with arcade videogames.
Ozzy Osborne who got his start in Sabbath has to share some of the blame for turning the subjectmatter into somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek joke. Sabbath always played it “straight” but by the 80s Ozzy all but winked and nudged at the camera making videos like this:
It’s this disconnectedness of the world of metal from the real-world that I think is the reason why it attracted so much scorn. It doesn’t really matter that so much entertainment today is just as fantastical as the corniest Dio video, your Harry Potter or Thor or Wonder Woman–people just hold a double-standard against metal, looking at it as kid-stuff.
Def Leppard refined the visual iconography of Heavy Metal but softened the satanic edges to the point where it was palatable for the masses.
By the late 80s hair-metal was spending more time chasing skirts than fighting off demons and devils.
I’m not saying that metal should be taken seriously. I’m just saying not everything needs to be taken seriously to have any intrinsic value as entertainment or even art. Heavy-metal is, for the most part, escapism, whether it’s into fantasy realms of demons and devils or the seedy world of strip-clubs and trashed hotel-rooms.
While metal has splintered off into tons of subgenres at its core I still think the appeal came from the pubescent kid on the bike in the burbs with the paper-route who was missing that sense of adventure and excitement. And really, regardless of age, who isn’t missing those things??? I still am. And so I look back and I know where I came from, and yet at a certain level, I can still relate.