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International Day of Slayer asks the Experts: is this a good idea?

June 2, 2009

Through the wonders of the internet, we were able to assemble a virtual panel of metal experts. This means we asked them the same questions at different times, and we've put it together to make it look like we were all partying in Hollywood together. This is probably the greatest brain trust of metal minds in academia -- true experts -- ever assembled, and they wanted to talk about Slayer.


Steve Waksman
Dr. Waksman is the author of two books: Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard University Press, 1999) and This Ain't the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk (University of California, 2009). A professor of music and American studies, Waksman also plays guitar avidly and is an international expert on electric guitar playing and its cultural significance.
Keith Kahn-Harris
Dr. Kahn-Harris is a sociologist living in London. He works as a research associate at Goldsmiths College's Centre for Urban and Community Research, as an associate lecturer for the Open University and as convenor of New Jewish Thought. He has published and presented numerous papers and editorials on the importance of subculture, metal music and its importance to cultures worldwide. You can read more about him here.
Martin Popoff
Martin Popoff has written extensively within the heavy metal journalistic community for over two decades, authored 28 books including the epic-sized The Collector's Guide to Heavy Metal, which features over 3,500 reviews and extensive background information on heavy metal bands. His writing can be found in the popular metal publication Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles, and you can read more about him at his site.

...And on to the questions!

1. Are elective cultures, or those which are chosen and not born into, legitimately cultures in a pluralistic society?

Steve Waksman: Cultures, to my understanding, basically consist of the various resources (ideas, habits, practices) we use to make meaning out of the world and our experience in it. By that open definition, yes, elective cultures have as much legitimacy as those that are more inherited. Indeed, in a pluralistic society I think elective cultures such as those that surround styles of music like heavy metal are, if anything, more legitimate than other forms. They show our capacity to build our cultural frameworks out of the things that matter most to us rather than simply accept what has been foreordained as having value.

Keith Kahn-Harris: I like Brian Eno's definition of culture: 'anything you don't have to do'. Culture simply means any way of life, any way of being, any form of art. So 'elective cultures' like metal are just as much cultures as anything else. However, the question of legitimacy you raise seems to imply the question of whether elective cultures like metal are seen as legitimate in pluralistic societies. While the old 'high-low culture' distinction still remains in some parts of society, it is much weaker than it used to be. These days, most people who hate metal would still probably concede that it forms a unique cultural space. Only in oppressive, non-pluralist societies (and within oppressive cultures within them, such as conservative Christians) is there a real attempt to delegitimize and proscribe certain elective cultures like metal.

All that being said, it is also the case that the distinction between elective cultures and those that people are born into (such as ethnicities), while not being absolute, is still worth making. Metal culture is different in key respects from - say - Chinese-American culture. It is probably true that many people would regard elective cultures as more ephemeral, less historically significant and less complex than cultures into which people are born. In that sense, elective cultures like metal have less legitimacy than others (not that I would argue that personally!).

Martin Popoff: Absolutely... strange question, and a heavy one, but I suppose, just thinking about it now, an elective culture is more important and valid because it is deliberate? Having said that, the whole idea of fragmentation, even, if you look at the metal world, from its early days to the 40 or 50 flavors we have now, I suppose you can define an elective culture as something so miniscule and specific that the idea loses its meaning.

2. Can we clearly define metal culture?

Steve Waksman: Depends on what you mean by "clearly." One of the things I think is great about metal -- and it's true of most aspects of popular culture that have any real significance -- is that it's not just a single thing, doesn't just follow a single definition of what's real or what's true. So, metal as a cultural phenomenon is based around music but consists of so much more than music, as any good metal fan knows. Even with regard to the music, though, it's not all based around a single value or a single sound. Does the average Slayer fan like to listen to Dream Theater or Isis or Def Leppard or Ram Jam? I know I like to listen to them all at different times, but even though they're all metal, the provide different pleasures and a different sense of what's important or meaningful in music. If metal culture can be defined, I think it mainly finds its definition in the ways that metal fans of different sorts look for meaning and value and pleasure in metal music and argue about it all.

Keith Kahn-Harris: When using the term 'culture' it's important not to imply stasis and homogeneity. All cultures are in motion and to a greater or lesser extent heterogeneous. Most cultures tend to be riven with disputes as to where their boundaries lie - indeed, it is these disputes that can be said to constitute cultures themselves. We can't clearly define metal culture in the sense that the boundaries are always going to be fuzzy and different people will define metal in different ways. What we can do though is to identify a 'core' of metal culture that insiders and outsiders are unanimous in defining as metal and that stays relatively constant over time. For example, in terms of bands, there is no dispute that Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath constitute essential parts of metal culture and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Other things though are more ephemeral: long hair for example, while once ubiquitous in metal, is much less central to metal culture than it once was.

Martin Popoff: At the outset, or on a specific or micro level, not really, because, as alluded to above, there are too many subcultures that are quite different from each other -- take glam metal and black metal for example. But I suppose the one thing these cultures have in common is bold, loud music, getting your face pasted to the wall through the good graces of electricity. All of metal music is music that reaches for your throat, grabs on and gives it a good shake. And we always have this debate, stay with the times, stick with the times, and define metal culture, it's a pretty narrow thing. Heavy, very fast, throwing the horns, dressed in a black T-shirt, long hair or completely bald! That's the definition of a metal crowd today.

3. Why would Slayer be important to this culture?

Steve Waksman: Slayer is important because Slayer represents one powerful, extreme version of what metal should be. Slayer represents the idea that metal should be relentlessly aggressive in sound, that it should be played with serious speed but not so fast that you lose the depth and power that gives metal so much of its unique character, that it should be dedicated to antiauthoritarian, antireligious values. Slayer represents the notion that metal should be scary as hell but also shouldn't take itself too seriously, that power and intensity and kick- ass heaviness are a vehicle for catharsis and also just a way to have a killer good time.

Keith Kahn-Harris: Well Slayer constitutes part of the 'core' I mentioned. There is no dispute that Slayer are a core part of metal culture and this is unlikely to change in the short to medium term. Further, Slayer are also important in defining what it means to be 'metal', both in terms of pioneering certain musical features, but also more nebulously in terms of 'attitude'.

Martin Popoff: Slayer are important because they are the biggest most legendary very heavy band. There are heavier bands that are actually more successful, record sales-wise, but Slayer is the longest running, quite successful really heavy band, and then on top of that, they've got that little magic going on of being not exactly black metal or death metal or thrash metal, but just... Slayer. There's a humanity to them, having these four distinct characters in the band, which always helps with the richness of experiencing a band. They don't change much album to album, but they sound so much like themselves, from the chaotic wild guitar solos through Tom's meltdown at the motor vehicle branch voice. People go crazy at their shows, and there is this wild communion that goes on.

4. Do you think heavy metal culture will continue evolving? If assembled in a physical location, would it resemble a non-elective culture?

Steve Waksman: I think heavy metal music has shown a remarkable capacity to continue growing and evolving over time, and that the culture surrounding the music reflects that growth. I don't know about it becoming a non-elective culture, though. I'm not even sure if I'd want it to be. Getting back to my answer to question 1 above, elective cultures show our ability to make culture for ourselves, out of things we choose to invest with meaning. A non-elective culture -- like a religion -- to my mind involves a certain loss of that capacity to choose. I think heavy metal's attraction to people is too strongly based in the fact that it's not given to us as fans, that it's something we have to discover on our own, which makes our attachment all the more powerful.

Keith Kahn-Harris: Metal goes through periods of relative stasis and rapid periods of change. I think in the moment we're in the latter kind of period - metal music is in the midst of an incredibly creative period. There's no guarantee that will continue indefinitely though. It's perfectly possible that metal will at some point (as it has threatened to do at periods) become an entirely backward looking culture without innovation. It's possible that at some point young people will cease to get involved in metal and metal culture will deteriorate into a space of nostalgia. There's no sign of that at the moment but it's really important that people who care about metal support those who are innovating and pushing the boundaries.

Could metal resemble a 'non-elective culture' if it stayed in one place? Well in certain respects it does already. There are places, such as Finland, where metal has become part of what it means to belong to that national culture. Metal parents try and inculcate their kids into metal culture (there's a company that produces metal T-shirts for children).

Martin Popoff: Man you are deep. Not that first one, but the second one. Geez, let's deal with the first one. Yes it will continue to evolve, but come to think of it, any evolution that's taken place already has been pretty slow and tight. Metalheads from the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal more than 25 years ago pretty much resemble metalheads today. Heck, there probably isn't even that much difference between the downers and wine crowd who populated early Sabbath shows. I guess what keeps it pop fruity fun is that there are crazy little sub-genres to keep it interesting, visually and sonically. But the root black oak from Arkansas is pretty much a long-haired male of 18 headbangin'. And your second question, man, I don't really get the connection. If assembled in a physical location... I suppose, you mean like a nation of metalheads? That would mean that the guys' wives would have to be metalheads, and they would have to raise their little kids as metalheads, and you'd have this weird little village of metalheads. Crazy idea. And then would that get into their genetics? How about the cats and dogs? Weird. I've got to have a quiet lie down.

5. Would an "International Day of Slayer" be a good rallying point for this growing culture?

Steve Waksman: I think it could be. But to my mind heavy metal can't be boiled down to single band, even one as great as Slayer. So for an "International Day of Slayer" to become a realdedicated to more than the celebration of the greatness of Slayer. It would have to be about celebrating the freedom to make noise and raise hell and fuck with the powers that be.

Keith Kahn-Harris: I'd like to think so. I think though that the project should remain somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I wouldn't want people to take the day too seriously! I love the silliness and mock-pomposity of certain aspects of metal and an International Day of Slayer fits nicely into this.

Martin Popoff: Sure, I suppose. Just like National Record Store Day. I think would be cool to have a day for metal. Ain't never been a happen, and rally to what? You definitely don't need more negativity in the world. I suppose something as mundane as raising the profile of metal and having record sales spike for a week or two would be a modest but reasonable goal.

6. Can a heavy metal culture augment or express aspects of a non-elective parent culture, and have you seen examples of this?

Steve Waksman: I'm not sure I have seen examples of this, at least not on a large-scale way. As powerful and popular as metal it, it's still a minority taste when all is said and done, and it doesn't always coexist easily with the more established cultural beliefs and practices that dominate our society. Sports, to my mind, is more an example of an elective culture that has assumed the character of something non-elective, but metal doesn't have that same degree of widespread reverence (and I say that as someone who would always rather go to a metal show than a sports event).

Keith Kahn-Harris: Absolutely. Metal culture differs substantially from country to country, from region to region, from ethnicity to ethnicity. I love the way metal is so globally diverse. While it's pretty cool that people in - say - Iran play metal in ways that are similar to the way metal is played in Norway, that doesn't mean that location doesn't have an impact. In any case, in metal music it's also become much more acceptable to mix in local styles with global ones. Long may that continue.

Martin Popoff: Did I say you guys were deep over there? This one I can't even answer. Because I plumb don't understand it. You mean augment as incorporate? And do you mean some sort of parent culture of heavy metal culture?! I think I understand what you mean by non-elective culture, but not what you mean by non-elective parent culture. Second quiet lie down coming up.

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