During the spring semester, my term paper assignment for one of my anthropology classes was an auto-ethnographic fieldwork essay, but I was limited to online resources to consolidate data due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this blog post, I aim to expand on the findings and data that I collected during the semester. As a woman of color who identifies as part of the metal subculture, I was able to write about my position in the metal subculture. I examined stereotypes, album sales, and demographic data. My findings show that women, and people of color, are underrepresented in the metal subculture, to an extent. Some of this has to do with social issues rooted within the metal subculture for years. Yet, this information may not be enough to prove or disprove stereotypes of the culture.
My Exposure to the Metal Scene
My introduction to rock music began at the tender age of seven. Years later, I navigated my way through streaming platforms to find my ever-expanding niche of preferred genres, including metalcore djent and nu-metal. When my interest in metal expanded, I wanted to watch interviews, read articles, go to shows, and gain insight into the industry as a whole. My interest in metal has a narrow range of 12 years, and my exposure to the subculture is even more limited to around half of that time. I firmly believe that 12 years is enough time to give me the concessions needed to complete auto-ethnographic fieldwork.
My experiences in the metal scene have led me to identify as part of a larger community. Simultaneously, I became aware of how the genre extends beyond music. But the culture also involves issues including colorism and misogyny. Colorism and misogyny relate to stereotypes that people associate with the metal subculture. I found that individuals who do not identify as part of this community have notions of the subculture that align with social issues present in the scene too.
Data Collected Concerning Perceptions of the Subculture
To gain insight into the perception of the metal genre and metal subculture, I conducted an anonymous survey asking for ideas that individuals have surrounding metal music.
Perceptions of Music
Some of the preconceived notions and stereotypes they have about music include “screaming,” “raging,” and “aggression.” Others described the music as “powerful,” “loud,” and having “dark, sinister tones.”
I confirm there is “screaming,” and concerts are “loud,” from my own experiences of listening to metal and its subgenres. Other adjectives used to describe metal are subject to debate. I find that those not acquainted with the genre mistake “raging” and “aggression” for passion. Vocalists use “powerful” methods of singing to convey emotion. Not every song has “dark, sinister tones.” Metal songs, like any other genre, range in modality and tunings. Minor modes and lower tunings are likely the culprits for the negative connotations surrounding participants’ preconceived notions.
The song Scars, by LVNDMVRKS featuring Florestan Durand, demonstrates stereotypes surrounding metal but also disproves some stereotypes. The song has a bright opening riff that is in a minor mode. The riff contrasts the ideas of “dark, sinister tones.” Yet, much of the song involves “screaming,” which is not necessarily a result of “aggression.” Not all metal music exactly fits or contrasts these notions.
Perception of the Fans
In the same survey, individuals elaborated on their notions of metal fans. When describing their ideas, participants expressed that they feel people “may not be as sensitive as people who listen to other genres [of music],” and they “can comprehend music on a whole different level.”
With regard to these stereotypes concerning metalheads, there is no quantitative data that supports these claims. People can vary how they express emotions due to environmental and social factors. Comprehending music does not have an association with a genre. Instead, the ability to “comprehend” music has much to do with education in music topics.
Concerning fans’ physical appearance, participants described how they come off as “scary” and stereotypically expect them to “wear dark eyeliner.” Additionally, they associate metalheads as “older” due to a conception that the genre is “dominated by middle-aged white men who do not like to let anyone but middle-aged white men enjoy [the genre] without bombarding them with questions.”
Fashion associated with the subculture often includes black, chains, and leather. Body modifications are not uncommon among members of the culture. Some metalheads choose to wear eyeliner, while others do not. The fashion associated with the metal subculture does not solely belong to the subculture alone. The idea that middle-aged white men play a pivotal role in who listens to metal is not completely untrue (to be discussed later).
Data Collected From Metal Fans
I conducted an additional survey to gain concessions from other individuals who listen to metal. Upon first glance, 80% of participants believe that a person could assume that they listen to metal. Their opinions prove that metalheads do not conform to one style of fashion.
When the same participants elaborated on any social issues they experience in the metal subculture, one participant commented, “it empowers [women] to look good or dress like boys and rock out as hard as their counterparts.”
Another participant, identifying as white, stated, “I think that the metal scene is one music scene that is most accepting of race, gender, and sexual orientation.” However, of 80% of the participants identifying as a person of color, only 20% have experienced instances of misogyny and colorism. I hypothesize that people not being attuned to social issues is responsible for the low percentage. In addition, some individuals who have responded said that they enjoyed metal and its subgenres, but they do not consider themselves to be part of the community of fans.
From my data and concessions, I examined music rankings to find an association between race, gender, and music popularity.
Data from Billboard.com
Featured rarely are Female-fronted metal bands on the Billboard Year-End Charts for Hard Rock Albums. Instead, bands consisting of white male members are usually featured. I focused on six years, from 2015 to 2020, to find the few instances of female-fronted band features.
In 2015, three female-fronted metal bands appeared on the charts. Black Widow, by the American Band, In This Moment is eighth on the chart. Another American band, Halestorm, had their album, Into the Wild Life, at #9. The Pretty Reckless, another American metal band, is at #21, with their album Going to Hell. Also, during this year, In This Moment and Halestorm appeared on the Billboard Year-End Charts for Hard Rock Albums Artists at #8 and # 9, respectively. From 2016 onward, no other female-fronted bands were featured on this chart.
In 2016, three female-fronted bands were on the charts. Halestorm with Into the Wild is at #40. BABYMETAL, a band hailing from Japan, is featured at #39 on their album, Metal Resistance. Unlike all other female-fronted bands listed so far, all of the members of BABYMETAL are female. At #38, The Pretty Reckless appear on their album, Who You Selling For.
2017 to 2020
Surprisingly, only one female-fronted band appeared on the Year-End Charts for Hard Rock Albums 2017. Ritual, by In This Moment charts at #43. A similar situation occurred in the following three years. In 2018, Halestorm’s Vicious featured at #43 on the charts, and it is the only female-fronted band featured on the year-end charts. The following year, BABYMETAL featured at #49 on the charts with their album, METAL GALAXY. In the final year of focus, 2020, In This Moment’s album, Mother featured at #48 on the charts.
All other bands featured on the Billboard Year-End Charts for Hard Rock Albums consisted of mostly white men. Consequently, there were very few instances where a band appeared with a female member, but the band was still male-dominated in terms of members.
Male Power in the Metal Scene
Undeniably, few appearances on the Billboard charts show female underrepresentation in metal music. Bands consisting of white males dominate the rest of the charts. Data supports the white males holding power within the genre and subculture. Compared to female artists, white males, part of the subculture, have power (ability to influence the culture). Popularity produces opportunities for these bands, including interviews, air-time on the radio, and other modes of promotion, such as brand deals. Besides, studies on the subculture indicate that “heavy involvement” in the industry (including listening, performing, and collecting ideas and objects involved with metal) is “ a primarily male pursuit” (Straw, 1984).
Colorism in Metal
There is also a sense of colorism in the metal subculture, aside from unequal representation on the Billboard charts. Colorism is apparent in other demographic data and trends that have prevailed through the media. Demographic data gathered from the U.S. Census and the Encyclopaedia Metallum provided information to find the number of bands per million residents in United States cities from an article published by Vice. The results showed that the top cities were Cleveland, Ohio, Portland, Oregon, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Rochester, New York, and Richmond, Virginia (vice.com). Please note that knowledge from this article does not entirely quantify the metal scene in these cities. However, the information provides a proxy of how active the metal subculture is in these cities. The top metal cities are Cleveland, Portland, Pittsburgh, Rochester, and Richmond.
Portland, Pittsburgh, and Rochester
Portland, Pittsburgh, and Rochester all present similar demographic information from the United States Census. The three cities are majority white, are around 50% female, and more than half of the population lies between the ages of 18 and 65 years old. In Portland, Oregon, 77.4% of the population is white. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 66.8% of the population is white. Finally, in Rochester, New York, 47.9% of the population is white. Though this accounts for less than half of the city population, it is still the majority racial group.
The data is not specific in stating what portion of the population in each of these cities are male, but one can assume that it is relatively close to 50%. There is likely a significant number of white males in these cities who are fans of metal music and act as gatekeepers of the genre (taken from my survey). However, the term, middle-aged, is arbitrary in that it does not give an exact range.
Cleveland and Richmond
Cleveland and Richmond are not majority white cities. A majority of the population in these cities identifies as black or African American. This data alone does not support the notion that middle-aged white men act as gatekeepers for the metal genre in these cities. One would be unable to gather accurate demographic data without immersing oneself in the regional culture.
Trends in the Metal Subculture
White males have more involvement with the metal subculture, evident by the Billboard Charts. Compared to females and other racial categories, males hold the position to influence the culture more than any other group. With this power, they can establish trends, for example. Males are influential in styles of clothing, music, or art. Possessing power within the culture causes these male artists to hold a position that gains more attention from the public eye. It is less likely that unpopular artists gain popularity at the birth of their careers, producing opportunities for them. Unpopularity also makes it less likely that these bands will establish lasting trends that will prevail through the subculture.
Iconography in the metal subculture tends to be more masculine. Straw discusses that society often underestimates the importance of gathering facts and knowledge from the media (concerning the metal subculture) for male youths. Instead, this knowledge undergoes eroticization as it becomes incorporated with imagery and experiences (Straw, 1984). Eroticization gave the metal genre its edge.
The subculture includes street knowledge and style, especially styles seen in fashion (Straw, 1984). However, in the 1980s, many of the clothing styles associated with metal iconography were also associated with the LGBTQ+ community (Straw, 1984). Though Straw examines culture from over 35 years ago, it still has some degree of relevancy. Many metalheads still wear styles with rebel ideas, chains, and black leather (Bilimava, 2014). Many metalheads also have long hair and body modifications, including tattoos and piercings (Bilimava, 2014). The overall style of metalheads was considered camp in the 1980s and still is to some degree.
Social Issues Associated With Fashion
Fashion associated with the metal subculture has had some instances where there was a lack of inclusivity. Dollskill, an online boutique that sells considerably edgy clothes, has faced backlash for racism and colorism. Goth or gothic styles of dress are associated with the metal subculture. Yet, Dollskill has associated a fashion aesthetic with skin color. The boutique faced backlash for selling a shirt labeled with the phrase: goth is white (altpress.com). With this shirt, the company has associated a style of dress with just one skin color.
In addition, the company has also faced backlash for selling a culturally insensitive Indigenous American-style headdress, stating that it was “part of a much larger Halloween assortment” (altpress.com). The owner has apologized for the insensitivity surrounding the items of clothing sold. However, Dollskill sells the shirt and the headdress, revealing how colorism prevails in the metal subculture.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
From data presented by Billboard.com, demographic data, and other issues represented by the media, the metal subculture has apparent instances of colorism and misogyny. To an extent, these social issues adhere to stereotypes that individuals have towards the metal subculture and its members.
People who do not identify with the metal subculture have ideas of the culture being dominated by males, the music being aggressive and they have stereotypes of metal fans. On the flip side, members of the metal subculture feel that the community is accepting of people from all walks of life, and females have even felt empowered in the subculture. Perceptions of the metal subculture demonstrate how the system of values (music, memorabilia, concerts…) within the metal community unites its members.
The concept of culture for the members is not necessarily the “norm” for those that are not part of the metal subculture. Understanding that “norms” are different for every culture brings about a sense of empathy in understanding how and why values differ for metal fans.
With global movements in support of female empowerment and racial justice, increasing numbers of women and people of color have been active in producing this genre of music and finding their way into the metal subculture. Arguably, their involvement recently has made instances of colorism and misogyny more apparent. Cultural norms are constantly adapting. The norms for people part of the metal subculture now include female artists and people of color more frequently. The accepting nature of metalheads contrasts with beliefs that others hold towards the metal genre. Hence, one cannot completely comprehend a culture without being immersed in the culture first.
Bilimava, D. (2014). Heavy metal subculture: Metal music festivals and their meanings for visitors. Leisure, Tourism, and Environment: Thesis Report. Published. https://edepot.wur.nl/312751
Straw, W. (1984). Characterizing Rock Music Cultures: The Case of Heavy Metal. Canadian University Music Review, 5, 104. https://doi.org/10.7202/1013933ar