Sunday, August 25, 2013

"Define" Heavy Metal, You Say?

You'll notice that, at first, it looks like I've placed the quotation marks in the wrong places in the title of this entry.  But, no. . .  they're set around just the right term -- define.  You'll see, or rather read, why momentarily.  First though, a bit of back-story.

I would say that one of the words I hear most often from non-philosophers in early-on conversations with philosophers, almost always placed in the interrogative is "define," as in "now, how would you define. . . ?" or "what's your definition of . . . ?" or "can you define. . . .?"  Occasionally, most often I'd say in student papers, I end up seeing the indicative ". . .  is defined as . . .  according to the . . . .   dictionary/encyclopedia/my uncle Jake, etc."

I don't hear "definition" pop up all that often when philosophers are plying their trade, teaching, or talking amongst themselves.  Why is that, you might wonder?  Well, although we hale from a profession and tradition that gets a good early start with Socrates wandering around asking people for definitions of key concepts, like virtue, justice, knowledge, and so on. . .  most of us have come to realize -- one way or another -- just how difficult it can be to provide adequate definitions for any really interesting concept, experience, phenomenon.  "Give me a definition of. . . "  You demand that in many philosophical circles, and they rightly peg you as right off the bus, really or just ironically naive, or as playing at debater's tricks

Why Philosophers are Wary of Definitions

It's not as if -- at least most of them (you can always point out exceptions) -- philosophers are completely against providing, or asking for, definitions of terms.  It can be particularly interesting, not to mention useful, to ask an interlocutor what they mean or intend by an especially slippery notion.  But it's an achievement of the grand traditions, texts, and thinkers, of western Philosophy to have figured out just how hard it is to adequately define some matters.

Aristotle probably put it best -- crediting this insight to Plato, who in his turn probably gleaned it from Socrates -- in making a key distinction about definitions, namely towards and from.  We sometimes work from definitions.  In those cases, we hopefully have got something solid which we can rely upon, and work off of, and we reason proceeding from those definitions.   But, in a lot of cases, particularly when it comes to matters that are important, murky, controversial (those tend to go together. . .), what we really need to do is to reason towards definitions.  That is, they're end products of a lot of hard work, thinking, perhaps even discussion and debate -- and probably a lot of failures.

Traditionally, what a definition is supposed to do is provide us with some sort of verbal formula which we can rely upon to do three things.  It ought to pick out what is really essential to that kind of thing -- i.e. express in language its essence, its what-that-kind-of-thing-is.  It also has to rope in all the things of that kind, so that they all end up herded into that linguistic corral.  Lastly, it has to exclude anything other than that kind of thing -- you don't want something else sneaking in under the fence of words into the space of the definition, after all!

If you watch what is actually going on in the at-first-seemingly pointless conversational meanderings of Socrates in Plato's dialogues (particularly those called aporetic, the can't-find-the-way talks), you'll realize that what happens is not just that Socrates asks for definitions, and that the people he badgers are revealed as unable to put out any satisfactory definitions.  There's a concern over whether anyone can actually do it, but even more there's a growing appreciation of the need to connect up any philosophically defensible definition with something that goes beyond mere verbal formulas -- something metaphysical, closer to the core of the real -- in Plato's case, this happens to be the Forms.

You might have a problem with Plato's Forms -- most philosophers do, after all, as do most people who encounter the great Greek in a Philosophy class -- but you can still get the point:  it's the thing, the reality, that ought to dictate the definition, not the reverse.  And that's the risk all too often with definitions, isn't it. . . ?

Some Stabs At Definition.

It can be rather instructive to  look at some of the main definitions of Heavy Metal readily available, at least on the internet.  Let's set aside any sorts of tendentious, supposed definitions like "the Devil's music," on the one hand, or "the greatest kind of music ever made," on the other -- those don't tell us very much, after all.  And, we can discard any definition that begins with the qualification "In my own opinion. . . ." unless, perhaps its by someone particularly qualified to say (though often those "definitions" end up being more poetic than usable)

Wikipedia -- which is actually not a bad encyclopedic source at all these days -- has a fairly long "definition" -- really more of a characterization of Heavy Metal:
. . . . a genre of rock music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, originally in the United Kingdom and later in the United States. With roots in blues rock and psychedelic rock, the bands that created heavy metal developed a thick, massive sound, characterized by highly amplified distortion, extended guitar solos, emphatic beats, and overall loudness. Heavy metal lyrics and performance styles are often associated with masculinity, aggression and machismo.
Well, now, that's not too bad, though. . . even in the "classic" or "roots" period of the 1970s, we've already got the Scorpions (and Michael Schekner spinning off into UFO) lousing up the UK-USA exclusivity, don't we?  I do have to admit I like the "overall loudness" part.

Some other sources are more terse:
. . . energetic and highly amplified electronic rock music having a hard beat (Miriam-Webster)

. . .  a style of rock music with a strong beat, played very loudly using electric guitars (Cambridge)

. . . . a type of highly amplified harsh-sounding rock music with a strong beat, characteristically using violent or fantastic imagery. (Oxford Dictionary)

. . .  genre of rock music that includes a group of related styles that are intense, virtuosic, and powerful. Driven by the aggressive sounds of the distorted electric guitar (Encyclopedia Britannica)
I actually recommend reading through some of the "definitions", or rather in some cases rants and ripostes, on Urban Dictionary -- there's quite an interesting discussion preserved there, representative of a number of varied viewpoints.

Even among the experts, academics, scholars -- music historians, cultural studies people, musicologists, there's no uncontroversial definition (in fact not even an uncontroversial enumeration of bands!) for Heavy Metal.

And, actually, that does make some sense, when you think about it.  You're attempting to define something -- a musical genre, or set of genres (and musicians are not always the most articulate about precisely what they're up to -- and those who promote them, e.g. managers, while more deft at spinning narrative are not necessarily more truthful) that had, as musical movements often do, imprecise beginnings.

You're talking about something that drew people in, inspired by imitation and emulation, encouraged exploration and innovation -- a kind of music that early on started inspiring bands in the UK, US, Europe, and Japan, who then toured all over, cross-fertilizing across continental spaces.  Metal has been around since at least the 1970s, waxing and waning, undergoing transformations -- why would it not be something rather difficult to define well?

Defining Metal By Its Genres

Without confusing the issues further by bringing in all sorts of admittedly interesting discussions about Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblance, or Aristotle's conception of analogical terms (along with Thomas Aquinas's refinements) -- they're so fruitful that they'd result in a much longer post than I hope to write here! (and I'll end up writing about them in other, later posts, anyways), let's instead think about how many people do in fact define Heavy Metal -- in terms of its genres.

In a way, this is to solve a problem -- in this case one of definition -- by splitting it up in to smaller problems somehow connected as parts to the larger whole.  If you look at it in that light, it's really quite Cartesian -- following Rene Descartes' dictum to take big problems and break them down into manageable chunks, solve them, then reassemble them into a coherent, well-understood whole.

So scholars and ordinary metalheads will set out a whole range of kinds of Heavy Metal -- genres.  these range from nu-metal to doom metal, to death, to folk, to black, to. . . well, you get the idea.  There's a ton of stuff that musically traces itself to one or another strand of Heavy Metal, that uses some guitars, drums, bass, and singing (or at least vocals).  In fact, if you go to iTunes, other than "hair" and "thrash", what metal means for them (and this just goes to show iTunes really doesn't have it together) consists in relatively new genres.

I'd actually say, speaking for myself, that a good many of these genres -- well, you can call them metal, in some sense -- but they're really offshoots, outliers, in a way extraneous projects.  Of course, they don't see matters that way.  To the death, the doom, to the folk -- though perhaps not so much to the progressive -- "metal" listener and muscian, what they're appreciating is supposed to be more at the core, heavier, darker, simply "more metal" than other forms of metal.

And this points towards a real problem.  This is not a new one, by the way.  I remember getting into debates in the mid-80s about who were really Heavy Metal, and who were not.  Back then, the biggest controversy was about where the dividing lines lay between plain old hard rock and metal, on the one hand, and about whether glam acts (particularly the more ballads they did, the more keyboards or acoustic guitars they incorporated) were actually Metal or just pop.  There was no real controversy over whether the new Thrash Metal was really metal or not (except with perhaps some of Anthrax's stuff, when they got to rapping).

You see, some genres have to be closer to the heart, more paradigmatic.  I'm reminded a bit, when I read certain tendentious discussions of Metal -- particularly when it is carried out by relatively new or young listeners (who tend to buy the Black-Sabbath-is-the-one-main-original-root line, or rather, nonsense -- if you'd like to see me slide-tackle a recent "definitive" metal book on this point, check out this review) of the words Henry Fielding placed in the mouth of Mr. Thwackum:
When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion;
and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion;
and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.
At least Thwackum is above the boards about his own predilections and prejudices.  One would like to see that in reviewer and pontificators on all things metal sometimes.  I'm inclined to do this myself, to lay own cards on the table when it comes to this matter.

How I See Heavy Metal

While I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge that there are numerous generic offshoots from the trunk of the genealogical Heavy Metal tree, I have to admit that I don't consider all of them equally metallic, or even equally valuable as music.  And that, really, is my prerogative -- I needn't pretend to embrace every line of metal experimentation, now do I?  There's no PC, no quotas for the underrepresented, no hipster trendiness in genuine metal -- I know, not least because I lived through it and loved the music before the genres became prevalent lines of division.

I think that some genres -- or rather, some sets of bands from particular eras, some sounds that can be grouped together -- are more expressive of the essence of Heavy Metal than others.  And for the most part, I'd say that the bands, the approaches, the sounds that are earlier -- or at least closer to the cusp point of, say, 1981 -- get to be more paradigmatic for Metal than the ones who came along afterwards.  If you come on the scene later, you come onto a stage that's already been played upon, where there's a legacy to live up to -- you don't get to pretend that it was just Sabbath, and then some other guys, and then whatever you're up to and into.

So, I'm going to go straight out and say that at the core of what constitutes Heavy Metal are five main kinds of bands.

There's what we can call "roots" or in some sense "classic" metal -- the primal, in some cases not entirely worked out stuff from the 70s.  This includes Black Sabbath, but also Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin, UFO, the Scorpions, Rainbow, KISS, Budgie, Hawkwind, AC/DC -- and others, of course

Then we have the period represented by what is to some extent a misnomer (since one ought to also include the American band Riot, the Canadian Thor, and the Japanese band Loudness here), the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) -- Iron Maiden, Saxon, Raven, Girlschool, Tank, Diamond Head, Rock Goddess all belong here.  Oftentimes, Judas Priest and Motorhead get lumped in here as well -- they definitely belong somewhere!

There's also what we might call American Metal -- which always admittedly had a kind of skirt the edge relationship with Glam, i.e. where bands went when they felt more like getting girls than making solid music.  I really don't know what to call this -- but it definitely includes the West Coast scene -- Van Halen,WASP, Quiet Riot, RATT, Motley Crue, Lizzy Borden, etc.  -- and guys like Dio or Manowar.  You might as well put Ozzy's various bands here as well, since they tended to have that sound since a lot of the band members came from or were influenced by that scene.

One really innovative, but still near-the-center, genre of Metal that emerged in in 80s was Thrash -- there's the "big four": Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer (the last of which, I'll admit, I can take or leave), but there were a number of other excellent acts that fit in there as well.

There's other acts -- Accept, for example (where to place them), Queensryche (obviously in Progressive, along with Savatage) -- that seem (admittedly with the prog ones, only in some of their work) to call out "What about us?"  But remember, here I'm just using groups as examples, and talking about main groupings as the key things.

If I had to pick a contemporary "genre" -- i.e. one in which music is being made by newer, post-80s-origin bands -- that fits closest to these other four loose types or movements of Metal, for me there's no question.  It's Power Metal -- bands like Gamma Ray, Iced Earth, Primal Fear, and Hammerfall.  I'm not a fan of the kind of fill-every-available-rest-with drumbeat drumming too many bands post-1990 engage in, but these at least sound like what I have long called "metal".

So, I can't give a definition of heavy metal.  If you ask me, I can tell you what bands I consider unmistakably within its ambit, and which ones (or which songs) strike me as a bit more iffy.  I can tell you which movements of Metal I deem to be more essential, closer to the center of whatever circle whose borders we might eventually (though likely never!) sketch out.  I can narrate the tangled history of its evolution.  I can set out particular features of the music that overlap in specific songs or groups.  But I don't have a definition handy.  And I have to admit -- I quit seeing that as a problem years ago.

1 comment:

  1. I was interested in your comment in the preceding blog about metal currently being a sort-of Renaissance period with the revitalization of many classical acts. I'm in my early 20's now, and have had a great affinity with classical acts since high school. However, I struggle to find the same enjoyment in modern acts. I don't know how to describe it, but to me there is just no real identity to many modern bands. Anyway, my question is this: what do you see as a consequence of this 'Renaissance'? Once these classic acts retire for good, who or what will fill the void? Will today's modern acts become the new 'classical' acts, or do you think a new generation will be inspired to create something awesome?