Characterizing Rock Music Cultures: The Case of Heavy Metal

By Straw, Will | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1984 | Go to article overview

Characterizing Rock Music Cultures: The Case of Heavy Metal


Straw, Will, Canadian University Music Review


I. INTRODUCTION

One of the questions central to the sociology of popular music at the moment concerns the applicability of subcultural theory, developed principally in Great Britain, to the study of North American rock music culture(s). While it may be observed that American academic writing on rock music places considerable emphasis on the institutions producing and disseminating it, and that British research has focussed primarily on the processes of consumption and appropriation carried out by authences, the extent to which this divergence is the product of differences between North American and British rock cultures remains a point of contention.

The issue is further complicated by specific characteristics of North American rock culture in the 1970s, between the decomposition of the hippy-psychedelic counter-culture and the limited emergence of punk and post-punk cultural formations near the end of that decade. Should this period, as is sometimes argued, be regarded as one in which institutional-economic imperatives resulted in the recuperation and dissolution of sub-cultural activity surrounding rock music? If so, the relative validity of sub-cultural or institutional-manipulative forms of explanation (what might be crudely termed bottom-up and top-down models, respectively) becomes a question of transitory pertinence, rather than the stake in more general debates over the nature of rock music processes as a whole. One can suggest, for example, that Hirsch's cyclical account of rock music's history, which distinguishes between periods of industry turbulence and periods of re-oligopolization,1 may be seen as differentiating those periods for which subcultural models and institutional-economic explanations are most appropriate (see Hirsch 1972). The obvious problem here, however, is one of conceptual consistency: notions of authence practice, modes of subjective involvement and the very "meaning" of rock music are sufficiently fundamental to an epistemology of the sociology of rock music that they themselves should not change substantively with each generic current or period analyzed.

In this paper, I seek to incorporate observations and hypotheses concerning the consumption of music within the characterization of a specific "genre" within rock music - that of Heavy Metal.2 My point of departure is the argument that Heavy Metal authences in the 1970s manifested certain regularities arising from their position within rock culture, and within a network of institutions and discourses constitutive of this culture. A consistent emphasis of this paper is the ways in which information and knowledge about rock music circulate within Heavy Metal authences. I have chosen Heavy Metal because it seemed to me to constitute the locus of a number of tendencies characteristic of rock culture in North America in the 1970s.

The discussion that follows is organized around a number of principles of description and classification which seem necessary to the characterization of any current within rock music culture. In adopting this procedure, rather than the search for an explanatory key which would reduce Heavy Metal to a particular ideological function or outgrowth of authence predicament, I am aware that I run the risk of a simple descriptivism. Nevertheless, given the frequent tendency of the sociology of music to reduce instances of popular music to simple manifestations of more general cultural processes, a turn toward some level of descriptive detail seems at least a useful corrective.

II. HEAVY METAL: STYLISTIC DERIVATION AND INSTITUTIONAL DISSEMINATION

In discussing Heavy Metal music, and rock music of the 1970s more generally, I am interested primarily in North American rock culture, though a significant feature of that culture is its assimilation of British rock music. I suspect that certain features of British rock culture, primarily those arising out of radio programming policies, have made the dissemination of Heavy Metal in the United Kingdom different in significant ways from the forms it has taken in North America. …

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