Disclaimer: The views expressed here in are my own inane ramblings and rantings and do not necessarily represent the views of The Grim Tower.
I was nosing about on the internet several days ago, and I happened upon this doozy of an article from our friends over at MetalSucks, the site from which I was banned for having the audacity to defend metal. I think it’s safe to say that we are well past the point where we need to stop pretending like their name still carries any irony whatsoever. Now, I’m not going to spend much time dwelling on them calling Eddie Trunk a racist and a sexist for criticizing a halftime lip-syncing act. It is a new low, even for them, but it speaks to a much larger problem among these self-appointed defenders of the “community,” not just at MetalSucks, but at Metal Injection, Noisey, and numerous other outlets that profess to defend the metal genre and the “metal community.” These sites, as I believe I’ve said before, latched on to heavy metal when hipster garbage like The Sword, Early Man, Wolfmother, and, yes, Opeth, Gojira, Mastodon, and Devin Townsend were still somewhat, however peripherally, relevant to heavy metal. These bands offered a safe, watered down, anodyne take on metal music that wasn’t likely to offend the delicate sensibilities of young, wealthy, and politically progressive urbanites. One by one, as these sorts of acts have either broken up, gone into extended hiatus, or abandoned the genre for the greener pastures of try hard retro rock or the creative bankruptcy of modern “progressive rock,” it has become a desperate game of casting about trying to find something else anodyne within the metal genre to replace these acts. That, or to try and gatekeep the old guard out of the genre by redefining the music and the lifestyle to once again be safe, however briefly, for wealthy, progressive urbanites. This has largely been met with very vociferous resistance, leading to the current trend: searching for an exit strategy. That exit strategy seems to be leave and burn it all down behind you. Part of that tactic is to declare heavy metal “dead” and “old” and to frame hip-hop as young, fresh, and creatively vibrant. There’s one problem for these dilettantes, however, and that is that while they may try to present hip hop as the young, vibrant debutante fresh from her coming out party, the reality is that she is the withered, dried, used up, fading socialite coasting by on past glories.
Contrary to the narrative of “current year,” hip-hop is not some fresh new music that just caught on with the kids. It started in the underground at roughly the same point that heavy metal did, which is to say some time in the late 60s/early 70s, and both genres entered the mainstream consciousness sometime around the late 1970s. When I was a kid in the 1990s, hip-hop was big. We were just coming out of what is widely considered to be the genre’s golden age. When I was a teenager, it was everywhere, right alongside alternative rock and something that was lazily dubbed the “new wave of American heavy metal.” Granted, hip-hop has only achieved what could be considered outright dominance in the last decade or so, but, frankly, I don’t think that’s as organic as people like to believe. It’s less a side effect of the “new, hip, less white generation” that some of the metal and rock dilettantes brag about, and more to do with a combination of ancillary factors, both internal and external. First off is the shift in the focus of the genre. As the 90s wore on, and hip-hop’s golden age started to fade in the rearview, the genre shifted away from the emcee and the DJ and became a producer-focused genre. In the last 10 to 15 years here, the reign of the producer in hip-hop has become so pervasive and frankly oppressive that tracks now boast a list of writing and producing credits a mile long. Even the simplest of songs is written with little to no input from the performer and boasts a fleet of outside writers and producers that would make even the most carefully prefabricated pop tart shake her head in shame. Then there was the consolidation of music industry. At least partially in an effort to stave off flagging sales brought on by the twin demons of music piracy and years of pushing an overpriced, subpar product, the music industry underwent a wave of consolidation that is really kind of still occurring. Medium sized labels bought out small labels only to be gobbled up by bigger labels themselves. These new, megalithic entities retained the creative risk aversion that has been a hallmark of the music industry for quite a number of years.
Being as hip-hop had already transitioned to being a producer’s genre, it was only natural that labels would latch onto it as they have in recent years. Modern hip-hop is not terribly complex rhythmically, it’s very narrow lyrically, and the scope of the actual vocal performance has been greatly narrowed as well. It has essentially become, this genre that was and still is heralded as the height of authenticity, the very embodiment of the “real,” the ultimate manifestation of music as a product. Bland, dull, and simple to produce. The popularity comes through marketing and exposure. I’ve long believed that something perceived as completely uncommercial like, say, technical death metal could just as easily become popular if some label with the necessary financial resources signed a few bands and shoved them in front of everyone’s face every hour of every waking day the way that was done with grunge, gangsta rap, and the big hair stuff. But why do that? Why take the risk when you can just have some industry men crank out a painfully generic pastiche of something that was done better two decades earlier? All you need to do after that is find some kid who has the right look; the right combination of “dangerous” and “urban,” yet anodyne to perform it. Of course, this is a phenomenon across all of mainstream music these days. It’s no longer art as a product, it’s product pure and simple. Even many of the rock and what passes for metal bands that persist in the mainstream are every bit as manufactured as the average pop star or mainstream rapper. Have Five Finger Deathpunch ever crafted a single song without the guiding hand of Kevin Churko? Have In This Moment? Do Halestorm have a single track that was not pre-crafted by the same songwriters and producers responsible for modern country music? To put it succinctly and cynically, hip-hop is not dominating the mainstream musical landscape because it simply stirs the soul of “Generation Z,” it’s popular because it’s cost effective.
As for the alleged “death” of heavy metal, haven’t we heard that before? I think Lars Ulrich said that in the mid to late 90s when his band were standing chin deep in the cesspit of late 20th century post grunge. Ten years later, they were desperately trying to play catch up in a subgenre that continued on in the periphery and when it came back into mainstream consciousness had left them far behind. Pop culture is in a constant state of flux. Trends come and go. Things drift in and out of fashion. People get sick of things and throw them down in the corner for a while. It’s very shortsighted, and frankly stupid, to proclaim anything like a genre of music, film, whatever “dead” or “dying.” I’ve said it before myself that metal is not in a good way right now. Seven years or so of wall to wall scream/whine/scream “metalcore” followed by a nu metal revival that no one seems interested in and the bad guitar forum meme that is djent have worn out the audience’s patience and driven the core of the genre back underground. However, artistic movements rarely ever truly “die.” Heavy metal has also built up quite the subculture around it. It’s kind of self sustaining and self perpetuating. Something tells me that it will be back on the upswing before you know it, and that the dilettantes proclaiming it dead and attempting to piss on the “corpse” on their way out of the door will want back in.