February 13, 2017

MEISEL | When I Was a Metalhead

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From ages 11-15 my outfit of choice amounted to a t-shirt of my favorite metal band, my pale-ass shaved head, and a pair of khaki shorts to beat the heat. The band on the shirts varied. The trend began with messy Slipknot and Tool and System of a Down shirts (metal snobs feel free to roll your eyes) and ended with the designs of Mastodon’s Blood Mountain plastered across my torso.

I wore them for a lot of reasons, some of which had to do with how much I enjoyed sneering at the cute little middle schoolers who got weirded out by my fashion taste. But first and foremost I came to school in these morbid cotton nightmares because I thought the music was rad as hell. I loved metal like nothing else. It was the only thing I wanted to listen to.

Near the end of that time period, when my inner pompous academic was just learning to express himself, I became a formidable metal nerd. I read up on my histories, browsed the forums (metal forums take the cake on pedantry, second only perhaps to analog synthesizer geeks), recited the genres and the subgenres. I could tell you—or at least I thought I could—the distinctions between every different kind of metal, sipping the stoner and doom terroir of Neurosis and Electric Wizard like it was a fine wine.

My preference grounded itself very little in certain metal bands’ taste for showmanship, high-end speed, and the fantastical, although I dipped into Behemoth records every now and then. It was more the rhythms I couldn’t get enough of. I was hypnotized by the grooves on Black Sabbath records, wanting pretty much to live in Geezer Butler’s opening bassline to “War Pigs.” I dug Kyuss and Sleep, Earth and Sunn 0))) — all the slow jams.

Obviously, I didn’t stay that way forever. Mastodon’s Remission made way for favorites of other genres like Death Grips’ Exmilitary, Justice’s Cross, or St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy. I turned down the snobbery and opened up to the possibility that, maybe, what I liked about metal could also be found in other music.

That was tough at first. I didn’t want softness and sentimentality, not to mention I had a naïve prejudice against music I thought was too “hippie-dippie.” But I warmed up to Sufjan Stevens-esque preciousness and fragility eventually, though I’ll be damned if it didn’t take me awhile. And the effort still might not have been completely successful, given my apparently freakish superpower to feel ambivalent towards Carrie and Lowell.

At first I wanted extremes, particularly negative ones — anger, grief, sadness, fear, despair. These were emotions that I ardently clung to, if only because acknowledging their influence in our lives felt more honest than music which ignored them. Metal did this in spades.

Of course, these feelings permeate all types of music. What made metal different in my eyes is that, like the very experiences of alienation and anger, confronting metal made people uncomfortable. It was loud and harsh and terrifying. But most importantly, it wasn’t beautiful. By popular standards it was ugly and abject, and it rejoiced in that.

That, I suppose, was metal’s greatest political strength. It jolted you out of the typical song and dance on the radio that cradled you into a steady sleep of insecurity and boredom. It blasted you awake and threw you into global teeth-gnashing. The world, which we’ve learned is often more violent and dissonant than any music could ever be, can surprisingly become easier to deal with after that.

Discussions of the politics involved in music have become the hottest of hot topics nowadays. Georgia Tech is teaching a social-justice class on Trap music. Indie fans are only recently coming to terms with the idea that their music might’ve been made to sell iPods to middle class white people. Ambient music, unsurprisingly, has finally been outed as a total insufferable dudefest.

Listeners, it seems, are starting to realize the deeply intense connection between music’s aesthetic choices and the various social biases which factor into making those choices. Certainly, class, race, and gender factor strongly into that formula. But we can also look at why certain music disturbs, agitates, disgusts, or engrosses us. What do we take away from a music which makes rejection and death its virtues?

These new discussions have definitely affected my own understanding of the origins of my taste in music. Maybe I thought it was just the grooves I enjoyed. Maybe I also enjoyed the attitude which found power in weirdness and hopelessness. Maybe the noises made me think and feel on a wider scope than I previously had believed.

Either way I’m pretty thankful for my obnoxious metalhead past. It introduced me to the truth that darkness, absence, and loss are invariable parts of life. Plus, like all good music, it gave me something to come back to. And let’s be honest, Sabbath’s self-titled LP is tasty as hell.

Stephen Meisel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at smeisel@cornellsun.com. His column  Appearances appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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