Five Criticisms of Heavy Metal That Don't Add Up

Pointy guitars may have critics, but they can still sound great.
Pointy guitars may have critics, but they can still sound great.

Musical appreciation is an entirely subjective experience. People either tend to like or dislike various bands or genres of music, and those feelings can be caused by any number of things. In some cases, a person might gradually warm to a particular type of music, as I did with Frank Zappa's 1970s albums, while some music will never sound good to him or her (The Grateful Dead, in my case). That's fine. As much as some music snobs and purists will argue to the contrary, there's really no music that is universally accepted as being great, and none that's universally accepted as bad. The people who might try to argue otherwise are usually just arrogant creeps who place too much value on their own love or hate of certain types of music.

There are a few genres of popular music that seem to draw a lot of fire from critics, and one of them is heavy metal. It's fine to critique any sort of music, but some of the commonly used arguments about why heavy metal is bad are just dumb. Let's look at a few of those.

5. "IT'S JUST NOISE"
I have news for people who say heavy metal is "noise." Different types of music might feature different sorts of arrangements and the use of differently created sounds, but a person calling a whole huge genre of music "noise" is just a lazy way of dismissing something that he can't personally like without explanation. It's lazy. And it goes further than communicating that the person doesn't like heavy metal. Calling something noise implies that it's garbage that no one should be able to enjoy. And there's a problem with just saying all heavy metal is noise, because...

4. METAL IS ALMOST AS OLD AS ROCK AND ROLL ITSELF, AND ENCOMPASSES MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF MUSIC
Bands have been trying to get a heavy sound since at least the 1960s, but for the sake of making a point, let look at Black Sabbath's debut album, which came out in 1969. That record has all of the elements that would qualify it as one of the very earliest heavy-metal albums, and it's 45 years old now. Metal music has been around an awful long time at this point, and it's gone through many changes, spawning countless subgenres since then. While some new bands sound very similar to the early heavy-metal pioneers, most modern metal is very different from the older stuff, and that's because the genre is way more varied than it often gets credit for.

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Heavy metal might have certain stylistic attributes that are common across different types of heavy music, but as a genre, things have always evolved and continue to do so. Looking at a cross section of heavy-metal bands, the huge variety loosely classified as some form of metal becomes obvious. How much do Twisted Sister and Slayer have in common? Or Poison and Cannibal Corpse? Acting as if these bands all share a lot of traits is like saying Buddy Holly is the same type of music as The Cars.

3. IT'S SIMPLE MUSIC FOR SIMPLE PEOPLE
Even if that were true, what's the harm in a form of music being "simple"? The fact is that many forms of heavy metal are the opposite of "simple," and are very complex and difficult to play well. If one were to compare metal music to other popular forms of rock or pop, it would become quickly obvious that dismissing heavy metal as "simple" is ridiculous. Even if it were, what kind of criticism is that? Simpler than what? Jazz? Country music? The Ramones wrote simple songs, and the results were amazing. So the criticism that heavy metal is simple is a flawed one, and instead some people will try to argue that its fans are somehow less sophisticated or dumber than those of other musical styles. If there's a real study that can prove that people with lower intelligence are drawn to certain types of musical styles, I'd be curious to see it.

As it is, I've never personally noticed any greater incidence of stupid behavior among heavy-metal fans than any other form of music. In fact, the worst displays I've seen have been at middle-of-the-road rock shows: a fistfight between two women at a Tom Petty concert, and an incident where a drunk woman in her thirties kept trying to feel me up at a Neil Young concert I attended when I was 14.

2. MUSIC THAT WAS ONCE CONSIDERED METAL NOW ISN'T
The elbowing nature of metal has also created a strange phenomenon wherein certain classic bands that were once widely considered to be heavy metal are now just looked on as hard rock or classic rock. This is an important distinction, because the heavy-metal classification seems to carry a stigma that "hard rock" does not. When I was younger, AC/DC was considered a heavy metal band by most people. They were marketed that way, usually playing on bills with other heavy-metal acts, and going to an AC/DC show was still considered a little "dangerous," although that was largely a perception without much actual merit.

Now AC/DC seems to have been rebranded as hard rock or classic rock, and I know suburbanites who will spend hundreds of dollars to attend their shows, dragging their children along. A KISS concert these days looks like a Microsoft convention, judging from the number of clean-cut khaki-shorts-wearing fans, and KISS was at one point grouped in with metal bands by some people. As time marches on, bands that were once considered to be metal are now considered something else, so where does that leave the people who just hate heavy metal?

1. IT GLORIFIES BAD THINGS
While it's true that heavy metal has often been the music of outsiders and some fans have rejected conventional societal norms, the vast majority of them are probably no more dangerous than fans of other types of rock music. Heavy-metal bands have always tried to push a scary image, because scaring uptight parents is a tried-and-true strategy to sell records. In most cases, neither the bands nor their fans have posed any significant threat to society. One would have to dig deep to find any serious crimes in which heavy metal provided the inspiration for some deranged person to kill another, and even in the few cases where the music might have been a factor, there have almost always been other motives involved. A normal person does not simply listen to Ozzy or Pantera and then decide to kill his or her family.

Another criticism holds that metal bands are sexist or exploit women. Is that true? Yes, but I can't think of a form of pop music that doesn't. Whether it's Prince singing about Darling Nikki masturbating with a magazine, or any number of classic-rock bands who featured nude women on their album covers, there's sexist objectification of women throughout the history of rock. I can't and won't defend that, but will point out that when hair-metal bands had puerile references to "Cherry Pie" and similar subjects, they weren't really pushing the sexist envelope much.
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Heavy-metal bands have used shock to gain interest in their music since the beginning, and some people like that while others hate it. It's fine to not enjoy any kind of music based on the lyrical content, but it gets a bit ridiculous to believe that those words really pose a threat of some kind to society. Thing is, metal isn't for everyone. It's perfectly acceptable to just say, "I don't like this kind of music," but too many people seem compelled to disparage heavy music and those who enjoy it as somehow unsophisticated or objectively lacking in merit, and those folks should just fire up their Air Supply albums and knock off trying to be music experts.


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