Friday, 22 October 1999

Robert Walser: Running With the Devil - Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993)

Edition: Wesleyan University Press, 1993
Review number: 369

Heavy metal music is a strange phenomenon. Despite derision from rock critics and bitter emnity from the establishment, it became one of the most popular subcultures of the eighties, when it and rap changed mainstream popular music indelibly. Such a phenomenon is clearly a gift to cultural studies. Running With the Devil is a sympathetic examination of heavy metal, looking at its history, defining musical characteristics, examining its appeal to its fans and the claims of its detractors. Walser is well qualified to do this, being a classically trained musician who has been a guitarist in a heavy metal band, as well as a researcher in cultural studies.

He criticises preceding studies of metal on several grounds. Like many accounts of popular music, the more musicological ones have tended to concentrate on the lyrics, ignoring what most fans feel forms the major part of the songs (the musical content, which Walser feels is vital to the appeal of heavy metal). This is partly because in verbal descriptions it is easier to analyse words than music and partly because of the automatic assumption that there is nothing worth analysing in popular music. On the other hand, critical accounts that have concentrated on the cultural aspects of heavy metal have had distinctly flawes methodologies, frequently accepting the stereotypes of heavy metal without investigation. (An example of this is the assumption that fans of heavy metal are almost exclusively working class in background; Walser used questionnaires and conversations with fans to discover that in the late eighties at least this was not the case: fans' economic backgrounds followed the distribution of the US as a whole.)

Walser uses his own musical analysis to convincingly explain the large fan base built up by heavy metal. The music is about power and transcendence. This is not just because of the high volume. Effects like the guitar solo, where the virtuousity of the lead guitar overcomes all opposition, and the aggressive nature and delivery of the lyrics alsoe contribute. This is the reason why fans of heavy metal are in my experience as well as in Walser's far more gentle than the violent image frequently assigned to the music. Listening to heavy metal has such a cathartic effect that it is a calming rather than enraging influence. The empowerment provided by heavy metal explains why it appeals to so many, particularly teenaged boys; why the fans tend to be quite gregarious, seeking out other fans to form a strong subculture; why the right wing US establishment saw it as such a threat.

A fair proportion of the book is devoted to refutation of many of the claims made by critics of heavy metal, some of which are sufficiently ludicrous that it's a pity that they need to be contradicted. They are based on a stereotypical view of the genre, on selective quotation of lyrics - Walser gives a wonderful example of this: lines from Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast have been used to "prove" that Satanism is the hidden agenda of heavy metal, yet the next few lines express strong disapproval of the Satanic ritual described - and on misleading and invented statistics - the claim that "most" heavy metal songs are about Satanism is easily refuted just by counting song themes.

Running With the Devil is a fascinating examination of the heavy metal subculture. A little ironic touch is contained in the title: the difference between heavy metal culture and the academic culture for which the book is written is shown by the restoration of the final "g" to the first word of the title of Van Halen's song Runnin' With the Devil.