Is metal unique to a specific culture?

One of the chief thrusts of Oswald Spengler’s magisterial Decline Of The West is that all cultures are unique entities unto themselves, representative of the equally unique, racial constitution of the individuals comprising those cultures. This uniqueness is seen in all endeavors undertaken by members of that parent culture, across arts, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, and even politics. To the man belonging to a different culture with its own signs and signifiers, the true potency of a foreign culture remains closed at a fundamental level. He might come to recognize and appreciate its outer aspect, but he can never replicate the soul consciousness and putative chain of cause and effect that led to the founding and flowering of the original culture.

One can see how Spengler’s idea can be considered dangerous in a world operating on the currency of multiculturalism. But Spengler, despite his obvious bias for Western man’s “vision and perpetual quest for the infinite”, as opposed to, say, the ancient Hellene’s lack of it or the classical Indian’s retiring introspection, wasn’t in favor of creating cultural hierarchies. Rather, he advocated approaching all cultures in a spirit of understanding, treating them on their own terms, and refraining as much as possible from a judgement of the alien through superimposition of that which is only personally known. The latter, for instance, is evident in much Western scholarship on the Orient, where it is not uncommon to see Freudian psychosexual theory crudely grafted onto ancient forms of worship essentially sequestered from Western models of comprehension and interpretation.

I have often heard it expressed that heavy metal is Western music, one of the last sincere groans emanating from the crumbling edifice that is late order Western civilization or, more accurately and less euphemistically, a white man’s music. But is it even possible to assign proprietorship of heavy metal to a single culture in a time when cross-pollination of influences has become the norm? After all,¬†the genre’s history is replete with musicians of diverse colors and cultural backgrounds. Heavy metal does not exist, relatively speaking, in an artistically isolated and culturally, politically, and religiously homogeneous climate like the baroque music or gothic architecture of medieval-late Renaissance Europe; for better or worse, it has come to fruition in a time when strange people and stranger traditions are in our faces more than ever before. How can one then definitely say which cultural group is heavy metal’s sole owner and steward?

The only forms of heavy metal worthy of the name and worth discussing are traditional heavy metal, black metal, and death metal. Ethnic strains that incorporate native sounds are only building atop a pre-existing structure and therefore are mostly cosmetic. But even restricting the discussion to just these three sub-genres forces us to consider several fringe contributing styles like Western classical at large, progressive rock, punk, blues, and jazz. Each of these styles has been dominated, at least during the time of their definitive canons, by either (a) a certain demographic (Western Classical, progressive rock by “Northerners”, blues and jazz by African-Americans), or (b) a certain state of social-political-cultural conditions (as in the case of punk which came about on either side of the Atlantic as reaction to the bloat of progressive rock, or a disenfranchised youth rebelling against an economy in free fall and the aggressive capitalism pursued in its wake by Thatcherite Great Britain).

This melting pot of influences should come as no surprise; no modern artform can be expected to evolve in a cocoon of its own weaving. For it to be vital and relevant, it has to be reactionary in the context of the milieu that it occupies. As surface markers of the foundation on which heavy metal is built go, traditional heavy metal retains the format of popular music, but elongates the narrative and sharpens the definition of the individual motif or riff. The more melodic variant of black metal is greatly influenced by the diatonic scale of Western classical music, whereas abrasive death metal and minimalist black metal share much in common, simultaneously or by turns, with the ferocity of hardcore punk, the classicist ambition and developmental variation of progressive rock, and the quasi-deconstructionism of off-time, atonal jazz and other avant-garde music.

But we do metal as philosophy and ideology and even as just music disservice by simply reducing it to its constituent elements. What is the grand narrative of heavy metal, what is its overarching theme? To me, the greatest heavy metal has always signified the notion of large orders of magnitude. In its different aspects, from the comically grandiose to the intellectually questing, from its celebration of beauty to its apotheosis of the darker currents of human life, from its reverence for the distant past to its fascination with mythology standing outside of phenomenal time, great heavy metal is exploratory in spirit. No other contemporary music focuses as intensely, as consistently, and as diversely on freeing man from his mental trammels. The theme of metal is motion itself, in terms of the movement which we refer to while describing a piece of music, but also as that eternal roving and striving that makes life worth living.

To those familiar with Spengler’s exhaustive analyses of Western culture versus that with which it is most popularly, and mistakenly, compared i.e. that of the Greeks, with their obsession with all things unitary and parochial, the above would appear to be telltale signs of heavy metal’s true cultural provenance. Without question, a vast majority of bands crucial to the music’s origins and subsequent development have originated in bastions of Western culture and have accordingly shaped heavy metal in the graded traditions of their lands. That heavy metal has come of age in a time when there is far greater freedom of physical and intellectual movement has only meant that it has assimilated with an organic sincerity certain peripheral influences into its overall scope. But at its indivisible philosophical core, heavy metal remains a form of Western expression.

As a brown man of Indian descent owing no cultural allegiance to any of these genres, but sharing the same thrill as other hessians in hearing and living metal, I feel no sense of loss at this conclusion. The world we live in is what it is; people like me grew up under the dominant paradigm of the time, and our souls have quite naturally been tuned to its frequencies. Belatedly, but not a second too late perhaps, we take heed, with pride, of what is truly our own, but that by no means precludes an appreciation of where our formative influences come from, for they make us who we are, too, and without which we would be lesser men undoubtedly. Weak, puling talk of cultural beggary and cultural appropriation belongs to they who never heard the call in the first place.

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