Here's the actual text of the paper I delivered at the EMP Pop Conference. "Enjoy."
IT’S NOT JUST A T-SHIRT
In every society, clothing is heavy with meaning. Whether it’s a military uniform, a priest’s collar, or a blinding white disco suit, what you wear says who you are, who you think you are, or who you’re trying to be. Clothing can enable the wearer to cross class and gender lines, and sometimes even racial ones, and not always for the better. A white kid who dresses hip-hop enough, in the wrong neighborhood or high school hall, will eventually earn almost as much opprobrium as the black kid he’s imitating.
So clearly, a T-shirt is not just a T-shirt, especially not when the wrong person is wearing it. I interviewed Lemmy in 2002, and one of the things he said that really stuck with me was, “I wish everybody who had the T-shirts had the albums.” Most metalheads take a far less equable view of the hijacking of their culture’s imagery by outsiders. If you’re wearing an Iron Maiden shirt and you can’t name five Iron Maiden songs, you deserve a beatdown, is the way metalheads tend to see it.
For some reason, retro metal shirts have become fashionable in the last few years. Sometimes they’re sequined or cropped or otherwise customized, but most of the time they’re just hauled out of secondhand stores as is, to be worn on the red carpet, and in videos and publicity photos, by celebrities who have no affiliation with or affinity for the metal scene. This seems to be a particularly popular wardrobe option among teen-pop girl singers. You wouldn’t think a Google search of “Hilary Duff Motörhead” would get you many results, but try it and you’ll wind up with a pantload of images of the blonde singer/actress, and/or her sister Haylie, wearing a black Motörhead shirt while shopping in Hollywood, or while performing in concert somewhere. It looks like the same shirt, so I guess they pass it back and forth, depending on who needs to look edgiest that day. In a similar spirit, Ashlee Simpson wears a faded, raggedy Mötley Crüe shirt in her “La La” video. This has already been discussed by Chuck Klosterman in a recent issue of Spin – he came to the conclusion that, quote, “it feels like somebody put a lot of thought into whom Ashlee should align herself with.”
Okay, so why did whoever picked out Ashlee Simpson’s T-shirt feel that aligning her with metal, 1980s metal in particular, would be a good idea? With whom are they attempting to get Ashlee to resonate? And what are metalheads to do about the repeated pillaging of their culture for street cred by flash-in-the-pan pop-chart marionettes?
In order to understand why metalheads don’t like to see non-metalheads wearing metal shirts, it’s first necessary to understand the nature of the metal community.
Within the metal scene, there are known, if unspoken rules that govern T-shirts. Let’s say you’re going to see Slayer. Within the regular rock scene, it’s sometimes frowned upon to wear the T-shirt of the band you’re going to see. Not in metal. You can certainly wear a Slayer shirt to a Slayer show – the older it is, the better, of course. If you’re wearing a shirt from their 1986 tour, you’re marking yourself as hardcore. This might actually gain you respect within the crowd. Buying a T-shirt on your way in the door, and immediately putting it on, is kinda lame, though. You have other options, too. I’ll list them in descending order of metal-ness. First, you can prove yourself a master of arcana, by wearing a T-shirt promoting, say, Grip Inc., which is one of drummer Dave Lombardo’s solo projects. If you don’t want to do that, you can wear a T-shirt advertising some other metal band, thus demonstrating allegiance to metal in general. If you’re going to do this, you can gain status by endorsing an obscure but well-regarded band, like Eyehategod or Enslaved. Finally, the lowest thing you can do is wear a shirt that’s not in any way related to metal – one that advertises beer, or the pizza place you drive for when you’re not at shows, or whatever. Most metalheads would say this demonstrates an insufficient commitment to the music.
Listeners who grew up in the indie rock scene should make sure to note the total lack of irony. Metal’s greatest virtue is that it’s an irony-free zone. This doesn’t mean it’s humorless – metalheads can laugh at themselves, and at their favorite bands. Manowar is a perfect example of this. But within the metal community, wearing a band’s T-shirt implies that you actually like that band.
There’s more to the dress code, of course. Metal is ultimately a male-dominated form, and that manifests itself in every wardrobe choice made by metalheads. Heavy workboots, jeans, leather and/or denim jackets, spiked bracelets, belts and chains and, more and more these days, elaborate facial hair are all part of the metal look, though the T-shirt is the primary and most important element. Its presence alone can make up for the absence of all the others. A guy at a death metal show wearing a sufficiently beaten Cannibal Corpse shirt with a pair of Gap khakis and Converse high-tops will be accepted. Despite the room left for individual variations, it’s perfectly correct to use the word “uniform,” and no metalhead would be insulted to hear his outfit described that way. This is a uniform, and it’s one directly descended from an earlier male subculture – the biker gangs of the 1950s and particularly the 1960s. Many metal bands make this connection explicit. Note the frequent occurrence of motorcycle gang imagery in videos from bands like Judas Priest, Motörhead and the Black Label Society. Male metalheads don’t dress for women: they dress for each other. The pride and care they take with regard to their clothes choices on the night of a show is a reflection of pride in metal and the metal community.
Although there are women in the metal scene who dress almost identically to men, wearing the same T-shirts, jeans and boots as their boyfriends or male acquaintances, many if not most female fans dress in a more overtly sexualized way – spike-heeled boots, miniskirts or extremely tight jeans, low-cut tops, et cetera. So it’s important to recall that the two people I cited in the beginning are both female. By making the choice to wear metal shirts, these young women are not only intruding onto the territory of metal fans. They are also crossing gender lines, by wearing clothes associated primarily with male metalheads. Whether this is seen by fans of Ashlee Simpson or Hilary Duff as merely a generic statement of rebel cool, or whether they understand it as a deliberate attempt to undermine the possibly patriarchal authority of rock, can’t really be determined from the outside. I’m not willing to grant some teen-pop chicklet full drag king status just for pulling on a Mötley Crüe shirt her stylist picked out for her, though, not without a whole lot of evidence I haven’t seen any sign of yet.
Metal is a folk music. It unites a community, expresses that community’s values to itself and represents them to the outside world, and it passes those values and core philosophical concepts on to successive generations of metalheads. Because of this, metal builds canons, and who’s locked out is almost more important than who gets in. Once you’re in, though, you’re in for life, and there’s a direct link between the huge stars and the acts coming up from the underground. In Joe Carducci’s Rock and the Pop Narcotic, he explained it like this:
“The metal underground is far better connected to the metal mainstream because like black and country forms, it is isolated by pop programmers which tends to internally integrate the genre’s scope.”
Once your band’s been cast into the ghetto of Headbanger’s Ball, you discover all kinds of commonalities with acts you might otherwise have ignored, or scorned. Successful metal bands take up-and-comers on the road with them, even when they may not seem, to non-metalhead observers, like an ideal fit – Carducci provided the example of Van Halen hiring Alice In Chains as their opening act, but Mötley Crüe took Anthrax and Megadeth on the road, and Ozzy brought Metallica out on their first major national tour. And speaking of Ozzy, the Ozzfest has done this kind of midwifing on a massive scale for the last ten years. The 2004 Ozzfest lineup featured Lamb Of God, Slayer, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath – three distinct generations of musicians, all supporting one another.
No different from hip-hop, reggae or rai, metal is the voice of a minority. The metal audience is primarily white and working-class men, though the music’s popularity among Latinos is growing rapidly, both through immigration and cultural assimilation. Guys who fix cars or load trucks or stock store shelves for a living need a soundtrack to their lives. They need a music that explains their place in the world to them, even if it’s not good news they’re getting. Metal is psychological armor, a bulwark between metalheads and a hostile world. This is why classic metal songs typically address one of a few major topics: the hero’s journey, the brotherhood of metal, a cathartic poetry of violence, or a particularly class-conscious politics. Yes, metal had a burst of hedonism in the mid to late 1980s, but the bands that abandoned metal’s core values in order to become good-time party acts generally attracted a non-metal audience. Again we return to Rock And The Pop Narcotic, in which Carducci writes,
“The teen male metal audience makes an important distinction between party bands and serious bands. Serious metal bands cede very little to the social world (girls, sex, partying). They detail the arena, as it were; the world one makes his way through, fate, the void – you know, big cool boyish things. Black Sabbath, Rush, Metallica, Alice In Chains are quintessential serious bands; Rolling Stones, Van Halen, Kiss, Aerosmith are party bands.”
The metal bands that climbed the charts in the late 1980s – Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Warrant, Winger, etc. – did so largely by turning their backs on the subject matter detailed in the songs of Black Sabbath and Metallica, and instead chronicling love and loss like every other pop act. The only song I can think of from any of these acts that seems, in retrospect, like an angsty male-oriented metal anthem is Skid Row’s “18 & Life,” and even that’s closer in spirit to the teen-tragedy subgenre of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll – it’s more “Teen Angel” than “Fade To Black.”
In Harris Berger’s book Metal, Rock and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology Of Musical Experience, he discusses the fan’s search for guidance through music, but he doesn’t quite get where he starts out to go. Berger asserts, in my view incorrectly, that the politics of metal are primarily inadvertent. He writes that
“While the mostly working-class death metal fans are largely apolitical and could be in no way understood as standard-bearers for class consciousness, they are also sharply aware of the frustrations that everyday life brings to working people.”
Later in the book, he writes,
“In a world with little hope for social change, in a world where class is occluded, the liberating emotional exploration of death metal performances serves genuine needs. And it is not merely the case that metal offers short-term emotional utility at the expense of a long-term obfuscation of class consciousness; anything that helps to liberate the individual might turn out to have progressive consequences.”
I think Berger is overly dismissive of metal’s political side. The music’s political consciousness has always been more prominent, and more complex, than is acknowledged by any of its critics, on the left or the right. Metal songs are anti-authoritarian, frequently describing the perils of blind obedience, and often criticizing racism and other social injustices in the process. For every Guns ‘n’ Roses “One In A Million” or Type O Negative’s “Der Untermensch,” there’s a song like Anthrax’s “Room For One More.” And of course, the exploitation of the poor as cannon fodder has been the subject of metal anthems for decades – think of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Metallica’s “One” and Slayer’s “Mandatory Suicide.”
External politics are a much larger part of the metal mindset than they’re usually credited with being, but the internal politics of the metal scene are even more crucial, and frequently debated. As I stated earlier, metal is concerned with authenticity to a degree that’s extremely unfashionable in the larger pop culture. Indeed, this concern is often viewed as obnoxious by critics who embrace the values, or more accurately the gleeful lack of values, animating pop.
In direct contrast to metal, pop music celebrates the hypocrisies and contradictions of American culture, particularly in regard to class. Pop wallows in the crassest sort of new-money materialism, and scoffs at anything that might bust up the party. Songs with lyrics about social issues are seen as novelties, just as much as the once-every-few-years fluke hits in Spanish. The music of 50 Cent, to take an obvious example, is a stew of vainglorious hyper-macho posturing, asserting his superiority in a purely symbolic realm – exactly like Mötley Crüe’s music was in 1986. It offers nothing to an audience that comes in search of guidance. Pop is always like this. It has no core values – it’s too broad and amorphous a category for a coherent moral code to emerge. Pop is whatever’s popular. Thus, the only values it can credibly espouse are those of the ultra-mainstream. Every once in awhile, this allows for morality, but it’s rare, and it never lasts long. When the larger American society has a brief spasm of conscience, songs like “Eve Of Destruction” or “Fast Car” climb the charts. The rest of the time, it’s “Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room” or “Candy Shop.”
Pop music seems to represent the American melting-pot meritocracy myth, the idea that America is open to and can absorb anyone and anything. At the same time, pop is an omnivorous beast intent on consuming every subculture until there’s nothing left but happy-faced mulch, the better to sell sneakers or Pepsi with. Metal, on the other hand, is closely aligned with American individualism. Far from being about openness, it’s about voluntary association, the formation of a community, and the fervent belief that good fences make good neighbors. In Harris Berger’s words, “the thunderous power of a death metal performance is intended as a motivating force, a way of rousing the listener from the tedium of school, a spur to achievement, and a goad to accepting responsibility for one’s own destiny. Counterbalancing these individualist ideas is the theme of solidarity within the underground. Subscribing to zines, buying demos, attending shows, and socializing in the scene, many metalheads are active community builders.” A lot of people, of course, aren’t happy about this community’s existence. Because metal tends to focus on the negative aspects of society, it attracts the negative attention of mainstream authority figures, from critics to politicians. Identifying oneself with metal culture is a choice that has almost no up side. Metalheads are bonded not only by their love of metal, but by the loathing with which the rest of the world greets them. It’s 2005, and wearing a metal shirt to high school in the wrong part of the country might still get you home suspended, and that could be the least of your worries. Ask the West Memphis Three about the glories of being a metal fan in fuckhead redneck America.
Given all of this, why would pop performers want to be seen as in any way connected to metal, even through something as superficial – to them – as a T-shirt? What do their stylists believe Ashlee Simpson’s Mötley Crüe shirt, or Hilary Duff’s Motörhead shirt, symbolize to their fans? Let’s assume that most of them are girls between the ages of six and, on the outside, sixteen. How much do they know about Mötley Crüe or Motörhead, bands whose defining records were made up to twenty years before they were born? The answer is probably almost nothing. It’s actually pretty much chronologically impossible for Ashlee Simpson to have been a Crüe fan during the period of their existence represented by the shirt she’s wearing in the “La La” video, and she’s in her mid-twenties. The connection between her fans and that era of music is even more remote. Even granting that pop-metal bands of the 1980s spent much of their time selling themselves to a female audience, they were going for an older, more sexually viable crowd in their late teens to early twenties. They wanted to be a fantasy for arenas full of screaming women, some of whom they would later screw on the bus. Siimpson and Duff, by contrast, are likely seen as role models and symbols of female assertiveness by their fans. Therefore, a metal T-shirt does not represent an allegiance to metal – it’s shorthand for a generic mall-friendly rebelliousness or “attitude.”
Since the mid-1960s, marketing has been more about individuality than conformity. Advertisers stopped saying “be one of the in crowd, buy our product” and started saying “break free from the herd, buy our product.” Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the music industry, which almost always tries to sell its latest faces as rebels. Think of the black leather jacket, which has been a crucial component of the costume all the way from Elvis to the Ramones to George Michael and Color Me Badd. Like leather jackets, metal T-shirts are being purchased as components of an all-purpose pseudo-badass posture. But this strategy only works when they can be separated from any actual connection to metal. This is done by going retro. Ashlee Simpson would send an entirely different message if she walked onstage in a Slipknot shirt, and her management and her stylists know it. A shirt promoting a current act carries a much greater weight of implied endorsement, in the mind of the larger non-metal public, than does one advertising a veteran band with a pop-cultural presence that transcends the self-contained and insular metal scene, like Judas Priest, Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden. Indeed, Maiden shirts work particularly well for this, because in the non-metal world, they are so inextricably tied to their zombie/demon mascot Eddie that they might as well not be a band at all. More people know them from pictures than from songs.
There’s a ripple effect from this. The same cultural environment that makes retro T-shirts trendy causes non-metalheads to view the music’s most clichéd aspects as its defining characteristics. This can be seen anywhere metal is discussed by non-metalheads, from record reviews to VH-1 specials like “When Metal Ruled The World” or “The 100 Most Metal Moments.” Ideas and myths about metal that are years, if not decades, out of date are fixated upon by journalists unwilling to investigate the contemporary realities of the genre. Jokes about spandex pants and hairspray dominate the discourse, even in 2005.
It’s also important to remember that Ashlee Simpson and Hilary Duff are celebrities. Because they are rich and famous, they are lifted above the rest of American society. As the American economy wilts, pretty much retaining only two growth sectors – entertainment, and customer service – celebrities have become our ruling class. Thus, the codes of society don’t apply to them. A non-famous white girl in her teens wearing a Motörhead T-shirt, or one in her mid-twenties wearing a Mötley Crüe T-shirt, would be called white trash. A celebrity who wears these items is called a rebel. Celebrities wearing lower-class fashion are insulting the people whose clothes they’re putting on. The message is not “I’m just like you” – it’s “I can dress like this for a magazine photo shoot or a concert, and be rich and famous; you dress like this all the time, and you’re always going to be poor and a nobody.” It’s not inclusive, it’s contemptuous. Metal is the armor with which metalheads protect themselves from the world’s contempt. Using that armor to signify that contempt is as grotesque and vicious as blackface minstrelsy.
I want to end on a personal note. Every metal band T-shirt I own is from a show I’ve personally attended, with one exception – an Agoraphobic Nosebleed shirt that one of the bandmembers gave me. Those shirts hold meaning for me. They’re souvenirs in a non-pejorative sense – they remind me, and tell other people, of where I’ve been. They mark me as a member in good and proud standing of a community, an authentic self-selecting subculture that transcends racial, class and even national boundaries. Metal is like the Sioux Nation – its members carry it around with them in their heads, and that’s symbolized on their chests. The meaning of my T-shirts, and the T-shirts of my fellow metalheads, is not for outsiders to hijack. They’re badges of honor to be earned, and people who try to short-cut that process by swinging through Hot Topic on a Saturday afternoon at the mall, or by throwing on a shirt their stylist handed them, need a smack in the face.