Heavy metal music reflects the economic circumstances of its creators. After Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi lost his fingertips in a factory accident he went on to found a new brand of rock music, cultivated by the doom and gloom of Birmingham’s post-World War II industrialism. As conditions improved in the UK, the metal it produced transitioned from gritty and dark (Judas Priest, Motörhead) to upbeat (Def Leppard) and technically indulgent (Dragonforce). These days, most metal music comes from high-income countries with superior access to education and healthcare. Can we still define metal by its working-class origins?
Metal music has certainly become more progressive, which can be less relatable to the average person. Neoclassical savants like guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen mixed ornate Baroque period melodies with lightning speed in the 1980s. Bands like Dream Theater proved that metal could embrace composition and instrumental techniques more frequently found in other genres, like jazz. The metal of today includes subgenres like technical death, djent, and math metal, which focus on complicated rhythmic patterns and unique tempo changes. There is a certain nerdiness of modern metal music.
There is also evidence that heavy metal appeals to intellectual listeners. There is now an interdisciplinary academic field called Metal Studies with its own journal and international association. This blog is devoted to exploring metal music and culture from the perspective of a quantitative social scientist, but PhD holders in a variety of fields listen to and draw inspiration from metal. I remember being pleasantly surprised to find metal references and acknowledgements in psychologist Andy Field’s textbook Discovering Statistics Using R. I was similarly impressed to see famous econometrician and textbook author Jeffrey Wooldridge tweet about Iron Maiden. Does this mean that metal belongs in the ivory tower instead of the hearts of blue-collar workers?
Working-class people are also skilled and intelligent, so there is nothing that precludes them from connecting with modern metal. Despite metal’s depth and complexity, you do not need a degree to understand it. Listening to metal requires patience, thoughtfulness, and the ability to appreciate nuance and detail. These characteristics exist in people across all social classes. Metal was once a battle cry of the frustrated proletariat and disaffected youth but it is now something much more diverse. It has evolved to appeal to different cultures, to a variety of demographic groups, and to anyone who values the freedom to be their authentic self.
Stay metal, learn economics