Heavy Metal As Surrogate Religion – Exploring The Metal Subculture (Katrina Lavender)
According to the Office for National Statistics, Heavy Metal has recently become an official religion, with 6200 followers in 2011. Music as a cultural artefact clearly exemplifies the intersection of religion and popular culture. Andy Bennett states, in Cultures of Popular Music, that the heavy metal genre, which originated in the 1960s contains significant religious components and messages while at the same time informing them.
What role religion plays in heavy metal subculture? To answer this, we will focus on two dimensions summed up by Chris Klassen in Religion and Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Approach: that of ‘popular culture as religion’ and ‘religion and popular culture in dialogue.’ The first dimension is studied with a discussion surrounding social cohesion and the sacred. The second dimension is centred on the way in which metal groups have appropriated religious language and ritual, which they express in the lyrical content of their music.
The fabrication of connections to organised religion, Satanism and the notion of good versus evil in lyrical content is explored. This dimension touches on various societal struggles that are activated as a result of metal’s anti-establishment perspectives and discontent, which are communicated using lyrics. Particular emphasis is placed on Iron Maiden, since they are regarded as pioneers of the genre. The concluding remarks indicate that religion’s role is most prominent in aiding identity work of the subculture.
Defining religion and popular culture
Meredith McGuire, in Religion: The Social Context, remarks that how we define religion shapes our explanation of its role in a community (8). Accordingly, it is imperative to offer a definition that most accurately depicts interactions within the metal subculture.
In Why Study Religion and Popular Culture?, Christopher Deacy explains that there is more to defining religion than simply believing in God. In sociological terms, it is a fundamental human endeavour, and the Durkheimian notion of group solidarity provides individuals with power (6).
This essay places focus on religion in this context of group solidarity, attesting to the notion that it does indeed solidify communal power as a result. This context also embeds itself in ideas of identity and morality rather than belief institutions. In Implicit Religion in Popular Culture: The Religious Dimensions of Fan Communities, Jennifer Porter examines the metal subculture, noting that how a person ultimately situates themselves in their own personal history, their community, the world, and the cosmos, is the essence of understanding implicit religion in the subcultural context (277).
Metal clearly exemplifies religion, both implicitly and explicitly. With this in mind, group solidarity is obviously fundamental to its construction, as is identity. Spirituality guides individuals in their personal, individualised beliefs and practices. Charles Taylor notes, in A Secular Age, that spirituality rejects institutional religion as spirituality is an inner feeling subject to one’s own perception – it is not guided by rules of religion (477). In this way, fans create their own, individualised spiritual system.
Popular culture as religion
Popular culture has the ability to operate like a religion in contemporary society, especially since many attributes of metal are quasi-religious. This is illustrated by the pervasiveness of metal fandom. Marcus Moberg notes, in Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture, that different popular music forms and their surrounding cultures, subcultures or scenes have effectively come to constitute “religions” or surrogates for religion or religiosity, for their most devoted followers (114).
Metal culture provides its followers with a particular worldview and way of interpreting their place in society, a cultural identity, collective rituals, and a sense of community and belonging – all typical traits of classical functionalist understandings of religion (117). Essentially, metal comes to inform all kinds of aspects of the personalities of members of the subculture.
The word ‘religion’ is commonly said to derive from the Latin term ‘ligare,’ meaning to bind or connect. With this in mind, one recognizes that religion is based around the joining together of individuals in a communal, sacred element – very much the embodiment of social cohesion.
The metal subculture formulates a social cohesion much like that which is brought on by religious affiliation. Uniformity – an aspect Durkheim recognised as crucial to cohesion – of the metal subculture proves this. Clothing adorned by fans is similar to a uniform, encompassing recurring themes: black T-shirts containing repeated images; usually that of the band’s logo or name. By extension, this uniformity exemplifies ritualization.
Globally, people unite to watch metal concerts. The unity of the metal subculture in concert attendance is similar to that of a religious pilgrimage. In the film ethnography of Sam Dunn, Flight 666, fans in Colombo attended an Iron Maiden concert in a comparable fashion to the way some religious practitioners attend worship services. In the same vein, many Brazilian fans quit their jobs and homes to travel hundreds of miles through jungle to see the band perform. These actions show how the subculture is like a religion, and the attendance of concerts is a modern form of pilgrimage, a spiritual journey.
In Heavy Metal: The Music and its Culture, Deena Weinstein states that the strong solidarity felt within the audience, along with bonds of mutual appreciation expressed by the band and audience resemble features of religious festivals (232). Metal concerts can be described as hierophanies in which something sacred is revealed.
They are experienced as sacred, in contrast to the profane, everyday world. They are a key ritual form, demonstrating how they come to be regarded as sacred. Moberg notes that these occasions bring the metal subculture together as a community, providing everything for its adherents that a traditional religion would, such as encounters with a cultural identity and social structure that serve to foster a strong sense of belonging (119).
David Chidester discusses, in Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa, the way in which the Sacred is produced through a labour of regular ritualization, which generates a surplus of meaning (15). In the context of metal subculture, this sacralised social order is perfectly demonstrated. The bands themselves stand for the Sacred, at the centre of community formation. For example, one Brazilian refers to lead singer Bruce Dickinson as her “hero,” followed by hundreds of fans crying with a perceived joy at the concert of Iron Maiden. Bennett refers to the fact that people come together to listen to heavy music and use it to face the difficulties in their lives (52).
Despite the notion of the metal subculture’s qualities as a ‘surrogate’ religion, heavy metal has also manifested itself as outright religious, as exemplified by the invented religion of the Church of Iron Maiden in Brazil by pastor Marcos Motolo, in which he performs sermons around the morality of Iron Maiden lyrics, regarding himself as ‘Father Iron Maiden.’ The fact that Motolo formed this Church demonstrates firstly that traditional religion was not suited to his spiritual preferences, and secondly that Iron Maiden represented religion, considering he formally defined it as a religion.
Clearly, metal as a cultural artefact is an immense influence on religion when one considers this case. It is also worthwhile to note that a group entitled “Iron Maiden is my Religion” exists online, with over 90,000 members. It is impossible to deny that the metal band is not simply a surrogate religion, but also a very genuine religion for many individuals.
Therefore, religious elements of the metal subculture are apparent, despite the fact that members may not necessarily see themselves as religious. Klassen notes that for many individuals, subcultures perform what Durkheim sees as the function of religion: to provide social cohesion and mark off the sacred and profane (86).
Religion in dialogue
Religion in dialogue is a cyclical application within the language of metal, primarily within lyrical content. One recognises religious dialogue amongst band names. Religious terminology is replete, with names such as Grim Reaper and Black Sabbath, notes Weinstein (39). The fact that these bands have chosen to establish and make a name for themselves upon clearly religiously-themed foundations serves to highlight the continued significance of religion in heavy metal.
Religion shapes these names, and arguably they also shape the band’s identity and persona in turn – especially since a name is a widely identifying characteristic. Religion in dialogue is exercised primarily through lyrics, specifically those grounded in ideas of Christianity, Satanism and good versus evil.
Bands such as Iron Maiden are highly esteemed for their meaning-charged lyrics (123). In Religion and Popular Culture: Rescripting the Sacred, Richard Santana describes how many American metal fans identified listening to their music and attending their concerts as a religious experience that one fan described as “seeming to raise me up out of my body so that I didn’t even exist anymore” (85). In this case, the social experience is very much religiously complemented, but it is necessary to be clearer about how metal as a popular culture product appropriates and criticises features of established religion.
Lyrics are often informed by organised religion. For example, Iron Maiden’s members have Christian backgrounds. These backgrounds enhance their music, of which the lyrics include themes such as religion, spirituality, science fiction and war to more personal areas such as sex, love, dreams and individuality. Religion and war are the most frequently appearing themes, with religion being the subject of 26 either explicitly or implicitly, according to Matthew Wood in Rock ‘n’ Roll took me there: Its Effects upon Individual and Communal Religious Experience (3). Weinstein claims that heavy metal’s major source for its imagery and rhetoric of chaos is religion, particularly to Judeo-Christian tradition (39).
In contrast, Metallica uses lyrical content to express its explicit questioning and criticism of Christianity and its God, along with theologically informed notions of sin, guilt, forgiveness and evil, states Robert Walser in Call Me the Seeker: Listening to Religion in Popular Music (98).
In fact, Walser studied the band over its career and observed that their early work had begun with a rejection of God, moving later towards a recognition of sin and need for forgiveness, until their most recent attempts to assert independent control over themselves. In this case, metal serves to display the spiritual journey of this particular band – lyrics display the story of that journey. They fail to separate their own personal struggles with religion from the final cultural product.
Despite Judeo-Christian influences, the metal subculture possesses members from all backgrounds, including Muslims. LeVine discusses the way in which Muslim members have been arrested, jailed and even tortured for being “Satan worshippers,” becoming the butt of national jokes, and a foil for preachers looking to assure mainstream Muslims of their own moral and cultural superiority (16).
This case illustrates the way in which the Muslim faith has appropriated metal as a satanic popular cultural form, and actually used it to reassert their own faith whilst at the same time using metal’s perceived satanic notions to inflict punishments upon its followers. However, Brett Lashua states in Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalisation that metal has also been a motor for social change in Muslim countries: metal bands act as sources of influence and inspiration, insofar that fans across Muslim societies have reconciled metal with Islam, as exemplified by women adorning headscarves with Iron Maiden T-shirts (137).
In this sense, heavy metal has the power to emancipate women in Muslim countries – metal has genuinely empowering possibilities for bands wishing to impose religious intolerance and promote intercommunal harmony, and for young women who wish to partake in the music. Bennett notes that this is an appeal for young people as a source of empowerment – it empowers listeners through the inversion of power. Metal places the group, the fan and the ideology in opposition to the entrenched values of society – the ‘we’ vs. ‘they’ mentality (52).
Moberg states that metal is characterised by a fascination with the world of religion and various types of “darker” spiritual themes drawn from the Bible, mythology and legend, occultism and Satanism (114). The repercussions of this include moral panics that have resulted from metal’s affiliation with Satanism, something evident throughout much of the genre’s lyrical content. Weinstein claims that the devil serves as shorthand for the forces of disorder (41).
In some instances, religious imagery prevalent in metal lyrics has indeed spiralled out of control, as demonstrated in the 1990s in Norway. Bennett highlights how churches were burnt down by metal fans who wished to cleanse Norway of Christian influences and spread fear (52). Santana describes how Iron Maiden was accused of being Satanic on their United States tour, with protestors responding with staged prayer interventions and record burnings, which ceased when they realised they were potentially releasing devil-fumes into the air (85).
This event highlights the way in which the metal subculture has become popularised as a group comprised of satanic worldviews. Even to the public masses, the subculture is imbued with religious meaning, even if it is not necessarily true – it is viewed discursively as possessing attachments to Satanism.
In A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture (Engaging Culture), Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor describe how imagery, connoting ideas of ‘good versus evil,’ is widespread in the content of metal songs. Language in music is largely symbolic, acting as a platform for the transmission of ideology (129). Lyrics possess an element of morality– like religion, songs shape fans’ sense of the world. Individuals locate themselves and identify with musical messages, which serve as a guide.
Through the medium of music, artists are able to express anti-establishment attitudes, which are clearly prevalent in many of Iron Maiden’s songs. The use of the phrases “we’ll show the unbelievers” and “make us all dance to their song” make it apparent that they are singing about the evils of collectivisation, according to Andrew Kemp in Liberalism, Individualism and Heavy Metal (40).
Social issues are visibly highlighted by such lyrics, which serve to illuminate life’s injustices. These in turn link to religion, in one instance portraying world leaders as born from “seeds of devils.” Further, the lyric “Only the good die young” indicates breaches of a moral order in which the privileged abuse their power. Weinstein remarks that heavy metal lyrics are discursive, and do not conceal an interest in disorder, conflict, opposition and contradiction, injustice, resistance, rebellion and death (39). Further, Weinstein articulates that metal’s major source for its musical imagery emerged from the Book of Revelations, a unique apocalyptic vision in the New Testament.
Bearing this in mind, one can trace the roots of the metal genre as having been greatly shaped by religion. Black Sabbath have similarly revealed worldly concerns, particularly that of unchecked industrialisation, political oppression and high-tech warfare. Heavy metal’s dystopian narratives emerge with potential for social consciousness as they serve to inform and educate the audience. Other artists convey their personal opinions of religion itself, for example, Metallica’s use of the song title “The God That Failed,” clearly demonstrating their status as non-believers.
Despite the obvious atheism, religion is still a component of the music. To link back to the Durkheimian lens, Iron Maiden plays the song entitled “Iron Maiden” at every concert they perform, which comprises the main lyrics “oh well, whatever, wherever you are, Iron Maiden’s gonna get ya,” eventually closing with the line “Iron Maiden’s gonna get all of you.” Regardless of what walk of life one comes from, everyone is brought together by the music, demonstrating social cohesion.
It is distinctively clear that heavy metal subculture is informed by religion, a notion that is impossible to deny when one considers its lyrical matter, which reflects numerous religious themes, along with the social cohesion of members, demonstrated through their uniformity and ritualization of concerts. Metal is separated from other genres of music since religion is so embedded within its ethos, regardless of whether it stems from Satanic or Christian imagery.
These notions lend themselves to a wider debate on religious changes in late-modern society, letting it be known that the anthropological study of religion can be informed even by sources that communicate religion only implicitly. Even though members of the metal subculture may not define themselves as religious as such, their interactions certainly demonstrate certain religious characteristics.
Katrina Lavender graduated with a B.S. in Anthropology from the University of Southampton in 2015 with Second Class Honours (Upper Division). She is now a Master’s student in Public Policy at the King’s College London, UK, but still maintains a firm interest in anthropology.
Tagged with: Charles Taylor, Christopher Deacy, Craig Detweiler, David Chidester, Deena Weinstein, Flight 666, heavy metal, Iron Maiden, Jennifer Porter, Meredith McGuire, metal culture, popular culture as religion, religion and metal, Richard Santana, Satan worship
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