Metal, Hardcore, and an Ontology of Anger

When heavy music seems more relevant than ever, why does it feel like it's becoming more niché?

This year, unlike most, I’ll admit I had my eyes glued to the Pitchfork “lists & guides” section when the late-November rolled around. As I’m sure everyone reading this knows, my band put out an album which was well reviewed by the revered (and abhorred) publication, and I, foolish as I am, was holding out on a glimmer of hope that we could end up with a coveted spot in their annual top 50. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. In fact, no metal or punk bands placed in Pitchfork’s top 50 albums of 2020.

Initially, I would like to say I wasn’t surprised – after all, these days P4k tends to focus their coverage more on pop, rap, and electronic music of different shapes and sizes than their heavier-genred peers, but I was! I, public relations enthralled nightmare that I am, had scoped out the previous two years lists and noted that each had at least a token representation for heavy guitar music. In 2019 the 41st spot went to the excellent Hidden History of the Human Race by illegible logo death-metallers Blood Incantation and the 35th went to Mannequin Pussy’s punk rock opus Patience. 2018 saw stoner doom veterans Sleep walk away with #43 for The Sciences and critical stalwarts Deafheaven take #28 for the post-dad metal Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. Looking back at aptly named list aggregating website Album of the Year’s composite scores for the past decade, even, only 7 “heavy” albums (out of 500 albums total) break the top 50 in their years. These albums are also predominantly skewed towards legacy acts’ (Tool, Against Me!, Sunn O))), Fucked Up) – with new-er artists taking only 3 out of the 7 spots. All 3 of those newer placements were Deafheaven albums. To recap: 1.4% of all albums represented in aggregate for the past decade were metal or hardcore, and 0.6% were from Deafheaven, the only non-legacy heavy act represented.

A sidebar, for the record. AOTY (the website) aggregates their scores a certain way, which in my opinion leads to heavy music being over-represented, in that the website counts specifically heavy publications’ picks such as Revolver and Kerrang! at the same weight as the more omnibus lists from the likes of Pitchfork and NPR. In reality, I don’t know that we’d be seeing albums like the Sunn O))) collaboration or the less-lauded latter Deafheaven albums appear in-aggregate without these contributions.

So, why? Why, in a time seemingly so defined by anger, do we see less metal and hardcore (genres which can generally be understood as anger-essential) represented in critical music coverage? I can think of a few possible reasons.

First, there’s the question of public relations strategies, something I’m pretty familiar with myself. One wonders if heavy music receives the same PR quality as more “approachable” genres, or if the strategy differs. Obviously, this isn’t a question I can answer offhand, but we can try and think through some of the factors which would change this variable. Maybe the most obvious kneecapping is that by-and-large heavy music is represented by smaller labels than most other genres. Smaller labels = smaller budgets = smaller, less connected PR teams = less press = etc in-ouroboros. This also assumes that heavy bands have PR teams to begin with, and while I exist in a more-maligned corner of hardcore and metal’s intersection than most (dare I say it? the S-word?), almost none of the artists I know on either side of the aisle have dedicated PR teams or strategies beyond small in-house operations. Hell, for all of the releases I’ve been a part of I’ve had to wrangle PR entirely myself – working connections for emails, and then barraging writers ad nauseam (sorry to those of you reading this who have had that onslaught in your inbox, it’s informed by almost a decade of show-booking follow-ups). Obviously these more independent strategies are less likely to yield results, and are more time consuming than most small or independent artists can handle in the middle of a busy release cycle. TL;DR: fewer quality pickings in editors’ inboxes means fewer articles.

Second, sequentially, comes the issue of site traffic. Because of the lower cultural profile of heavy music in a post-nu-metal world, it simply doesn’t pay to write about it for a mixed-audience publication when there are other, more lucrative genres to cover. Fewer listeners means fewer visits, means less ad revenue, etc (again). Risks, in a time when music journalism is on the rocks, aren’t as easy for editors or writers to take for their publications in order to maintain their publications’ viability and their workers’ pay. I don’t really feel like I need to get into this too deep, but when you’re not talking about a specialty publication, it pays less to write about things people aren’t as likely to read about.

Third is the resulting issue: fewer listeners. While niché-er communities are good at keeping themselves going, supporting their own through networks of mutual aid, they aren’t able to recruit effectively without the support of broader cultural interest. Today, in the over-saturated internet age, that “cultural interest” is essentially gate-kept by major music publications – who determine the clout any particular artist or group has, and any style of music has by affiliation. Take “emo”’s rehabilitation, for example. What had been poisoned to the brink of cringe obsolescence (I know some readers may take umbrage with this characterization, but it’s true), was given new life by the special interest a cohort of critics (Ian Cohen at Pitchfork, Chris DeVille at Stereogum, Andrew Sacher at BrooklynVegan, and others) took in a previously niché community, opening the floodgates for a cultural redefining/reset of the word/genre “emo,” which otherwise might have lived on in popular media only as a mid-2000’s MySpace fad. While its situation is markedly different, heavy music is in need of some kind of similar rehabilitation, as critically acclaimed groups grow ever older, as does their listenership – with limited statistical, and ample anecdotal, evidence showing that metal and hardcore’s listener-base is disproportionately older.

All of these issues, among others, feed into one another and establish an unwelcoming cultural environment for aggressive guitar music. Without sufficient institutional backing, it’s hard for a genre to reach its possible potential. This can’t all be laid at the feet of critics and labels though. I think there’s one more clear issue though which, though informed by this to some degree, reaches deeper than these surface level setbacks.

The root of the problem lies within heavy music culture, the thing-in-itself. Since its popular boom and bust at the hands of nu-metal bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and (shudders) Mudvayne – hardcore and metal have become insular communities, obsessed with themselves specifically in opposition to popular culture, but defining themselves largely in relation to it. I think, maybe in a quack psychological sense, that this is the result of an unrequited want for recognition. Nonetheless, when bands break out of these communities today, more often than not they’re expelled from them – Deafheaven from black metal, Code Orange from hardcore, etc. While there’s an argument to be made that to some extent these aspersions are sonically deserved, the way that insular communities eat their young is a challenge to forming meaningful standing in the music industry at large. Even though these bands reach a wider audience now than ever before, without a large base of dedicated fans, it’s not easy to punch one’s way up. This issue of “selling out” rears it’s head again and again, as it has for ages, when in reality selling out is the only reliable way to make a living making music under a capitalist system which undervalues artists’ labor. The issue here isn’t with these individual sellout accusations though, it’s that it (a) holds these self-effacing genres back as a whole by diminishing their largest stars’ status, and (b) creates a hostile environment for newcomers who entertain the idea of pushing for that sustainable lifestyle.

Similarly there’s an issue of attitude towards the audience. In a time when social justice movements are taking root and making changes across media (although having limited success elsewhere), metal’s older fanbase is resistant to change. Prominent publications have issue-after-issue knowingly featuring…uhhh…problematic artists, when they have all the agency not to do so. Likewise, hardcore lionizes bands like Pantera and excuses prominent members of the community saying fucked up shit regularly. Meanwhile, the remnants of the 00’s popular breakthrough run around releasing conspiracy anthems and defending statutory rape. These elements at the forefront of popular perception, make it hard for any number of anti-fascist, anti-racist, or otherwise good-faith efforts towards reform to stick. Additionally, they discourage participation in these scenes by marginalized people and their allies – limiting the possibility for gaining footholds in other cultural movements.

These foot-shooters are missing an opportunity too. By creating a hostile environment for both artists and listeners with good heads on their shoulders, metal and hardcore aren’t allowing their anger-essential nature to be harnessed in current political struggles. Where leftist politics ruled hardcore at its inception, and metal derives from cultural deviance – today they sequester themselves writ large while other genres step in to take up their ontologically fundamental mantle (which, for the record, I don’t begrudge). Pop and rap have recently incorporated more and more metal and hardcore sonic and aesthetic elements, demonstrating that there’s little holding “heavy” music from taking a seat somewhere in (or closer to) the mainstream but itself and its lack of public direction.

As has been said a million times before, instead of ignoring the problem, and thus enabling it, it’s necessary for heavy music at every level to take a closer look at what the problem is, and to embrace its ability to make an impact outside of itself. Now, in the wake of the largest mass protests the modern world has seen and in the midst of colossally comprehensive government failures, is the time for intrinsically angry music – something few other genres can claim to be.

Here’s a music recommendation for the week. Sorry I haven’t been keeping up with this as much as I had planned. School is hard.