VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

[Previous blog on VH1 and heavy metal]

VH1 concluded the first season, eleven episodes, of Sam Dunn’s documentary on heavy metal, Metal Evolution.  The thing that impresses me most, even more than the obvious time, money, energy, thought, and love that went into it, is the thesis: Dunn is actually true to the title, reading the history of metal as a gradual process by which the music changed into different forms and subgenres over four decades.  The introduction (excerpted in the clip below) shows Dunn hard at work constructing his diagram of categories and hand-lettered band-name logos, using architect-grade pens, an X-acto knife, pushpins, and string, so that the resultant chart is a meticulous assemblage worthy of a lepidopterist,  cartographer, or serial killer. As he works, the camera flashes to a bust of Charles Darwin, and then later to a bookshelf highlighting The Origin of the Species.  Dunn clearly sees metal as deserving of a hagiographic, Ken Burns-style documentary, even as metal, unlike Burns’s jazz and baseball, is not a simple slice of Americana; like an anthropologist, Dunn traverses the globe, frequenting Britain but also hitting Germany, Denmark, Canada, Brazil, and more, all to catalogue the comprehensive metal diaspora.

[Clip: Ad for Metal Evolution series; about 1 minute in, turns into clip of anti-metal diatribe for some reason. Ah, Youtube]

Yet [channeling Carrie Bradshaw] I couldn’t help but wonder: what if the series went on beyond Darwin? [Smiling for not saying “evolve.”] 

Metal Materialism


I'm a Marxist. A Groucho Marxist.

Dunn uses the image of evolution to suggest change, but it’s clear that it’s not natural selection as much as the unnatural, invisible hand of the marketplace:  the 1960s and early 1970s are presented as a golden age of metal, only to lead to a bloated, decadent phase of arena rock in the late 70s. Which then led to the energized, revitalized New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM) 🙂  Which led to late 1980s glam excess and languor 😦  Which led to deeper, darker thrash 🙂  Which led to back-to-basics, punk-influenced grunge (:S [confused face]) Which led to Nu Metal (first 🙂, with Korn, then 😦, with Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, with spelling 😦 the whole time).  In each case, it’s not exactly that the music got old as much as the target market did—record companies were always on the lookout to find the next big seller for the next generation, happy to dump last year’s act in favor of a new flavor, only to dump them, ad infinitum.

But it’s not just market fluctuation as much as a deliberate assimilation of subversion.  Hard rock, then metal, then thrash, then grunge, are systematically stripmined of their rebelliousness; the very thing that in one year makes it dangerous in the next makes it a hot commodity.  Venture vulture capitalism not only absorbs the marginal into its mainstream; it profits from packaging and selling rebellion right back to the teens who invented it, until it’s all gone.  Then it moves on to the next form. This is not evolution as much as a business cycle, or, if you’re thinking generously Hegalian, a series of dialectical movements between conservatism and creativity, reformations and counter-reformations.  

Metal Poststructuralism

Don't be so Saussure

But what about the episodes I didn’t mention above, on Shock Metal, Power Metal, and Progressive Metal? They fall outside—or maybe side by side—Dunn’s partially chronological approach, a kind of concurrent evolution, so that each of these three episodes starts over again in the 60s, even as the first eight episodes were working their way closer to the present.  We can think of metal, then, in Roman Jakobson’s terms: syntagmatic—linear, forward moving, evolving, chronological, narrative—as well as paradigmatic—vertical, categorical, thematic, metaphorical.  Seeing metal as moving from roots to early metal to NWoBHM to glam to thrash to grunge to Nu metal is syntagmatic; seeing the previous episodes as representing the traditional narrative of metal with outliers in Shock, Power, and Prog is paradigmatic.   

Alternately, we can see all of heavy metal as a language system—the langue of heavy metal always consisting of loud, distorted guitars, hard-hitting drums, extreme vocals (whether screaming, high-range, guttural, or Cookie Monster), and rebellious attitude; the parole of metal comes from the specific utterances and subgenres.  The reason your grandma (or a nonfan) can’t tell the difference between any of these episodes is because they’re not native speakers of metal—they recognize only the langue but cannot decipher the particulars of the parole.

Metal Patriarchy

I would not even think about putting a funny caption here

Dunn in general is not looking at metal’s faults.  Fair enough. It’s his show.  Yet the glaring fact is that, over eleven hours and interviews with hundreds of musicians, producers, journalists, and academics, I counted only three women: a manager, a professor, and Melissa Auf der Maur, bassist with Hole and other groups. (I may have missed someone, I suppose). 

Maybe it’s just a numbers game—metal bands are mostly male.  But consider one of Dunn’s very un-anthropological forays into complaint: he is very clear about his dislike of glam metal and seems only to include it out of some fanatical completist’s OCD.  And why does he dislike glam?  It seems, in part, because he sees the groups as feminine, wearing makeup and spandex, although, again, Grandma would see most of these groups as effeminate.  Ugly androgyny and makeup a la Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, who even assume women’s names, is OK, but not stage makeup or names like Rikki Rockett.  And beyond looking like women—or, arguably, caring about their looks at all—what is glam’s other serious violation? It appealed to—GIRLS!  In fact, the one thing that all of Dunn’s defective eras in metal share—including his open disdain of Linkin Park—is that they had a significant number of female fans.  Dunn’s metal shop is a boy’s club.

(Not that glam isn’t also, paradoxically, a low point in lyrical misogyny.  Dunn is not particularly interested in lyrics anyway.  And unlike the other metal genres, glam has at least discovered girls in the first place.) 

Metal Heliocentrism

Revolution Number 9

Dunn seems to see the 60s as the Big Bang of metal creativity.  And the cosmological model may be better than the evolutionary one, as evolution implies not just change but change into a better form.  For Dunn, it’s clear that the subjects of his previous documentaries, Iron Maiden and Rush, represent the sun around which the other bands and genres revolve.  The introduction plays Maiden’s The Trooper, and these two groups still seem absolutely central to Dunn’s metal universe, rather than mere transitional stages in a larger evolutionary process of species improvement. 

Metal Psychoanalysis

Sometimes a circular saw codpiece is just a circular saw codpiece. Oh, wait. No it's not.

If Dunn can use Darwin and I include Marx and Copernicus, it’s only fitting that I end with the other world-changing thinker, Freud.  The introduction also flashes briefly to photos of Dunn’s childhood and his college degrees on the wall.  It’s hard to wonder whether this whole documentary filmmaker gig isn’t a chance to meet the idols of his youth—and, in some oedipal sense, surpass them.  Many of the former stars are now aging, overweight, bald, and way, way past their era of fame.  Dunn is in charge now, calling the shots and asking the questions, controlling—creating—the metal narrative.  And at what must be a height of about 6’5”, Dunn again and again towers over the rock stars.  The star-struck child returns, and this time he is the symbolic adult.   Power metal indeed. 

Forget metal evolution—Dunn has crafted himself as metal’s Intelligent Designer.

Time: Yeah, I’m over an hour on this one. Yeah.


Jesse Kavadlo

UPDATE 2/15/12: Read the follow-up to the part that got people talking: Women and/or Rock.

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12 thoughts on “VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

  1. Pingback for linking the _VH1’s Metal Fatigue_ post to this one
    […] 2/8/12: Read the Metal Evolution post: VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin Share this:TwitterFacebookMoreTumblrLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tagged […]

  2. Janis says:

    “Hard rock, then metal, then thrash, then grunge, are systematically stripmined of their rebelliousness; the very thing that in one year makes it dangerous in the next makes it a hot commodity.” Isn’t this true of just about any new idea? And furthermore, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, is it? Except with Nu-metal, which was terrible after about a year, and only got worse from there (but works as a good example below).

    Of course, any genre that gains any sort of popularity will develop plenty of terrible acts trying to cash in on the phenomenon; there are three Linkin Parks (Why did they all insist on misspelling common words for their band-names?!) to every Korn, but if history has taught us anything it’s that these imitators will eventually disappear, or will at the very least be marginalized. How many Beatles-clones that I am sure were roaming the earth in the late 60’s/early 70’s are still remembered today? we have done the same with every genre: weeding out that which is still worth listening to, and simply forgetting all the crap.

  3. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks for writing, Janis. You might be right that it’s true of new ideas in general. A Marxist would call that a bad thing, although it may be more descriptive than evaluative.

    The idea that “any genre … will develop … terrible acts … [that] will eventaully disappear” is a nicely Darwinian, survival of the fittest way of thinking of it. Maybe Dunn has the right theorist and metaphor after all.

  4. Jade says:

    Brilliant! Get ready for some Banger link love. 🙂

  5. Pingback: I reference this post in the next one.
    […] week I wrote about VH1’s Metal Evolution  and was thrilled to see it linked to Banger Film’s social media.  I never actually expected […]

  6. Johannes says:

    So after reading this entry, I’ve been wondering a lot about whether “I like this kind of music” is frequently synonymous with “I’ve listened to it over and over again.” Here’s what I mean (via examples). My first encounter with Heavy Metal was one day when I was hitchhiking home from my college town. It was about a one-hour drive, and so one time I was riding with this guy who had Heavy Metal (I could of course not identify the sub-genre) going full blast. The first ten minutes of the ride I was thinking to myself, “OMG, how will I ever survive this?” The last ten minutes, I thought, “Oh, okay, I’m starting to get into this.” Example # 2. When I was maybe 15 or 16, I bought Carole King’s “Tapestry” album because I had read somewhere it was the most successful album, etc. etc. First time I listened to it, I didn’t think much of it. But then, listening to it a second time, it immediately seemed better. And I became a big fan of her music.

    So I think this all has so much to do with simply remembering I’ve already heard something before, increasing my comfort level. And that seems to work with every kind of music (okay, maybe not with Rod Stewart, but you get my drift): just by listening to it over and over again, you start liking it. Sorry for rambling here. I guess my question is, “Is there something more to musical preferences than conditioning?”

    And, what’s the role of memory/nostalgia. Nowadays, when I hear some songs from the 80’s, I’ll often sort of like, even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t like it at the time. What is going on here?

    Hope you can make some sense of what I’m trying to get at here.


    • jkavadlo says:

      I can’t remember where I read this, but someone–maybe Nick Hornsby?–wrote that we forever identify with the music that we listened to when we first got interested in love. (He, or whoever, didn’t say “love,” though.) So how much is of what we like is really just what we know? But then, what attracts us to that music in the first place? If it’s socialization, then why did heavy metal speak so clearly to me when I turned 13? I didn’t know anyone else who liked it until I sought them out afterward. I can speculate now, I guess, but not know for sure.

      The role of nostalgia, though, is a huge topic for music and something I’d like to return to. Every decade after the 50s got maligned by the next that “they don’t play ‘em like that anymore,” as Bob Seeger sang in a nostalgic song that people today are no doubt nostalgic for. And a future topic for me is the role of time and context in our post-internet age of music. What do we do with awesome “new” bands like The Black Keys or White Stripes, who essentially pick up music where it left off in the 70s as though the 80s, 90, and 2000s didn’t happen?

      Thanks for your consistently thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, Johannes.

  7. Sonia France says:

    3 females interviewed! So what, there aren’t that many female’s in this business but thank goodness there are plenty that love the music and no not just glam. I laughed at the assumption that because Glam & Linkin Park is liked by girl’s, it’s disliked by Sam Dunn, took me several minutes to pull myself together and get back up of the floor where I had landed from laughing so much, please!! When he was interviewing the Linkin Park bunch, i think its fair to say it was a mixture of young people waiting. Every time we saw a crowd of folk, say at a festival, guess what, shock horror, girl’s and boy’s, young and old and everythng in between, in the crowd.

    I have been mad about Metal/Rock music since I was 17 (bit of a late starter) and 20 plus years later that hasn’t changed one bit and yes you guessed it, I’m female. There are more females within the community these days than when I first started listening.

    Although I have never been a big Iron Maiden fan, its fair to say that they, if you understood the music at all, are a huge influnce to an awful lot of people. Some of the biggest bands and artists will say that it was Maiden that showed them the way, so although Dunn quite likes them and it shows, so do a fair number of other people.

    If I had had the chance to do something like this, I would have stuck way more bands that i like in and left out the ones I dont even if it would have waterdown the overall story, so thank goodness he had a honest look at it all, even if he doesn’t like glam….

    • jkavadlo says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Sonya. Just to clarify, I did love the series, and I’d like to think I know a thing or two about heavy metal. But I also thought it would be fun to play devil’s advocate for this post, look at the show and the music from other theoretical points of view than evolution, and see what happens.

      I’d also like to clarify the causality on girls, glam/Linkin Park, and Sam Dunn’s preferences. I am not suggesting that he doesn’t like particular groups or subgenres BECAUSE girls like them, just that it keeps working out that way. So I wonder if it’s the very things these groups do that attracts women fans in greater numbers than, say, Iron Maiden (who I saw live in 1987 or 88) that repels SD.

      And I agree with you that there are more women now who are less self-conscious about listening to heavy music–and who are into playing a rock instrument. These are great developments that people would not necessarily know from the show.

      Hope you read the followup post, Women and/or Rock. Let me know what you think!

  8. Pingback–someone cited my entry […] WOMEN. ONLY. Is anyone else slightly outraged about this??! There are so many talented women in the metal genre who have played […]

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