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