Tuesday, May 30, 2006

P.T. BARNUM METAL: Sunday mag hokums for browsing over brunch

Newspaper editors love things that surpass their received wisdoms. Nowhere is it often more obvious than in music journalism.

In the past few months, New York Times employees have been seized with glee by the meme of heavy-metal-for-smart-people. It's an old cliche that I've seen deployed seasonally for a couple decades. It invites you to entertain the myth that anyone who plays loud guitar hard rock or metal is a dope and that the people who listen to it are of the same ilk.

Why just the other day, Dick Destiny blog touched upon it in comment over Dave Marsh's review of "Grand Funk Live." Boiled down to the essence: Grand Funk were stupid and so were their fans in the south who smoked marijuana in excess. These fans thought more highly of the boys from Flint than the serious virtuoso musicians in Cream. Ergo, they were morons.

So when it's deployed, the meme always digs up some acts which can be held up as totems and shaken in the face of readers as exceptions to the mass of crawling dunces, groups or people to fit a serious subject treatment and delivery that pitches to the college-educated upper middle class gourmand. The New York Times mag trotted it out on Sunday inside the magazine in an article entitled "Heady Metal." It was a subject the Sunday Arts section of the newspaper had covered the same way back in September of last year, even to the point of profiling mostly the same people.

Over and over again, the point is made to the reader: We have found some new metal bands that aren't for stupid people.

"Metal in general has long been unjustly maligned as solely the province of knuckle-dragging meatheads," asserted someone for the Times on a Sunday in September. Instead of idiots in black-T's ala "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," the audience was said to look like "brainy nerds." The men fans of the new metal for smart people had "artistically cropped hair" and the women wore "librarian glasses." And this was ground-breaking because never before has there been a small group of special metal bands as intellectual as there are now.

Mentioned in the article prominently were Sunn0))) -- drop the 0))) part when you try to say it -- and Boris, two bands on the LA-based doom metal label, Southern Lord. Sunn0))) are a droning noise band with members who play in robes while smoke envelopes the stage. They use very high volume and are unafraid to take people for suckers while conducting performances thick with pompous shtick. Such tactics have a long-proven, often entertaining, and very grand tradition in heavy metal.

Revealed in the Times: The Sunn0))) secret smart heady metal handsign
What makes Sunn0))) stand out, if stand out is the right phrase to use, is that they're still a micro-cult band and their records are boring within micro-genres where it's really easy to be that way. Plus, they get special treatment from news media types who normally wouldn't give the million-selling heavy metal band living next door to them the time of day.

But none of that matters in layman's print where you don't have to listen to the music and what matters is that an elaborate billowing fancy be told.

The reader is invited to drop their natural sense of disbelief, suspend their common sense and swallow with the barge-ful of hokums they're about to be fed.

For the New York Times, Sunn0))) members were intellectuals and aesthetes listening to an Indian "santoor" player and Ethiopian blues. They stroked their beards and the lines of music have blurred because of the grand Internet (never mind that you can find old vinyl records in your collection full of blurring styles).

Sunn0))) amplifiers are recreated as hydrophilic [specifically hydrophilic -- because that means, in case you didn't get past college chemistry like Dick Destiny, water-loving, according to Sunn0)))] pillars of salt for art museums , and the band plays in a room away from audiences sometimes so that the fans can only hear them through the wall. Will the mighty wind from Sunn0))) cause them to wet themselves, some fans wonder? Or is the sound more like sonic Quaaludes, as one of the maximum leader's of Sunn0))) maintains, making "the brain and body like jelly. A wonderful feeling."

All this art is strangely beautiful. Of course it is.

None of the Timess heavy-metal-for-smart-people stories are complete without a reference to Satan. Now, for this to work within the cliche, it can't just be any proletarian metal band's hook-em-with-the-devil's-horns handsign, nosireebob. Instead, look out for the philosopher named Atsuo from Boris, Sunn0)))'s Japanese compadres, to deliver the gnomic: "It's simple to talk about Satan as a symbol. But it's important to consider the deeper meaning of the symbol." And, stealing from an old book by M. Scott Peck: "To me, the Devil is not a symbol, but a moment that touches on morals. The moment when a person changes - that is the Devil." [In the September piece on metal for smart people, the Times had used the exact same quotes. However, to bring variety, the flip-flopped the order of the statements for the two articles.]

Because it is metal for intellectuals, or at least ersatz ones, girls wearing "librarian glasses" and boys with "artistically cropped hair," the noise of Sunn0))) is not in arenas but "played in small urban venues for sophisticated crowds." The first part of that being indisputable.

The entirety of the New York Times Sunday mag piece has been reposted here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This meme comes up because most metalheads *are*, y'know, stupid.

8:12 AM  
Blogger micksguitar said...

metal is a lifestyle.listening to it,playing it and just in general loving it. now i don't think it's any stupider than listening to hip hop or rap and any of this new junk that's on the radio nowadays.just listen to some of dick's old lps. and relax. thanx mick.

11:57 PM  

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