Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Axeman Cometh: Colter McCorkindale As Metal Apologist

NOTE: Today ushers in a very exciting era for OK Communicator. I have the honor of welcoming contributing writer Colter McCorkindale to the blog. Although I haven't figured out how to properly attribute posts to him yet, I'm incredibly grateful to Colter for being willing to share his incisive, compelling work with us, and for bearing with my luddite ways. Colter, it should be noted, has a pretty snazzy blog, himself, which is viewable here. OK, by way of that introduction, here we go:

Metal. You know it, you appreciate it ironically, or maybe you even enjoyed it in your youth and are ashamed to admit it. Maybe you laugh it off with your friends when it comes up in conversation, while secretly adoring its adrenaline-soaked virtues in the privacy of your home or vehicle. Whether you were into flashy hair metal or brutal thrash, I'm here to tell you that it's OK. It's OK to like metal unironically.

Just as younger siblings often define themselves in opposition to their elders, so today's indie rock came of age in the shadow of the metal-heavy 80's and 90's. 90's alternative rock never really had a defining ethos, but it certainly knew what it was NOT. It was not fast guitar solos, and it was not long hair. But just as I am not my brother, I don't deny him his right to exist. And sadly, the recording industry does not tolerate diversity in rock music. Homogeneity is the only thing that sells. So the long haired guitar monkeys were tossed aside in favor of the brooding kids in sweaters.

But both teams have their limitations. One side is sensitive and introspective, but quite the whiny killjoy, while the other is an empty-headed hedonist, but a lot of fun at parties. The domination of either side in popular culture equals a loss for the audience.

Part of the problem stems from the difference in psychology of the two groups of kids. Most punk/indie/alt rock kids come from the perspective of Mick Jones of the Clash when he said "Sex Pistols showed me that music was something anyone could do." This statement presupposes that music was something he didn't have the necessary self-esteem or chutzpah to try in the first place. That mode of thinking is the dominant paradigm in rock music today and has been since about 1992: it's still not cool to know how to play your instrument.

For a few decades, from the arrival of Jimi Hendrix, to the death of Kurt Cobain, playing guitar well was the goal of most teenage guitarists. Most of the kids in the hard rock/heavy metal crowd gravitated to that school of playing because it offered an abstract language with which to express themselves, as well as a competitive sport for communal competition. They didn't have to put their emotions into words through song, they could use pure music – tones, scales, arpeggios. Of course, since almost no teenage girls are into instrumentals, these guys tended to write crappy songs about partying or being angry. And they used their instruments as tools for building self esteem. Like cavemen, the first kid who could play "Eruption" was immediately the alpha male in his group.

None of this, of course, appealed to the alt rock/indie kids. They weren't into being typically male. Robert Smith, Morrissey and Michael Stipe were more their role models. For one blessed year, though, the two groups coexisted. It was transitory of course, but around 1992 you might just as easily have seen Nirvana on Headbanger's Ball as you would Steve Vai.

Of course both camps would hate on each other. The Megadeth fans would complain that Oasis were crap, and the Pavement fans would call out the guitar wankers on their own self-importance. Neither side recognized the other's sovereignty. Musical genres are like religions in this way; their most enthusiastic adherents are the least tolerant of other methods of transcendence.

But here's the kicker: Metal might be the purest form of what we still call rock and roll. It's the most adolescent, hormonal form of music yet devised. Punk might like to think it is, but punk is too socio-politically aware to truly represent for the 14 year olds (Green Day notwithstanding). If rock and roll is defined exclusively as teenage music, and if teenagers are defined as those who like to alternately party and scream in angst, then metal has the bases covered. No band made great party music like Van Halen and no band was as frustrated as Metallica.

In many ways, metal is about empowering the unempowered. A skinny gay kid who likes leather and has a really high singing voice can start a band called Judas Priest and become one of the biggest badasses in his world. A Swedish nerd with a funny name who loves classical music and Deep Purple can dominate an entire guitar community simply by practicing relentlessly until his name, Yngwie, is synonymous with virtuosity. You can point out the inherent silliness of these guys, but you cannot deny how they have fashioned their own universe wherein they are kings. And as tempting as it is to decry them as masturbatory or self-indulgent, be first absolutely certain that you're not secretly jealous of the intense hours of practice that they have put in to accomplish something that you fear you never could.

This isn't to say that practicing an instrument is the only path to musical excellence, but you have to admit that it is a valid path. Math rock, a distinctly indie rock phenomenon, really isn't possible without it. Bands like Don Caballero and Pelican are proving that there is value in instrumental virtuosity. And stoner-rock bastards like Mastodon are clearly cribbing their balls-heavy guitar tones and riffs more from the thrash metal community than from punk.

Admit it.  Metal is nothing to be ashamed of.  To not enjoy metal is to not appreciate the timeless appeal of adolescent music.  If you're not ready to admit that you love some metal, you at least have to give its practitioners their props.  It's just another of the many peculiar languages contained within music.


Unknown said...

How many 'decades' of music have you lived through? Perhaps you should opine instead of claiming to know.

Errors: Mick Jones said that in response to a climate of which you obviously know not.

Metal 'Kings' care not one whit about 'empowering the unempowered'. Kings care about themselves getting richer. In fact, punk is the only genre I know of that really cares about empowering the unempowered.

Young kids of today (many anyway) love punk, and 'Clash' 'SexPistols' head many a mySpace/facebook profile. I know because I work with 400 kids a week (social service organization) between ages of 6 - 18.

The problem with you pontificators is, you believe what you read (and/or surmise) rather than know. Journalists through the ages, like all media, tend to be off the mark. They are the envious ones, for they are not part of an actual scene but are elite outsider drifters pretending to know the true dynamic/nuances of the music of which they opine.

Re-writing history is not only scurrilous and deplorable because it suppresses fact. It is sabotage of the future -- because it becomes the new 'fact' upon which next generations will base their 'know-it-all' stance, further distancing the truth.

Contrary to what you say, most young music lovers, to my knowledge, like at least some of most genres. I personally like most all genres -- except the whiny ass dribble of today.

colter said...

Hi Annette! Thanks for taking my drivel seriously enough to respond with fang and claw. I've been a music dork since the Carter Administration, so I don't think I've rewritten anything. Having taught guitar to kids 6-18 for several years, I've been delighted at how the boundaries of music are eroding for them. It's the people with prejudices and preconceptions about metal (such as yourself apparently) that I'm aiming my pop gun at and apparently failing miserably.