Making Metal Great Again: How and Why Metal Music May Regain Mainstream Popularity
Mainstream success is somewhat of a complicated issue in metal circles. Some would argue that the genre needs mainstream popularity to attract listeners and cement new metal legends. Others argue that mainstream popularity creates sellouts and posers in the genre, thereby tainting what “true metal” is. This article is not meant to address this debate but rather the undeniable fact that metal has not had mainstream popularity in quite a few years. Some evidence of this is that metal bands have been more or less absent from the year-end Billboard Hot 100 for over five years. Additionally, one of the early contenders for metal single of the year for 2016 is not an original track but a cover of the folk rock song, “The Sound of Silence.”
This recent dip in popularity has led some to declare that the genre is dead, that it is now destined to be less important or current than other genres and will be viewed as somewhat of a relic for the remainder of its existence. While this assertion may ultimately be true, it does seem to overlook three important aspects of the genre. First, the metal genre has existed for almost 50 years and in that time it has proven to be resilient against lulls in popularity and the emergence of new types of music. Second, the genre has shown an ability to adapt to the tastes of new locations, technologies, and, most importantly, eras. For instance, industrial metal was able to use new technologies and strategies to create a new version of metal that appealed to late 90s audiences. Third, metal has a very strong base of “genre-junkies” (people that are fans of the genre and not just the odd artist in that genre) in both sheer size and quality. Metal concerts frequently still have some of the largest crowd numbers world-wide and, according to a study done by Spotify, metal fans are the most loyal fans in any genre. This indicates that the “rock-bottom” of the genre is still relatively high and that the path to mainstream success is that much shorter.
Of course, only time will tell which of these positions is the most accurate, but assuming that metal does make a mainstream comeback, the question still remains as to when and how it would happen. While it would be impossible to pinpoint an exact time and reason, this article will attempt to posit different scenarios that would contribute to metal regaining mainstream popularity.
A New Wave
Mainstream popularity in music is frequently dictated by genre waves (new/innovative subgenres that gain sudden popularity) and metal is certainly no exception. Almost all of the genre’s previous popularity high-points coincided with a new wave such as the classic metal (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin) era in the late 60s/early 70s, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or NWOBHM (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest) movement in the 80s, or the nu metal (Korn, Papa Roach) era of the early 2000s. One reason waves propel genres into mainstream popularity is because of a musical domino effect of sorts. If a listener becomes interested in one band, chances are that they would also like a band in the same sub-genre, then bands in the same subgenres as the first and/or second bands, and so on. As this continues, these fans increase the broad popularity of the genre and bring in other new listeners. Another reason waves are needed to make genres popular is that they address the ever present need to be relevant. Mainstream music is, with few exceptions, defined by what is trendy, and because of this the popular music charts are extremely fickle to artists and genres alike. New waves have the ability to make older genres more trendy, and thus more likely to succeed on the mainstream charts.
The current metal scene has failed to produce this necessary new wave for two reasons. One is that many of the newer subgenres of metal such as the New Wave of American Heavy Metal (Unearth, Shadows Fall), Swedish death metal (Entombed, Dismember), and goth metal (Tristania, Type O Negative), relative to other subgenres, have not become popular, often even within the metal community itself. Evidence of this is that most popular metal bands today are predominantly ones that were involved in waves that occured during or before the mid 90s (aka mostly over 20 years ago). The second reason is that the new metal bands that have become popular have not done so under a unified wave. This is evident in many metal genre-timelines which often end with the beginning of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal in the late 90s or early 2000s.
The popularity boosts during waves and the lulls in popularity associated with a lack of new waves seems to suggest that a new subgenre could significantly increase the mainstream popularity of the genre as a whole. Only time will tell what this new genre would sound like, however, a few possibilities come to mind. One would be to unify, promote, and expand many of the new folk metal bands like Alestorm and Amon Amarth into a New Wave of Folk Metal genre. Another possibility would be to revitalize the classic metal genre with bands like Ghost BC to create a Metal Renaissance movement. A further different possibility, would be to take technology and tropes from current popular music, like trap beats and heavy vocal modulation, in a metal context to create a sort of “popcore,” in much the same way Babymetal has used and remixed K-Pop into a unique form of metal. New waves, much like the other factors outlined in this article, would not guarantee the return of the genre in the mainstream, but it would certainly improve its chances.
More Mainstream Placements
Another factor in a genre’s ability to gain wide popularity is through mainstream placements. Mainstream placements are instances wherein a high viewer media product that is not music, uses an artist’s existing work on their soundtrack. For instance, a song being used on popular films, television, and/or commercial slots would be said to be receiving a mainstream placement. Mainstream placements build popularity in two ways. First and foremost, it gives a wide exposure to the song/band/genre being used. It should also be noted that in many instances this wide exposure has the ability to reach those that may be uninitiated into a certain kind of music, especially in instances where the band or genre is more obscure. The second way that placements help bands and genres gain popularity is by validating the material as acceptable mainstream culture. This is particularly important with metal as the oppositional or aggressive image of the genre often obscures the music itself and discourages new (and especially mainstream) listeners. Big placements and performance spots quell many of these concerns and makes unfamiliar genres “okay to like” or less scary.
One of the most prominent examples of the influence of mainstream placements in metal can be seen with Rammstein’s popularity in the United States. The band got its initial exposure to many American audiences in the David Lynch film Lost Highway, and boosted this popularity with additional placements in The Matrix and XXX (the latter of which containing a filmed performance). This, along with the subsequent festival performances and MTV music video air time, solidified Rammstein as one of the most popular touring bands in the United States despite the fact that the group is a heavy metal band that primarily sings in a language that is completely foreign to most Americans.
This kind of ascension through placements is becoming much more unrealistic for metal bands in recent years. Through either poor placements, less placements, unpopular placements, bad luck, or a combination of the four, metal bands (particularly the new ones) are not capitalizing on placements as much as other genres. More recently, the bands that have been given popularity due to placements have been either dance or ballad pop like Capital Cities and Bruno Mars or folk-indy bands like X-ambassadors. This is worsened by the fact that many classic rock/metal songs are starting to have their copyright expire, which would make them the obvious choices over similar new rock/metal songs that are under copyright.
That said, the lack of copyright on old metal songs may ultimately be a blessing in disguise for new metal placements. The influx of newly copyright free music like classic metal may increase interest in the genre as a whole, leading to more placements for new metal and ultimately creating more popularity for the genre in the mainstream. The other possibility for increased placements is the success of a well known piece of media with a metal heavy soundtrack. As many people know, big budget media often repeats successes in terms of stylization and approach. Therefore if a piece of media was able to gain popularity and acclaim with a metal soundtrack, it is very possible that more films, television shows, and other high exposure placements could follow and, again, propel the genre into mainstream success.
The Inevitable Decline of Other Genres
As mentioned earlier, mainstream popularity in music is predominantly defined by what is trendy. As such, genres are in a perpetual race to become trendy, stay trendy, and become trendy again. An important thing to note is that the race to be trendy usually comes with distinct winners and losers. At any given time one could go through the pop-charts and come up with a fairly definite sense of what sound is “in” or “out.” The saving grace in all of this is that the music popularity race never ends and the winners and losers are always changing. Changes in position have certainly occurred from one genre taking the music world by storm, but many, if not most, of the changes have been spurred on in some part from the inevitable decline of the top genres. Using the race metaphor, genres frequently do not become popular because they run faster than the others, but because the leaders of the race get tired and fall back. Decline is inevitable for the top genres because trendiness, by its very nature, is fickle and simply cannot continue indefinitely.
This kind of “winning by not losing” has happened many times in metal’s history. For instance, the metal boom of the 80s which spawned the NWOBHM movement, thrash metal (Metallica, Slayer), death metal (Cannibal Corpse, Napalm Death), and many other subgenres, was done so in the wake of the disco, punk, and dance-pop movements of the late 70s and early 80s. Metal has also frequently replaced itself at the top of the charts. The most prominent example of this came in the 90s where grunge (Nirvana, Alice in Chains) became popular after the decline of hair metal (Def Leppard, Twisted Sister) and industrial metal (Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails) became popular after the decline of grunge.
A general hypothetical situation would be that metal would return to mainstream popularity once any number of the currently trendy genres lose their appeal. And while this could certainly be the case, it seems as though metal’s main obstacle can be isolated to the trap subgenre. This is because trap is currently popular and, like metal, is an aggressive and oppositional genre. This means that trap not only takes away a spot as one of the trendy genres, but does so by proving a musical outlet to release aggression, something that has been a major asset of metal music. Therefore, a more specific situation for metal to regain popularity at the expense of another genre would be to capitalize on the inevitable decline of trap music.
A New Opposition
Another potential factor keeping metal from regaining mainstream popularity is a lack of an opposing social force. As mentioned several times before, metal is an aggressive and oppositional form of music. The genre frequently needs some kind of social group, class, ideology to push against and have friction with to reach its full potential in mainstream culture. Traditionally, the groups opposed by metal have been high-brow music critics who initially believed the genre to be mindless noise, many groups of Christians who believed that metal was a threat to their religion or that it promoted Satanism, and conservative censorship groups that opposed the sexual and/or violent imagery the genre employed. The genre capitalized on this kind of opposition by providing an outlet for people were against these opposing groups which tended to grow in popularity with the amount of outrage cultivated. In essence, metal was able to make musical fandom a form of protest. One of the most prominent examples of opposition leading to popularity was seen in Marilyn Manson’s rise to popularity in the late 90s. The band was frequently able to serve as a form of protest against Christian and conservative censorship groups with their sacrilegious, anti-religious, pro-Satanic, highly sexual, and highly violent imagery. As outrage against the band grew (peaking with the Columbine shooting controversy) so too did the band’s popularity.
However, this relatively recent success in capitalizing on opposition has become less and less common as the traditional anti-metal groups become less threatening. Most high-brow music critics at the very least accept metal as a legitimate form of musical expression, the world is becoming more atheistic/agnostic and many if not most Christians are becoming more liberal (especially in terms of their relationship to media), and increased access to highly sexual or violent material online has made audiences desensitized and has turned traditional conservative censorship a relic of its former self. This of course raises the question of what group or ideology could be the future opposition of metal.
The groups involved would have to be frequently angered by something, have large numbers behind them, and be a group that is highly involved in media scrutiny. The two groups that come to mind under these conditions are both sides of the Political Correctness(PC)/Culture war. For those uninitiated, the current PC/Culture war is an internet based thought-conflict between the pro-PC/progressives and the anti-PC/anti-progressives. The pro-PC/progressive camp advocates for more diversity, better representation, and more progressive values in media while heavily criticizing those they contend to be regressive. The anti-PC/anti-progressives, on the other hand, advocate for free-speech and artistic freedom while quickly retaliating against much of the criticism the pro-PC/progressive camp gives to certain pieces of media. One need only look into the Ghostbusters (2016) trailer controversy to see that both sides get angry, have numbers, and hold a lot of value in media scrutiny.
Not only to both fulfill the general requirements of being a good cultural opponent, but they also fit into the larger picture of metal history. Opposing the pro-PC/progressive side would follow two metal traditions. One would be the destruction of what is considered “good taste,” the new version of which is currently being promoted by the pro-PC/progressive camp. The other tradition would be the retaliation against critics, as some on the pro-PC/progressive side have begun to criticize violent sexual imagery, misogyny, and bigoted language in the lyrics of metal songs. On the other hand, opposing the anti-PC/anti-progressive side would also follow the significant metal tradition of being anti-conservative. While being somewhat less objectionable than their previous incarnations, the anti-PC/anti-progressive camp is still the more conservative side of the PC/Culture war and opposing them would fall more in line with the traditional political affiliations of metal. The best conclusion to make is that either side would make for an excellent new foe to spur on the popularity of the genre. (It should also be noted that neither side is being advocated for/against but rather that both could be metal’s enemy of the future)
By analyzing each section, it has become apparent that an emerging wave, more mainstream placements, the decline of other genres, and the discovery of a new opposition could contribute to metal regaining its popularity in the mainstream. It has also become apparent that each of these are easily achievable, be it through the ways predicted or something similar. These things should also happen sooner rather than later if history holds true and metal fans continue their infectious enthusiasm and loyalty to the genre. However, the only way we will truly know what actually causes a metal resurgence and when is to wait and see. In the meantime, genre-junkies can take solace in the fact that a metal-free pop scene probably isn’t permanent.
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