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Published: Thursday, 4/4/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

BGSU to host first Heavy Metal Conference in the United States

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BOWLING GREEN — Rebellion is in the DNA of contemporary music. In the 1950s it was Elvis and sex. In the 1960s it was rock and roll and drugs. And in the 1970s it was punk and anarchy.

These were just mild exercises in teenage expression, compared to the aural assault from the 1980s: heavy metal.

Loud, aggressive guitars and lyrical exploration of taboos like suicide and satanism — heavy metal was a cultural pariah 25 years ago, an affront to family stability and social mores. Parents’ organizations claimed the music preyed upon vulnerable youth, while religious leaders suggested metal with its dark themes and occult imagery was the pathway to everlasting damnation.

IF YOU GO

BOWLING GREEN — The Heavy Metal and Popular Culture Conference features a trio of conference keynote speakers: Keith Kahn-Harris, British author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge; Toronto journalist Laina Dawes, author of What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal (Bazillion Points, 2013); and musicologist Robert Walser, author of Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan, 1993).

Other events will include roundtable discussions with international metal scholars; a screening of the film Motörhead Matters, and the exhibit "Beyond the Black: Masks and Facepaint through Genres, History & Cultures."

The conference is free, but registration is recommended.

Also just added to the conference is special guest speaker and former Anthrax guitarist Dan Spitz, now of Red Lamb. Red Lamb, along with local heavy metal acts Buried But Breathing, Demonshifter, In Hell & Fury, Nekrosis, Trust Me I'm a Doctor are performing Saturday at Howard's Club H, 210 N. Main St. in downtown Bowling Green. Tickets are $5.

For a complete list of activities, visit tinyurl.com/blb9t42.

“Certainly in the ’80s, there were attempts to clamp down on heavy metal that really did impinge on people’s free speech,” said Keith Kahn-Harris, the British author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge (Berg, 2007). “You also had cases in America of interventions within the fundamentalist Christian right to try and treat metal almost as a form of mental illness. Even today in some parts of the world where metal is starting to make inroads, particularly in the Islamic Middle East, there has been censorship and even the arrests of people into metal.”

Fierce and vocal as these detractors may be, the denouement of their outcry is more often widespread tolerance rather than governmental banning.

“There are parts of the world where metal is seen as almost a part of life,” Kahn-Harris said. And in Finland, “heavy metal is almost celebrated as one of the country’s major cultural exports.”

Even our own frosty relationship with metal is in a state of spring thaw: Two decades ago could anyone have predicted a national scholarly conference on the music genre, as hosted by Bowling Green State University?

Three years in the making, The Heavy Metal and Popular Culture Conference is the first of its kind in United States and runs today through Sunday at the Bowen-Thompson Student Union on the BGSU campus.

The conference presents a who’s-who in metal studies, a field of only a few isolated scholars a decade ago, including Kahn-Harris, and now a growing academic self-discipline worldwide.

He is one of a trio of conference keynote speakers, including Toronto journalist Laina Dawes, author of What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal (Bazillion Points, 2013), and musicologist Robert Walser, author of Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan, 1993). For a complete list of activities, visit tinyurl.com/blb9t42.

“The goal of the conference is to explore the musical and cultural dimensions of heavy metal as a complex phenomenon since its emergence in the 1960s,” said Jeremy Wallach, an associate professor of popular culture and co-editor of Metal Rules the Globe, who organized the event along with fellow BGSU popular culture professors Esther Clinton and Matt Donahue. “The conference is about understanding the music and culture from an insider’s perspective.”

Far from the stereotype of ear-splitting noise that attracts only teenagers looking to punish their parents or stoners who never grew up, heavy metal is a complex culture of diverse music with an equally diverse fan base.

As with many subcultures, though, the thunderous music is often misunderstood and even derided by the cultural mainstream — not unlike jokes about NASCAR and its fans.

The key difference, of course, unlike NASCAR, “heavy metal traffics in images of extreme, it explores the dark side of existence,” Wallach said.

“On certain levels, it is a system of meanings that becomes understood by people who are fans but often seems misunderstood by people who are not part of the subculture.”

This lack of understanding or bias against the music has led to several scientific studies that conclude heavy metal is a health hazard or a warning sign to parents of troubles to come. The findings of a small Dutch study published in the January issues of Journal of Pediatrics, for example, suggested 12-year-olds who listen to heavy metal, as well as hip-hop, goth, punk, trance or techno/hardhouse, had a tendency to get into trouble, which continued when they were 16.

“This study is the first to provide evidence that an early preference for different types of noisy, rebellious, non-mainstream music genres is a strong predictor of concurrent and later minor delinquency,” wrote Dr. Tom ter Bogt of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and his co-authors.

Kahn-Harris, though, is dismissive of such findings.

“This is the kind of thing that a lot of us involved in heavy metal studies are trying to get away from: simplistic understandings of whether heavy metal is a good thing or a bad thing, and whether it leads to social problems or not,” he said. “It’s a lot more complicated than that. And it needs to be studied seriously and with sophistication.

“Unfortunately, there has been a fair amount of pretty poor scholarship about heavy metal. Largely, the very simplistic quantity of statistical studies are often very superficial and very misleading. And I think you’ll find that at the conference at Bowling Green there aren’t going to be people like that there.

“The people who will be at the conference will have a much more sophisticated understanding of heavy metal and the place that it has in people’s lives. It’s not good scholarly practice to try and make simplistic connections between tastes for one particular kind of music and a particular set of behaviors, because the place that heavy metal has in people’s lives is usually much more complicated than that.”

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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