Heavy metal is more than a music genre, a style of dress or mindset. Call it an identity, rather, one that exists alongside others and has close ties to one other identity in particular: masculinity.
Superficially, heavy metal music seems to prescribe aggression – a hallmark of traditional masculine norms. But a deeper look into the subculture suggests heavy metal and its many subgenres not only can be coping mechanisms for people overburdened by or at odds with gendered expectations but also have the potential to expand the very definition of masculinity.
Metal has its roots in toxic masculinity – in white, male heterosexuality and, in no small part, in the racism, homophobia, and misogyny historically found within it. Its original form communicates a faux-disenfranchisement, a musical complaint of people promised power and privilege by dint of their gender, race, and sexuality and who didn’t have as much of it as they felt they deserved (though they had more than most).
The genre has evolved considerably in the decades since. While still dominated by men, metal is arguably now a form of protest music, existing to rage against societal ills and corruptions of power.
“Metal is very aggressive, it’s not a subtle subculture,” says Roy Dipankar, filmmaker and director of Extreme Nation, a documentary of heavy metal subculture across the subcontinent. “It could be one intimidating factor, not just for women but also for men and boys.”
Despite the aggression, scholars have noted the inherent queerness of metal – from make-up and long hair, to the homosociality of the mosh pit, where intimate levels of physical closeness and touch between men are inevitable and acceptable.
“Queerness in heavy metal is not the mirage but the reality,” writes Amber Clifford-Napoleone, PhD, anthropologist and author of Queerness in Heavy Metal Music: Metal Bent. “It is masculinity that is the mirage, the shimmering image we interpret as the reality.”
In recent years, the reality is slowly coming to the fore, with major international metal artists coming out as gay or, in the case of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, who leads the transcendental black metal band Liturgy, as a trans woman.
Closer to home, in Extreme Nation, Dipankar takes pains to undercut the “shimmering image” of masculinity by showcasing metal artists’ gentleness; at one point in the film, Aditya Mehta, vocalist of Solar Deity, expounds on his veganism and rails against animal abuse; at another point, Amit Sanyal, vocalist and guitarist for Orator, relaxes at home with his children and parents; in yet another moment, Anton Dhar, vocalist of Nafarmaan, smiles while sharing a microphone with his dog.
Metal’s norm-subverting quality may be why the metalheads interviewed for this article seem initially stumped when asked how metal and masculine identities influence each other.
“I don’t feel extra masculine because I play metal,” says Sahil ‘Demonslayer’ Makhija, frontman for the metal band Demonic Resurrection. “How I conceive of myself as a man is generally by looking down my shorts, which is the only thing that really makes me feel, ‘Yeah, ok, I’m a man.’”
Makhija first came to metal – death and black genres particularly – in his early teens and can’t recall facing any parental condemnation for it.
“I had written ‘Fuck your god’ on my cupboard,” Makhija recalls. “My parents said nothing to me. They let me be, and write stuff, and that really kind of gave me the space to be myself.”
While this might be a relatively unusual degree of license, the point stands: India’s metal musicians tend to come from a privileged group able to decry its privileges without having to give them up.
“They’re well off to begin with. That is something I’ve seen across the board for Indian metal bands,” Anurag Tagat, a music journalist for The Hindu and Rolling Stone India, says in Extreme Nation. “They might on stage portray themselves as somebody who is very much in pain or much anguished or aggressive, but in real life they probably have no reason to be.”
“I’ve grown up amongst powerful women. My friends, mentors, peers, a lot of my bosses have been women,” says Roy Dipankar via phone. Dipankar is the director of Extreme Nation and has been backstage, on stage, in the crowd, and documenting at metal concerts at various points of his life. “I might be coming from a very different part of society. Ask someone in hinterland India who listens to metal – what’s their idea of masculinity to that person?”
It’s a difficult answer to chase down – and may not actually matter. Metal in India has been largely driven by a youthful, urban, male fandom, through college fests and young professional culture in Bangalore and other major metros – India’s centres of wealth and education. Research by Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist, suggests this may not be unusual: heavy metal is linked to prosperity.
Metal “enjoys its greatest popularity in the most advanced, most tolerant, and knowledge-based places in the world,” Florida wrote for Quartz in 2014. “Strange as it may seem, heavy metal springs not from the poisoned slag of alienation and despair but the loamy soil of post-industrial prosperity.”
While men have had the privilege of building the slices of “post-industrial prosperity” in India and shaping them to their liking (and benefit), they also face immense pressure to enter these bubbles, to move themselves and family members up the ranks, and maintain the socio-economic status achieved. Bangalore, the beating heart of India’s metal scene, is also arguably the hotbed for India’s most ‘modern’ iteration of standardised masculinity: educated, multinational-employed providers climbing the socio-economic ladder to a high-rise apartment, gym membership, and holidays abroad. In other words: rat race masculinity.
This suggests the queerness of metal’s subculture makes it an appealing coping mechanism, an alter-ego outlet for the Sisyphean nihilism of modern masculine norms, a channel for aggression without destruction and for rage without a target. Metal is a way to challenge norms – gendered and otherwise – for a group caught in a net of its own making. Just as they shaped a prosperous society, privileged men codified gender norms – and are often still bound by them. For less-privileged men trying to work their way up and into this rarefied club, the bindings may feel even tighter, the expectations of them as men less easy to shake or dodge.
“Personal choice and social strata matter a lot for an individual to follow a certain subculture,” Dipankar acknowledges.
No wonder the warrior theme is commonly found in metal music lyrics. The warrior may be a standard trope of traditional masculinity, but Indian metal’s more recent versions of it speak to a fight against its origins. Spectre’s Age of Calamity concept album rails against violence against women; Kerala-based black metal band Willuwandi takes on casteism; and Bloodywood’s “Jee Veeray” campaign, which involved the song’s release and a free therapy session for 60 fans, fights on behalf of mental health awareness and care. Metal may come off as toxically masculine, but these examples and more show the genre may be more at home waging war against the danger patriarchy poses to both men and women, to their physical safety, dignity, and mental peace.
“It’s part of metal to be yourself and do what you want and not care about what other people think,” says Makhija, who for years has hosted a heavy metal cooking show called Headbanger’s Kitchen on YouTube. “So, if I do things like cooking, which some people think is girly or not manly, I don’t really care. I don’t need to prove my masculinity or express it in any way. I just exist as who I am.”
The more this genuine ethos of metal can break through the mirage, the more masculinity can evolve – for metalheads and for everyone.