Backpatches & Elbowpatches #10: Music Theory in Metal Studies – Invisible Oranges

As I noted in my inaugural Backpatches & Elbowpatches column, one of the first major publications in what would become Metal Studies was Robert Walser’s Running with the Devil: Power Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music(1993). At the time, perhaps the most radical aspect of this book was that Walser employed a significant amount of musical analysis with a level of detail that was at the time almost strictly reserved for classical music. It’s pretty great; I still assign the chapter on Eddie van Halen and “Eruption.” As one of the New Musicology cohort of the early 1990s, Walser also brought in concepts from cultural studies and gender studies to bear on the topic.

However, this musicologically rigorous mode of metal scholarship was not immediately followed up on. Glenn Pillsbury’s excellent book Damage Incorporated: Metallica and the Production of Musical Identity arrived more than a decade later in 2006. Walser himself has never really been involved with Metal Studies, and according to his faculty bio at Case Western he is now researching music production tech and neuroscience. He’s also apparently been a regular expert witness for plaintiffs in copyright infringement cases, in which he and other music scholars leverage the general public’s lack of musical acumen to argue, for example, that two R&B songs being in the key of B-flat major is a ““suspicious coincidence.” Good thing there are still eleven other major keys available so the rest of us can keep writing music without worrying about getting sued. On the other hand, in 2017 Walser and his partner Susan McClary (also a musicologist of note) endowed an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship in Music Studies with a gift of $1.6 million, which has me thinking that I should look into these expert witness gigs. Anybody know anyone at the 9th Circuit?

(Worth noting that in the aftermath of the “Blurred Lines” case, nearly any act with a Top-40 hit can now expect opportunistic lawsuits by nobodies or older artists claiming that generic stylistic attributes or basic musical gestures entitle them to co-writer credits and a cut of the publishing.)

But I digress.

All this to say that in an alternate timeline the Metal Studies field might have formed with more of a grounding in musicology, but as it is the field came together with much more of a tendency towards cultural studies and sociology. From my vantage point in musicology, it sometimes gave the impression that we were mostly talking “around” the musical aspects of metal, focusing on metal discourse, fan behavior, politics, and so forth while ignoring the reason all that stuff exists. Yet the interdisciplinary nature of the field also means that in some cases the characteristics of the music itself truly might not matter – musical analysis probably doesn’t add much to a metal-related study in sociological network theory or a similar quantitative field. Indeed, the fact that music is involved at all, as opposed to some other activity, might actually be somewhat tangential to the thesis. It’s likely inevitable that individual disciplines within an interdisciplinary …….


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