Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Serious Music

RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL
Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music
By Robert Walser
Wesleyan/University Press of New England

Expertly straddling a fence few were aware even existed, Running With the Devil is a rich, intelligent, audacious little book. In fewer than 200 pages of text, Robert Walser, a musicologist who's been known to wow his students by illustrating fine points on electric guitar, does three things worth doing. First, he devises a compelling formalist account of a rock genre--not an easy trick, as Wilfred Mellers's deeply eccentric treatises on the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Tim Riley's dully middlebrow workouts on the same artists prove. Second, he defies academic convention--by honoring noncanonical music outside the safely esoteric boundaries of the ethno, and by defining his musicological mission as polemical criticism rather than positivist "science." Third, he offers a tour of contemporary cultural studies. Woven into his argument are the iconoclastic ideas of music scholars Christopher Small, Susan McClary, Philip Tagg, and John Sloboda; youth sociologists Simon Frith and Donna Gaines; and cultural theorists John Fiske, Stuart Hall, George Lipsitz, Terry Eagleton, and Marshall Berman. And that's only to name the big guns.

Admittedly, this last feature may put off not just the average Van Halen fan but also a goodly portion of the audience Running With the Devil deserves. Ordinary readers willing to put aside their comfortable notions of what culture should be rarely have much patience with the carefully mapped, jargon-laden position papers favored by cultural studies specialists. But Walser has an exceptionally sharp mind and writes more gracefully than most; when he recapitulates other people's theories, he picks good ones and goes about his task with clarity and dispatch. Note, too, that he prefers Fiske's extreme populism and Berman's unrepentant humanism, neither especially modish in cultural studies circles, to, oh, Pierre Bourdieu's austere speculations. He's his own man. After all, this is someone who's been known to listen to Judas Priest for fun.

Walser's primary aim is legitimation. His evidence that heavy metal musicians are serious, highly skilled, given to minute aesthetic discriminations, and knowledgeable about "that assemblage of disparate musical styles known in the twentieth century as `classical music'" is certain to come as a shock to his colleagues in musicology, an academic calling of devoutly impenetrable insularity. But it may well also be news to many of the pop fans who pick up this book. Metal is a world of its own, and even listeners who grew up hearing Led Zeppelin or Quiet Riot on AOR radio rarely combine an appetite for difficult ideas with a continuing passion for such music. Rock intellectuals prefer "alternative," even rap, and their disdain rankles the metal faithful--for instance, Deena Weinstein, whose valuable if pedestrian "cultural sociology" Heavy Metal is Walser's only academic competition. Walser shares this resentment, and indulges in the defensive overstatement it invariably sparks (you'd never guess that many of the young critics who grew up hearing metal remain selectively sympathetic). But the intellectuals who really get his goat are his own professors--anybody in authority who ever gave him a hard time about his plebeian passions.

You don't have to love metal to enjoy watching Walser puncture the pretensions of cultural gatekeepers. His case for the frequently disparaged notion that musical usages have emotional meaning--based mostly on the observations of musicians themselves but shaped by the concept of permanently provisional "discourse" that is one of poststructuralism's most essential insights--is thorough and sophisticated without betraying the idea's common-sense roots. And his notated bar-and-measure breakdowns of a few key songs, most of which exploit ground-breaking technique to achieve effects that might qualify as deathless art played by the right people on the right instruments at the right time, will be legible even to the musically illiterate.

As one of those rock intellectuals, however, I remain unconverted. Walser scores some points about glam androgyny, but cops out when he argues that metal sexism is "shaped by patriarchy" like everything else in this society--in fact, the intensity of its phallic narcissism has few parallels outside X-rated movies, toilet art, and (oh yes) rap. Though his discussion of horror and madness is recommended to anyone who gives the slightest credence to the canard that metal bands drive their fans to murder or suicide, most antimetal crusaders are so silly that too often he's reduced to shooting down gnats with ack-ack guns. And most important, he writes from so deep inside the aforementioned "assemblage of disparate styles" that he pays too much attention to metal's now obsolescent neoclassical strain and too little to the punk-influenced schools that succeeded it. It never seems to occur to him that, for many of us, metal's classical affinities are the very thing that renders it unlistenable--that as far as we're concerned, the instrumentally dexterous, rhetoric-drenched, and often melodramatic approach to meaning the two musics share is what rock and roll was put on earth to save us from. But even when it seems unlikely that metal is as smart as Walser is claiming, his own brains shine through. Only a bigot could deny that his openness to coexisting musical languages is more humane than the exclusionary standards of the so-called humanists he takes on.

City Pages, 1994