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Musings on heavy metal, identity and cultural elitism

  • Published at 04:26 pm April 5th, 2018
  • Last updated at 05:16 pm April 5th, 2018
Musings on heavy metal, identity and cultural elitism
I scrutinize those memories because my musical tastes have drastically changed. Although I still enjoy and genuinely respect metal music and musicianship, I have a much greater appreciation for a much wider spectrum of music, especially hip-hop, a genre I used to despise during my RCC years. My scrutiny includes thinking about what it was exactly that I hated about hip-hop. The short answer: I was defining myself against the other. I was forming my identity based on my active consumption and cultural participation in the underground metal scene of Dhaka. That identity formation was equally based on rejecting the other: the non-metal community. In my teenage arrogance, I lumped hop-hop with the mainstream and condemned it as unworthy. Musical consumption, and consumption of any kind, is an act that defines identity. What you wear, what cars you drive, what kind of music you listen to – are all acts of communication. You are communicating something to others and to yourself through partaking in this form of cultural consumption (both material and abstract). These are signifiers of your desired perception of yourself. Leading cultural theorists have suggested that our tastes can be determined by the particular socio-economic and political context of our lives, as Thorstein Veblen, a Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, famous for the idea of 'conspicuous consumption', suggests in his most well known work, 'The theory of the Leisure Class'.
Musical consumption, and consumption of any kind, is an act that defines identity
In 'Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste,' Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher, and public intellectual suggests “Nothing is more classifying than music.” Bourdieu’s work was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society. Resorting to the sophisticated theories of Bourdieu and Veblen can provide some explanations as to why an angst filled teenager in Dhanmondi might be seduced by the thunderous drum beats, ear splitting guitar riffs and the hellish guttural screams of metal. But then, it is not unreasonable to think that most angst filled teenagers would also be equally inclined towards this music. Evidently, that is not the case – most teenagers weren't fans of heavy metal. It leaves me wondering why did I subscribe so heavily to the metal genre and disavow mainstream music. It could have been the fact that I was absolutely entranced by the complex musicality of metal, but that's not the case. As I have grown older, I have come to realize that there are much more complicated musical genres, but that hardly sway me now to choose one music over another. In fact, I do not particularly care for musical and technical complexity nowadays. I think the reason for my deep affection for and connection to that community simply boils down to the fact that I believed my supposed 'metal identity' made me a musical elite. By extension, it made me, in my own mind, a culturally elite person, who did not need the endorsement of the mainstream crowd to confirm his superiority. My limited understanding of musical complexity tended to the view that this was an elitist art form and participation in it acted as a means to legitimize my cultural elitism. This perception of cultural identity and cultural elitism was further reinforced by belonging to a subculture that had very unique cultural signifiers. These cultural signifiers are vital for group formation. Subcultures and group formation practices and hence identity formation practices are established mainly in relation to 'the other'. My false sense of cultural elitism came from the knowledge of who is excluded, the excluded being those consuming 'culturally inferior products'. My belonging to these subcultures reinforced this belief through the herd mentality of the group. But in retrospect, the funniest thing is, these identities are never stable and are absolutely bound to change over time. Bourdieu would have slapped me with a 'petite bourgeoisie' label in a second. Maybe my sense of self actualization was not being fulfilled by the dominant cultural and identity narrative. Maybe that’s why, in my head, I was culturally elite just by the mere fact of not belonging to the dominant culture.
Subcultures and group formation practices and hence identity formation practices are established mainly in relation to 'the other'
Then of course, there is the definitive role that environment played in shaping my musical tastes. It was really after I left for my higher education in Canada (I am a York University dropout) that my understanding and tastes of music really did diverge. The culture at York was supremely conducive to experimentation, including experimenting with one’s cultural and musical identity. I slowly started grasping the finer details of the philosophy of hip-hop, I started understanding its values and understanding its roots. I also started appreciating electronic music (another genre which at times is remarkably similar to metal in its ability to arouse intense emotions) and R&B and jazz. Forget Bourdieu; I myself want to slap myself a few times over now that I realize how misguided my sense of cultural superiority was. Although I still do not listen to music of the 'Top 40' kind, I am much more open to different musical styles and genres after coming back from York and my tastes having gone through a process of reconstruction. Consequently, not only I became a listener of hip-hop, but I ended up producing a hip-hop track. Looking back now, it amuses me how seriously I took my “metal” identity. I guess it made sense at the time, but as time has gone on I have come to realize that identity is not a time and space invariant concept. I have come to realize that identity is fluid and my sense of cultural elitism was the byproduct of a misguided teenage ego.
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