Monday, June 17, 2013

The Metal Advisor Interviews Metal Scholar Jeremy Wallach

Photo courtesy of Bowling Green State University

Jeremy Wallach, best known for his metallic academic work, hosted a metal music conference at Bowling Green State University in April. The gathering was an overwhelming success--surely a first for the genre in a scholarly setting--and proved that the music can be taken seriously. The Metal Advisor talks to Wallach to find out more about the conference, touching upon what helped get the idea off the ground, and how academic work on metal will continue to flourish

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Last month, you hosted a conference with hopes of bringing together scholars and topics involving heavy metal. And you succeeded by attracting people from all over the United States—and other countries—to Bowling Green State University. Can you give a brief run-down on what happened, and what you talked about that day?

Wallach: The conference ended up being successful beyond our expectations.  The hardest part was only accepting half the proposals we received.  Since we knew we wanted no parallel sessions, abstracts went through a rigorous vetting process by the program committee and sometimes even students and colleagues of ours got turned down.  We also took the rather unusual step of not charging a registration fee (most academic conferences cost hundreds of dollars to attend) thus making the conference free and open to the public. In the end, close to 200 people showed up: BGSU students, faculty, community members, attendees from all over the US, as well as scholars from Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, and the UK.  

We had paper sessions on musical analysis, race, gender, globalization, national case studies, scene dynamics, and the rhetoric of sentimental nostalgia to name a few of the topics, and panel discussions on the origins and meaning of heavy metal, metal and community, and the Toledo heavy metal scene.  There were also three awesome keynote talks, by Niall Scott, Keith Kahn-Harris, and Laina Dawes, an exhibit on masks and facepaint, a book signing, concerts, film screenings, and lots of hanging out. A number of people were crucial in making the whole thing come to fruition. I’d like to send a shout-out to my fellow members of the Organizing Committee: Cláudia Azevedo, Amber Clifford, Esther Clinton, Matthew Donahue, and Brian Hickam. Thanks, guys!

Various publications have written about the conference (including the Wall Street Journal and hellbound.ca) and I’ve received a number of inquiries about whether we’re going to do another one.  That was never our intention—there’s no way we could repeat the success of the first one and the effort required to organize an academic conference of its size and scope is substantial indeed.  However, I can say that there is going to be an international metal conference in 2015 in Helsinki, Finland.  
Former Anthrax guitarist, Dan Spitz, and metal author, Martin Popoff, were in attendance and filled roles as keynote speakers and discussion hosts. Was it important to draw these names to Bowling Green, or did you find the interest already there?

Wallach: Well, first of all, Spitz cancelled at the last minute.  That’s show biz, I guess.  We were happy to have Martin there, as he provided a valuable perspective, as did the other promoters, journalists, and musicians at the conference.  But the event was very much an academic gathering, and was aimed primarily at a small but dedicated core of metal scholars from countries around the world who would have been interested in the conference regardless.

Do you have a sense of how the public viewed the convention? Were other Bowling Green faculty members supportive of your idea?

Wallach: The other faculty members were quite supportive, for the most part, and many of our BGSU colleagues attended sessions.  They appreciated that we had brought an event of such magnitude and importance to BGSU and that we had attracted a lot of positive attention to the university.  Several of those who attended made a point of telling us that they were impressed by the high intellectual caliber of the papers and discussions they saw.  As for the public, I was told that the whole town knew about our conference, and while the whole town didn’t show up, we had more than twice the number of people we expected come to events during the four days. 

What about other scholars—in your field and those totally unrelated?

Wallach: Again, people were largely supportive.  When we first posted the preliminary program, our colleagues in ethnomusicology, anthropology, and folklore were amazed that we had put something together at such a scale with so many big names (a blogger likened it to his library coming alive as if in a children’s fantasy).  Frankly, so were we!

When you spoke to The Wall Street Journal, and when I chatted with you on the phone, you mentioned metal is being taken more seriously than it has been in the past. Why do you think that is?

Wallach: There are a number of factors at workMetal’s audience has been aging for a while, but there’s something about the generation that was born around the year the first Black Sabbath album came out.  When we became old enough to call the shots (which in academia generally means late thirties/early forties), you saw the emergence of the first academic metal conferences.  There were also some significant shifts in the rock critical establishment around the same time.  But that’s not the whole story.  Metal’s sheer staying power—it’s “the beast that refuses to die,” after all—and mounting evidence of its unexpected yet undeniable global currency, from Oslo to Cairo to Kuala Lumpur, mean that it now can demand respect.  Put another way, it’s no longer possible to dismiss the music as a passing fad for juvenile delinquents when that “fad” is over forty years old, associated with the intelligentsia in many countries, and has a fanbase that includes middle-aged PhDs, high-powered politicians, and top software designers who have been listening to it for decades and ardently defend the music’s artistry and intelligence.  The transformation of the first generation of metal gods into articulate rock elder statesmen (excepting those whose chose instead to become lovable buffoons) has helped, too.  Finally, metal, no doubt to the utter dismay of its detractors, has aged well.  While rock music itself has become a minority taste among American youth, a significant percentage of kids who like rock love metal, and the music remains relevant and compelling to enough members of the younger generation that metal scholars can be confident that their research is not just in the service of some personal nostalgia trip. 

Do you feel metal will continue to foster discussion in an academic setting in the future?

Wallach: Absolutely. Those who scoff at the notion that metal will one day be like jazz is now in that it will be a subject of serious music scholarship (and conservatory training!) are unaware of the extent to which this is already the case in Scandinavia and places in Asia  (Not to mention the new heavy metal degree program in the UK.).  In addition, as a sociocultural and historical phenomenon, metal will always be a fertile site of scholarly inquiry.  Recent studies have only begun to scratch the surface, meanwhile the music remains as popular worldwide as ever.

In college, you even wrote your senior thesis on heavy metal, and many of your professors turned up their noses in protest. Would you find success if you submitted that very same thesis today?

Wallach: That was many years ago, and the thesis can be accessed on my website if anyone’s curious.  There are significant methodological and conceptual flaws with the research, but obviously at the time the subject matter was the most controversial aspect of the project.  Now the analytical tools for studying metal are far more sophisticated and metal studies is a recognized field of academic inquiry.  Both of these things happened as a result of a lot of hard work and struggle by serious, committed scholars who often had to endure far worse than the bemusement and consternation I encountered at Haverford. It certainly wasn’t easy back then (early nineties) to get people to take the music seriously on its own terms and truly to consider the experiences of its performers and fans.  I’ll say one thing, though: The main reason I never at any point even tried to publish my undergraduate thesis was that I could never get the permissions to reprint all the lyrics I wanted.  Contemporary popular music scholars are hamstrung by the obstacles thrown up by intellectual property law.  In that sense, I had a lot more academic freedom when I was just a college kid!

You are also an accomplished author/editor, with a few music-related books to your name. Metal Rules the Globe touches on lesser-known metal scenes and countries that typically are not recognized for their musical exports. How long did it take you to put together the collection of essays and your own contributions to the book?

Wallach: The book took over a decade to complete.  It was a long, sometimes fraught, process interrupted by overwhelming personal trauma.  Because of this, I’d rather not dwell on it. Suffice it to say that I am very pleased with the final result and the reception the book has received from both the metal press and academia. 

Was it tough to find a publisher?

Wallach: Academic publishing is rarely easy for anyone.  I really thought Oxford University Press had a lame excuse for not pursuing the book that concealed an anti-heavy metal bias, but the truth is I have no real right to complain.  Duke (the third press we approached) is one of the very top university presses in the English-speaking world and they have done an excellent job promoting the book nationally and internationally.  The funny thing is, they were skeptical in the beginning that the book would sell, even after I assured them that metalheads, despite the hackneyed stereotypes, are avid and thoughtful readers about their chosen genre.  And of course the book did sell, and the editor of the press eventually admitted to me that I was right.

You seem to take a liking to Southeast Asia—Indonesia, in particular. Can you describe the type of work you did when you visited the country, and how it relates to your book, Modern Noise, Fluid Genres?

Wallach: Thanks for mentioning my first book.  MNFG was based primarily on my dissertation fieldwork, which involved learning the Indonesian language, as well as the politics, musical traditions, culture, and history of the country.  After visiting in 1997, when Soeharto was still in power, I lived there between 1999 and 2000 to study Indonesia’s popular music scene.  To do so, I conducted participant-observation fieldwork in recording studios, video shoots, music stores, gigs of all sizes, college campuses, streetside hangouts, rehearsal spaces, urban neighborhoods, bars, food stalls, distros, and other sites.  This was when I first learned the full extent of Indonesia’s vast underground metal scene, which is closely linked to those in Singapore and Malaysia.

Metal has clearly been a life-long passion for you, too. What bands kicked started the obsession?

Wallach: My introduction to metal as a teenager was quite conventional for a person my age, especially a male suburban teenager   My favorite bands when I was thirteen were Rush and Blue Öyster Cult, but not long after turning fourteen I discovered Black Sabbath and the eighties masterworks of Priest and Maiden; by the time I graduated from high school I had added Anthrax, Death Angel, Cryptic Slaughter, DRI, Queensrÿche, Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer, SOD, Suicidal Tendencies, Testament, and many others to my list of favorites.  As I said, pretty conventional!

In Indonesia, some of my favorite groups at the start of my research were Betrayer, Burger Kill, Eternal Madness, Kremush, Puppen, Slowdeath, Suckerhead, and Trauma.  Now I also like Dead Squad, Karinding Attack, Revenge, Seringai, Siksakubur.  There are some great Malaysian and Singaporean groups, too, including old school thrashers Suffercation and grinders, Wormrot, a band some of your readers might know. 

You also told the Toledo Free Press that metal continues to grow and is bigger worldwide than it ever has been. With the vast spread of subgenres, releases have been especially fruitful in the past few years. What are your favorites, and what do you recommend?

Wallach: My favorite release from last year is Panopticon’s Kentucky.  As for favorite bands…Arkona, Amorphis…Battlelore!  Finntroll is an amazing band—very original. The German band In Extremo is excellent. I like Finnish metal in general. I even like Hevisaurus!…Taiwan’s Chthonic is one of the best bands out there of any subgenre.  

I’ve lately gotten into metal that doesn’t even try to be cool—power metal, symphonic metal, battle metal, and the like.  It’s an excellent antidote to the art-damaged, “experimental” wing of the genre.  

Obviously, the Internet has been a big player in connecting these music scenes, making it possible to discover bands across the globe. How would you say cyberspace has affected music?

Wallach: Well, my good friend and colleague, Keith Kahn-Harris, warns of a “crisis of abundance” afflicting metal due to the internet; my view is quite a bit less dour.  Metal may not be for everyone, but the evidence strongly suggests that it’s for a lot more people than had access to it before the Internet.  Many scenes in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for cyberspace, which makes it a good thing in my book.  Plus, without the Internet there’s no way I could have been able to get a copy of “Deranged Psychopath” by Crackdust, a death metal outfit from Botswana who made the song available for free download from their website.  “DP” was hands-down my favorite new song of 2007.  Seriously, though, if the Internet has indeed caused a “crisis of abundance” in metal’s overdeveloped countries of origin, I think that’s a small price to pay for the relief it has brought to those suffering from a crisis of metal scarcity in the underdeveloped peripheries of the global scene. 

What do you think of enthusiast-run websites like Metal Archives? 

Wallach: They are fantastic!  They show the world the intelligence, passion, and commitment of metalheads and are a tremendous resource.

Any last words? 

Wallach: Thanks, Adam, for the interview.  I encourage interested folks to check out ISMMS, the new Journal of Metal Music Studies, and the metal scholars list at interdisciplinary.net.  

-TMA

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