Heavy Metal Scholars Show Evolving Study of Musicology

The Intentional Conference on Heavy Metal and Popular Culture attracts a slightly different audience than your typical head-banger festival. Instead of groups made up of kids wearing ripped t-shirts and sporting tattoos, the Conference was full of scholars and scientists who have dedicated their careers to studying the impact of – in the opinion of some – loud and obnoxious music.

The conference uniform was slightly different from a traditional scientific conference – band t-shirts and jeans abounded – but the level of scholarship was top notch. The "metaltellectuals," as Neil Shah calls them in The Wall Street Journal, talked about the music's impact on the world as they delivered presentations.

At night they retired to rock clubs local craft breweries for further research.

Brian Hickam, 42, an archivist of scholarly writings on heavy metal and librarian at Benedictine University in Illinois, says 224 academic papers were published between 2000 and 2011, according to his latest data—more than double the previous 11 years. He says at least 63 scholarly articles were written last year.

The International Society for Metal Music Studies recently launched a peer-reviewed journal, "Metal Music Studies," following a heated debate over what to name it. "You want to distinguish between toxicology and metal, when you're talking about heavy metal studies. People could think—are they studying metals, or music?" Mr. Hickam said.

Those who wished to study the impact of metal used to be limited to doing research in the psychology field, but no longer. According to Shah, metal studies now draw experts from multiple disciplines including physics, musicology and even cultural studies.

At the conference, musicologists presented papers on the characteristic deep drawl common to metal singers throughout the decades, and even looked at the difference between the so-called inhaled and exhaled screams. Among the secrets unveiled at the conference was the fact that some bands used computer assists to mimic super-fast drumming that became their trademark.

"For the first time, I'm talking with my peers," said Dave Snell, a 33-year-old researcher, who received a $80,000 grant from the New Zealand government a few years ago to study "Bogans," New Zealand's hard-partying, metal-loving underclass. "Usually at conferences, it's a room full of suits, and I'm in my Iron Maiden T-shirt," said Dr. Snell, who holds a doctorate in social psychology.

Metallectuals may wear similar uniforms but they have their share of divisive debates: What was the first real metal band? Are "hair" metal groups like Bon Jovi metal or not? Have researchers of "extreme" metal gone too far with their philosophical wanderings?

04 23, 2013
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