1Michelle Phillipov provides two short books in one in Death Metal and Music Criticism. The first part surveys the general trajectory of popular music studies, pioneered as it was by the field of cultural studies, towards a politicized understanding of popular culture. Phillipov is critical of this trajectory, seeing it as a perspective which limits the questions one can ask of music and popular culture. In the second part of the book, Phillipov eschews a politicized perspective, and unpacks the pleasures and aesthetics of the genre of death metal with the intention of demonstrating that more nuanced and complex analysis can be carried out if political interpretations are not presumed most important. I found her critique of the field useful and illuminating. Her analysis of death metal came across as a mixed success, and left me with some reservations.
2The introduction of the book lays out Phillipov’s central problem: popular music studies has tended to privilege genres like punk, hip hop, and electronic dance music because they provide easy examples of progressive, populist politics; in contrast, heavy metal has been studied less frequently, and is often criticized for its reputed conservatism or for taking “vacuous” apolitical stance. Death metal, with its fantasies of murder, bodily destruction, and gore, is particularly difficult for scholars to interpret politically by the standards that work well for punk rock. She describes the evolution of heavy metal from a once-popular mainstream rock genre into an array extreme subgenres and scenes; she -zeros in on the formative period of death metal during the late 1980s and early 1990s, which is period analyzed in the second half of the book.
3Chapter one, “The Rise of Political Criticism,” discusses why popular music studies became preoccupied political topics in popular culture. The field’s pioneering research came from British cultural studies, and the field’s characteristically Marxian interpretations of popular culture placed an emphasis on the capacity of popular culture to creatively resist hegemony on the part of the working classes. Phillipov chronicles the development of subcultural theory and the successor theories (scene, neo-tribe, post-subculture) that developed as the old binary of bourgeois hegemony and working-class resistance became an oversimplified caricature. Chapter two takes the many studies of punk rock as leading examples of the over-politicization of popular music studies. For Phillipov, punk presented all the best things for which left academics could hope in a subculture: populism, protest, a do-it-yourself alternative economy, and working-class rage. Surveying the work of Hebdige, Adams, Laing, and others, she notes that a clear narrative built up around punk that ignored its complexities and contradictions, especially its right-wing, racist variants which developed simultaneously with the more celebrated progressive ones.
4Chapter three, “The Search for the New Punk,” demonstrates how hip hop and electronic dance music (EDM) benefited from the same politics-based analysis that led to punk’s apotheosis in academic studies. The arguments for rap’s status as a subcultural protest music are straightforward: rappers, like punk rockers, spoke plainly of harsh social realities, created a supportive network for oppressed people, and given its context within America’s marginalized black communities, rap’s devotion to a progressive political agenda could be safely assumed. She points out that this assumption ignores factors like misogynistic lyrics and overt flaunting of wealth among successful rap singers, and also asks what it means that rap commands a huge white audience base, for whom the radical politics of causes like black nationalism arouses little direct sympathy. Electronic dance music presented different challenges, since it was initially critiqued by academics for an apolitical emphasis on dancing and pleasure. However, postmodern theorizing about the loss of individual bourgeois subjectivity at raves, as well as EDM’s challenges to standard capitalist modes of musical production, recuperated the genre as having radical political potential. In any case, Phillipov argues that the pleasures and value of the musical experiences offered by EDM and hip hop cannot be ascertained by emphasizing only their political meanings.
5In chapter four, Phillipov surveys the academic literature on metal, and finds that most scholars characterize metal as a response to the social and economic stresses brought on by de-industrialization and neo-liberalism. However, most scholars see metal’s response lacking: its emphasis on individualism, virtuosity, hedonism and heterosexual, male-centred normativity fails to arrive at any progressive or constructive responses to the crises of the working classes in the Anglo-American world. Even scholars sympathetic to metal and its fans, like Donna Gaines, felt that the metal subculture represented a resignation to a marginalized social position. However, the growing field of global metal studies has challenged the notion that metal’s meaning is located simply in a white, male structural location, and scholars have pointed to acts like Brazil’s Sepultura as politically progressive third world metal. Phillipov points out that this sets up the old binary of the politically “acceptable” versus the “apathetic” (now redrawn as non-Western metal versus Western metal).
6The first half of the book is very well researched, surveying a significant swath of popular music literature and offering nuanced critique. Phillipov shows convincingly that the political preferences and assumptions of scholars have played a significant role in the selection of popular music topics, as well as shaping how they are described and interpreted. Phillipov devotes the second half of the book to an analysis of death metal, beginning in chapter five with the use of extremity and noise in the genre. She argues that the amelodic, growled vocal style, high-tempo blast beats, and unpredictable song forms are a radical refusal of normative musical pleasures, and require a re-orientation of the listener’s aesthetics. The sixth chapter analyzes the uses of horror and gore in the genre. While some scholars (Walser, Weinstein) argue that horror is used in metal to personify all that society normally represses, Phillipov argues for another interpretation: spectacular vignettes of horror are pleasurable through a disinterested and unreflexive appreciation of the “craft” of describing extreme violence. It does not reflect any reality experienced by the death metal fan, nor does it reflect their values; it is closer to the pleasure experienced by horror film aficionados.
7Chapters seven and eight explore the work of the British death metal group Carcass and the US group Cannibal Corpse. The former group’s graphic but playful descriptions of bodily destruction (disease, surgery, putrefaction) and the latter’s obsession with occult-based fantasies of murder and dismemberment are compared and contrasted. Both groups are used as examples of death metal’s pre-occupation with the technical aspects of music and virtuosity; hence their complex song structures, inventive guitar solos, and so on. Phillipov suggests that the gory lyrics of the groups are appreciated on a similarly “technical” level of craft, creativity, and the pushing of limits. Phillipov concludes that the style and pleasures of death metal are difficult to reconcile with conventional discussions of politics, and that it is even unethical to push a political agenda on to the study of a genre like death metal. It is better, she says, to “think with” the aesthetics of genre before proclaiming what its music and fandom means.
8I generally concur with Phillipov’s conclusion, and agree that accounting for insiders’ experiences, however messy a picture it produces, is necessary in popular music studies. I appreciate Phillipov’s willingness to ask blatantly if our field has indeed become over-politicized in its perspective. Having said this, I have reservations. Given that her analysis of death metal was supposed to take a pleasure-based and not political approach, I thought her findings disappointingly echoed most of the existing studies of metal which she criticizes. The technical, virtuosic, even “formalist” in metal has been discussed similarly by Walser and Pillsbury; the meanings of horror and extreme expression by Walser, Purcell and Kahn-Harris. She adds to this discussion by analyzing death metal’s vocality, as well as the notion of “disinterested” appreciation of horror texts, which are fairly original contributions. But it is unclear to me that these insights are truly a necessary consequence of avoiding political interpretation.
9I was also left with questions about avoiding the political versus avoiding the social. Phillipov privileges neither in her analysis of death metal, and even argues that death metal’s pleasures cannot be explained by the social-structural positioning of its practitioners. This flies in the face of most theories of aesthetic pleasure, in which ideology, social location, habitus, taste publics, and other factors play significant roles (e.g., Middleton 1990: 247). Her explanation of death metal’s aesthetics in terms of disinterest, distance, anti-reflexivity, and technical musical appreciation calls out for some kind of social analysis: it is well-established in critiques of taste, such as Bourdieu’s (1984), that this kind of aesthetic posture is fostered by some sort of privilege. If Phillipov feels that it is not, then the need arises for a theoretical argument that engages scholarship on taste and aesthetics more thoroughly than the book currently does.