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What is so special about heavy metal?

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

Heavy: How Metal Changes the Way We See the World Dan Franklin

Constable, pp.304, 20

Ever since my early youth I have loved, followed and respected a certain music genre that some people consider strange, even dangerous: heavy metal. The journey started in Istanbul, at a small, stuffy music store on a side street in Taksim, nestled between an Ottoman mosque and a fish market, where I would buy cassettes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Megadeth, Twisted Sister, Metallica… and then go home and listen to them endlessly while eating sunflower seeds, because that’s what we Istanbulites do to pass time. Over the years I veered towards less-well-known sub-genres, such as industrial metal, symphonic metal, metalcore, gothic metal, Viking/pagan/Nordic metal; and while the cassettes disappeared, my love for heavy metal remained solid.

Today whenever I go to a literary festival and someone asks me about my writing process, I hesitate for a second, but still tell them the truth. I tell them that I put on my headphones (because otherwise the kids will tell me ‘to turn that bloody thing off!’), choose a particular song by a metal band, new or old, and listen to the same song on a loop as I write my novels. Usually people are surprised to hear that because, they tell me, I do not look like a ‘metalhead’ at all. Perhaps a middle-aged Turkish/British novelist, a mother with no visible tattoos of roses and snakes, does not fit the description in their minds. Regardless, my love for heavy metal continues full blast. I find in it a raw, honest expression of all human emotions and a mixture of good and bad, light and shadow, faith and doubt that shapes in varying degrees every human being.

Given this background, I hope you will excuse my joy and excitement upon reading Dan Franklin’s Heavy: How Metal Changes the Way We See the World. The book is a fascinating investigation into the universal mystery that is ‘metal’s heavy energy’. Why is it that, in a world where everything is consumed too fast and then simply forgotten and chucked aside, this particular genre continues to survive and thrive? Why is it that heavy metal fans are so loyal, and why do they not only carry this passion inside but also try to pass it on to the next generations? And what exactly is heaviness itself?

Franklin examines all these questions, weaving his observations and research with personal stories. He mentions that he did not have an unhappy childhood. He was not traumatised. ‘The thing is I am not an exceptional person. And that’s the point. Why are so many unexceptional people swept by the power of heaviness?’

From personal journeys (including the many concerts and gigs he has attended), Franklin veers into broader social analyses, asking whether this music has improved or impoverished our societies. ‘Heavy metal is a kind of bloodletting for the soul,’ he says. A catharsis, perhaps, a release of accumulated energy.

One of the most powerful sections in the book is when Franklin writes about Metallica’s James Hetfield, and his ‘apolitical anger’, which wanted to be universal and solid and real but not extremely politicised. Then, years later, Franklin mentions how the band’s music was used by US military interrogators during the Second Gulf War in 2003, when prisoners were subjected to the music of Metallica (as well as the children’s character Barney the Dinosaur) ‘in the hunt for information on the whereabouts of weapons of mass destruction’. Franklin quotes Sgt Mark Hadsell telling Newsweek at the time: ‘These people haven’t heard heavy metal before. They can’t take it. If you play it for 24 hours, your brains and body functions start to slide.’ In this disturbing context heavy metal becomes a means to intimidate, to weaken, to confine.

Approaching the subject from various angles, Franklin talks to academics, doctors and people in health care about their take on heavy metal and its impact on young people. He questions the genre’s relationship to religion, authority, power and sometimes racism, sexism, xenophobia. While he does not shy away from pointing out the problematic parts of the history of heavy metal, he also refrains from generalising everything in one broad brush. Heavy metal is a complex nation. As in any nation we have some bad characters, but that doesn’t mean they represent everyone.

Franklin slowly arrives at the conclusion that perhaps heavy metal is a means of acknowledging the parts of ourselves that we would rather not embrace. Thankfully, and rightly, the book does not attempt to de-mystify heavy metal as much as to re-mystify it. To offer a too clinical explanation for this fascinatingly complicated music would be to miss its essence. Only people who do not really listen to heavy metal will try to explain it in sociological terms. The rest of us are more comfortable with things that are not easy to explain in logical terms — the irrational, the raw, the heavy. The book would make a great present for the heavy metal fan in your family — the one who knows that right from the beginning this music has been, and still is, a response to the world with its darkness, uncertainty, fragility, loneliness.

Why is heavy metal still beloved? Because it is not a fashion, a trend that comes and goes, a fleeting number on the charts. You can listen to an internationally popular band and the next minute you can switch to an obscure little band within the same wavelength. Heavy metal is alive because it hits us where it hurts the most. Because it is heavy and noisy and full of contradictions, like life itself.

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