Elitism is part of being human. There is literally no way to escape from the fact that people are constantly, perpetually looking down on others for reasons that have little practical merit while simultaneously holding themselves above others using reasons that are equally hollow. It’s the ever-pressing desire to distinguish oneself from those around them; a cry for individuality in a world where individuality is no longer possible. In a world where you have to stand well above the crowd to achieve even slight success (definitions of what success means aside), is it really that shocking that people look at art, music, food, video games, cars, clothing, possessions, obsessions, politics, philosophies, and lifestyles as ways to further their own sense of self-superiority? It’s all relative, too. Someone can think themselves as superior because they listen to Band X which is somehow artistically superior to Band Y, yet at the same time proponents of Band Y think the same about listeners of Band X. Let’s face it: it is elitist to even say that one is above elitism, as it is just another way to assert your superiority over others.
Perhaps nowhere is this superiority complex more prevalent than heavy metal. It is the embodiment of musical elitism, a place where you can be dismissed as a credible “true metal” fan for liking one band deemed so delicately as “complete shit” by the larger crowd. We’ve all seen it, and we’ve all done it. Anyone who has listened to metal has called out someone’s taste in order to fuel that warm and fuzzy feeling of douchebaggery that lingers in their gut, while at the same time being completely shattered when another denizen of the internet makes an off-color comment about their beloved one-neckbeard black metal band. And you know what? Everyone is wrong.
One argument could be that the main functional purpose of elitism in a genre such as metal is to perpetuate quality. However, black metal is a fine example of how elitism both helps and ruins quality music. With bands such as Cradle of Filth, it is no secret that their endeavors as of late have been the bane of many a black metal elitist, including yours truly, but somehow the noxious cloud of elitism has unfairly labeled the entire band as “complete shit” based only off a few recent blunders – albeit serious ones. In a way, this universal panning of their later material is criticism that sets standards for quality, but those standards for quality don’t always carry over to bands that have more “elite” characteristics to them. Bands like Burzum have produced some incredibly awful material, similar to how Cradle of Filth have produced several dreadful endeavors, yet the reputations of these bands couldn’t be more different. Dusk…and Her Embrace was an important album, as was Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, yet only the latter is still making an impact on its band’s reputation even after the band has long since forsaken the sound.
So, elitism makes good albums disappear when they are made by bands viewed by the hivemind as “terrible”, yet easily shrugs off strings of awful releases by bands which are seen as pivotal or fit certain criteria. That might be viewed as a cost of doing business, because in the grand scheme of things Hvis Lyset Tar Oss has had a larger impact on the genre than Dusk…, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that impact was for the better. I’m sure any black metal fan is familiar with the mountains of bands festering in the genre’s underground claiming Burzum as an influence, yet they can hardly even play a coherent guitar riff, let alone write one. However, these bands tend to fit into the black metal elitist’s definition of good black metal more than bands that try to break the mold and release something worthy of praise. I would rather listen to Deafheaven’s Roads to Judah than Ildjarn’s Forest Poetry, if only because the former is an expansion and release of the sound that the latter is so desperately trying to keep buried beneath the dirt covered in cliché and fuzz. That’s not to say Forest Poetry is a bad album and Roads to Judah is a classic, it’s just that one is hated for the sole reason that it doesn’t mold easily with the elitist model while the other is in quite good standing despite the fact that it is objectively the more amateur composition. Thus, it is true that elitism sets standards for quality, but it also ruins those standards by either not enforcing them or not recognizing when they are met. When quality is a law written and enforced by an elitist mindset, that law is never enforced for certain bands while others can never be in compliance with that law due to way in which it was written.
Schisms have also been created within numerous sub-genres of metal, mainly between the so-called “old school” and “new school” approaches to a given sound. Thrash and death metal, namely, fall victim to this plague, with elitists claiming how things always used to be better back in the 80’s or early 90’s. Sure, old Sadus or Exodus is great stuff, but does that mean that thrash can’t go on, can’t evolve? Same goes with death metal, with numerous claims of how the only good modern death metal bands are those that play in the old-school style. It’s a tiring argument because it is one that is aggressively against progress, even when, in the case of thrash, the genre is actively decaying due to a lack of creativity. Death metal is not quite at that point yet, but the huge prominence on the “old school” sound, especially within the more underground death metal scene, has the potential to be a curse. It is possible to effectively combine the new and the old in ways that kick-starts creativity, but with so much misguided pressure from genre elitists to stay pure and keep to their roots, it becomes a choice of whether or not a band wants to potentially alienate fans simply by changing things up a bit.
Then there is the transcendence of the 20-something year old metal elitists that scour the blogs and underground zines above certain “gateway” bands that they have long since left behind. The likes of Slipknot, Disturbed, Killswitch Engage, Avenged Sevenfold, All That Remains, Korn, and other bands that the metal elitist cherished as an angsty high school success story are now as forgotten as the JNCO jeans and wallet chains they used to don every day during freshman year. Do these bands deserve to be suddenly hated despite their importance in the musical lineage of our trve metal elitist? I think not. The surge of nu-metal in the late 90’s and the rise of metalcore in the 2000’s was a huge influence in not only my journey into underground metal but in nearly all of the scathing elitists on the internet. Precious few of them were even alive when Bathory’s self-titled debut was released in 1984, and there’s no way that a white, upper-middle class kid born in the late 80’s or early 90’s just stumbles into second-wave Norwegian black metal at age 13 and thinks “Wow, this is way better than Limp Bizkit!” So I give credit to Slipknot and Korn and their ilk for introducing so many impressionable youths to distorted guitars and screaming vocals. In fact, listening to these bands is still a great experience, and a nostalgic one at that. So why are they hated? Because they are part of a sub-genre of metal that is now passé, that is no longer cool to like despite musicianship better than your average one-man black metal band and lyrical content arguably less laughable than a lot of death metal.
That’s what it comes down to then: elitism is a hatred of certain bands or sub-genres that are outside of a person’s given norm. It’s a concept that can easily be seen in all manner of elitism, because people have a natural tendency to ostracize what is different in order to make themselves feel more secure and more empowered. So am I here saying that I am above all elitism? Absolutely not. If anything, I’m an elitist asshole myself, and that’s just part of being not only a metal fan, not only a music fan, but a human being. Those who are metal elitists, those who denounce elitism – we’re all just the same, we’re all trying to make ourselves feel different and feel like we actually have something that defines ourselves as unique. So let’s not dwell on it for 1500 words like I have thus far. Let’s instead listen to what we like, what makes us happy, and what makes us headbang, regardless of whether it’s a cool band or an influential artist. If you like a band, then it’s a good band, regardless of how many naysayers are crying the contrary. I can guarantee that behind each and every metal elitist is a liar; someone who secretly loves to jam Cradle of Filth and rocks out in the car to “People=Shit” or still owns their tattered Atreyu t-shirt or keeps their Limp Bizkit CDs next to their Immolation albums or likes the direction Deafheaven have taken black metal. Who are we to judge? We’re all doing it too. It’s funny, then, that despite our ridiculous attempts to assert our dominance over others each and every one of us are really the same.