‘A cockroach preserved in amber’: The significance of class in critics’ representations of heavy metal music and its’ fans
Abstract In this paper we engage with new cultural theories of class that have identified media representations of ‘excessive’ white heterosexual working class femininity as a ‘constitutive limit’ of incorporation into dominant (middle class) modes of neo-liberal subjectivity and Bourdieu’s thesis that classificationis a form of symbolic violence that constitutes both the classifier and the classified. However, what we explore are the implications of such arguments for those modes of white heterosexual working class masculinity that continue to reproduce themselves in forms of overtly-masculinist popular culture. We do so through a critical examination of the symbolic representation of the genre of heavy metal music within contemporary music journalism. Employing a version of critical discourse analysis, we offer an analysis of representative reviews, derived from a qualitative sample of the UK music magazine, New Musical Express (1999-2008). This weekly title, historically associated with the ideals of the ‘counter culture’, now offers leadership of musical tastes in an increasingly segmented, niche-oriented marketplace. Deploying a refined model of the inscription process outlined by Skeggs, our analysis demonstrates how contemporary music criticism symbolically attaches negative attributes and forms of personhood to the working class male bodies identified with heavy metal culture and its audience, allowing dominant middle class modes of cultural authority to be inscribed within matters of musical taste and distinction.
Keywords: neo-liberal subject, classification, symbolic violence, inscription, constitutive limit, heavy metal, masculine excess
This paper sets out to show how the review and criticism of a particular popular music genre in a leading UK music magazine can tell us something about the discursive constitution of classed and gendered identities in contemporary Britain.i The genre in question is heavy metal, which has historically been identified with a white, masculine, working class heterosexual youth culture, first emergent in the Midlands and the North of the UK and in the American mid-west, in formerly industrialised heartlands (Weinstein, 2000) but now a complex, global cultural phenomenon (Wallach et al, 2011).ii Our analysis focuses on the New Musical Express (NME), once a champion of a ‘critical rock journalism’ that cohered a national music press with its ideological roots in the politics of the ‘counter culture’. Now the sole survivor of this cultural moment, the NME was the last to move to a tabloid-magazine format. It retains a wide circulation and a self-proclaimed role as the leading guide to the ‘cutting-edge’ in youth music and style (NME.com). A number of recent studies have pointed to Reality TV, tabloid, mid-market and broadsheet media, as key sites in which received ideas of class culture(s) are being reconstituted in various problematic ways (Lawler 2002; Skeggs 2004; Wood and Skeggs 2007), often via a process of ‘causality transference’ (Bromley, 2000: 51). However, relatively little attention has been paid to the cultural codification of class in popular music magazines, particularly the role of the critical review in the formation of hierarchies of taste. In such contexts, stylistic judgments can operate as markers of distinction in a youth consumer culture that is seemingly at odds with those of ‘class’ (cf. Toynbee 1993; Thornton 1995).
Theories of ‘late modernity’ and ‘risk society’ appear to announce the ‘end of class’ by pointing to a decline in the types of work and social relations around which class identities were once organised, particularly those of the working class. Some sociologists have dissented from this view, arguing instead that the processes variously identified as postmodernism, post-Fordism and globalization involve a ‘re-working rather than eradication of class’ (Savage 2003: 535; Skeggs 1997; Savage, 2000). This ‘new’ cultural class analysis, in the manner of Bourdieu’s work, suggests instead a radical reconfiguration of the symbolic relations between the middle and working classes, made possible by the virtual ‘evisceration’ of the traditional working class against which the middle class defined itself, resulting in the colonization of ‘the resulting empty social and cultural space’ (Savage 2003: 535). Savage, in particular, has argued that the decline of the working class as a central reference point in British cultural life has allowed the middle class to assume a role as the ‘particular-universal’ class, around which ‘an increasing range of practices’ that constitute the neo-liberal individualized form of subjectivity ‘are regarded as universally “normal”, “good” and “appropriate” (op cit).
This profound shift in the cultural discourse of class has been linked to evidence of the growth of the ‘new’ professional middle classes, whose institutional power base lies in the media and cultural industries. This group signify their ascendancy through the deployment of cultural capital that emphasises the importance of appearance, display and visible cultural practices in the constitution of healthy, productive and discerning consumers (Savage et al., 1992). Lawler has characterised an apparent shift from representations of the working class to representations of an underclass as ‘a feminising move’ (Lawler, 2005: 436). Skeggs, Lawler and McRobbie have all identified examples of ‘post-feminist symbolic violence’ to be found in the professional discourse of lifestyle experts that organise the framing of Reality TV and tabloid media (McRobbie, 2004). Such representations construct white working class heterosexual women, in particular, as lifestyle failures and as objects of pity and disgust, or as what Skeggs has termed the ‘constitutive limit’ of life-style excess (Skeggs, 2005: 970). This is important work, but we want to explore the implications of this reconfiguration of classed-selves for the constitution of white working class heterosexual masculinity in the context of a neo-liberal social order.
Our analysis operationalises an account of the inscription process delineated by Skeggs, derived from Bourdieu’s work on symbolic violence and the idea that acts of classification ‘classify the classifier’ (Skeggs, 1997; 2004; Bourdieu 1984). Inscription refers to the way in which value is transferred onto bodies and read off them, and the mechanisms by which value is retained, accumulated, lost or appropriated within a process of unequal symbolic exchange. Such a model, we argue, is especially useful in offering a framework for understanding the ‘symbolic economy’ of popular music criticism, because:
classifications are forms of inscription that are performative; they bring the perspective of the classifier into effect in two ways: first, to confirm the perspective of the classifier, and, second, to capture the classified within discourse (Skeggs, 2004: 15).
Our analysis acts on several levels: firstly, to refine Skeggs’ model of the inscription process and the mechanism of unequal exchange; secondly, to develop an application of the model that can generate qualitative data from a representative sample of music reviews and criticism; and finally, to interrogate the value of the inscription model as a means of exploring the constitution of the sovereign ‘particular-universal’ middle class subject, made possible via the symbolic practice of popular music criticism. Thus, we show how heavy metal music and its fans are presented as cartoon like, comic and inauthentic to the ‘male’ readers of the NME to the extent to which both bands and fans are seen to retain or preserve an allegiance to the values and practices of an un-reconstructed ‘white’ working class heterosexual masculinity, marking the ‘constitutive limit’ of heterosexist excess.