Death Metal and Music Criticism: Analysis at the Limits. Michelle
Phillipov. Lanham: Lexington, 2012. 158 pp. $60.00 cloth.
Michelle Phillipov’s study forms part of a recent wave of academic interest in heavy metal music and the cultural environment in which it thrives. While Death Metal and Music Criticism focuses on a single subgenre of the wide field of heavy metal, and actually concentrates on the musical output of only two bands, Carcass and Cannibal
Corpse, the overall argument of this slender volume is of interest to anybody working in heavy metal studies, and on popular music in general. The starting point for the analysis lies in the claim that academic interest in various types of popular music is unduly determined by how such styles can be appropriated for the politically motivated debates carried out by the academics writing about them.
For instance, Phillipov argues that the lavish attention that has been paid to punk justified itself by pointing to this style’s antiauthoritarian, democratizing, and anti-establishment elements. However, she identifies two problems with such an approach: on the one hand, such co-option of a popular art-form for a larger ideological claim risks ignoring less welcome aspects within the same genre, for instance punk’s latent fascism and sexism. And, on the other hand, weighing in more heavily in Phillipov’s mind, such an approach tends to ignore a particular genre’s non-political aspects, what she discusses as the audience’s pleasure. The problem, of course, remains of how to measure forms of recipient pleasure, in particular in the absence of empirical data; and Phillipov readily admits to taking her own individual experience as the point of departure (74).
The book clearly falls into two parts: the first section discusses the present state of pop-music studies, ranging widely over styles such as punk, rap, hip-hop, and electronic dance music. The author surveys a great amount of criticism on these sub-fields, much of which she presents as being anything but in agreement about the political motivation behind these musical traditions. This section, more than half of the book, offers a far-reaching introduction to current debates in popmusic research, with the author concentrating on the notion that to bring in politics and ideology may have placed an undue burden on this discussion. While the argument per se is not unconvincing, the discussion does not include the wider cultural studies background and theory from which this development grew. For instance, the Frankfurt 436 Book Reviews
School discourse about the culture industry or affirmative culture could have provided a larger platform for Phillipov’s argument.
The second part is entitled “The Pleasure of Death Metal.” It begins by discussing how this genre reorients listening pleasures, for instance, through particular vocal techniques or approaches to noise. The music’s gruff, throaty vocals are presented as an invitation to enjoy them “as sound” (81), freed from the limitations of verbal understanding of story developments. One may wonder how often a band can make the point that it is liberating when “comprehensible language is completely obliterated” (79), but this aural feature of death metal clearly serves as a sign of distinction from more commercial metal genres.
Generic distinction implicitly shapes Phillipov’s genre study, yet death metal is largely taken for granted. One potential problem for uninitiated readers stems from the fact that while the first 100 or so pages consist largely of more general pronouncements about death metal, it is only in the final thirty pages that the musical material is discussed in greater detail. Critics unfamiliar with this subgenre may find it difficult to develop a clear generic sense of this style because of the study’s focus on only two bands that are furthermore presented as very different from each other. So whereas Carcass’s music is presented as marked by disruption, dislocation, and a general resistance toward listeners’ expectations, Cannibal Corpse is shown to follow more predictable formal strategies. The bands’ willingness to resort to even lower tunings and higher levels of guitar distortions than found in other metal genres are merely relative markers, and claiming that death metal guitar solos stand out by “frequent string bends, whammy bar dives, and forays into chromaticism” (122) will not find uniform agreement even within the metal field, where various other sub-genres could be described in the same way. The specificity of death metal is further diluted by the fact that the importance of lyrics is first denied and later emphasized. By thus (almost unintentionally) revealing the diversity within the metal sub-genre death metal, Phillipov puts the notion of essential genres at play. Her analysis also implicitly suggests various parallels between, for instance, death metal’s willingness to disrupt conventional song formats or entertain their audience with technically demanding passages and similar features in prog-rock or nu metal bands. Phillipov’s focus on such formal properties nicely complements other research in the field, making of her volume a wonderful, if at times contentious, contribution to the
Book Reviews 437 larger debate, which indeed stands to benefit from a cautious turn to formal and generic questions, complementing the at times exclusionary focus on matters of ideology.
University of Erlangen
It Came from the 1950s!: Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties. Eds.
Darryl Jones, Elizabeth McCarthy, and Bernice M. Murphy.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 285 pp. $85.00 cloth.
The essays compiled in It Came from the 1950s!: Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties reflect on the 1950s as a vital moment in the history of popular culture, one that traces the “unconscious traumas” of a postWWII social world grappling with atomic energy, Cold War paranoia, suburban models for family life, and various forms of social repression, all of which became manifest in fiction, film, television, comic books, and advertisements in ways that belied the veneer of domestic harmony at home (7). As expected, the writers included in this book acknowledge that the 1950s represent a watershed moment in popular culture, particularly for spawning the first generation to experience a complete immersion in mass culture that included new forms of entertainment and consumerism that breached the privacy of home life. However, the essays in this collection also offer new analyses of this social history, focusing on the ways that filmmakers, writers, and consumers mitigated social and political uncertainties in recurring cultural images.