Heavy metal as controversy and counterculture


  • Titus Hjelm University College London Author
  • Keith Kahn-Harris Birkbeck College London Author
  • Mark Levine University of California, Irvine Author




heavy metal, metal culture, moral panic, transgression


Social scientific studies of metal music and culture have tended to focus on two distinct aspects of the phenomenon: Firstly, scholars have analysed the social reactions to metal music—especially in the ‘moral panics’ genre. Secondly, the creation and reproduction of different metal subcultures, or ‘scenes’, has been an increasingly popular approach. This article brings together these two aspects of scholarship by arguing that ‘controversy’ is an integral aspect of creating metal ‘countercultures’. That is, the transgressive aspects of metal make it antagonistic in different social contexts—whether or not this is the intention of scene members themselves—and the metal scene is in turn shaped by these controversies. The first part of the article presents a theoretical approach to controversies and examines the meaning of metal as ‘counterculture’ in a globalizing world. The second part discusses how the other articles in this special issue each in their own way contribute to the understanding of metal as controversy and counterculture.

Author Biographies

  • Titus Hjelm, University College London

    Titus Hjelm is Lecturer in Finnish Society and Culture at UCL. His main areas of expertise are sociology of religion, social problems, social theory, media and popular culture. His recent publications include Religion and Social Problems (Routledge, 2011) and Studying Religion and Society: Sociological Self-Portraits (ed. with Phil Zuckerman, Routledge, 2012). In addition, he has published several books in Finnish and articles in journals such as Social Compass and Journal of Contemporary Religion. He is also a member of the internationally acclaimed metal band Thunderstone.

  • Keith Kahn-Harris, Birkbeck College London

    Keith Kahn-Harris is an Honorary Research Fellow and Sessional Lecturer at Birkbeck College, London. He is the author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge (Berg, 2006) and writes the blog Metal Jew (www.metaljew.org).

  • Mark Levine, University of California, Irvine

    Mark LeVine is Professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies at University of California Irvine and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He is author and editor of several books, including Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press, 2008), Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009) and the forthcoming The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh (UC Press, 2012).









How to Cite

Hjelm, T., Kahn-Harris, K., & Levine, M. (2012). Heavy metal as controversy and counterculture. Popular Music History, 6(1-2), 5-18. https://doi.org/10.1558/pomh.v6i1/2.5