Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Natalie J Purcell, part of the Studies in Heavy Metal Music & Culture series.
It is not clear to me why I received this 2003 book as a reviewer copy in 2012, other than that I requested it when it was offered (May 2012). Is it possible that the author’s 2012 book from Routledge (Violence and the Pornographic Imaginary) occasioned some sort of rerelease or even reprint by McFarland? In any case, this book’s quite evident effort to be up-to-date is now nearly a decade stale, and the political conflicts that it seeks to address — centered on the PMRC and Congressional culture scolds of the turn-of-the-millennium — have receded well into the background today.
Author Purcell was apparently quite young when she wrote this book, which collects and reflects on research that she undertook as a political science student at Seton Hall University. Unfortunately, one effect of her immaturity as a writer appears to have been an overextension of her vocabulary. This book badly needed a proofreader to set Purcell straight when she used devious for deviant, propound for propose, attained for obtained, reactionary for reactive, reputed for reputable, ascribe for subscribe, emasculated for masculinized, evasive for invasive, etc. She also has some dismaying errors of incidental fact, such as characterizing H.P. Lovecraft as a “nineteenth-century author” (40).
Despite some self-criticism regarding her survey methods and the limitations of her study population sample, there’s little methodological reflection here. The methods used are predominantly sociological, but Purcell prudently cautions the reader that the small sample size and ad hoc collection methods limit the generalizations that can be drawn from her own conclusions. Some awareness of latter-day anthropological observation techniques would have been useful to her in this project. What she is most concerned to establish, and for which her method is adequate, is valid doubt of existing generalizations offered by politicians and critics whose own study of the subculture was unquestionably less thorough.
I appreciated the assortment of pictures in the book, showing musicians and fans. The extensive comparison of death metal with horror cinema in the final chapter was a useful and effective choice. But I would also have been interested in more substantial comparisons with other musical subcultures; Purcell offers only the briefest nods to rap and country music as possible comparanda. She claims believably to have exhausted existing literature on death metal only in the political science field. There were certainly relevant works of music criticism and cultural studies that she overlooked, such as Robert Walser’s Running with the Devil (1993).
Still, I found the read fairly enjoyable. In an epilogue “Personal Reflections on Death Metal,” Purcell opens herself to the charge of being an apologist for the subculture, by confessing her sympathy for it, developed during the course of her study, but germinally having inspired the research in the first place. I find such “reflexivity” in scholarship to be praiseworthy. And, quibbles aside, I tend to agree with her conclusions, from my own anecdotally-formed perspective.