On Scene And Identity – Outcast

This is a new series that will look at the identity and psychology behind various aspects of music fandom and listening culture. It’s more how it relates to me but will also give a general overview. It’s a bit “heavier” than most stuff but it’s still stuff I’m compelled to write about so I’ll just go with it.

An outcast is someone who is, at times, literally thrown out of society. In more common parlance, and outcast is someone who does not fit society’s norms and is looked down upon for whatever reason. It is a real and/or perceived struggle for many and has taken several different forms over the eons, depending on what society’s norms are at the given time. Being outcast can bear harsh mental and emotional scars or can be an embraced identity.

The idea of the outcast is reflected in music and certainly in the music I listen to. While rock music as a whole became very popular and was the sound of a generation, its offshoots like metal, punk and hardcore took a turn toward an adversarial side, opposed to the norms of civilization. These movements would give voice to the outcast and come to be safe havens for those repelled by typical society. Of course, this would also be embodied by other subcultures like goth, emo and others.

I was a typical kid growing up. I was in a middle class family with no wants or traumas. Many in my family before me had been the prototypical scholar-athlete kind and I was more or less left to pursue that path. I did not, for various reasons.

One of those reasons was that I didn’t get along with the others in that peer group. I didn’t “feel” like one of the pretty, successful kids in my school. I didn’t have much natural talent in sports and did not enjoy them. I didn’t like the people I was around and they didn’t like me. I’d had some incidents of being picked on or “bullied,” though in fairness it wasn’t a lot from that particular peer group. All in all it led me to finally not giving a shit about the acceptance from others I wasn’t getting.

I was still walking that line in junior high school in 1990 when I began listening to heavy metal proper. After that I abandoned the concept of being some straight A student with a full-ride scholarship to play some sport at some university, then become a used car salesman or whatever. All I cared about was the music.

And metal is the perfect home for someone who feels adrift from society. It is loud, brash, powerful and hits on themes not found in the popular music of the “normies.” It is the ideal music for someone who is or who believes they are an outcast. It was what I gravitated to in the early 1990’s and what I built my identity around. I was a sullen, quiet, disaffected teen and I was alive when listening to the heaviest music on the planet, not when interacting with kids at school.

I would not ever really fully become an outcast in the true definition of the term. I did set myself apart from society in different ways at different times, but in the end I’ve done roughly the same shit everyone else has. Work, find hobbies, even socialize with others. I didn’t separate from society and I never fully embraced it as a way of being. But I have always clung to some part of not being “like the others.”

It’s easy to say that we’re all alike, we generally want and need the same stuff. But it’s also easy to not want to be a part of things. Back in the day it was not fitting in with or wanting to be a part of the “popular” crowd in school. Today it’s not at all wanting anything to do with the vile rhetoric and division through weaponized ideology.

Heavy metal is the obvious gathering place for the outcast. It is loud, abrasive music that instantly turns so many people off in just a few seconds of listening. And any lyrical analysis will point to a variety of themes that aren’t in jive with the typical social consciousness. Many, in fact, attack that outright. Even the most mainstream and accepted of heavy metal rubs many the wrong way, and on the underground end of the spectrum there are sounds that repel far more people than they attract.

Of course, heavy metal has moved on from the “Satanic Panic” years and is far more accepted as music and a subculture than it was eons ago. And society has shifted (to a degree) to accept unconventional scenes that were once reviled. It could be that heavy metal is not the same “home to the outcast” that it once was, though I don’t think that dynamic has gone away completely.

But for me and many others it will always be a defining aspect of the music. The independent and underground scenes have a way of pulling in the people on the margins of society, whether the margins are real or perceived. The role of the outcast is embraced, often even celebrated as one rejects the given tenants of society and goes their own way. There is a home for everyone but it’s not always on the same playing field.