festival, music, hard

The Science of Metal

Words: Pierre-henri camy
Photography: Chris Saunders 

At Hellfest, France’s heavy metal mecca, sociologist Christophe Guibert takes a look at these supposed hellions and dispels all your (OK, “our”) myths about headbangers. 

Everyone’s got a metal fan somewhere in their circle of friends. Your bank manager might look like a mild-mannered sort of guy, but he might also spend his evenings flicking the devil-horn sign at some back-alley venue. That guy from HR? Total Slayer fanatic. If your idea of a metalhead is a dude with greasy long hair and a staggeringly diverse collection of black T-shirts, then think again. For metal fans attending the Hellfest festival in Clisson, France, assumptions about their devilish demeanor even got the tongues of local politicians wagging.  

As far as they were concerned, Hellfest was a spawning ground for Satanists bent on public-order offenses and moral dissolution. But one Hellfest devotee and heavy metal fan begged to differ. Christophe Guibert, a 40-year-old sociology lecturer at the University of Angers, dove deep into the mosh pit to study metalheads and unpack the negative stereotypes.

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THE RED BULLETIN: What prompted your study? Was it the anti-Hellfest brigade of politicians?

CHRISTOPHE GUIBERT: In 2010, there was a whole political and media commotion about Hellfest, with elected officials getting involved and taking a stand against the festival. The things they said led me to ask myself some questions. It was a reflex of trying to understand the world as a sociologist that made me start the study; I heard rhetoric, but it seemed to me that there were realities that had nothing to do with what was being said. All of a sudden I was overcome by a desire to question the festivalgoers to find out if what was being said about them was true or not. That’s why I focused on Hellfest attendees and not metal fans in general. 

How did you go about the survey?

I did two surveys of festivalgoers via a questionnaire on the Hellfest website in 2011 and 2015. I gathered the responses of 8,700 people in 2011 and then 10,400 in 2015. My sociological approach was what motivated the studies; I wanted to understand what was going on behind the scenes and break down preconceived ideas, beliefs and prejudices.

music, scream, rock and roll

© Nicko Guihal

Why do these metal clichés exist?

The less one knows about a world, the greater the tendency one has to apply one’s beliefs and prejudices to it, be they negative or positive. And wherever you have a lack of knowledge, you end up with clichés. People commenting on metal are coming, on the one hand, from a starting point of ignorance, while on the other, it is true that we’re dealing here with a musical world unlike any other. It’s music that you usually play loud. There’s the paraphernalia that goes along with it too: tattoos, long hair, the predominance of black, skulls, upside-down crucifixes … It’s a world of folklore that could make you say of headbangers — before you’d met any —“Who are these crazy people?” 

And they’re not just guys. Almost a quarter of festivalgoers were women. Historically, hard rock has been a fairly male genre, but we can see a process of feminization occurring. The fact that the festival and metal in general are now symbolically and culturally both more accepted and more acceptable means that female festivalgoers are now more willing to say and take ownership of the fact that they’ve been to Hellfest. 

So the festival’s good reputation reassures women to attend?
I couldn’t prove it scientifically or statistically, but if we’re interested in what journalists have had to say about the festival, it’s fascinating to see the way that’s changed. When it was the subject of political debate, Hellfest would be written about in the society or politics pages of the national newspapers. Now they write about it in the culture pages because it’s a musical genre that is culturally both accepted and acceptable. There’s no deviance at Hellfest. There are no murders. There’s no violence. At least, the police reports show that there are no criminal goings-on.

“There’s no deviance at Hellfest. There are no murders.”
sociologist Christophe Guibert

However, there are lots of people who stick to their preconceived ideas, like a metal fan who isn’t interested in anything but bikes and beer …

There’s one cliché that is indeed hard to do away with and that’s because beer consumption at Hellfest certainly is above average. [Laughs.] But beyond that, the surveys show that the unemployment rate amongst the festivalgoers is well below the national average. The more privileged social classes are overrepresented — that is to say people such as engineers, senior managers and entrepreneurs — and those from the less well-off social classes are underrepresented. That’s the thing that stunned me the most. 

So you mean the hard rock festivalgoer is more likely to be studious, get good grades and rise to a high position in their career?

Statistically speaking, yes. The results contradict the idea that metal festivalgoers are layabouts who have little contact with society. The perception is wrong. We’re talking about people who are well-integrated socially, are better qualified than average and who have fairly senior positions in the social sphere.

Beware, readers. Your boss could well be a hardcore death metal fan …

Exactly! As an example, France has culturally coded ways of being or behaving. It’s acceptable to listen to this type of music but not that type, to read this type of novel over that type. Metal is one of those cultural worlds that’s pretty much looked down on, so if you do listen to it, it’s something you’re automatically going to hide, probably.

christoph, music, crazy

© Chris Saunders

 So wearing a suit during the week and headbanging on the weekend are compatible. You saw how people dance at Hellfest. What was the most extreme dancing you saw?

You see the “calmer” dancing at the main stages, although sometimes there’s massive pogoing and absolutely enormous mosh pits. There isn’t any dancing on the black-metal scene. There it’s just people nodding along in time to the music. At the war-zone level where there are punk and hardcore groups, there’s quite a lot of dancing, much more pogo style.

Are there any myths you’d like to dispel about the dancing?
Even if it looks fairly masculine, there are female festivalgoers involved, too. And as soon as someone falls over in a mosh pit, everyone stops and then they get back up and start again. I wouldn’t say it’s about safeguarding the body, but when push comes to shove, the integrity of the body is respected. 

That’s a level of decorum that would be nice to see on public transit.
That said, it is very manly decorum. [Laughs.] I’ve got quite a lot of photos from those scenes that I show to my students in lectures to enlighten them, and many of them are stunned. [Laughs]

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hellfest, france, music

© Teddy Morellec 

The fact that the dancing looks violent might lead one to think that things frequently get out of hand.

On the contrary. I conducted fairly formal interviews with staff in the local tourist industry — receptionists, office staff, hoteliers — particularly in Clisson. Almost all of them without exception say that the festivalgoers are polite and respectful, both of their surroundings and of other people. Not a bunch of violent guys who smash things up.

hell fest, music, misfit

© Nicko Guihal

 And they’re not necessarily fixated on death either. Your studies show that their relationship to death — making it part of the paraphernalia — is not a celebration of it. It’s actually a disconnect from it. Is that so they can understand it better?

I don’t have the answer to that question. It’s complicated. As for whether there really are Satanists at the heart of Hellfest … maybe. But if they are there, they are a tiny minority. I think this idea of using the symbols of the Catholic religion and misrepresenting them outside of the church setting doesn’t go any further than that. I don’t think that for an overwhelming majority of the attendees there’s really any philosophical, political or religious discourse going on about the Catholic faith here. 

Some people think of heavy metal as noise, but your studies show that many people go to Hellfest as true music lovers to appreciate the bands’ talents.

When you don’t have precise knowledge about this type of music, your immediate thought might be that it’s messy, violent, has a total lack of structure and makes no musical sense. But that’s not the case. We’re dealing with very specific musical subgenres that have totally powerful and appropriate guitar, bass, vocal or drumming techniques. And people really do come to Hellfest to enjoy the musicians’ technique. It’s a fairly unique side to it. There’s a sort of cultural commitment to the music. People listen very carefully. 

And heavy metal fans don’t just listen to heavy metal …

Yes, that’s the case for a large majority of festivalgoers. The best qualified among them, the ones who do the best jobs in our society or, to put it another way, those who have significant economic and cultural capital, tend toward an eclectic taste in music. A very large section of the best qualified festivalgoers will also listen to jazz, classical or all types of music. So we’re talking about “culturally omnivorous” people. 

mosh pit, metal

© Nicko Guihal

Finally, aren’t these Hellfest headbangers a sort of perfect little society of people who are nice and passionate about culture?

The way they look at the festival — dressed in black, disguising themselves, putting on an old metal T-shirt — that erases all the social markers. Is this attendee a senior executive, a worker or unemployed? A company director who drives a luxury car? We have no idea. All of that is done away with for three days, which is part of a cultural relaxation. We’ve come to have a good time. And we’re pretty much all equal.

Discover the other side of a large metal festival in the documentary Open the Doors: Hellfest on Red Bull TV. 

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