Metalheads are simply an individual species of nerd. A nerd, most simply defined, is just a person with an intense fixation on a particular aspect of culture. Being a nerd isn't a bad thing in and of itself; it just means that you are more distinctly interested in something than a casual fan is. There's all kinds of nerds out there, with obsessions ranging from model trains to Star Trek and everything in between, and the vast majority of them are perfectly cool people who don't let their nerdy fixation overwhelm who they are as an individual. Unfortunately, there's a minority of bad nerds out there who ruin things for everyone due to their own personal hang-ups and arrested development. Since most nerds discover their particular passion in their teen years, they tend to form a fairly close emotional attachment to it that sticks with them throughout their lives, either through active participation in their hobby or through simple nostalgia should they hang it up. The negative side of this, though, is that those who don't quite make it out of high school unscathed end up using their hobby as some sort of metaphorical diary for their own misery, putting all their frustrations into it and fixating on it as a lone venue of control in an otherwise uncontrollable and unsatisfying life.
Most metalheads tend to be the good nerds, but there's plenty of bad ones out there who make heavy metal obnoxious for the rest of us and unappealing to most of the world. The bad metalhead is the one who ends up forming their identity around heavy metal, becoming overly protective and defensive about it due to an overgrown sense of their role in the metal scene. They obsessively bar outsiders from entry unless they go through some sort of hazing process, denigrate other genres of music reflexively, and desperately espouse the supremacy of their personal fixation at the cost of others. A lot of metalheads go through a phase of this (and I'm no exception) that usually leaves them when they gain a bit more perspective, but others become stuck in it, relating to the world through heavy metal alone and becoming progressively more obnoxious and vehement as the years wear on and frustration steadily mounts due to being perpetually 15 years old mentally. Do you know the grotesquely obese guys who play Magic: The Gathering primarily to mock new players and assert their own superiority? Well, the bad metalheads are those guys, just in a different form.
Bad nerds tend to arise from a lack of personal identity. The human brain is pretty good at protecting itself from uncomfortable criticism, so it tends to rearrange one's perceptions in a way that are more favorable to the individual. These particular odious metalheads, devoid of any accomplishments or personal qualities to define themselves by, desperately search for an external thing to define themselves by, confusing an interest in a particular subject as the equivalent to a real identity. Heavy metal is a great option for these types: it's big, complicated, has a ton of classification and compartmentalization, and most importantly, has a community built around it. The community's important because it's a social group with different standards than a more mainstream social group, who are more tolerant of social awkwardness and obnoxious behavior, and (like most nerd social groups) are much more resistant to ostracizing a member than well-adjusted people in everyday society are. Bad nerds flock to communities like this; having failed amongst their more well-adjusted peers, the lower bar set for decorum and a premium placed on general knowledge rather than the more ephemeral aspects of social interaction form a more comfortable environment.
Of course, the bad metalheads don't stop at seeing themselves as defined solely by their taste in music: that fixation becomes a worldview which gets projected on everyone else as well. The same thing happens in most intense musical subcultures: out of resentful narcissism (almost always there to mask self-loathing,) the bad nerd begins to promote his personal genre as being the greatest in music, requiring the greatest compositional skill, presenting the most high-minded of concepts, and featuring an audience of only the most discerning and intelligent listeners. Metal has a bonus of featuring a history of minor moral panic (which most of the nerds weren't even alive for) and misperception by the public which allows the nerd to soak up the delicious juices of manufactured victimhood and oppression. Suddenly, it all becomes clear: metal is the style of music for intelligent and strong people who are mocked and disregarded by the public out of stupidity and fear. Metal is a genre by and for the elite who perceive life as it REALLY is, devoid of the fictions and irrational notions of the herd. Metal is for geniuses, warriors, philosophers, and heroes, and by listening to it, I am all those things!
The best way to identify a bad nerd isn't by looking at what they love, but what they hate, which is usually the sort of thing which reminds them of their "oppressors": the likeable, socially capable, popular people who ostracized them in the past and began the cycle of self-loathing they were never able to escape. A great example of this is among people who play video games or tabletop games: if you want to immediately pick out a loathsome gamer, all you have to do is ask their opinion on the Call of Duty series. Some will enjoy it, some won't, but the bad nerds are the ones who venomously decry it as a horrible mockery of the fine art of video games. The more vociferous the reaction, the worse they are, but you're looking for one key element in particular which removes all doubt: whether or not they direct particular anger towards the people who DO play and enjoy the games. If they begin to express a torrent of irrational hatred for the series' fans, you've struck gold and have found the very definition of the bad nerd.
Why is this? Well, for those of you who don't play video games (which probably isn't a whole lot these days,) it's because the Call of Duty series is currently the most popular video game series in the world. More importantly than that, playing Call of Duty is seen as a perfectly normal activity; while playing an obscure Japanese RPG will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows from non-gamers, enjoying a few rounds of Call of Duty with friends is common for just about every young male in the country. Most importantly of all, and the linchpin of this particular breed of nerd's anger, though, is this: Call of Duty is not seen as "nerdy," and has a following among mainstream social groups who don't typically get engrossed in video games. Call of Duty is played by jocks and frat boys who wouldn't be caught dead with a copy of Eternal Sonata, and even though they're both video games, the jocks and frat boys blowing each other away with MP5s on Xbox Live would STILL laugh at the nerd despite the general resemblance in activity. The people who ostracized the nerd and humiliated him have now followed him into what he thought was a protected community and are slowly but surely changing its social standards to match those of the mainstream world. The nerd is left feeling enraged, confused, and powerless- just like he was in high school.
Feeling some annoyance at sudden interlopers in one's community is understandable to a degree, particularly if they're attempting to impose their own cultural values on a community that already has its own standards, but was distinguishes a good or bad nerd is in their response. The good nerd will roll their eyes, mock it a bit, and then just ignore it, understanding that in all likelihood it's not a genuine threat. The bad nerd, however, goes from zero to sixty without pausing for breath; it becomes a matter of life and death rather than annoyance, because for him, it IS a matter of life or death. If the interlopers succeed in changing the culture, the nerd will have to adapt or be ostracized yet again and have to find another community which will accept him. Because of this, the nerd isn't really just fighting to preserve a community he loves: he's fighting to preserve himself, terrified by the idea of losing the identity he's spent so much time and effort in creating. This is the source of the really crazy, overblown stuff you see from any kind of nerd who has a complete breakdown: they literally can't handle the idea of change, as they were unable to handle it before.
Bad metalheads work the same way: when they feel threatened, they freak out, and much like gamers, freak out a little bit extra due to the infatuation with victimhood they've embraced. The most obvious place that this can be seen is in the absurdly overblown hatred they have for whatever pseudo-metal genre happens to be popular at the moment. There was glam, grunge, nu-metal, metalcore, deathcore, and probably something else coming around the bend right now. It's readily apparent that the nearly psychotic rage many expressed towards these ultimately harmless offshoots is hardly indicative of a well-adjusted personality. Not only are these displays dumb, embarrassing, and incredibly inappropriate, but they have the side effect of making metalheads appear to be either crazy or mentally retarded. How heavy metal is perceived by the public at large should hardly be a substantial cause for concern by the scene, but if those bizarre outliers (who rarely contribute in a real way to the community anyway) could be ejected from the scene simply so others don't have to be afflicted with their presence, the added bonus of appearing less like petty men-children can be safely considered a net plus.
It's interesting to take a look at some of the metal artists out there who provoke the most ire and the syntax used to complain about them. There's no such thing as a synonym, really; there's a specific reason behind the words that we use to express ideas, whether conscious or not, and looking at the phrasing of statements can often elucidate their meaning better than the content of the statement itself. Take, for instance, Pantera, a metal band that's widely listened to by casual metal fans who often don't consider themselves "metalheads"- what sort of complaints to we typically see leveled at them? From my experience, it tends to involve phrases like "redneck music," "tough guy," "meatheaded," "jock metal," or references to Phil Anselmo's profanity-filled lyrical style and sometimes aggressive or offensive attitude in interviews or onstage. In fact, Phil Anselmo in particular is the target of the most ire of any member of the band, oftentimes treated like an idiot or someone who's not a genuine metalhead. But Phil's proven himself very intelligent in interviews, and his discography outside of Pantera, while spotty in quality, features black and death metal records made without receiving nearly the attention of Pantera. So what's the real issue?
Peel back the layers on the weird, personal-sounding criticisms of Phil and Pantera and you'll find a pretty simple core to a lot of them: the words used to describe them are the same used by outcast teenagers simmering with resentment towards "those asshole jocks" who make fun of them for being socially awkward. Phil has a shaved head, a gruff, hardcore-style vocal presence, and writes lyrics that express simple, straightforward, blue collar aggression without the Satanic metaphors, established symbolism, or intense hyperbole that defines a lot of metal lyricism. The band's aesthetic is that of hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-living Southern outlaws, and their music is immediately comparable to an intensified and stripped down version of stuff like Van Halen- all elements which are more immediately appreciable to a mainstream audience than the more overwrought elements of most extreme metal. This isn't at all to say that disliking Pantera is an inherent sign of social failure and insecurity, but citing social or aesthetic reasons which on inspection have almost nothing to do with the music itself certainly is. If you're angry at a band for social reasons, it's time for self-examination: more often than not, it's because you're afraid or resentful of the fans for reasons that have nothing to do with the music.
Ironically, given metal's overall aesthetic and thematic nature, a lot of the shots taken at bands like Pantera or styles like nu metal tend to run along the lines of them being "tough guy music," "thuggish," or "blunt"- the words used are those which suggest an intense, straightforward display of masculine aggression. A great deal of metal involves a hypertrophied display of stereotypical masculinity, with stories about war, honor, violence, and extremity taking up a large chunk of common lyrical themes. The difference between this and the way bands like Pantera express intensely masculine themes is that most metal bands convey them in an intensely exaggerated fashion: war is catastrophic and inescapable, violence is unbelievably brutal and elaborate, and distaste for Christianity takes the form of church burning and literal Satan worship. Pantera and other "tough guy" bands, on the other hand, express these masculine themes in an immediate and real fashion: instead of threatening torture and murder, they just offer the ass-kicking of a lifetime. For the insecure nerd, this is much more immediately threatening than the obvious fantasy of most lyrics: the members of Pantera most likely could beat the living shit out of the average metalhead (myself absolutely included,) and the fact that they indirectly laugh off the inherent absurdism of metal's aesthetic tropes means that they aren't afraid of the nerd's protective symbols. Angry nerds love to study martial arts, convinced that the elegance and skill needed for the form will allow them to overcome a much more physically imposing opponent, when in reality, their first attempt to use their Jiu-Jitsu techniques on one of their football player tormentors more often than not will result in them being face-down on the pavement within seconds.
In short, these bands and styles of metal (or metal-influenced music) tend to capitalize off the intensity and aggression expressed by metal, but couch it in terms more immediately applicable to the average individual. The neurotic metal nerd needs these tropes and stylistic ideas to direct his aggression, but he also needs them to be couched in fantasy to make him feel safe. The "jock" interlopers threaten and taunt him with a confident and practiced masculinity which reminds him of the social groups he was unable to be a part of and the qualities he was unable to embody. He cries and gnashes his teeth at these bands and styles and their constituent audience because they're often the authentic realization of the fiction he's built for himself. The normal, well-adjusted metalhead sees the drama of extreme metal for what it is: a fantastic interpretation of real thoughts and feelings which, divorced from a true persona with a genuine force of will, is completely meaningless. The nerd, though, thinks that he's granted that persona and will through the music itself, and is time and time again denied the satisfaction of realizing his fantasies whenever they're confronted by reality.
Occasionally, they believe too greatly in their fiction, and this happens.
Part 2 coming soon.