Life, Music

What heavy metal music has to do with Donald Trump and our nation’s disaffected working class

You might think that heavy metal music faded into irrelevancy after the big-hair 1980s. That is, if you’ve even thought about heavy metal since then! Well, I have. I’m still a fan, and I still buy the latest music from the bands I’ve liked all these years.

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That’s right: a handful of those loud, hard bands are still at it. My favorite, pioneers Iron Maiden, have been recording and touring for more than four decades now. Their sixteenth studio album arrived in 2015, and a world tour followed promptly. My old buddy Michael and I caught them in Chicago last April. I took these photos from our nosebleed seats at the United Center. This is what a sold-out show looks like.

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It’s not just the geezer bands that keep metal going — new bands have been forming, recording, and touring steadily all these years. Clearly, heavy metal isn’t dead!

But how could it possibly endure? I have a theory.

Metal is overwhelmingly a white, male music genre. When I go to a concert, the audience is easily 80% white men.

Also, metal appeals most broadly to the working class. (At least in North America. Across Europe, it enjoys surprising popularity among the wealthiest, best-educated countries. I can’t explain it, so I’ll just focus on North America.) It’s impossible to be certain of any metal concertgoer’s socioeconomic class simply by looking at them, especially since our “uniform” is faded jeans and a black metal-band T-shirt. But a fellow so clad is more likely than the average man to be working class or close to it, or to have working-class roots (like me).

I think it’s fair to characterize the working class as having roughly high-school educations, working low-status occupations, and earning below average incomes.

I think it’s risky, however, to characterize the working class’s views and ways, as any socioeconomic class contains diverse experiences and viewpoints. But I’m going to try anyway, because given my working-class roots and my involvement in a church that serves the poor and working class I think I have reasonable insight into it. I experience the working class as much more likely than higher classes to view the world in right/wrong, black/white terms. The low-status, low-wage work the working class finds limits their agency, often placing them at the mercy of their employers, their creditors, and even their government. As a result, they are likely to experience the world as stacked against them. The working class is simply more likely than higher classes to experience life as brutal and unforgiving. And working-class people generally don’t understand how the higher classes function (and vice versa), which makes it harder for them to break into higher classes even when opportunity presents itself.

It’s a life that makes one more likely to be nihilistic. If you tread water some or all of the time and daily living is this hard, then what’s the point of life?

And that’s enough to make a fellow angry. Deeply, smolderingly angry. This is where heavy metal music comes in. It’s a fabulous way to release that anger.

It’s what attracted me to the genre. I was a pretty angry fellow, deep down, in my late teens and early 20s. Nothing vented my steam like some blazing metal! Even today, a good headbang deeply presses my internal reset button. And in metal circles I meet other men for whom this is also an acceptable emotional outlet. It bonds us.

It helps a lot that metal’s favorite song subjects tend to emphasize a black-and-white, low-agency life — dystopian futures, the futility of war, the inevitability of death. Or they deal in subjects that provide fantasy relief from that life — stories of sword and sorcery, boats of personal power through might, and glory in drugs or sex or fame.

I think this is what attracts the working class more readily to Donald Trump than to Hillary Clinton. Trump is almost like a heavy metal song, with his black and white rhetoric that effectively labels the current system as dystopian, and with his direct declarations of power and mastery over perceived and real threats.

I think it reaches the same anger that draws white, working-class men to heavy metal music. White, working-class men make up a large portion of Trump’s base. That’s not to say that most of Trump’s base listens to heavy metal, but I’ll bet there’s a strong affinity between metalheads and those voting for Trump.

That’s not to say I’m falling for it, by the way. I find Trump to be horrifying.

Trump becoming President won’t magically resolve this anger. Electing Hillary doesn’t make these disaffected people go away. Our next President needs to work to create opportunities, perhaps even outright create conditions, that let working-class people move from survival mode into greater security and upward mobility. Because they’re righteously pissed, and that’s not going away on its own. If the next President ignores this, the election that follows will make this one look like a walk in the park.

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25 thoughts on “What heavy metal music has to do with Donald Trump and our nation’s disaffected working class

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    One of those influential books I’ve read this year is: “Listen, Liberal”, by Thomas Frank. He’s the author that wrote “What’s the Matter with Kansas”, during the last election. His latest is an interesting theory about how, what he refers to as the ‘real’ Franklin D. Roosevelt working class, has been virtually thrown into the arms of Trump by being abandoned by the right (of course), but also by the left (who doesn’t know what to do with them). The left’s solution to the plight of the working class is: “Hey, go to college and get a better job.” When it should be: “Hey, your boss is going to have to pay you a living wage and cut his income from 75 million to 20 million.”.All the money exists in the system, it’s just been ‘gamed’ over the years to flow to the top 10%. Frank makes a case that the constituency of the “new left” is liberal college people and the tech aristocracy, and nobody knows what to do with the “old left” i.e. high-school educated working class.

    The abandoned working class, loves the “building a wall between us and Mexico” talk, because they think it’s going to solve their problems, when in reality, it’s undoable, and most ‘real’ old time republicans don’t want to stop access to all the illegal aliens that are working in their restaurants and warehouses (at least here in Indianapolis!). As a person who lived for years in DC, I can tell you the same for foreign aid. I used to be so mad about money going to foreign countries when so much could be done at home, until I found out that most of it goes to American companies building stuff for foreign countries. Now I’m even madder!

    Anyway, this is an interesting and popular book, and I know everyone who reads this on here, has a local library that would have it! My little library (that has no money) had it! It is worth a read and a wake up call to how far we’ve gone disenfranchising working class people. I personally believe that we cannot become a country where a reasonably smart high-school grad cannot have a house-buying job (not a mansion buying job, BTW).

    As for who I vote for? I always say I vote for the party least likely to try and turn me into slave labor!

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    • I actually don’t think that things like building a wall across the Mexican border sound like solutions to anyone. I think that Trump’s strongman persona resonates with the working class, who probably generally don’t understand the nuances of how government runs and how international relations work. But more than anything else, they’re sick of the way the government hasn’t worked for them, and they want to shake it up. Trump’s their choice, because he sounds like he’ll do that. It’s the, “we have to do something different,” argument.

      As a center-leaning conservative I hope that the solution to the working class’s problems isn’t government forcing higher wages and lower executive pay. I’d rather change the incentives so that those things happen more naturally. I readily admit that I have no idea how to do that.

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      • Andy Umbo says:

        Year ago in the 90’s, I read another book from a Harvard economist (can’t remember the name now), that said back when there were share-holder groups monitoring how corporations spent their money, there was a lot of pressure not to “over-reward” executives for performance, and keep it in line, so everyone would get rewarded (including share-holders). Since the rise of mutual funds (at the dawn of the 401 (k) system in the mid-80’s), virtually very few individuals own stock, they own it as part of a mutual fund purchase. Most mutual find managers come from the same economic “class” (and schools) as people running the companies, and have very little incentive to think about penalizing their buddies for less than perfect performance other than stock price (not even dividends).

        I think what stories like this bring out is that there were operational, tho lassie-faire systems that grew in place that balanced out things better, that got super-ceded by nothing when the way systems worked started changing rapidly. Something did exist once where nothing exists today. People forget how inadvertently balanced most interactions were back in slower moving markets because of the maturation process. The unfortunate thing in the future is that we are going ot have to get used to peoples lives crashing and burning on a fairly regular basis if you don’t want government intervention.

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  2. I grew up in a world where I didn’t have much contact with the working class. The way I thought and probably most of the people I knew thought was that education was the cure for all problems. The kinds of jobs that the working class had was seen as something to rise above and not to aspire to. I thought this way until I went to work in a mostly working class town that had been hard hit in the 70’s and 80’s by the changing economy. Then I got to know a different world where getting a job that I would tend to think of as a living hell was all that some people hoped for. And I saw the anger when that hope was taken away. I remember thinking at the time that if someone could channel that anger they could have quite a political movement. I guess Trump has done that. I remember 30 years ago hearing the yearning for making things the way they used to be. I wonder what the reaction will be if Trump is elected and they find out that he isn’t able to bring back the past?

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    • I grew up working class, and what I was taught was that education was the cure for all problems. My father made darn sure that all of his children went to college. And glory be, none of his children are working class today. However, I also know people who are working class for him that good job, the kind that started to go away in the 70s and 80s, would be something to which they legitimately aspired. I wish there were something that directly replaced those kinds of jobs.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    The problem with the uneducated white working class is that first their jobs went away to foreign nations, next even those will go away to automation. Nothing Donald Trump can do will bring those jobs back. They no longer exist. And that, righfully, scares people. I myself, a highly educated computer professional, am seeing a need for me to re-train into a new tech direction to stay employed for another 15 years.

    The tech revolution has had some rather profund changes on society. It used to be the two largest industries were automobiles and movies. This put a ton of power and wealth in Detroit and Hollywood. But they both also created a lot of jobs everywhere, from car dealerships to movie theatres. In other words, lots of people benefitted. Fast forward to today, where Apple, Mircosoft, Google and others can create millions in profits and billions in revenue with a fraction of the people GM needed to do the same. And worse, it does not have a ripple-out effect into other communities. Wealth truly is concentrating.

    If it was blue collar being squeezed out, and robotics making it worse (its been happening for decades in the auto industry, but its branching out further for sure), its going to move into white collar jobs. Financial advisors to be replaced by algorithms doing asset allocation (a natural evolution from the high frequency trading), HR is already being outsourced to the cloud as we speak. And at my job in microprocessor verification we are working on data science and machine learning tools to cut our staff in half while still developing server-class level processors.

    The problem is not solved by bringing back jobs that are obsolete. And its not by keeping out foreigners who are “taking our jobs away from us” (a longer conversation would involve my talks with a plumber who replaced all the cast iron sewer pipes under our old home who told me “I can’t pay any white guy enough to do this job, seriously, they will not do it, for any wage, period. $100 an hour? They still won’t do it.”). It does involved retraining, but how the heck to pull that off? And to train in what?

    People are always talking about how progress never brought the end of the world, it adapted and the people did to. These people are not taking into account the rate of change. Cars did not immediately kill the buggy business. ATM machines did not immediately kill your local bank branch and put a teller out of business. Those changes happened slow enough that people COULD adapt. But what happens when change happens so fast that you cannot? That by the time you get re-trained that industry is already changing yet again? Will my 5 year old daughter be able to go to college, get her master’s degree (because even today a bachelor’s is not overly useful), and be able to use that knowledge for 40 working years? Or will she need to re-train at some point? And if so, how do you justify that? At that point how much is that first degree really worth if it cannot take you through a working life any more?

    Can Clinton help solve this? Unsure. Can Donald? Absolutely not. Not a chance in hades. What scares me right now is a bunch of angry people voting in a guy who absolutely cannot change this country as he says. And I’m not sure which is going to be worse: him losing and his supporters getting more angry, possibly violent. Or him winning and trying to take the country down a path going absolutely backwards in search of solutions that no longer exist.

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    • Andy Umbo says:

      Plus One for you (for bringing up the education aspect)…the second book I mentioned above also spoke about the possibility of an unemployment rate of 36% by the late 2020’s, and no jobs for the 36%, no matter how much they want to work; just no jobs. I have a studio full of under 30’s right now, who all have about 100,000 dollars in college degrees, and don’t even make 30K a year, and one of them told me at the current rate, her college won’t be paid off until she’s 52. How are they supposed to add another 40-50K onto their college debt, to be retrained for another career in a few years, and then again maybe 10 years after that? The truth is, going forward, “self-paying” for “private” retraining every 10 years is an untenable system and will result in some sort of collapse. We don’t control what colleges want to get paid, they can charge whatever they want, and we don’t control what companies want to pay, they pay whatever they want because there’s 5 people minimum for every job. You’ll spend the rest of your life living in a refrigerator box to pay for your ever increasing education!

      (and yet, everyday, I work with people that don’t seem to have the business smarts of the paperboys I worked with back in the 60’s, so what are they learning?)

      We’re trying to apply 1960’s thinking to a 21st century problem, and blaming individuals is wrong.

      I’m already talking with high-school teachers about what my department does because we’re investigating whether the right kind of high-school graduate might be just as valid for my positions as a college person, without the 100,000 dollars of education, and the constant disgruntlement over pay!

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    • Humorously, I, too, I’ve had all of the cast-iron pipes replaced underneath a house I’ve owned. It did happen to be done by a crew of white guys! But that was 15 years ago; perhaps things have changed.

      I’m scared for the same reason you are.

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  4. Michael McNeill says:

    Interesting post, Jim. I was a fan of the old heavy metal myself, back in the day. I dip in occasionally nowadays, more for nostalgia and for that moment from a few decades ago that can be brought to mind the instant a certain riff hits the ears. As for Trump vs Clinton we’re all watching with interest from over here in the UK, where of course the un-thinkable happened just a few months ago. Can it happen again, Stateside? We’ll know soon enough, either way.

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  5. DougD says:

    Nice point Jim, as you know I can’t comment on the US politics part but I can on the Metalhead part. I work for a Finnish company, that is the country with the MOST metal bands per 100,000 people. It’s quite funny to know very clean cut senior managers who are metal heads, and middle aged total metal head looking dudes who are also senior managers back at head office.

    I’m not sure why Finns have so much anger to process, possibly because it’s so dark in the winter there and they have a very stoic introverted culture. But they do love their metal.

    I’ll be the first to admit I find this rather amusing, I never could get into metal. Just not angry enough I guess…

    Anyway, your northern neighbors wish you all luck tomorrow. Stay calm everyone.

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  6. I think you’re missing a key detail in this, Jim: when you went to that Maiden show, did you have sleeves?

    On a slightly more serious note, I wonder to what degree your arguments apply to other musical subcultures. Juggalos have the socioeconomic frustration, but I’m not sure they’d be responsive to the nationalist/racist strand that’s latched onto Trump.

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    • I actually went to the Maiden show wearing a polo shirt! Let me tell you, I stood out bigtime!

      Hadn’t considered other musical subcultures. Just noticed the potential for connection in this one and explored it. Careful, don’t pull this thread too hard or the sweater might unravel!

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  7. Jim, great read! And I thought I was the only one here who grew up on Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, Priest, etc, etc. Totally agree with all you said about Mr. Trump! Funniest thing is somehow a man who lived a life of privilege resonated so greatly with the working class. And another thing I find funny is that he’s a New Yorker through and through, a true Yankee whose name is a part of the New York that I grew up in. And yet, he is like a god with the good folks in the South! :-)

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      • I totally agree with you Jim. Even now you can see a clear pattern. He’ll tell you he knows something, then say he’ll let everyone know in a day or two and you never hear from him again. So far it hasn’t worn thin with his supporters, but if this keeps up I can’t imagine people liking this for long!

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  8. peggy says:

    Thank you for an enlightening post and intelligent discussion. I’ve been reading commentary and opinion from across the political spectrum since early last year and I have to say, this entire post is one of the most informative pieces I’ve read.

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  9. unholydarklotus says:

    I didn’t get brought up on heavy metal exactly but happily found my own way into it. I agree whole heartedly with most of what you have said. I’m a massive fan still these days. I love Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth and moved further and further into heavier music as I aged. For me, I love the raw emotion contained in the lyrical content of a lot of the music. That love can easily become belief, a mantra almost religion like. It was and still is a release of both anger and general frustration and there is a sense of togetherness and brotherhood at a gig that is hard matched elsewhere.

    You have made some very interesting points here I think. A lot of bands these days make a big point of explaining that “we” are the outsiders and that the governments and politicians (of any country) despise us and that we need to fight back.

    With politicians slating Trump, perhaps that made Trump more accessible somehow. You know, The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    Anyway, good read sir.

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