American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Performed Identities: Heavy Metal Musicians Between 1984 and 1991

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Popular Culture

First Advisor

Jeffrey Brown


Between 1984 and 1991, heavy metal became one of the most publicly popular and commercially successful rock music subgenres. The focus of this dissertation is to explore the following research questions: How did the subculture of heavy metal music between 1984 and 1991 evolve and what meanings can be derived from this ongoing process? How did the contextual circumstances surrounding heavy metal music during this period impact the performative choices exhibited by artists, and from a position of retrospection, what lasting significance does this particular era of heavy metal merit today? A textual analysis of metal related materials fostered the development of themes relating to the selective choices made and performances enacted by metal artists. These themes were then considered in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and age constructions as well as the ongoing negotiations of the metal artist within multiple performative realms.

Occurring at the juncture of art and commerce, heavy metal music is a purposeful construction. Metal musicians made performative choices for serving particular aims, be it fame, wealth, or art. These same individuals worked within a greater system of influence. Metal bands were the contracted employees of record labels whose own corporate aims needed to be recognized. To attain publicity and promotion, bands need to acquiesce to the wishes of assorted media entities like radio or television. Functioning within a subcultural genre, the band must also account for maintaining the normative practices deemed mandatory for subcultural membership while being mindful of the preferences for those consuming their performance, their audience. In other words, the musicians must adapt their performance to balance the demands of critics, peers, and a purchasing public in such a way as to appear innovative and authentic while retaining ties to a normative subcultural standard. It is at the nexus of these factors that metal performativity is being explored. Ultimately, the shift from subcultural distinction to mainstream commercialization illustrates metal's lasting legacy as a popular cultural entity effective in reestablishing larger mass-cultural hegemonies.