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Metalhead is a popular term for a devoted fan of heavy metal music and is often used interchangeably with the term “headbanger”. Headbanger is the older term, dating back to 1968 when it was coined to describe a group of fans violently banging their heads against a crowd barrier at a Led Zeppelin concert. Since the early 1990s however, the use of the term has declined in favour of the more fashionable “metalhead” tag, which is possibly an America invention with an etymology similar to the likes of words such as “pothead”, where the individual’s immersion in a chosen subculture becomes a defining factor in one’s lifestyle. The term “headbanger” maintains popular usage in Continental Europe, where the more traditional forms of metal music remain very much in style and where American terminology is often incorporated into the local vernacular at a slower rate than elsewhere.

There is one school of thought among the heavy metal subculture that the “metalhead” and “headbanger” labels represent distinctive groups within it, with metalhead being a generic term for metal fans as a whole and headbangers representing older fans or fans of older metal styles. This idea does have some merit as older heavy metal fans often dress in a distinctively ‘retro’ fashion from younger fans, favour different or more traditional bands and eschew some aspects of the culture that have developed in recent years. Nevertheless, both groups share common interests that go beyond a preferred musical style and together comprise a distinctive counterculture.



Main article: heavy metal fashion

Apart from the music itself, the most distinctive aspect of metalhead culture is its fashion. Like the music at its cultural core, these fashions have experienced levels of change and diversity over the decades. The evolution of metalhead fashion has in fact been quite pronounced, from a style that could almost be defined as a uniform in earlier times to a far more broadminded look recently. Some aspects of this fashion have spawned a backlash that seems to be renewing an interest in older trends among some members of the sub-culture.

Typically, the heavy metal fashions of the late 1970s – 1980s comprised blue jeans or drill pants, motorcycle boots or hi-top sneakers and black t-shirts, traditionally augmented with a sleeve-less jacket of denim or leather emblazoned with woven patches and button pins from heavy metal artists. Like in other cultural groups, this jacket was often seen as the individual’s defining symbol within the sub-culture. The intricacy of decoration could be seen as both a reflection of one’s dedication to the genre as well as one’s status within the group. This outfit could also be supplemented by jewellery and accessories that included studded leather wrist- and arm-bands, bullet belts, chains and even rings depicting skulls and other death- and horror-inspired designs. The metalheads of this era generally wore their hair quite long, with lengths beyond the shoulder being not uncommon. The relatively small number of female metal devotees of the era were generally discouraged from dressing in a similar fashion as traditionally this costume was reserved almost exclusively for males; indeed it wasn’t that unusual for female metalheads to adopt dress similar to that of Goths or punks.

By the early 1990s, metalhead fashion changed direction somewhat. This seems to correspond with the rise of the more diverse and even more extreme forms of heavy metal around the same time. Death metal, black metal and grindcore began to dominate the culture as the more traditional forms of metal wavered under the influence of the grunge movement and metalhead fashion reflected this shift. As heavy metal music itself diversified and branched out, so did the fashions associated with it. A growing influence from Goth and industrial music and hardcore punk became increasingly evident. Black jeans and army fatigue pants began to replace the more traditional blue jeans and the patch-clad “battle jackets” were pushed aside in favour of long-sleeve t-shirts and military-style coats. The jewellery and accessories of the previous era also became less prominent but were by no means forgotten.

While long hair had been a defining aspect of metal culture in the 70s and 80s, by the 90s shorter hairstyles and even completely shaven heads had begun to grow in popularity and acceptance. An increasing Nationalist-Socialist influence among some pockets of the heavy metal subculture was probably partly responsible for this but there were certainly many bands and artists of no clear political or philosophical persuasion that were choosing to either wear shorter hair or none at all. Certainly influential acts such as Metallica and individual artists like Kerry King of Slayer and Phil Anselmo of Pantera either cut their hair short or shaved it completely, and the new singers of both Iron Maiden and Judas Priest adopted far shorter hair than had once been seen as acceptable among metalheads, although in Judas Priest’s case former vocalist Rob Halford had worn closely-cropped hair since at least the late 1970s. In a strange contrast to the shorter length of head hair, it could be argued that beards and facial hair rose in popularity among metalheads in the 90s. Whereas the metalhead of the late 70s and early 80s had a tendency to eschew facial hair except for the occasional moustache, during the 90s beards, most particularly goatees, became rather fashionable.

Socio-economic background and traditions

Metalheads are typically drawn from the working classes and in Europe and North America are almost exclusively white, although metalheads of other socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds are not completely unheard-of. Indeed, heavy metal music has an almost worldwide following and metalheads can be found in virtually every country in the world with the exception of most of Africa, where only South Africa has a really notable scene. Wherever a metalhead sub-culture appears, it is usually founded in the poorer working class areas of major towns and cities. Members are often disaffected youth, very often unemployed or employed in menial or labour-intensive occupations and often have very little outside interests beyond heavy metal music itself. Themes and messages vary by genre or band. Some bands, particularly thrash acts, have addressed social issues in their music, while other bands are devoted to fantasy subjects, historical themes and cartoon-style violence. One of metal music’s key defining aspects is that of complete escapism, while another key defining aspect is social criticism, so metalhead culture is geared towards these philosophies. Many black metal bands espouse philosophies that can be considered extremely right-wing or even neo-fascist in nature and a high degree of socialist rhetoric can be found in the music of some grindcore bands, Despite the social involvement of many heavy metal bands, metalheads are often portrayed as unintelligent. Even though they are sterotypically portrayed in films such as Airheads (1994), This is Spinal Tap (1984), Wayne’s World and, perhaps most infamously, in the MTV cartoon series Beavis and Butthead, this level of escapism should not suggest that metalheads are any less intelligent or distanced from the real world as any other sub-culture, although their often shabby appearance and level of indifference to outside influences can be mistaken for dim-witted ignorance. Further examination of the metalhead as a humourous stereotype can be found in the 1986 documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot. The 2005 documentary Metalhead: A Headbanger’s Journey and the 1999 film Detroit Rock City are somewhat more kindly and generous depictions of heavy metal and the metalhead sub-culture.

Metalheads in general have little respect for organised religion. Indeed, this facet of the culture is one of its principle elements, as bands, artists and fans across the spectrum have often been united in their scorn of religious belief and practises. Religious iconography is quite prominent in metalhead culture, but usually in a blasphemous fashion, with crucifixes and other holy objects often depicted inverted or otherwise debased. One infamous album by the Swedish black metal band Marduk features cover art showing a nun masturbating with the Holy Cross. The level of disrespect for Christian belief in particular among metalheads often leads to accusations of widespread Satanism among its members. Yet while Satanic imagery plays a significant role in metalhead culture, very little Satanism is actually practised and the rejection of organised religion can be so strong that even Satanism itself (and pagan and Wiccan beliefs) is decried by some within it. However, it is also not uncommon for heavy metal musicians to follow organised religion without necessarily addressing their personal religious beliefs in their music, often paradoxically with the expectations of their fanbase. Alice Cooper, Dave Mustaine and Dave Ellefson of Megadeth, Dan Spitz of Anthrax, Max Cavalera of Soulfly, Nicko McBrain of Iron Maiden, wrestler-cum-metal singer Chris Jericho and guitarist Marty Friedman are all avowed Christians.

In what may seem a further paradox, there is also a healthy Christian metalhead culture. This sub-culture within a sub-culture is often derided and criticised by the majority of metalheads, but in almost every other characteristic it is identical except in its respect for the Church.

In the early 2000s, metal heads began to be known as Moshers due to the type of dance metalheads adopted (moshing). Mosher is a term more commonly assoiciated with newer styles of metal such as Metalcore and Nu Metal. These moshers tended to wear baggier jeans which would come over the feet and often trail behind them and rip. The jeans would normally have a chain attached to a hitcher at the front of the jeans and would wrap around to the back of the jeans. They would normally be held up by studded belts. Black T-shirts were often worn with emblems of their favorite bands or other motifs such as flames, skulls and other various images. Shirts could be worn also over a t-shirt being open to show the motif. Hoodies were worn by most metal heads and would either be plain black, or another dark colour and even sometimes red, or would be emblazoned with the logo of a popular metal band. Big chunky shoes such as Vans were worn and became known as fat shoes due to their size. Piercings were common and would normally be the bottom lip or between the lip and the chin.


Whereas most subcultures exhibit some form of rhythmic dancing into their behaviour, among metalheads it is almost completely absent. In place of dancing as it is usually defined, metalheads are more likely to indulge in headbanging, where the head is vigourously shaken up and down (or “windmilled” in a circular motion) while the lower body remains still. Headbanging usually also involves “air guitar”, where hand movements replicate frantic guitar-playing. Both the head and hand movements can follow the beat of the music, but often do not and can appear to an observer as random spastic upper body movement with no correlation to any sense of rhythm. During the early 80s with the rise of thrash metal, elements of the hardcore punk culture began to be incorporated into metalhead lifestyle, some of the more prominent aspects of which included slamdancing and moshing, where fans would form rings in the crowd within which they would run into each other and/or violently push and shove one another, and stage-diving, where fans would climb onto the stage with the band and launch themselves into the crowd. Later, crowd-surfing, where individuals are lifted and carried forward over the heads of others in the audience, also became popular. While these behaviours were generally restricted to the punk and metalhead cultures during the 1980s, by the early 90s moshing, stage-diving and crowd-surfing had spilled over to virtually all spheres of alternative rock music to the extent that by the end of that decade it could no longer be held as an identifier of any one particular music sub-culture.

Perhaps one of the most dominant features of the metalhead culture is the hand-signal formed by a fist with the pinky and index fingers extended, known variously as the “devil’s horns”, the “metal fist” and other similar descriptors. This gesture was originally popularised by singer Ronnie James Dio while a member of Black Sabbath in the 1980s and was quickly adopted into the metalhead sub-culture. “Throwing the horns” or “showing the metal fist” very soon became a way for metalheads to recognise and acknowledge each other and to show their appreciation for almost anything from a song or a band to virtually anything else they enjoyed. While the gesture still has strong ties to metal, over the last decade or so its appearance in popular mainstream films such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has caused it to be adopted into almost every youth sub-culture, often to the chagrin of metalheads who feel that its status as a sacred element of their lifestyle has been cheapened by its overuse outside the community.

Commonality among metalheads is also found in their typical interest in a range of subjects that have a particular connection with the music itself. These subjects seem to chiefly but not exclusively include horror films, science fiction, occultism, blood and gore imagery, weaponry (e.g. swords, knives, firearms etc) and militaria, fantasy (with particular attention to the work of JRR Tolkien), and Celtic and Nordic culture and mythology.

Within the culture itself, metalheads often distinguish themselves according to what genre of metal they especially enjoy. While on one hand metalheads have a tendency to consider each other part of a larger brotherhood, this desire to sub-divide into smaller groups dedicated to particular sub-genres has possibly undermined the idea of a fraternal spirit. Occasionally, there is reluctance for fans of particular sub-genres of metal to mingle with fans of other sub-genres and even some debate among fans as to whether particular sub-genres are truly representative of metal music. These debates are significantly more volatile when it comes to the classification of nu-metal, metalcore and, to some extent, grindcore, and to their relevancy as part of metalhead culture. To some metalheads, the likes of metalcore and nu-metal are low quality imitations of real heavy metal, mainstream and popularist (and therefore watered-down) versions of metal that have no real affiliation to the metal culture. On the other hand, there are others who argue that these styles have some merit as they often lead to newer fans discovering the “real” metal. It should be noted however that heavy metal music has never been afraid to court mainstream popularity. Some of the best known acts like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, and Metallica have enjoyed immense worldwide commercial success and many others like Dream Theater, Opeth and Nightwish have attracted large and dedicated followings that often include many people who don’t usually listen to heavy metal.

Recent developments

In the late 1990s, outside influences began to be infused into metalhead culture once again. The rise of nu-metal saw facets of hip-hop and ghetto culture being introduced, including the adoption of sportswear, dreadlocks and African-American slang. Unlike the adoption of earlier influences however, these new aspects were seen by some to be at odds with the traditional metalhead outlook, particularly as many metalheads consider nu-metal to be a completely different style of music with a totally different culture. The explosion in the popularity of metalcore since 2002 has also brought with it changes in fashion particularly, as fans of the genre are typically neater in appearance with shorter hair, usually dyed black, and a tendency toward favouring “label” clothing and footwear. Many of these newer fans are also seen to be associating themselves with the culture for purely fashionable reasons. As with members of the nu-metal fanbase, there is some debate as to whether these fans can be properly described as metalheads as they are traditionally recognised or if they are, as many metalheads themselves believe, a new and different sub-culture.


As mentioned above, metalheads are often keen to divide themselves into smaller subgroups with the subculture, some of which may include:

  • Black Metallers: A metalhead whose primary taste in metal is black metal. Band examples: Darkthrone, Burzum, Mayhem.
  • Death Metaller: A metalhead whose primary taste in metal is death metal. This naturally includes death metal's sub-categories: goregrind, grindcore (to an extent) etc. Band examples: Death, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse.
  • Power Metallers: A metalhead whose primary taste in metal is power metal. Band examples: Iced Earth, Hammerfall, Manowar.
  • Doom Metallers: A metalhead whose primary taste in metal is doom metal. Band examples: (early) Black Sabbath, Candlemass, Electric Wizard.
  • Thrash Metallers: Also known as 'Thrashers'. A metalhead whose primary taste in metal is thrash metal. Most "Thrash Metallers" also enjoy it's sub-genre, Death metal. Band examples: Megadeth, Metallica, Kreator, Anthrax, Slayer.
  • Trad Metallers: A metalhead whose primary taste in metal is traditional metal. Sometimes arrogantly referred to as "true metallers". Band examples: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden.
  • Folk Metallers: A metalhead whose primary taste in metal is folk metal. A strong interest in Nordic mythology is almost universal. Often enjoy listening to folk music such as Tenhi. Band examples: Finntroll, Korpiklaani, Ensiferum.
  • Viking Metallers: A metalhead whose primary taste in metal is viking metal. Often like folk metal too, are interested in Nordic mythology and the Celts. Band Examples: Moonsorrow, Amon Amarth, Falkenbach.

External Links

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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