If you’re hitting up the Noctis Metal Fest this weekend and a man comes up to you to talk about your heavy metal T-shirt–don’t worry. It’s likely Dr. Matthew Donahue, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University (pictured above with Lemmy from Motorhead). The prof has made a documentary about Motorhead, and wrote his dissertation on rap music and punk music. Now, he’s turning his pop-scholarly gaze to heavy metal T-shirts. He sat down with Jon Roe prior to his panel appearance at the Noctis fest this weekend to talk heavy metal.
When did you first start studying metal?
I’ve been involved really for going back to the 1980s, frankly. First playing in bands that kind of part of the whole metal and punk-heavy-metal and punk-crossover sound. And then, in reference to my academic work, a lot of that really continued. Part of my research, my dissertation—my research looked at rap and punk-metal bands in America from ’80 to ’92 and looking at the similarities in reference to the social and political lyrical material.
More recently, my research has been heavily on Motorhead. I did a documentary on Motorhead called Motorhead Matters. It was sort of like borderline scholarly but also accessible to the public. This was through Motorhead’s record label. They had a contest, a Motorhead superfan contest, for my documentary and I was the grand prize winner of that. Even more recently, I’ve been doing research on the heavy metal T-shirt and its significance in popular culture and in heavy-metal culture.
Can you talk a bit more about your dissertation?
My dissertation looked at American Rap Music and American punk music from 1980-92. During that period, from ’80 to ’92, you started to see a lot of those crossover punk rock and heavy metal bands going down. A lot of that really goes back to Motorhead because [it] really was one of the earliest bands who crossed over punk rock and heavy metal music.
Your panel at the conference is called “The State of Heavy Metal Music Today.” You believe saying it’s coming back in popularity?
I would say so. To be brutally honest with you, frankly, you really have to credit Sam Dunn for this. His documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey did so much for heavy-metal bands, heavy-metal fans, heavy-metal culture, heavy-metal history and whole kind of documentation of all of that. Really, there hadn’t been previous—there was Decline of Western Civilization: Metal Years. … The first one dealt with punk-rock scene. Decline of Western Civilization 2 dealt with the LA Punk Rock scene. That movie kind of had a little bit to do with the resurgence.
Sam Dunn’s work has just been phenomenal, a lot of the resurgence can really be attributed to him.
Why do you feel that heavy metal music is important?
It should be noted my area interest is in a variety different genres of popular music. I look at rock and roll, rap music, reggae music, punk rock, heavy metal music. But to me heavy-metal music is equally as important and just as valid as all of these other musical styles out there. … That includes blues and jazz music. I know that may offend some of the jazz purists out there, but heavy metal is equally as important as blues, jazz, rock and roll, rap music, punk rock and so on. It’s interesting that, I would say, more recently it’s gotten the respect that it deserves. Personally for me, I attribute that to Sam Dunn’s work. I think he really helped to shed new light on the history and the culture of heavy-metal music.
Heavy metal—its never gone away in Europe. In Europe, heavy metal has always been hugely popular.
Like those Finnish death-metal bands, right?
Yeah, heavy metal has always been hugely popular in Europe. In America, despite the fact that the industry is certainly ramming rap music and electronic dance music down people’s throats, heavy metal is still there and it’s still hugely popular and it’s still important.
What first attracted you to heavy metal?
I had older brothers and I swear to God man, I’ll never forget this. I must have been in pre-school or kindergarten and I specifically remember my brothers playing Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” It was one of those moments, I don’t know if you’ve had it listening to music, when you get a chill down your spine. I still remember that. Being that young, I must’ve been like four or five years old, that’s sort of unusual. I can remember that experience very vividly.
Tell me about your work looking into heavy metal T-shirts and their pop-culture significance.
Yeah, because that’s something that’s really fascinating to me. I’m a huge T-shirt fan. Part of that really comes down to being totally into popular culture. Popular culture can really be defined as anything in our daily lives. Part of that consists of the clothing we wear. I would say, really specifically to heavy-metal culture, the heavy metal T-shirt is something more than just an item of clothing. I think there’s something there’s a deeper meaner or appreciation with regards to the heavy metal T-shirt for heavy metal fans. When fans go see a metal show, they’ll break out their heavy metal T-shirt. That is something, I think is very unique and individual to heavy metal.
If you go to say a Justin Bieber show or a Sheryl Crow or a rap show or so on, yeah, there might be some T-shirts by fan or fans wearing their favourite artist on their T-shirt. Heavy metal fans across the board are wearing their heavy metal T-shirt and they’re sporting it as basically flying their flag into battle. It’s their way to show support for the bands that they like or the bands they’re going to see. Or it might have a personal memento kind of aspect to it. I still have the first heavy metal T-shirt I bought. It was a Motorhead shirt I purchased back in the ’80s. I think the heavy metal T-shirt really speaks to something that’s distinctly part of heavy metal culture as a whole.
I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a uniform, it’s something deeper than that for the fans of the music and people going to shows. You’ll hear fans at metal shows talking about, “Oh, cool look at that T-shirt.” Or “Oh, that’s an awesome shirt.” And so on. I think there’s something that’s deeper to it.
What I’ve been doing lately is going around to the heavy-metal festivals, or some of the local metal shows, or kind of these heavy-metal happenings—record store signings and so on—and basically documenting people in their heavy metal T-shirts, talking to them about the significance of the shirt that they’re wearing. There’s a lot of interesting connections to all of that, too. You’ll see fathers and sons out at these concerts. The father has passed down his favourite Iron Maiden shirt to his son and so on. I think it goes beyond just wearing an item of clothing.
Donahue speaks at Noctis’ State of Metal panel Saturday, Sept. 29 at Ramada Calgary, 708 8th Ave. S.W.