Weinstein's book clearly merits five stars. It was the first sociological study of metal culture, and when it was originally published in 1991 it was responding to a major culture wars battle over the music and its influence following metal's explosion into the mainstream in the Eighties. (It was followed by another sociological study, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993), which I haven't read.) She utilizes some sociological theory (Durkheim, Simmel, Weber), and argues convincingly that "subculture" is a more applicable category than "taste public," but thankfully the book is not dense with impenetrable postmodern theory.
The book follows a strictly logical, schematic organization:
1) Studying Metal (introduction)
2) Heavy Metal (history)
3) Making the Music (the artists)
4) Digging the Music: Proud Pariahs (the metalheads)
5) Transmitting the Music (industry & media)
6) The Concert
7) Maligning the Music
8) Metal in the '90s
The last chapter was added for the 2000 revised edition, and covers the eclipse of metal by grunge, the mass popularitiy of Metallica, and the persistence of the metal subculture. This is not the book for a systematic history of the genre -- Weinstein gives a short history in Chapter 2, which is stronger on the origins of metal than its subsequent development. Her partition of the original metal into classic metal, lite/pop metal, and thrash metal is useful, if long since outdated as subgenres have proliferated.
As a sociologist, she had to cover the industry and media (Chapter 5) -- understanding the production of culture is as important as understanding the reception of culture, and in capitalist society that means understanding corporations and the music industry as well as fanzines and other non-profit media. Chapter 7 on the PMRC and the anti-metal movement is a brilliant defense of the music and the culture, and is still relevant today. She characterizes metal as Dionysian rebellion, and charges its ignorant critics of both the Right and Left with "discursive terrorism."
But what I was really interested in, and the part of the book I found the most informative and compelling, was Chapter 4. What is the nature of the metal subculture? What ties the fans together beyond the music itself? Not a metalhead myself, I am not in a position to evaluate Weinstein's analysis, but it makes sense and fits my own observations from a distance over the years. She is a participant as well as an observer of the culture, and this is no armchair analysis. She has written dozens of reviews of metal albums, for instance, which can be found on her website. Her (Simmelian) category of "The Proud Pariah" may be reductive, but it clearly captures an important part of the identity of metalheads. Her analytical history of "The Roots of the of the Metal Subculture" makes the interesting argument that metal was a selective, blue-collar continuation of the Sixties counterculture in the Seventies. She makes a case that the subculture, which began in the U.K., was/is distinctively male, white, and blue-collar. Weinstein is fully aware that that many/most metalheads from the Eighties on were/are middle class, and she argues that nonetheless there is a blue-collar ethos in the culture, one which tends to horrify middle class parents. She devotes an entire chapter to The Concert as the central ritual binding metalheads together and perpetuating the culture (thanks to Durkhem). As a sociologist, I would have liked to see more empirical data here, and fewer unsubstantiated claims, but on balance I find Weinstein to be a reliable participant/observer.
Part of what set me in search of a book like this was my realization that metal is an incredibly persistent, tenacious subculture that continues to recreate itself over 40 years after its origin. But part of my interest is driven by my own discovery of some of the music's recent permutations. I have been aware of metal all along -- I remember a high school friend who immediately gravitated to Black Sabbath's PARANOID on its release -- but I have never been as interested in the music as I am today. Bands like Neurosis, Agalloch, Isis, Pelican, Russian Circles, Mastodon, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Wolves In the Throne Room are making some of the most compelling rock music of our time. Neurosis in particular, with a powerful sense of tragic doom, speaks to the crisis of climate change in a way no other music even begins to approach. (For instance Given to the Rising - 2007 -- see my review.)
As rock fades with the aging of the Baby Boomers, and becomes just one of many music subcultures, metal keeps alive the power of the guitar chord, the intensity of rejection of the status quo, and a grim, realistic view of reality in the face of superficial cheerfulness and pop marketing.