Ambient. Alt-rock. Axé. Boogie-woogie. Chiptune. Darkcore. Enka. Filk. Grime. Hyphy. Highlife. Deep house. Dangdut. Djent. J-pop. K-pop. Pop punk. Pagode. Disco polo. Dark cabaret. Choro. Chicago blues. Chutney soca. Soukous. Shibuya-kei. Laïkó. Mento. Norteño. Sertanejo. Serialism. Minimalism. Mathcore. Grindcore. Breakbeat hardcore. Bebop. Post-bop. Vispop. Verismo. Wandelweiser. Neue Deutsche Welle. Neo-classicism. Nintendocore. Cod reggae. Rap metal. Ragtime. Trance. Two tone. Vaudeville. Wong shadow. Yé-yé. Zef.
We name musical styles. We categorize. We classify. Every one of those terms—and hundreds more like them—means something to some group: composers, musicians, listeners, dancers. Each has a story, an etymology. Sometimes it’s geographical: The Chicago blues originated on that city’s South Side; Shibuya-kei came from Tokyo’s Shibuya shopping district (and, to the annoyance of some musicians, was further promoted under that name by Shibuya record-shop owners). Sometimes it’s descriptive, or even onomatopoeic: The Indonesian style dangdut and the heavy metal offshoot djent were named in sonic imitation, the former after the sound of the tabla, the latter after its driving, palm-muted electric guitar. Sometimes the origins are whimsically absurd: Filk, a style of science-fiction-themed folk music, got its name from a typographical error.
Some origins, though, are lost in a historical fog. “Heavy metal,” for instance. For her essential 1991 study “Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture,” sociologist Deena Weinstein sifted through three possible provenances that, at the time, had become more or less traditional. One pointed to the phrase’s appearance in William S. Burroughs’s 1964 book “Nova Express.” Another traced it to the lyrical turn “heavy metal thunder” in Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit “Born to Be Wild.” A third origin story claimed to locate the first use of the term as we use it today—that is, to describe a specific genre of music—in rock critic Lester Bangs’s use of it in a 1972 article for the magazine Creem.
When Weinstein revisited the subject for what became a paper in the 2014 issue of Rock Music Studies, however, she discovered that the genesis was much more uncertain. The Bangs reference turned out to be illusory—his 1972 article never used the term. In her book, she gave the honor to Mike Saunders, another Creem critic, who dismissed the Steppenwolf reference, and insisted that “you can believe I’d never seen or read anything by Burroughs.” But, in the years after the book was published, that attribution, too, proved untenable. Weinstein finally tracked down the likely dawn: Bangs after all, but in a 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, and in a context that led her to speculate that Burroughs might have been the intended echo after all.
Beyond the detective story, Weinstein’s new research offers another insight: that the arrival of “heavy metal” was less a moment of invention than the product of a web of reference and suggestion. She gathers the strands of “heavy metal” circulating in the 1960s—from Burroughs and, by extension, the Beats; from chemistry; from references to the industrial towns that gave rise to so many metal bands—and writes, “‘Heavy metal’ had been ﬂoating around the culturescape, ready to be captured and made a name.”
Like so many other genre labels, “heavy metal” could best be described as a metaphor, one that multiple writers and influencers may have settled on at the same time. Its impressive staying power may owe something to that literary construct. In his 1971 paper “The Semantics of Metaphor,” Umberto Eco delved into the way metaphors stake out an unsettled corner of the language, and wait for the language to catch up. “The sense of this still unrecognized codification, nevertheless felt in a confused way to be necessary, confers to metaphor its memorability and exemplariness,” Eco writes. “It is the sense of availability, of a valence not yet saturated by culture.”
In this case, as so often in musical terminology, the metaphor’s possibility for countercultural defiance was vital. Weinstein points out that Bangs’s and others’ use of “heavy metal” was not exactly a compliment; when musicians and fans adopted it, it was partly to spit in the eye of mainstream disapproval. That pattern is hardly unique. Axé—which dominated Brazilian pop for a time in the ’90s, mixing the steady, heavy percussion of Salvador carnivals with poppy melodic hooks—was given its name by journalist Hagamenon Brito. The term (which literally means “life-force,” carrying implications of religious uplift) was intended as a sarcasm (the music “was a tacky thing,” Brito, a self-proclaimed rocker, recalled), but the style’s adherents adopted it anyway, choosing to take the mocking reference to its aspirations literally. At the other end of the alphabet, Zef, a genre of Afrikaans-language rap, borrowed its name from Afrikaans slang that disparaged working-class South Africans via the Ford Zephyrs that were their preferred mode of transportation. Performers turned it into a badge of honor, not unlike country music’s celebration of the term “redneck.”
Such genre names can inject their own energy back into the music. The stew of class and generational conflict, outsider status, and rebellion that fueled the vitality of heavy metal created a scene, a context for the style to develop further. A name “calls attention to how to hear the genre, what feeling is appropriate to hearing it,” Weinstein writes. “The genre’s name mediates the genre’s music to audiences, to potential creators, and to critics.”
The linguistic and musical possibilities can seem to spring up in tandem. Cultures and subcultures eagerly bud off from each other in a way echoed—or even anticipated—by the names themselves, giving rise to whole family trees of terms, sprouting in profusion. Elvis Presley entered post-World War II mass media on the hillbilly-rock portmanteau of rockabilly; rockabilly, in turn, seeded hellbilly, polkabilly, punkabilly. The hardcore punk subcategory of emo gave rise to its own extra-amplified offshoot, screamo. “Hardcore” itself has become a busy transfer point: nerdcore, crunkcore, speedcore, doomcore, grindcore. It can almost feel like the malleability of the name in some way determines the evolutionary potential of the style.
In contrast, classical musicians often resist such categorization. Debussy loathed being called an Impressionist; Philip Glass has always resisted being called a Minimalist. With good reason: classical-music history has tended to celebrate not those figures who safely exemplify a genre, but those who innovate their way out of stylistic boxes. To give a classical style a name is, in a way, to relegate it to the past.
In the more ephemeral world of popular music, to give a style a name—especially a name pregnant with metaphor—can both anchor it and launch it forward. Metaphors, by their nature, create a lineage of meaning. To adopt a genre name is to use that lineage to both claim some part of history—the history of a style, the history of a movement, the history, in some cases, of a genre’s sheer, defiant survival amid the great wash of the mainstream—and to turn it over, keep it rolling. The most vibrant genre names weave threads of meaning into an identity and an attitude. As Sammy Hagar put it in his song “Heavy Metal”: “so many contacts being made.”