In today’s society, music is everywhere. It’s in our cars, on the television, in movies, on the computer and on our phones. Needless to say, it’s a major part of the everyday American lifestyle. Since the days of Elvis Presley, there have been concerns about if the music, whether it be the content, image or the message effects society, particularly adolescents, teens and young adults. When Elvis Presley was gyrating his hips in the 50s, parents were worried that it was corrupting the youth. The same thing happened with the social revolution in the 1960s. But perhaps the most criticized type of music of all time is Rock and Roll, first popping up in the 1950s and exploding in popularity in the 1960s. With bands focusing on the new sound of the electric guitar, along with a bass guitar and drums, the genre began to gain steady airtime. As with most genres of music, it continued to evolve and create new types of music. And in the 1960s, kick started by bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, Heavy Metal was born.
Heavy Metal, also known as just Metal music, grew from its roots in blues and psychedelic rock, creating a heavier, thicker sound with distortion, longer guitar solos, catchy beats and riffs, and general loudness. Metal music as we know it today largely evolved from two British metal pioneers, Judas Priest and Motörhead. Rob Halford and Judas Priest shed the blues influence while Lemmy Kilmister and Motörhead introduced a punk rock sound and an increased emphasis on speed. From that point on, the genre continued to rise in popularity and evolve into several sub-genres, such as Mötley Crüe with glam metal and Metallica with thrash metal. But ever since it’s increase in popularity, there has not been another form of media, entertainment or music that has been more criticized than heavy metal music. There have been claims that it promotes Satanism, violence, drug abuse, promiscuity and more. Heavy metal has been blamed for motivating mass murderers to commit their heinous crimes. It’s been blamed for promoting violence and aggression, as well as leading to depression and suicide in teens. While there may be some metal music with an aggressive nature and content, the genre as a whole is largely misunderstood. There are plenty of metal bands with deep and meaningful lyrics, tackling important subjects like politics, bullying and depression and more. So while it the screaming lyrics and sometimes violent imagery may fuel preconceptions about heavy metal music, the appearance doesn’t necessarily match the reality.
When people voice concern about heavy metal music, the main concern is about the content, which can sometimes contain violent lyrics and imagery, discuss things like Satanism, and other topics that you wouldn’t want to present to a teen or child, especially since they’re in an impressionable stage. For example, Marilyn Manson, a famous and controversial metal musician in the 1990s, was forced into hiding for about a year after being blamed for motivating the shooters during the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 (Faulkner, Sink Within Myself). Manson has been long criticized for his use of violence and sexual themes in his songs, such as “The Reflecting God” with the following lyrics: “Who said date rape isn’t kind / the housewife I will beat / I slit my teenage wrist / each thing I show you is a piece of my death / shoot shoot shoot m****rf****r/ no salvation / no forgiveness / this is beyond your experience/ forgiveness” (Antichrist Superstar, Manson 1994). Lyrics such as these are said to trigger violent tendencies in teenagers who listen to it regularly. John F. Mast and Francis T. McAndrew of Knox College conducted a study testing the effect of violent lyrics in metal music on male students. One experimental group listened to heavy metal music judged to have violent lyrics, one group listened to heavy metal music judged to be without violent lyrics, and one group that sat in silence while waiting for the next part of the experiment. Each subject was given a sample of water and a bottle of hot sauce, and asked to prepare a sample for the next subject, which wasn’t actually used for them. The study found that the experimental group that was exposed to violent lyrics used significantly more hot sauce than the other two groups (Mast, McAndrew 2011). Those results would suggest that increased aggression can be linked to violent lyrics in metal music. In regards to adolescents and behavior, a study done in 1995 showed that heavy metal fans report more conflict with teachers and other authority figures, as well as perform worse academically than those whose musical taste falls more in the mainstream category (Roberts, Christensen, Gentile 160). Violent lyrics in metal music may promote aggressive behavior in adolescents who listen to it.
Another concern is focused on the visuals associated with it, particularly in music videos. One of the four pioneers of thrash metal, Slayer, has been often criticized for their violent and anti-religious themes. In their latest music video for the song “Repentless,” The music video depicts a jail riot, with prisoners killing each other and the security guards. Parents and experts worry that the music videos may desensitize teens to the violence and sexual content shown on screen. If someone’s favorite band is glorifying tobacco and drug use, or violence or promiscuity, then they may be more likely to repeat those acts. Also in one study, eliminating access to MTV in a locked treatment facility decreased the frequency of violent acts amongst the teenagers and young adults (RE9144). The depictions and visuals of these bands and their music on stage, and more importantly, in the music videos, misrepresents the violence to adolescents.
When taking a look at more studies of heavy metal music, violent and aggressive may not be the right adjective to describe it. A study conducted by two psychologist from Columbia University and the University of California analyzed 551 college students and found that “heavy metal listeners had significantly higher anxiety compared with non-heavy metal listeners. The heavy metal group also was significantly higher on depression” (Jacobs). And unlike other, older studies, they found that “the two groups did not reliably differ on trait anger.” Many of the popular claims about heavy metal music are that it leads to anxiety and depression. What’s more likely is that people who are depressed and anxious gravitate towards that kind of music. A study done by Leah Sharman of the University of Queensland found that people use music to match their mood (Watson). People will use a sad song to match their sadness, or fully experience that emotion. In the study, participants spent 16 minutes in ‘anger induction,’ where they were asked to describe personal issues, like relationship and financial problems. After that they listened to 10 minutes of music of their choice followed by 10 minutes of silence. Half of the participants chose songs that had themes of anger or aggression while the remainder chose songs about isolation and sadness (Watson). So teens who are feeling depressed or rebellious will gravitate towards music with that theme, which tends to be metal music. This is called the “primacy of affect,” where music is used to maintain or amplify certain moods (Roberts, Christensen, Gentile 165). While this may not be the best coping method, it’s a reason why there are higher rates of teen metal fans who are depressed or anxious. Metal music doesn’t cause these symptoms, it just represents those topics well.
Metal music, particularly the communities that surround the music itself, also have positive effects on people, both in their mood, behavior and other areas. While there is more depression and anxiety in metal fans, it’s not a majority of the fans by any means. The percentage of fans in a 2009 study was low, and very few were judged to have severe cases (Faulkner, Sink Within Myself). On top of that, research findings indicate that the sense of belonging that comes with being part of the community, affectionately called metalheads, can alleviate depression symptoms. Listening to metal music places them in a peer group, and adolescents find those similarities as an affirmation of a collective identity, forming an “outcast community of belonging” (Faulkner, Sink Within Myself). Alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety isn’t the only thing that metal music does. While earlier studies showed that listening to heavy metal music raises aggression, newer tests reveal the exact opposite. Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia conducted an experiment involving 39 regular listeners of heavy metal, particularly “extreme metal” music. After undergoing the anger induction, they found out that the subjects, all of which chose to listen to extreme, aggressive metal music, were just as calm as those who sat in silence, concluding the fact that “extreme music matches and helps to process anger” (Kaye). Another 2013 study conducted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem backs this theory up. People that chose to be angry, perhaps matching their mood with aggressive music, showed a greater sense of well-being than those that decided to hide their feelings (Visser). Participants also described using metal music as a way to enhance their happiness and their well-being (Sharman and Dingle). Another study measuring physiological effects of heavy metal music, specifically “Fear of the Dark” by Iron Maiden, measured the heart rates and diastolic blood pressure before and after listening to the heavy metal. Just like the base subjects, who listened to classical music, there was not a significant increase in either heart rate or blood pressure (Kalinowska, Kulakowska, Kulak, Okurowska-Zawada 19). Despite claims of the terrible effects of metal music, studies show that it can actually be quite calming and a method of enhancing and processing emotion.
There are a lot of misconceptions and inaccuracies about metal music that lead to negative stereotypes and even fear of heavy metal music. From a personal experience, many people who are unfamiliar with the genre seem to think that it’s nothing but screaming, it’s all about violence and the devil, and the listeners, as well as the musicians, are typically outcasts and unintelligent people. None of those stereotypes are actually true. While many of the lyrics are harsher sounding, there is a lot of meaning in a lot of these tracks. Las Vegas metal outfit Five Finger Death Punch are known for putting a lot of meaning into their songs. The song “Coming Down” was made in an effort to prevent suicide among youth. The lyrics tackle the problems and emotions felt by people going through depression; “I could never be / what you want me to / you pull me under to save yourself / you will never see / what’s inside of me (American Capitalist, Five Finger Death Punch, 2011). The music video depicts what one friend’s actions can do, and it closes with the message, “ONE FRIEND CAN SAVE A LIFE,” as well as the number to the National Suicide Prevention hotline. Lamb of God’s 2004 album Ashes of the Wake is a criticism of the war in Iraq, with songs such as “Now You’ve Got Something to Die For,” “One Gun” and “The Faded Line.” The title track even includes clips of an interview with a marine after his return from the Iraq War (Ashes of the Wake, Lamb of God 2004). “Breaking the Habit” by Linkin Park discusses the struggles of drug addiction and breaking free from the metaphorical chains that constrains people. Metal music often tackles serious issues, has real meaning, and it’s sung by intelligent people trying to get a message across.
A lot of criticism is aimed at “black metal” or “doom metal” bands, as well as other metal bands that reference the devil or use Satan as a central theme. The band Slayer has been long criticized for their imagery as well as their anti-religious themes and lyrics. In an interview, the lead singer Tom Araya opens up about the fact that he is actually a Catholic, and how the he balances his religion with his songs (T. Pasbani, personal communication 2012). Another band with Satanic themes is the Swedish doom metal band, Ghost. The lead singer dresses up as what can be described as a demonic anti-pope, and the band regularly includes themes of Satan and religion in their songs. However, in an interview with Loudwire, he talked about how a lot of the song are a criticism of the way the church runs, and that he too is religious (G. Hartmann, personal communication 2015). It’s like actors in a movie. Someone who plays a Nazi general in a movie isn’t anti-Semitic, and the film is not promoting Nazi values. Many of these black metal bands are actually religious, and they aren’t promoting satanic values. On top of that, there are many types of metal who’s lyrics are full of positive messages and themes. Christian metal is a very popular genre, typically performed by Christians with a positive religious take on topics and lyrics. For Today is a band that promotes Christianity and positivity in their lyrics; “Call me a fool for this stand / but I would die for that man / My King is alive! / My King is alive!” (Immortal, For Today 2012). The general stereotype of the fans and musicians of the genre are that they are violent outcasts. However, a psychologist at the University of Westmister conducted a study and found out that heavy metal fans and classical music fans have the same psychological profile. It makes sense too, because bands like Bathory heavily base their music off of classical compositions. Despite the negative depiction of the genre and its fans, heavy metal music is incredibly complex and full of intelligent and well-rounded individuals.
Since its inception, heavy metal has been one of the most criticized forms of media or music. The imagery and content were enough to worry parents and experts whether the music would have a negative influence on adolescents. While the culture around the music does contain aggressive styles of music and activities like mosh pits, the impact of the music is not necessarily negative. Like with anything, parents can exercise caution with the content, especially visuals, but there shouldn’t be worry over the content or effect on adolescents, or that the music causes depression. The heavy metal community is full of excellent people, song lyrics and messages, and the music can even be calming and positive for the human psyche.
Kaye, Ben. “New Study Concludes Punk and Metal Music Actually Calms You down.” Consequence of Sound. 24 June 2015. Web. 2 Feb. 2016.
Gentile, Douglas A., Donald F. Roberts, and Peter G. Christensen. Media Violence and Children: A Complete Guide for Parents and Professionals. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. Print.
Watson, Matt. “Heavy Metal Combats Depression, Anger: Study.” ABC News. 25 June 2015. Web. 03 Feb. 2016.
“Impact of music lyrics and music videos on children and youth (RE9144).” Pediatrics Dec. 1966: 1219+. Health Reference Center Academic. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.
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Kalinowska, Anna, Alina Kułakowska, Wojciech Kułak, and Bożena Okurowska-Zawada. “Effects of Classical and Heavy Metal Music on the Cardiovascular System.” Department of Neurology, Medical University of Białystok, Poland 22 (2013): 17-22. Web. 2 Feb. 2016.
Pasbani, Robert. “SLAYER’s Tom Araya Hates Touring; Opens Up About How He Balances His Christianity/Lyric Themes.” Metal Injection. 2012
Hartmann, Graham. “Ghost: Inside the Satanic Cult Concept.” Loudwire. 2015.
Five Finger Death Punch. Coming Down. By Ivan Moody, Zoltan Bathory, Jason Hook, Jeremy Spencer and Kevin Churko. American Capitalist. 2011
Lamb of God. Ashes of the Wake. Machine Records. 2004.
For Today. My Confession. By Mattie Montgomery. Immortal. Razor & Tie Records. 2012.
Jacobs, Tom. “Anxiety, Depression High Among Young Heavy Metal Fans.” Pacific Standard. 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 02. Feb. 2016.