This is an attempt to shred the asinine assumptions about heavy metal music and its young fans!
For a long time, most academic studies of heavy metal were as dark and foreboding as the songs appeared to be. With titles containing phrases like “Beyond the Realms of Death” and “Children of the Grave”, these works looked at whether being a “Metalhead” was associated with a higher likelihood of depression, suicide, violence, and a kind of adolescent aggression.
Accompanied by moral panic, many parents were taught to concentrate their anxieties over adolescence into any type of art they didn’t like or understand. And burnt into their brains was that heavy metal was entertainment for impressionable deviants.
The mainstream media has played a huge part in sensationalizing stories about troubled young people who happened to be fans of a particular unrespectable genre, although this has clearly been tinged with a kind of bias. Few columnists would write about the suicide of a teenager and draw attention to that teen’s love of Selena Gomez. That wouldn’t be a story where an easy link between taste and trouble could be drawn.
Another concern is in the logic of these sensationalized stories. Are individuals troubled because they like a certain type of music, or do they like a certain type of music because they’re troubled? If it’s the latter, then restricting access to the music isn’t helpful. If it’s the former, the scapegoating of a genre rather than psychological factors is awfully convenient.
This hasn’t just been a matter of scholars and observers shouting “Into the Void”. In the 1990s, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry advised psychiatric evaluations for young fans of heavy metal. And generally, musical preferences were considered when determining whether to hospitalize suicidal teenagers.
Fortunately those kinds of evaluations are fading into the past, and the research they were founded on has been replaced with more delicate interpretations. Evidence of direct connections between metal preferences and self-destructive tendencies has been reinterpreted as showing only indirect links, when considering a host of other factors such as family relationships. For instance, a 2009 study of “Metal Music and Mental Health in France” explains:
As a whole, metal music fans have levels of anxiety and depression that are similar to and lower than levels in the general population. Specifically 5% of heavy metal fans surveyed showed pathological symptoms. This study suggests that opponents of metal music should re-examine the basis for their criticism.
Not only is heavy metal not directly harmful to adolescent minds, as the thinking goes, it may actually be helpful. Thus, over the past two decades or so, a fascinating shift has occurred in social-psychological research on the genre.
The French paper also differentiates between metal concertgoers and their mental states in multiple ways. A particularly interesting part related to dancing preferences:
Concerning the dance rituals, the results revealed links between practicing “pogoing” [jumping up and down] or “slamming” [pushing into other dancers] and mental health. It appears that heavy metal enthusiasts who show signs of more anxiety participate in the more collective “slamming,” whereas metal music enthusiasts who show less anxiety participate in the more individual “pogoing.”
This study speculates that the dark and morbid themes beloved of metal lyricists may actually be good for listeners’ psyches. The authors suggest that reflecting on death in songs may make “Metalheads” both young and old, less prone to anxiety and depression in real life, when faced with realities others might have neglected to think about.
95% of the adolescents studied added that the lyrical content and instrumental dynamics of the heavy metal music they have come to know and love, were the most stress-reducing aspects of their lives, and gave them a sense of belonging to something truly important.
One seventeen year old boy stated “I have learned more about life and world history from Iron Maiden lyrics than from any school teacher or text book.” Another fifteen year old girl even went so far as to tell her researchers “Probe my head all you want, heavy metal saved my life!”