Heavy metal is a type of popular music that is characterized by a rough, distorted guitar sound, pounding bass and drums, and vocals that are yelled and screamed as much as sung, all of it typically played at a thunderous volume. There are many subgenres of heavy metal, including thrash metal, speed metal, power metal, and death metal, but they all share these musical characteristics. Across subgenres, violence is the most common lyrical theme, but many songs contain political content, attacking the legitimacy of a variety of social institutions such as politics, religion, and the legal system. Currently popular metal groups include Morbid Angel, Corrosion of Conformity, Cannibal Corpse, Atheist, Kreator, Overkill, and Rottweiler.
Heavy metal fans tend to be young (12 to 25 years old), white, and male, although there are exceptions. The popularity of the music spans social classes and nationalities—heavy metal is popular all over the world. For many fans, heavy metal is not just a musical preference but a central part of their identity. They call themselves “metalheads” or “headbangers” and frequently wear black concert T-shirts with the logo of a heavy metal band to display to others their allegiance to heavy metal. For them, the songs are not merely a form of entertainment but an ideology, a worldview, a way of explaining the world and their place in it.
The history of heavy metal goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s and groups such as Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath. The peak of heavy metal's popularity—and controversy—came during the 1980s, with performers such as Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Megadeth, Judas Priest, and Slayer selling millions of albums and performing in large arenas all over the world. Although heavy metal has declined slightly in popularity since then, the most popular metal groups still sell millions of albums and play in arenas around the world filled with fervently devoted fans. According to a recent Kaiser Foundation study by Donald Roberts, Ulla Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, hard rock/heavy metal is the third most popular music genre among American adolescents, after rap/hip hop, and alternative rock.
Although heavy metal has been the topic of considerable public concern and criticism, not all heavy metal is controversial. Metal is quite diverse, from “lite metal” groups such as Mötley Crüe and Kiss, which sing mostly about partying and sex, to groups such as Metallica, which address serious social issues such as war and environmental destruction, to groups such as Slayer whose themes are relentlessly violent. Controversy and criticism has focused not on the lite metal groups but on the other heavy metal groups, especially concerning issues of suicide and violence.
Is there any credible evidence that heavy metal promotes suicide or violence? Jeffrey Arnett (1996) addressed this question directly in research on heavy metal fans by asking them if they listen to the music when they are in any particular mood and if the music puts them in any particular mood. Consistently, they said they listen to the music especially when they are angry—not surprising, in view of the violent, angry quality of the music and lyrics. However, they also said consistently that the music has the effect of calming them down. Heavy metal songs have a cathartic effect on their anger; in other words, they use the music as a way of purging their anger harmlessly. The songs express their alienated view of the world and help them cope with the anger and frustration of living in a world they see as hopelessly corrupt. Because it has this cathartic effect on their anger and frustration, if anything, the music makes them less likely to commit suicide or violence than they would be if they did not have the music available to use for this purpose. This cathartic effect of heavy metal has also been demonstrated experimentally.
Of course, it remains possible that the despair and violence of the songs could act as an inspiration to suicide or violence in some extreme cases. Adolescents can respond to the same media stimulus in widely different ways. However, for the great majority of the millions of adolescent metalheads, heavy metal appears to act as a useful outlet for difficult youthful emotions.
In addition to concerns about suicide and violence, there have been concerns that heavy metal promotes alienation among adolescents and makes them more likely to engage in risky behavior. It is true that metalheads tend to have a dark view of the world. They are alienated from mainstream society; cynical about teachers, politicians, and religious leaders; and highly pessimistic about the future of the human race. Many (although certainly not all) have troubled relationships with their parents. Arnett (1992) also found higher rates of risk behavior among metalheads than among other adolescents, in areas such as high-speed driving, drug use, and vandalism.
However, there is no evidence that adolescents' alienation or risk behavior can accurately be blamed on the music. On the contrary, adolescents who are already alienated are attracted to heavy metal because it articulates their alienation. Adolescents who have high rates of risk behavior are attracted to heavy metal for the same reason they are attracted to risk behavior: Both heavy metal and risk behavior appeal to adolescents who enjoy especially novel and intense experiences—who are high in sensation seeking, in other words.
Although love for heavy metal does not appear to cause alienation or risk behavior, one more definite effect of the music is that many metalheads take up electric guitar or another musical instrument in the hope of becoming a heavy metal star. More than one third of the metalheads Arnett interviewed in his study intended to be involved in heavy metal music as a career, usually as a heavy metal star performing before large, worshipful audiences. However, this aspiration was more fantasy than reality. Although many of the metalheads Arnett interviewed had begun to play an instrument, not one of them was a member of a working metal band.
Heavy metal is an ideology, and as with most ideologies, its adherents devote considerable attention to distinguishing who is a true believer and who is not. Although lite metal bands are often grouped under the heavy metal banner by outsiders, most metalheads regard such groups with contempt, as “posers” who are falsely presenting themselves as heavy metal performers. Metalheads use words like true and real to describe the metal bands they regard as legitimate. They regard themselves as part of a vanguard distinguished by an uncompromising focus on speaking the truth about the way the world really is, ugly as this truth may be. Nonbelievers may regard heavy metal as immoral and even abhorrent, but to metalheads, heavy metal is a statement of the highest morality, a beacon of courage and honesty in an otherwise corrupt and hopeless world.
Music, Impact of Violence in, Music, Transgressive History of, Music Listening, Problem Behavior and
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