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In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a new form of rock music began emerging. It was distinctively different from hard rock and largely demanded the attention of adolescents. It was hard, thrashy, extremely fast, and the lyrics usually related to something that reflected a dark mood, and a sense of anomie. This new phenomenon came to be called heavy metal(often referred to as just metal). The use of the electric guitar with its amplified and distorted sound created loud thumping and pounding music. The hard thrash of the drums in the background and the vocalist’s deep voice was what made heavy metal so different from any other genre. Likewise, the people who listened to this kind of music were also different than average rock listener, always characterized by their “radical individualism,” (Arnett). Most avid “metalheads,” or “headbangers,” shared a sense of alienation and recklessness in their lives, and this is what made heavy metal such a great sound to them. This is also what has created such great critics of the music, yet these self-sufficient youths or older adults feel the right to do as they please in their lives, and they are targeted for it.

To better understand the effects of heavy metal on listeners and the reason why people listen to heavy metal, one must understand the roots of heavy metal. The gradual change of heavy metal into a whole genre in itself was slow and still very unclear among the general population.

The roots can be tracked to the late 60’s and early 70’s when a feeling of lost control and low order and stability plagued the nation. Demonstrations and backlash against authority was very prevalent, and one way to do that was with the use of rock music. The first of its kind was “Acid Rock,” performed by artists like Jimi Hendrix; this music was a vocal and musical representation of what it was like to experience an acid (LSD) trip, “a musical depiction of what it is like to experience the effects of the hallucinogenic drug LSD,” (Arnett, 42). Acid Rock songs included all components of rock songs such as bass guitars, drums, and deeply voiced vocals but harder than usual rock. Heavy metal that formed a faction out of this took these same components a level further, but without the association to LSD.

“Heavy metal [was and has been] traditionally characterized by loud distorted guitars, emphatic rhythms, dense bass-and-drum sound, and vigorous vocals,” ( Deep lyrical sounds and the use of the amplified bass sounds were used to provoke deep thoughts and stimulate senses. Those have always been the main characteristics of heavy metal songs and it is one of the major differences between normal rock/pop.

Some of the first heavy metal bands, according to most metalheads were the likes of Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin. Groups such as Sabbath, Zeppelin, and Judas Priest were the first to take off into an unknown territory; little did they know that their new adventure would give voice to a huge number of adolescents and adults who felt that they had no attachment to society.

This form of rock was dubbed as “heavy metal” by 1971. Both rock and heavy metal genres shared the same view on the antiauthority stance but that is where the similarities ended. Unlike normal rock, metal songs never had a place for the concept of love;, it has mostly been about harsh realities of life that many just found easy to ignore, and of course there have been exceptions. Metal always has been associated with evil, dark places, and the perception that all metal artists and fans are, or have some sort of belief in Satan. Of course, some of the biggest examples of this concept come from some very famous songs, notably from Black Sabbath; their self titled song called Black Sabbath was “pulled straight from the values, ideals, and principles of the Xtian religion,” which promotes worship of the devil (Matt G. Paradise).

Heavy metal really got a jump start in the 1980s, with a fan base already in existence and the addition of numerous new bands such as Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and later Pantera, heavy metal started getting more mainstream and gaining more popularity and support. The compilation of songs was the same. Heavy drums, long bass solos, and deep, sometimes demonic-sounding voices of vocalists were the basis of the songs. Bands such as Iron Maiden wrote about myths and legends and bands like Slayer, were predominantly symbolic of songs that talked about violence, chaos, and bloodshed. “Speed/thrash metal” started emerging; bands such as Megadeth, Slayer, and Metallica were the first of their kind to be labeled under this subcategory. Their music was usually more aggressive than other bands, and lyrics more often than not sounded angry and cynical. To even further factionalize metal, “death metal” came along which as evident by its name mostly focused on issues such as violence and death. Bands such as Six Feet Under and Morbid Angel were a couple of the many death metal bands.

By the mid 1980’s metal music had a large following not only in the United States but also in Europe. With a general understanding and knowledge of what the music represented, it was and always has been hard, if not impossible, for critics to understand the allure the music has on its listeners, especially on younger children.

To most listeners or critics of heavy metal, the appeal to metal are the moods and themes that express the unhappy and distraught side of life. As described before, most metal songs present the negative side of the world, there is no escape from it, neither love, nor friendship stands in its way. Fans or listeners of this music are alone and strong in their fight to stand against the oppression that they face from society.

The theme of loneliness as presented by Megadeth: “In My Darkest Hour:”
In my hour of need
Ha, you’re not there
And, though I reached out for you
You wouldn’t lend a hand…
It feels so cold, very cold
No one cares for me 

Lyrics such as these are strengthened by the vicious music supplied by the bassist and drummer, and therefore create somewhat of an “end of days” quality to it.

While metalheads find this appealing, non-metal junkies think otherwise. How could one possibly find any form of enjoyment in this dark, gloomy music? To the listener, many times it is the musical talent and skill of the performer that is the biggest allure. Speaking from a personal basis, one of the biggest reasons metal music has become so prevalent in my life is the plain fact that playing this form of music requires extreme skill and practice. As an avid metalhead, one admires this talent and through admiration becomes a fan and a student of the music as well.

Most avid metalheads or headbangers, as the term was coined in the 1980’s, love the music for other reasons as well. A lot of the younger juiced-up generation prefers this music because it is reflective of their wild-crazy nature. The high sensation, feeling of chaos, and lawlessness, the loud sound and extreme power of the bass is what makes metal appeal to a lot of younger generations of metalheads.

Finally, and perhaps this the most important reason, is the “ideology of alienation” in metal music. As one of Rob Zombie’s song, titled “The Devil’s Rejects” says:
I am the bad one,
Distant and cruel one,
I am the dream that,
Keeps you running down,
With distraction,
Violent reaction,
Scars of my actions,
Watch me running out

The song goes on to saying that “hell doesn’t want them, hell doesn’t need them.” This is evident of the fact that most metalheads are so far disconnected from normality that a lot of what they do is unacceptable by society’s standards and in a way this is empowerment to them. Their behavior sets them apart from their own families, school, religion and community, and at the same time it is that same ideology that brings them together. Most, if not all find that in some ways they can relate to what the performer has to say. According to Arnett, who is a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri, performers represent a rare authenticity in a corrupt world. And it is this authenticity that they find so appealing and drawn towards.


The effects that this form of music has on its listeners is not universal, but is always taught to be. Metal music has always been believed by critics to promote violence, substance use, and recklessness. According to Karen R. Scheel, who has a Ph. D in counseling psychology and is also a published author of many articles on adolescence and metal music, says that heavy metal fans “may have higher than average rates of substance use (including alcohol), delinquency, recklessness, and depression.” The media has also helped support this claim in many ways, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two perpetrators of the massacre at Columbine High School were both fans of heavy metal music, notably Industrial metal German group, Rammstein, and famous Anti-Christ Marilyn Manson and after the event took place both have been doused in controversy and faced negative media coverage.

However, it is not a fair claim that just because one listens to something that is loud and has violent themes it leads them to become violent. The argument is much too simple and in many ways is a fallacy, a circular reasoning. The old saying “monkey see, monkey do” is what has been used to describe the actions of metal heads and the cause is mistaken to be metal music.

The argument is clear is that; yes, people who listen to metal music are more reckless in their social behavior and actions. However, that is the reason they listen to it, metal heads are attracted to this genre of music and anti authoritative behavior because of the high sensation, thrill seeking experience both provide. Arnett argues that “adolescent boys who are high in sensation seeking tend to be attracted to heavy metal… because both metal music and reckless behavior provide intense and novel sensations.”

It is this connection that critics of metal music tend to overlook; many of them make the mistake of believing that just because one is reckless and listens to metal that it causes of this behavior. This misunderstanding of someone’s behavior is related to causation of metal music being violent and the perpetrator behind recklessness.

This argument is many times overrated; if metal music is the cause behind violent and reckless behavior and should be regulated, then why is Rap and Hip/ Hop not scrutinized? Violent crime cases of rap artists are far greater in number than metal music; artists such as Tupac Shakur and Biggie have long been known to be the cause behind East Coast and West Coast rivalries. Then why is it that metal music is more heavily regulated and is linked to violent behavior in teens all across the board?

There is absolutely something wrong with the argument that “heavy metal music reflects and possibly nurtures suicidogenic alienation, despair, and hopelessness among members of the heavy metal subculture,” (Stack, 24). In fact, many avid metalheads listen to this form of music because it is used as an escape and to calm and soothe out problems that these teens face on an everyday basis.

There is not one answer to what kind of influence heavy metal has on its listeners; all metal heads listen to it for different reasons. Many find it calm and soothing just like someone else might find Beethoven relaxing. Others listen to it because they feel the need to get their anger out and bring it out in concerts by participating in rituals like “slam dancing,” “mosh pits” and “wall of deaths.” Many of them like it for the simple reason others like different genres of music; there is no specific justification, they just feel attached to it. Metal music has a lot of different effects on its listeners, and not all of it is always loud and “obnoxious;” ballads such as “Remember Tomorrow” by Iron Maiden are very mellow, slow and have the same soothing effects as jazz.

Historically, metal music has always been regarded as a sort of music that promotes violence, hatred, Satanism, and plain reckless behavior in its fans. American Society many times labels this form of music as to be “typified by themes of societal and mental chaos (Weinstein, 1991) and references to homicide, suicide, and satanic practices (Wass et al., 1988-89).” This in turn is tied to the regulation of heavy metal music, and the generation of children all around the world who are its fans. These fans range from adolescents to older adults and have many times faced discrimination because of the way they dress and the music they listen to. Yet, many of them don’t care, characteristics of metal is what brings all these people together, they all share common forms of alienation, and always a sense of normlessness in their life. Metal, which is referred by its critics as turbulent music, is what brings structure to their life. Many people listen to heavy metal in order to get away from harsh realities in their personal life and many times they just listen to it as a way of expressing their outgoing self.

One of the many reasons heavy metal music has received so much negative public attention from parents and critics over the past decade is simple. Most people who hate metal music not only consider it to be just plain loud and obnoxious but also an “incitement to antisocial behavior” (Arnett, 77). Surprisingly, any avid metalhead should not find it difficult how people land on that conclusion. It is clear that violence, drug and alcohol use, destruction, and defiance are common themes in heavy metal songs, and is always argued by critics that these themes promote behavior that is disruptive to self and others, and cause violence and many other social problems. Though most songs don’t go out and blatantly promote these forms of anti-social behavior, most are usually said to promote them because they advocate, on a more general level, “an alienated individualism that rejects any restraints on behavior,” (Arnett, 77).

Studies have shown that “adolescents with preexisting problems (in this case, personal and family psychopathology) may seek out rock/heavy metal music because the negative themes reflect their own feelings,” (Heavy Metal Music And Adolescent Suicidality: An Empirical Investigation). The problem doesn’t exist in the type of music; rather, younger generations listen to this type of music because this is an escape for them. Problems such as parental divorce and financial worries that these adolescents face that society has thrown in their way at an early age tend to become a burden and metal music for these people is a way to shut everything off.

So what has been so different about metal music in general that even after gaining so much popularity not only in mainstream America but also around the world, that it has some of the harshest critics? The music, yes, is and always has been on the matter of darker subjects: death, violence, anarchy, substance abuse, alcohol use and war just to name a few. But these are problems that exist in real life, and there are artists out there who, with the help of their hard music, try to get this message out there. The message that it is being sent out is to the young and even to older generation; yet, many critics just look at the lyrics and overlook the fact that we as a people don’t understand that a problem exists; nothing will be done to fix if we don’t even acknowledge that it actually exists.

For the metalhead, it is his or her way of conveying a message of defiance and breaking the norm. By taking part in this subculture that has formed in our society, he or she wants to let the world know that they are different from others and in no way will follow the rules society has written for them.

Metal music has always been symbolized by its fans as a route to being free and letting it all out. Society has taken that free-will social behavior and put it into a negative context. While some of the behavior should have consequences, what one must realize is that the basic context and theme of metal songs are an expression of self-sufficiency and outgoing social behavior. The world according to metalheads is a dark place that cannot be trusted and everyone is left on their own. Violence or Satanism doesn’t come from the music, rather from the listeners and should not be mistaken as the cause of such behavior.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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