A new study, presenting an unconventional exploration of heavy metal music as it impacts psychosocial functioning, was recently published in the Journal of Community Psychology. The researchers report that heavy metal music can be a catalyst for improved socioemotional functioning for bullied or marginalized youth. They find that for some fans metal music may play a protective role against mental health issues in the context of adverse environmental factors.
Heavy metal artists have long been met with criticism by concerned parents and politicians. Metalheads (heavy metal fans) have likewise fallen victim to undeserved suspicion. “A common perception is that metal music and culture either leads to mental health issues or attracts people with mental health issues,” the authors write.
Through qualitative analysis of unstructured interviews with self-proclaimed metalheads in Australia, researchers Paula Rowe and Bernard Guerin of the University of South Australia recently examined the function of metal music in the identity development, social orientation, and emotional experiences of teen listeners. A number of studies have connected music exposure to positive outcomes in childhood, adolescence, and later adult life, although metal and emotional (“emo” music) have been subjected to less scientific scrutiny.
Rowe and Guerin suggest two culprits in this slanted representation in research: 1) highly publicized instances of violent outbursts by metal performers (e.g., Ozzy Osbourne’s dove-biting publicity stunt), and 2) the problematic pattern of research designed in accordance with public opinion.
“There is a dearth of good research on young metalheads,” Rowe and Guerin write, “instead there is a history of speculating on the mental health of metal youth through correlational and experimental research that record nothing of the detailed social contexts and immediate life-worlds by talking to the metalheads directly.”
According to the researchers, there has been limited theoretical and empirical justification for efforts to pathologize passion for metal and emotional music among youths. Correlative links have been found between internalizing issues (and violent outbursts) among adolescents and a preference for metal music; however, authors argue that past studies have neglected social circumstances and environmental features. They reject the oversimplification of these investigations, suggesting that prior inquiry has been reduced to the question of whether or not youth displaying characteristics of mental disorders prefer metal music or the extent to which metalheads present with mental disorders.
Acknowledging that past research has primarily explored metal from the outside looking in, Rowe and Guerin conducted interviews with a purposively assembled sample of 18-24-year-old metalheads. To avoid informing the direction and content of the discussions, the researchers incorporated minimal probing and allowed the conversation to flow naturally. Four primary themes emerged in analyzing participants’ reported relationships to metal music.
- “All participants experienced some form of marginalization in their main social environment (school) at the time they embarked on becoming metal.
- All participants described the importance to them and the power of the listening experience.
- All participants narratively constructed a sense of belonging and acceptance by the global metal community (with variations by metal subgenres and types of community).
- In varying ways, all participants described how the embodiment of metal identities brought about a sense of social protection.”
Rowe and Guerin found that metal not only provides a form of escape and release to youth grappling with ostracism but also provides a kind of informal therapy. When asked by filmmaker Michael Moore to respond to claims that his music inspired the Columbine High School massacre in the 2002 film Bowling for Columbine, Marilyn Manson responded:
“When I was a kid growing up, music was the escape. That’s the only thing that had no judgments. You know, you put on a record, and it’s not going to yell at you for dressing the way you do. It’s going to make you feel better about it.”
Rowe and Guerin’s findings make a compelling case, suggesting that the release provided by intense emotional music may be helpful to young people in the midst of significant psychological stress.
Rowe, P., & Guerin, B. (2018). Contextualizing the mental health of metal youth: A community for social protection, identity, and musical empowerment. Journal of Community Psychology. (Link)