Alienation Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 8


“Heavy metal fans are united into a coherent subculture precisely because they share certain interpretations of the meaning of the songs.   They have in common that the songs express for them the ideology of alienation that most of them share to one degree or another.” (Arnett, 1996, p.45)

Arnett (1996) defines alienation as, “A sense of estrangement from one’s culture, a deep loneliness arising from a lack of gratifying emotional connections to others, and cynicism about the ideals and possibilities for life offered by one’s culture” (p.17).  The ideology of alienation that pervades heavy metal music manifests itself in lyrical themes that portray a despoiled, violent and unjust world, in musical moods and keys that reinforce dysphoria and distress, and as cynical and pessimistic images in the album art (Arnett, 1996).  Arnett (1996) explains that this overwhelming sense of adolescent alienation has resulted from “the lack of instruction provided to them by their culture, including family, school, community, and religion,” about what should be “valued and what rejected, what is good and what is evil, and what they should do with their lives” (p. 17).

Interestingly, Christenson & Roberts (1998) have found that school and peer orientation in conjunction with social values and attitudes towards authority eventually exteriorize as musical preference (p. 97).  Adolescents who struggle with school or harbor anti-authority attitudes become more peer oriented and often engage in deviant behavior in groups (Christenson & Roberts, 1998).  These adolescents often feel alienated because they don’t fit in with the majority of academically stable non-troublemakers, and develop a “natural taste for disapproved, defiant cultural materials such as punk and heavy metal music” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 97).  Heavy metal fans do feel bonds between one another and the music; however, these bonds are situated in this “shared alienation” (Arnett, 1991b, p. 96).  It should also be noted that adolescent alienation would not disappear if heavy metal did not exist. Adolescents would simply formulate other methods of expressing their estrangement (Arnett, 1996).

This alienation and social isolation encourages parasocial interactions, in which individuals in solitude establish vicarious relationships with figures in the media and the media itself (Christenson & Roberts, 1998).  Heavy metal fans reinforce their connection to the music and culture over long hours of isolated media exposure, and their heightened sense of personal attachment to the music often compensates for loneliness and alienation felt for society at large (Christenson & Roberts, 1998).  Additionally, and quite paradoxically, this “considerable amount of disorientation and disillusionment” palpable in the lives of metalheads often catalyzes “fierce and undiluted [artistic] expression,” which results in an abundance of eager, motivated and individualistic musicians (Arnett, 1991b, p.34).

Since heavy metal is about the dark side of life and going against the mainstream, it makes sense that metal fans “are highly unlikely to simply accept the views of society and culture” (Purcell, 2003, p.126). Older metalheads especially find “deeper ideological meaning” within heavy metal music and use their musical devotion as a “fundamental expression of individuality and resistance to convention” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 99).  This “culture of hyperindividualism” amongst heavy metal enthusiasts represents an “active rejection of all social institutions and all forms of social constraint” (Arnett, 1996, p.33), and often leads to unique, alternative or even bizarre lifestyles.  Heavy metal fans place much value in thinking for themselves, and often feel exhilarated by the prospect of the freedom offered by their subculture (Arnett, 1996).  Arnett (1996) encapsulates these sentiments by stating,

“[Heavy metal] speaks to those who are proudly individualistic but who also feel the loneliness of individualism… Not only does it speak to them; it also speaks, or rather shouts and screams, on their behalf.  It is the angry shout of those who have reacted to the absence of these traditional supports and sources of meaning with a deep cynicism about the trustworthiness and reliability of the world around them.” (p. 133)

Some of the consequences of such alienation, even hyperindividualism, however, are quite positive.  Encouragement of individualism often successfully develops artistic talents and inspires original thought, which allows individualists to express themselves through poetry, artwork, or even heavy metal music (Arnett, 1996).  Adolescent alienation is a double-edged sword, in that artistic expression and original thoughts are encouraged, but individuals simultaneously feel detached, estranged, and at times even forsaken.  Metalheads, however, overcome this alienation by adhering to the music and to one another, and by “thinking of themselves as metalheads, [they] see themselves as sharing in the declaration of these messages” (Arnett, 1996, p. 69).  The messages contained within heavy metal are translated in a number of ways, and most popular music studies include literal lyrical analysis as their primary research artifact.


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