Catharsis Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 17


“Rock music is similar to a shot of morphine in that it heightens the emotions and reduces any feelings of pain.” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 215)

When dealing with troubled teens, heavy metal music is often relegated as the source of their problems, rather than an effective mood-changing tool and vehicle for channeling anger (Gentile, 2003). This is important particularly because some research suggests that music can have an “amplification effect” which can intensify a listener’s existing emotional state, which may include thoughts of hatred or depression (Gentile, 2003, p. 165). Gentile (2003) points out that due to the “affective efficacy of music,” it is the “medium of choice” for mood enhancement and behavior modification (p. 156).  Hansen & Hansen (1990) also advocate an excitation-transfer theory, referring to hard rock music videos that are “not passive … entertainment” (p. 366), but quite salient and especially integral in the adolescent socialization process.  Walser (1993), Arnett (1991b), and Johnson & Cloonan (2008) all corroborate that metal appeals to many people because it “offers a way of overcoming… feelings of loneliness and hopelessness” (p. 151), and is capable of “dissipating… accumulated anger and frustration” (Arnett, 1991b, p. 93). Further, Anderson, Carnagey & Eubanks (2003) encapsulate that heavy metal successfully serves as a coping mechanism for aggressive inclinations, facilitating the dissipation of anger through consonant media consumption (p. 960).  Arnett (1991b) suggests prescribing dosages of heavy metal music to individuals with “propensit[ies] for aggression” (p.94), and chaotic and violent events like heavy metal concerts are especially effective coping strategies. Heavy metal music both reflects the pessimism and uncertainty that many fans have for their lives, the future, and their belief systems, and simultaneously allows fans to “assuage [their] unpleasant and unruly emotions (Arnett, 1991b, p. 95).  Thus, “angry” music, like heavy metal, functions as a catalyst in the purgation of negative emotions and successfully counteracts negativity, rather than exacerbating it (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, 52).

Despite the extreme aggression and violent themes within the music, fans of heavy metal have not been found to possess “negative or destructive” attitudes, and much evidence actually proves that the music and involvement within the subculture of heavy metal provides a “positive and cathartic” role in the lives of fans (Purcell, 2003, p. 162).  Arnett (1996) states that dissipation of negative emotions is “the most notable effect” of heavy metal music on its listeners (p. 84), because fans are “paradoxically consoled, connected, and enlivened” by the highly sensational, energizing music (p. 57).  Arnett’s (1996) extensive research with catharsis among heavy metal fans reveals several multidimensional attributes of this phenomenon, in that,

“The aggressive, antisocial anthems of heavy metal music become the palliative that spares [fans] and those around them from the full expression of their aggressive, antisocial inclinations.  Living in a culture in which the implements provided to them to quell their aggressiveness prove too meager when their aggressiveness surges in adolescence, they look to something to aid them, something outside of themselves to supplement their insufficient internal resources. They find it in heavy metal music.” (p. 89)

Thus, metalheads are characteristically calmed down after listening to heavy metal, rather than having their frustrations inflamed (Arnett, 1996).  Reddick & Beresin (2002) also suggest that heavy metal can be an outlet to channel “existential angst” through expression of a negative identity when “it seems a positive one is unattainable” (p. 53).  Proponents of the cathartic and purgative nature of heavy metal postulate a need for this type of “therapeutic” expression (Arnett, 1991b; Bashe, 1985, p. ix).  Purcell (2003) states that heavy metal works as a cathartic mechanism so effectively, that, without the music, fans lives and personalities could be “cripple[d] and distorted[d]” (p. 141).

Johnson and Cloonan (2008) reveal a particularly intriguing 2007 case study of heavy metal music in the lives of gifted students at the University of Warwick.  The researchers discovered that these individuals were angered and frustrated with their status as “gifted outsiders,” and often turned to heavy metal music to relieve their anxieties and difficulties in social adjustment (p. 24).  The authors state that these results “enlarge and nuance a commonly accepted conception of metal fandom which validates a facile demonization of the scene” (p. 115).  A musical event that is particularly controlled: i.e., it is the preferred genre at the right time and place, can provide a significant amount of sensory pleasure, personal understanding and emotional release all at the same time (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008; Bashe, 1985).  Additionally, Ballard & Coates (1995) and Arnett (1991a) both pronounce that many adolescents report an exceptionally emotional and cathartic release of negativity while attending heavy metal concerts.


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