Detraction Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 14

heavy metal detraction

“Heavy metal: pimply, prole, putrid, unchic, unsophisticated, anti-intellectual (but impossibly pretentious), dismal, abysmal, terrible, horrible, and stupid music, barely music at all; death music, dead music, the beaten boogie, the dance of defeat and decay; the huh? sound, the duh sound, … music made by slack-jawed, alpaca-haired, bulbous-inseamed imbeciles in jackboots and leather and chrome for slack-jawed, alpaca-haired, downy-mustachioed imbeciles in cheap, too-large T-shirts with pictures of comic book Armageddon ironed on the front.”

(Duncan, 1984, p. 36-37)

While some people go as far as deploring heavy metal as a “public health problem” (Trzcinski, 1992, p. 7), others believe that those who castigate and censure the art form and lifestyle are simply fabricating “conspiracies in order to scapegoat musicians and fans” (Walser, 1993, p.147).  Weinstein (1991) adds that audiences are “pigeonholed” when critics evaluate the aesthetics and practices of heavy metal with “unexamined assumptions about the cultural form” (p. 94).  Denunciations of heavy metal music have ranged from casual avoidance to absolute scathing repugnance, and similar to early rock ‘n’ roll artists like Little Richard and Elvis Presley, metal bands are “demonized both for being unmusical… and immoral” (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008, p. 106).  The Iranian government even banned rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s because this “cacophony” would “unleash primitive instincts” which ultimately led to “a rash of hip injuries incurred by frenzied dancers” (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008, p. 106; Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 116).  Rather than placing the blame on lyrical messages in the music, the Iranian authorities believed that the sound of rock ‘n’ roll caused radical, visceral responses that were simply too offensive and dangerous for mass audiences (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008).  Similarly, when people declare their hatred toward heavy metal, it is often because of the “offensively noisy” nature of the music, rather than a “rational objection to the images or themes embedded within it” (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008, p. 106; Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 116).  Enthusiasts and detractors alike are, thus, affected viscerally rather than cognitively when initially confronted with heavy metal music (Weinstein, 1991, p. 3).

Accusations of lethargy and a stereotype of low-intelligence among members of the heavy metal subculture are also quite prevalent.  Gross (1990) claims that many metal fans possess an “astonishing lack of knowledge” (p. 125), while Hansen & Hansen (1991a) contend that metalheads do, in fact, display a lack of desire for education and “lower need for cognition,” even among undergraduate college students (p. 338).  Metal fans have been found to “display a grotesque combination of vaunting ambition and drooping despair” in comparison to fans other styles of music, based on their two main goals in life, “rock stardom” and “death in the gutter” (Bayles, 1994, p. 261 cited in Purcell, 2003, p. 120).  Metalheads have been derided as “scruffy-looking, sneering, apathetic,” “hopeless, hostile, antisocial… cynical, libertarian, defiant, and fanatical,” “subhuman berserkers” who listen to “painfully loud, fiercely aggressive” music that is “sick, repulsive, horrible and dangerous… [containing] the element of hatred [and] a meanness of spirit,” while “often in danger of dissolving into complete anarchy” (Arnett, 1996, p. ix; Purcell, 2003, p. 116; Johnson & Cloonan, 2008, p.115; Bashe, 1985, p. 7; Weinstein, 1991, p. 1; Bashe, 1985, p. 7). Clearly, deprecators of heavy metal are just as “fanatical” about the music as the legions of die-hard fans.

The numerous controversial aspects of heavy metal music have provoked powerful reactions from journalists, academics and other outsiders, including much “fear and censorship” (Walser, 1993, p. 2).  Interestingly, Walser (1993) states that critics and academics that are typically “scrupulous” in their research of other musical genres have even been guilty of an “unabashed prejudice when it comes to heavy metal” (p. 20). Critics report that artists write songs full of “self-abnegation, self-loathing and disgust” in attempts to manifest “fantasies of violence against everyone and everything” (Wilson, 2008, p. 12), but completely overlook the technical components of the music, the commercial impact of the genre, and the importance of the music in the lives of fans (Bashe, 1985).  The “aggressive… unpleasant… non-specific rage” that metal performers exhibit becomes fodder for journalists and academics to exploit in their condemnation of this “aesthetic terrorism” of heavy metal music and culture (Wilson, 2008, p.12; Walser, 1993, p. 142).  Walser (1993) finds it unsurprising that academics have “ignored or misconstrued” heavy metal music and its followers because this “denigration of metal is a necessary part to the defense of ‘high’ culture” (p.24).   Similarly, rock critics write articles scorning heavy metal as a sign of their “superiority to the musicians and audiences” within the genre (Walser, 1993, p. 24).

Walser (1993) adds that enthusiasts’ fervent dedication to the heavy metal lifestyle is “paralleled [only] by the hysterical denunciation of the mainstream press and smug dismissals of most rock journalism” (p. 20).  Purcell (2003) notes, however, that rock journalism about instances of unruly metal fans “only reinforce[s] the negative impressions of most people” (p. 81), and these rock critics’ understanding of metal ranges from “fair… to clearly prejudiced and uninformed” (Bashe, 1985, p. 24).  The press’s aversion to metal, however, further unifies fans as members of a subculture, and ultimately adds to their enjoyment and dedication toward the genre (Bashe, 1985). Additionally, heavy metal fans often embrace and specifically emphasize the “worst” elements of heavy metal like gore and vulgarity simply to further challenge the censors and parent groups that oppose them (Purcell, 2003, p. 3).  Bashe (1985) states that heavy metal is an “easy target” for such criticism and derision because of the extremity of fans’ attachment to the music, the many interpretations that can be made from the non-musical components of the genre, and the misunderstood nature of the entire art form (p. 146).

Widespread condemnation of heavy metal became so vehement during the 1980s that numerous organizations formed in attempts to control or even eliminated heavy metal music (Weinstein, 1991).  In 1984, Tipper Gore, wife of then Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, and Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of the Treasury James Baker, and several other prominent Washington, D.C. officials formed the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) in response to music with violent, sexual, and other explicit content.  The PMRC claims such offensive lyrics in many heavy metal songs “exert a pernicious influence on the young, encouraging sexual license, drug abuse, Satanism and even suicide” (as cited in Binder, 1993, p. 753).  The PMRC acknowledge music as a “major socialization force shaping teen attitudes and actions” and believe that adolescents derive meanings from songs and even practice many of these undesirable behavioral characteristics on a daily basis (Verden, Dunleavy & Powers, 1991, p. 73).  Reports from the Committee on Governmental Affairs United States Senate [CGAUSS] (1997) contest that many heavy metal and shock-rock artists who perform their “songs of questionable taste [and] dubious merit” project a threat to adolescents because young fans typically spend about 4 hours a day throughout their formative years submersed in music disseminating messages of hatred and disorder (p. 2).  Lacourse, Claes, & Villeneuve (2001) state that these more brutal depictions of violence in music has intensified adult concerns regarding their adolescent’s engrossment with these musical subcultures (p. 322).  Heavy metal thus became the “punching bag” in the cultural industries because many of the controversial sounds, images, lyrics, attitudes and overall “social power” of the music presented “a visible threat to public order” (Christe, 2004, p. 118).

In numerous testimonies, members of the PMRC have stated that music which fills the ears and minds of adolescents with images of glorified rage is a “critical situation” with capabilities of deleterious impact on adolescent behavior (Trzcinski, 1992, p. 14).  In 1985 the PMRC requested that a mandatory warning label be affixed to recorded material with lyrics of a conceivably offensive nature (Ballard & Coates, 1995, p. 150).  The Congressional hearing abetted much controversy over the alleged menace of insidious rock music lyrics, and resulted in the commission of a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” warning label for such material (Binder, 1993, p. 753).  Authorities have banned heavy metal T-shirts in schools, censored and tagged “offensive” albums, and have even attempted to “demetalize” heavy metal fans, similar to how “‘deprogrammers’ worked on youths who joined religious ‘cults’ during the 1970s” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 268).  Newsweek even deplored heavy metal as a threat similar to AIDS and crack in the 1980s (Weinstein, 1991).  Weinstein (1991) states, however, that the PRMC hearings and media coverage like that found in Newsweek only spread misconceptions about heavy metal through their “fanciful and specious causal arguments,” “logical fallacies,” “tirelessly repeated… distortions,” and “maximally incompetent” lyrical interpretations (p. 273, p. 256).

Weinstein (1991) continues,

“It is no accident that the groups leading the attack on heavy metal are parent interest groups, the PMRC and the PTA.  They identify in the music and its subculture a challenge to parental authority, even if they systematically mischaracterize and distort the nature of that challenge.” (p. 270)

These “crude assumptions” of heavy metal music and its fans represent outsiders’ “monolithic” views of the culture (Walser, 1993, p. 5).  Metal fans, however, cherish the “difference and specificity” within the various subgenres of metal, and because of their individualism “cannot be considered inferior” (Walser, 1993, p. 5; Purcell, 2003, p. 113).  Weinstein (1991) censures heavy metal’s critics as “discursive terrorists” that redefine heavy metal as “insensate meaningless” to “suit their own interests, agendas and worldviews” while failing to consider the complexities of the music and the painstaking efforts needed to create quality albums and entertaining concerts (p. 273-274).  It should be noted that, “much of heavy metal is lyrically vacuous, …offensive, sexist, misogynistic, violent,” but to mischaracterize an entire culture as “uneducated, ignorant, [and] burnt-out… is quite unwarranted” (Bashe, 1985, p. 24; Purcell, 2003, p. 108).  Additionally, opponents of heavy metal often try to blame the music and lyrics as a major contributing factors in instances of violence, but in terms of media effects theories, Arnett (1996) emphasizes that “correlation should not be misinterpreted here as causation” (p. 79).


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