“Heavy metal fans are an especially committed, devoted audience. These are not casual listeners with just a loose identification with their chosen genre, but fans in the literal sense – they are ‘fanatical.’” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 103)
The complex and long-lived subculture of heavy metal has been perpetuated by passionate fans who use and appropriate music much differently than mainstream music listeners (Weinstein, 1991). Christenson & Roberts (1998) found that heavy metal fans have a more extreme attachment to the music than fans of other genres, and their absorption with the artists and subculture create a “distinctive and marginalized” musical identity in terms of time spent with the media as well as personality-defining lifestyle decisions (Weinstein, 1991, p. 139). Metalheads typically find “crucial source[s] of meaning” in their intense engagements with the music, lyrics, artists, concerts, and collective subculture of heavy metal (Arnett, 1996, p. 25), and Arnett (1991a) also states that heavy metal plays a significant role in the spending habits, friendships, moods and aspirations of adolescents, whose intense connection with the media actually “shapes their view of the world” (p. 92). Gentile (2003) and Arnett’s (1991a) extensive research found that fans of heavy metal spent twice as money on recorded music, band related merchandise and their own personal music equipment than comparison groups of non-metal fans, and Lacourse et al. (2001) have additionally found that that heavy metal enthusiasts “tend to worship music in a more prominent way” than fans of other genres (p. 329). Christenson & Roberts (1998) also reveal that fans of heavy metal are more apt than other adolescents to espouse their favorite artists as their role models, heroes, and occasionally even view the musicians as surrogate older siblings or father figures. Rather than consuming the media as simply a set of “signifiers and practices referent to a musical form,” the heavy metal subculture employs music to “express and foster a sense of life” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 139-140).
Arnett (1996) adds that allegiance to heavy metal also affects many individuals’ career decisions. Most adolescent metalheads envision becoming professional musicians and approach their adult lives with few professional alternatives (Arnett, 1996). Many hold musicians in high regard because they are “examples of everyday people who have escaped the commonness of their own lives by believing in something” (Bashe, 1985, p. 7). Individuals that do become professional musicians, engineers, journalists, or are otherwise involved in heavy metal as a vocation display their “total devotion” and “deep loyalty” to the cherished youth subculture that indeed defined their personalities and shaped their lives (Weinstein, 1991, p. 60). A career in heavy metal music is a highly self-motivated and self-selected profession to which “respectable” society does not endorse or provide support systems (Weinstein, 1991, p. 61), yet a legion of fans still aspires for professional involvement with the genre. Athletics and other performance arts like opera or ballet often receive training, guidance and the blessings of society at large, but heavy metal fans are left to fend for themselves, and typically receive the calumniations of these other fine arts and social activities (Weinstein, 1991). The few select members of less profitable and more denigrated subcultures like death metal are thus, more “dedicated and elite” than members of other mainstream cultures, and their passion and perseverance are how the genres continue to survive and even flourish (Purcell, 2003, p. 112). Heavy metal is thus a “discipline” and those desirous of earning their livelihoods with it must be “willing and able to submit to that discipline” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 62).
Weinstein (1991) adds that, “the romantic and utopian themes of the heavy metal subculture” produce icons, symbols and rituals that “often make it appear to be a quasi-religion” (p. 121). Perceiving heavy metal and its subculture as a religious phenomenon is certainly quite appropriate. Performers and fans alike dedicate their lives to the art form, and despite widespread misinterpretation through abounding negative press, heavy metal has, in fact, been referred to as “essential equipment for living” (Gentile, 2003, p. 170) as well as “a pipeline to God” by fans in scholarly publications (Dunn et al., 2005). Metal “represents, legitimizes and redeems” its adherents (Weinstein, 1991, p. 143), and supplies meaning to its followers lives, especially individuals dealing with pubescent difficulties, school problems, parental issues, peer pressure, or feel they generally have “little purpose” (Bashe, 1985, p. 7). For many individuals, heavy metal music is the one and only thing that expresses and solidifies their concerns, purges their frustrations, and presents an honest representation of “how the world is” (Walser, 1993, p. 150). Purcell (2003) adds to the positive qualities of heavy metal music by stating that, “a positive outlook and life-view may be in part a product of involvement with the metal scene and of the sense of identification that it provides” (p.120). Thus, heavy metal is a belief system, a way of life, and a complex social phenomenon. It is also extremely powerful, and depending on your opinion, incredibly awe-inspiring, reaffirming, beautiful, and magnificent music.
Links to all references can be found here: http://www.heavymetalmediastudies.com/cultural-sociology-of-heavy-metal-music/
Pictured is Owen Brown, ‘Britain’s oldest Heavy Metal fan’