Media Effects Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 15

media effects

“Young people listen to this vile trash and it puts ideas into their heads, and they think it is the in thing to do – newborns conceived out of wedlock, condemned to lives without fathers, and potentially doomed to futures of crime, confusion, and purposelessness.  Day after day, young Americans are being bombarded by the entertainment industry of this country with pornography, vulgarity, tastelessness, promiscuity, violence, drug propaganda, profanity, barbarism, nihilism and hedonism.” (West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, cited in Purcell, 2003, p. 79-80).

Senator Bryd and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman have both been outspoken in their disgust with heavy metal music, stating that the “cultural pollutants” contained within songs have desensitized audiences to violence, drug abuse, weapons, murder and suicide, resulting in an overall “cheapening [of] the value of human life” (Purcell, 2003, p. 93, p. 80).  Some believe that the media itself further propels and enlivens violent and antisocial behaviors resulting from and contained within heavy metal music (Ballard & Coates, 1995, p. 166), and Johnson & Cloonan (2008) also find that research has substantiated the correlation between music and violence “with an almost bludgeoning force” (p. 11).  Christenson & Roberts (1998) have also reported, that “every national news magazine has run at least one recent cover story focusing on the latest onslaught of racism, morbid violence, and graphic sex, with each article speculating on the powerful and dreadful effects these messages must surely be having” (p. 2).  Johnson & Cloonan (2008) reveal that messages of violence, hatred, and antisocial behavior have been so hackneyed and repetitive in popular music that “it would be gratuitous and patronizing to begin an inventory” (p.65).  Purcell (2003) succinctly states that, “it is clear that music is blamed to a large extent for violence and immorality in American culture” (p. 82), however, “there is no evidence suggesting a correlation between media violence and violent behavior, never mind a causal relationship” (p. 93).

Senator Lieberman also expressed his concern for the “electronic media cultural complex” by empowering media as the “new value transmitters” in society, usurping family influence, school and peer relationships, and religious leaders as role models and trendsetters for adolescents (CGAUSS, 1997, p. 3).  Singer et al. (1993) and Arnett (1991b) also articulate that heavy metal, like violent movies and television, is often blamed for introducing deviance and delinquent agendas on audience members. Congressmen Byrd and Lieberman believe that the pernicious rock and rap lyrics in omnipresent media like television, radio, movies, the Internet and everyday conversation are to blame for this resulting “culture of violence” (Purcell, 2003, p. 91).  Purcell (2003) is highly critical of these sentiments and remarks,

“It is irresponsible of politicians to use [heavy metal] as a scapegoat for actual violence.  It not only makes a mockery of the American system of representative government, but also prevents politicians from addressing significant social factors that might actually cause violent behavior.” (p. 93)

Reddick & Beresin (2002) also defend heavy metal’s stigma by stating that the inherent violence in the music is “anonymous” and “without social meaning” (p.53). Subgenres within heavy metal like Death, Doom, and Gore Metal are often named after their violent sounds and macabre imagery, but metal fans believe the music is “blamed unfairly” for the isolated incidents of violence that do occur because not all heavy metal celebrates or encourages violence (Arnett, 1996; Purcell, 2003, p. 144).

Interestingly, several accounts of military personnel using heavy metal music as inspiration for situations requiring “increased aggression” have been documented, and heavy metal music has at times even been used as a torture device (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008, p. 24).  Songs by Metallica have been played repetitively and at high volumes as “instruments of violence” in the War on Terror, and lead singer and guitarist James Hetfield jokingly proposes; “We’ve been punishing our parents, our wives, our loved ones with this music forever… Why should Iraqis be any different” (Johnson & Cloonan, 2008, p. 189)?  Another song used extensively in military torture scenarios is the “I Love You” theme song from the children’s show, Barney & Friends, but Johnson & Cloonan (2008) find the overwhelming use of heavy metal over other styles of music is “not incidental” (p. 153).  Kyle Sanders, guitarist and chief lyricist of Death Metal band Nile offers his astute insight in Purcell’s (2003) Death Metal Music, by stating,

“People think … metal causes violence… [but] we’ve had violence even since the beginning of our species, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the monkey picks up a bone and realizes he can kill another monkey by smashing him over the head with that bone.  Certainly, he didn’t get that idea from Death metal.  It’s an innate and unchanging part of human nature.” (p. 142)

Arnett (1996) adds that the aggressive musical components like loud, distorted guitars and rapid thundering drums are all “inherently well suited… [and] exceptionally effective in portraying chaos, death, war, destruction, and other violent themes” (p. 47), but the effect of these stimuli is not as simple as a direct injection of values and meaning.  The critics who proclaim that heavy metal causes such “perverse deviance” in society actually dehumanize metal fans by making them into “dupes without agency or subjectivity” (Walser, 1993, p. 144).  Heavy metal faultfinders that relegate audiences as passive drones based on “uninformed assumptions and hasty conclusions” simply expose their own prejudices and fail to solve any of the problems they purport to combat (Purcell, 2003, p. 145).  Detractors are certainly free to denounce hard rock, rap and heavy metal music for its aggression, misogyny, and frequently negative religious connotations, but as Christenson & Roberts (1998) remind us, for every person who opposes these controversial messages, “there is a free speech advocate who views these genres as a last bastion of meaningful social criticism” (Roberts, 1998, p. 6).  Purcell (2003) is adamant in her view that aggressive music does not cause violent activities and implores that “the villainy of a few cannot suppress the goodness of the masses” (p. 193), especially since “one will never find a metalhead petitioning for the illegalization of gospel music” (Purcell, 2003, p. 146).  Stereotypes for metalheads, however, do exist; isolated incidents of violence do occur, and the music does get blamed for the degradation of youth culture (Purcell, 2003).


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