Sensation Seeking Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 7

sensation seeking

“Heavy metal fans are an extreme group, but they provide stark and startling examples of sentiments shared… by many American adolescents.” (Arnett, 1996, p. 155)

When compared to adolescents who liked acoustic pop or mainstream rock, adolescents with a preference for heavy metal reported greater frequency of reckless behavior, which Arnett (1992) describes in terms of sexual attitudes, drug use, petty crimes, and dangerous driving patterns.  Arnett (1992) attributes this recklessness to a heightened desire for sensation seeking in these adolescents.  The pursuit of sensory fulfillment and curiosity for deviance is not causally related to heavy metal music, but many themes in this genre are similarly appealing to adolescents with predispositions of high sensation, destructive behavior and aggression (Arnett, 1992).  Arnett (1991a) also declares that sensation seeking is the most valid correlating element when discussing reckless behavior and heavy metal music, and little or nothing in the socialization environment might obstruct an adolescent from acting on these negative impulsions (p. 591).  Arnett’s (1992) theory involves the socialization of heavy metal and negative personality formulating characteristics, but he is clearly stating that causation from music messages is “not direct or simple” (p. 326). Christenson & Roberts (1998) state “there is little question of a relationship between risky, reckless attitudes and behavior and the choice of heavy metal music” because metal fans are motivated by a “generalized tendency to seek sensations and thrills, and a need to engage in a variety of risky behavior such as drug use and sexual and criminal activity” (p. 105).  High-sensation seekers are attracted to the offensiveness and sheer power of the medium because heavy metal crosses cultural boundaries, breaks taboos, and provides enticing thrills for its adherents (Arnett, 1996).

Hansen & Hansen (1991a) believe that adolescents may be inclined to listen to heavy music due to similar social perceptions in their existing personalities.  Fans of heavy metal expressed that they had more inclination to be sympathetic towards lenient sexual behavior, drug and alcohol use, participation in the occult and Satanism, and other antisocial behaviors than adolescents not interested in heavy metal (Hansen & Hansen, 1991a, p. 357).  Christenson & Roberts (1998) add that,

“When compared to other youth, heavy metal devotees tend to be more suicidal, more defiant of mainstream authorities and norms, more likely to be in trouble in school and with the law, more at odds with their parents, and more likely to use illicit drugs.” (p. 103)

The great minority of girls and women in the metal subculture also possess some remarkably interesting characteristics.  Arnett’s (1991a) research focusing on females in metal is sobering, as he postulates that metal either appeals to a “certain emotional masochism, derived from their low self-esteem” or whether the “anti-female element” of heavy metal is capable of causing and exacerbating already low self-esteem in girls (p. 590).  The overwhelming minority of female metal fans has been found to have more suicidal thoughts than male fans, and is generally “more disturbed” than female fans of other types of music (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 108).  Critics of heavy metal find many of its lyrics to be “demeaning, callous, and exploitative” of women, which raises further questions regarding females’ attraction to the genre and the relationship of heavy metal and sexual attitudes (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 107).  While violence, sex and power are frequently confronted in heavy metal music, many bands exhibit a more extreme “fascination for the morbidly bizarre” that becomes the source of much conservative discontent (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p.136).

Satanism, witchcraft, pornography, and gore are also taboos found within the lexicon of heavy metal, and Johnson & Cloonan (2008) have also reported the explicit glorification of self-mutilation and suicide” within some subgenres (p. 104).  Although only a highly marginalized segment of metal deals with such extreme topics, these themes appear far more frequently in metal than in other musical genres (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 106).  Bashe (1985) believes that heavy metal bands often use the devil as a character in their songs simply because the “personification of pure evil” has provided intriguing content and been a successful muse for artists, authors, and composers for centuries (p. 146).  Throughout time, the devil has been a predominant figure in most performance and creative arts, and blues, rock and metal music are simply an extension of this tradition (Bashe, 1985).  More seriously, though, many people have expressed their concern with the “dismal, depressed” elements of heavy metal, and have found that preference for heavy metal music can serve as a “predicator of vulnerability and suicide… higher levels of depression… and more frequent infliction of self-harm” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 107-108).

Although Reddick & Beresin (2002) give support to heavy metal’s admirers by declaring, “not all adolescents who listen to heavy metal are angry and demoralized,” the authors also posit that heavy metal music is just the type of sensory experience that a dissociated, non-conformist, rebellious adolescent with “a history of self-injury” and “severe psychopathology” issues would find alluring (p. 51-52). Offering precautionary advice, Singer, Levine & Jou (1993) believe that focusing on heavy metal youths can “increase delinquent peer identification and delinquent behavior” (p. 320) and that attraction to heavy metal music should be used to examine youth subcultures and delinquency.  Ballard & Coates (1995), Gentile (2003), and Weinstein (1991) all report that heavy metal music is the preferred genre of the majority of adolescents in juvenile detention centers, as well as those hospitalized for drugs, psychiatric problems and behavioral disorders.

Christenson & Roberts (1998) aphoristically state, “A 17-year-old, single parent, drug-involved, White kid in trouble at school is quite likely to like heavy metal and very unlikely to like soft rock” (p. 80).  Bashe (1985) additionally states that metalheads exacerbate their negative image with drug and alcohol use, which has often led to fans “sleeping, vomiting, or being escorted out by harried security personnel” at heavy metal concerts (p. 8). While generalizations can certainly be made, it is unfair and unwise to state that metal fans are collectively a group of poor, uneducated, depressed and drug-addicted criminals.  Many, if not most, heavy metal fans are good students from middle-income families (Christenson & Roberts, 1998) and Natalie Purcell (2003) even states that less than 1% of her survey group of all heavy metal fans had dropped out of high school (p.108), which is less than nine times the average for high school dropouts collectively (High School Dropout Rates, 2009). Arnett (1991b) states matter-of-factly, “rather than being the cause of recklessness and despair among adolescents, heavy metal music is a reflection of these… and provides only the broadest and least directive socialization” (p. 96).

Failure to focus sensation seeking into non-reckless behaviors can lead to a yearning for “immediate sensual gratification” like those found in the controversial messages and powerful sound of heavy metal music (Arnett, 1991a, p. 587).  Heavy metal music and reckless behavior are therefore not related in a cause-effect relationship, but because adolescents find “intense and novel sensations” in both activities (Arnett, 1996, p.79).  Christenson & Roberts (1998) conclude by stating that most of the tens of millions of heavy metal fans are “not on drugs, not in jail, not failing in school, not depressed, perhaps not even particularly at odds with their parents” (p. 109).  These psychological attributes may or may not be issues for metal fans on an individual basis, but the presence of adolescent alienation is a much more encompassing phenomenon for metal fans.


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