Socialization and Adolescence Vulgar Display of Passion: Chapter 6

Music Adolescence

“Considered from the viewpoint of historical sociology, heavy metal music is the master emblem of the subculture of a well-defined segment of youth.” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 101-102)

Music of all types undeniably plays a central role in socialization, the process how individuals learn about the world and the cultures in which they live in. Adolescents especially use music as “primary currency” in their daily lives by incorporating it as the “background and foreground [of] adolescent peer interactions [and] grist for the teenage conversation mill” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p.29).  Reddick & Beresin (2002) state that an average American teenager will listen to about 10,500 hours of rock music during adolescence (p. 57), and Gentile (2003) believes that this number is actually higher because many studies underestimate listening habits by not addressing music that serves as a background activity during other events (p. 154). Gentile (2003) proposes that popular music can fulfill two pertinent functions of adolescence: the ability to build interrelationships in a peer group, and aptitude towards being able to decipher and solidify one’s self-concept (p. 158).  Most of the tasks and responsibilities that teenagers deal with directly like friendships; parents, school, self-image and their role in larger society are also central themes in music media (Christenson & Roberts, 1998). Christenson & Roberts (1998) findings continue to reveal that more than half of the 11th graders they surveyed listed music as their first choice of media entertainment (p. 33), and the authors have even glorified music “as natural a part of the environment as the air they breathe or the walls that surround them” (p. 35).  As Donald F. Roberts states in his 1997 official testimony on music violence, “It is impossible to understand adolescents… if you do not understand their relationship with popular music… It is at the heart of adolescent culture” (Committee on Governmental Affairs United States Senate [CGAUSS], 1997, p.35).

Adolescence brings a deluge of information seeking and independence, and “mass media in general and music media in particular are extremely well suited to provide information relevant to many of the questions adolescents face” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p.29).  The ubiquity of music in its portability and high frequency of transmission additionally foregrounds the medium and encourages a continuous soundtrack during daily events.  Christenson & Roberts (1998) encapsulate their research by stating,

“To the extent, then, that popular music serves as a dominant, often uncontested, source of information for an adolescent, the likelihood that it will influence his or her beliefs and behavior increases dramatically.  This applies to issues other than sex and romantic relationships.  When it comes to issues of style, fashion, body image, language, and the nature of friendship – indeed, even suicide and violence – adolescents more often turn to music and MTV than to parents and teachers.  In our view, many of the characteristics of popular music are uniquely suited to influence adolescents’ values, ideas and images of reality.  Whether they will act on what they learn depends on a multitude of factors. However, learning from the music media, in one form or another, will occur.” (p. 223)

Additionally, involvement with the music media and culture does not stop once the songs are over.  Music continues to alter moods, dominate conversations, provide slang, determine relationships, supply models of dress code and behavior, and linger as ambience at social events (Christenson & Roberts, 1998).  Thus, music’s integral role in adolescent socialization cannot be analyzed with “oversimplified, formulaic thinking” (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 8).  The importance of the music to the listeners, the nature of the messages contained within the music, and the methods in which the music is consumed are all pivotal and volatile components of adolescent socialization (Christenson & Roberts, 1998).

A critical moment for many adolescents occurs when they are exposed to their first heavy metal song or album.  Often a recommendation of a schoolmate or older sibling, the neophyte can interpret the power of the music as “epiphany” (Berger, 1999, p.59).  Fledgling metalheads have often played their recordings so extensively that the medium literally becomes unplayable (Berger, 1999), although this is obviously not an issue with digital media.  Investigation into the heavy metal music and culture becomes “like a drug addiction…[where fans] start out with the lighter stuff, and keep searching for heavier and heavier music. Unlike drug use, however, the highs do not diminish, they increase” (Berger, 1999, p. 59).  Heavy metal becomes central to the fans’ individual selfhood, and forms the “central pillar of group identity” in schools and other social settings (Christenson & Roberts, 1998, p. 59).

Epstein et al. (1990) note that musical preference contributes to development of identity within a culture, and this shared interest in music during adolescence is often “both the spark that begins a friendship and the adhesive that binds it over time” (Christensen & Roberts, 1998, p.55). Most metalheads identify and connect with one another almost immediately, and as Arnett (1996) explains,

“For an adolescent metalhead, wherever his family moves, anywhere in the country, he can be assured that somewhere in his new community are other boys who are fellow metal devotees, who have listened to the same recordings, watched the same music videos, and attended concerts by the same bands he has.” (p. 129)

Shared enthusiasm for heavy metal music is a definitive bonding element in both peer groups and in relation to fans with their preferred artists (Bashe, 1985).  Friendship and solidarity amongst metal fans is a prominent theme of the subculture, regardless of countless critics claiming that metal is based in antisocial behaviors.  In fact, the “constant barrage of ridicule heaped upon metal” simply encourages the solidarity of fans even more because heavy metal becomes the “seed around which peer groups can crystallize” (Weinstein, 1991, p. 137, p.138).  Philip Bashe (1985) states that heavy metal fans respond in a “manner that reflects the music: hard and unrelenting,” and are capable of deciphering the messages and styles of music “on a surprisingly sophisticated level” (p.8).  Hansen & Hansen (1991b) even state that heavy metal music serves as a “potent source for Westernizing social attitudes in foreign youth” (p. 407-408). Though much of this music is largely unpalatable for adults, heavy metal has the ability to modify social beliefs, alter individuals’ attitudes and values, and shape the understanding of the social world through cultural experiences (Hansen & Hansen, 1991a).

The focus on adolescence and socialization has been a necessary to consider in this research project because heavy metal is predominantly an adolescent phenomenon (Bashe, 1985).   Heavy metal is often “left behind with memories of high-school dances, first cars, first sex, [as] a vestige of youth, part of a phase one in expected to outgrow” (Bashe, 1985, p. 6).  Christenson & Roberts (1998) extensive work with the popularity of heavy metal in age groups reveals some alluring information about the subject indeed.  The authors state,

“Despite its obvious non-mainstream reputation, heavy metal’s popularity does not rise consistently with age. Rather, the relationship between age and popularity of metal appears curvilinear, increasing at first during early and middle adolescence, and then dropping off somewhat.  The proportion of junior high school kids with a clear hard rock or heavy metal bent is about 25% overall, probably over 30% for boys. By the end of high school, however, the metal audience decreases to fewer than 20%.  By college, true heavy metal fans are rare indeed, probably making up less than 5% of all students.” (p. 86)

Clearly, impressionable adolescents are quite prone to liking heavy metal, but the popularity of the genre wears off for most listeners.  The remaining heavy metal fans comprise the dedicated core of enthusiasts who carry the music with them into adulthood.  By examining the large numbers of heavy metal supporters, however, especially during their impressionable teenage years, compelling insight about personality types and a multitude of social phenomena can be gained.

Most apparently, heavy metal is a culture steeped in “adolescent turmoil,” which is defined by Took & Weiss (1994) as individuals who have a “history of more peer, school, substance abuse, sexual activity, legal, home behavior, and psychiatric problems, and less traditional religious affiliation” (p. 614).  Arnett (1996) believes these negative aspects arise because the socialization process has been a “pervasive failure” to heavy metal fans, and the behaviors portrayed in metal music resonate more vividly with their ideations of self-destructive behavior, disenfranchisement and attraction to tantalizing and disturbing stimuli (p. 17; Trzcinski, 1992). The popularity of defiant music has been withstanding in adolescent cultures since its inception because music is immediately labeled defiant in a dichotomy of authority and rebellion.  The likelihood of rock music ever becoming unpopular is basically nonexistent.  Bleich & Zillman (1991) proclaim that this antisocially themed music will not likely decamp in popularity or profitability anytime soon because music is a reflection of adolescence and “adolescents have much to be defiant about” (p. 9).

These definitive and dire findings do successfully serve as predicators for personality typing, but overgeneralization is quite common and has ultimately led to massive stereotyping and derision. Arnett (1991a) suggests that researchers and media critics would be more wise to focus their attentions on “the profound questions of the contemporary socialization of adolescents,” rather than searching for nullifying messages in the lyrics of underground rock and metal bands (p. 591).  Arnett (1991b) also believes that such “allegiance to the nihilism of the songs and an identification with the antisocial images” is harmful for character development for young people (p. 93).  Gentile (2003) echoes these sentiments by encouraging others to examine a “troubled youth syndrome” rather than a “Heavy Metal syndrome” when analyzing reckless behavior, music preference and the complexities of adolescent socialization (p. 162).  Looking more closely at heavy metal in correlation with common adolescent behaviors reveals significant insight into the music, culture, and the individuals of which the genre is comprised.


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