What Psychologists Say About Metalheads 2016

Version 5The following report was written as part of my graduate studies in general psychology. It has not been published anywhere but this site. Please contact me before reusing or reporting this paper.

Note: I initially used the word “consumption” in this paper because, to my slight surprise, many of the research articles reviewed below also discussed metalheads as consumers and the business/marketing implications. Even though I would have liked to explore that aspect, it was left out in order to address the assignment topic (something for a future post). But I think the use of the word “consumption” in the overall context of subcultural participation works.

Heavy Metal Music Consumption:

Mama Maybe We’re Not All Crazy Now


This paper reviewed six articles that discussed recent findings in the study of heavy metal music subcultures. The research examined the psychological and social-psychological processes involved in subcultural participation, with a focus on identity development and emotional control mechanisms. These studies were summarized to provide an overview of the findings involving the short- and long-term psychological effects of heavy metal music consumption.


Literature has long-shown strong support for music as a form of catharsis (emotional release/relief) (Ford, 2004; Kohut, 1957; Mastromatteo, Calderaro, and Valentini, 1975), and that participation in leisure activities, such as listening to music, allows for relaxation and emotional relief that can contribute to overall psychological well-being (Ford, 2004; Pressman et al., 2009). However, mid-to-late century researchers have questioned any beneficial psychological results from consuming certain forms of rock-n-roll music, particularly the so-called deviant music form known as heavy metal (Howe et al., 2015; Lynxwiler & Gay, 2000). Heavy metal music is a subgenre of rock-n-roll that is often said to have been born in the 1960s (Pearlin, 2014), however, its roots are undeniably in the 1950s era anti-mainstream attitude of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis (“America rocks,” n.d.). It has evolved in rebellious intensity – in sound, look, and ritual – into a plethora of heavy music genres (Pearlin, 2014). By the 1980s its members were generally known for their black, leather, metal, defiant, and sometimes morbid appearance (Chaney & Goulding, 2015), and party rituals of a decadent nature that brought to mind the dance- and drink-laden orgies of the Dionysus-worshipping partiers of Mount Olympus (Ulusoy, 2015). Psychology researchers predicted developmental problems for members of this 1980-90s heavy music subculture due to their risky “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” lifestyle, including psychiatric issues, poor grades, and family dysfunction (Howe et al., 2015). The metal fans themselves shouted an explanation of their behavior to society with “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” a song recorded by the band Quiet Riot, the first heavy metal artist to reach the top of the Billboard charts in 1983 (Holder & Lea, 1972; Rivadavia, n.d.). However, the research articles discussed below show that heavy metal music consumption and subcultural participation integrated the risky behaviors with protective factors that aided in the psychological and psycho-sociological (group influenced) processes of identity development and emotional control mechanisms (Howe et al., 2015). Furthermore, similar to historical research showing the cathartic effects of music, the study shows that its leisure-time consumption can contribute to overall emotional well-being.

A recent study examined dress and appearance in heavy metal music subculture (Chaney & Goulding, 2015). Data was examined from participant observation and immersion at seven hard-core metal festivals over a five-year period, and from multi-stage in-depth interviews of 13 men and 10 women aged 19-37. The researchers coded the themes presented and continually compared the data to establish construct and meaning. The researchers concluded that dress in the heavy music subculture is used to transform to a primitive state outside of normal social boundaries to escape from everyday ordinariness and provide emotional release. They also noted that humans have been creating identity transformations in their leisure hours since the times of medieval carnivals, and suggest that this type of subcultural participation is a continuation of that psycho-sociological emotional processing.

Similarly, Ulusoy (2015) studied heavy metal music rituals in the context of the meanings that participants derived from their sometimes decadent subcultural leisure activities. He employed ethnographic documentation obtained from an intensive two-year participant observation of subcultural activities, including concerts, videos, clubs, studios, and private parties, and conducted phenomenological interviews of 15 snowball sample identified informants. The findings suggested that the heavy metal mentality was paradoxical, and as such similar to Nietzshe’s Dionysian-Apollonian personality concept in which the Dionysian side of one’s nature seeks to resist the mainstream culture with creative self-expression and establish individual social ties. The study found that the subculture offered a way to explore the Dionysian wild side within the Apollonian communal code of shared ideologies, and at the same time establish both individual identity and shared cultural expressions. The results suggest that these entertainment activities further provided for emotional release and social well-being.

Another recent examination of heavy metal music subculture evaluated data from a figurational sociological approach, which analyzes individual behaviors within similarly-oriented and interdependent groups from a broader socio-historical perspective (Sinclair & Dolan, 2015). Researchers culled data obtained from a three-year participant observer study of an Irish heavy metal music scene that included case studies of 15 individuals aged 18-25. Human development research has shown that these young adults (age 18-29) continue to define and decide who they are and what they want in life, still enmeshed in the identity development stage that began in adolescence (Munsey, 2006; Benson & Elder, 2011). Sinclair and Dolan (2015) suggested that the piercings, tattoos, aggression, and other anti-establishment norms attracted rebellious youth and allowed for identity development by acceptance into a like-minded community. The evidence also showed that integration into the subculture involved navigating and adopting its norms and codes, which assisted in the development of emotional control of aggression, a prominent emotional state in the subcultureor example, the researchers found that the participants in the seemingly violent mosh pit rituals had an unwritten code of conduct: no elbow, fists, or spit, and to pick up anybody that falls. The research showed that this code provided for a sense of amenable self-control, a “controlled de-controlling,” that is part of a wider sociological process. The researchers suggested that the study reveals “…how informal modes of behavior can be actually demonstrative of advanced forms of subcultural control that are connected to wider social and historical processes” (p. 437).

Kneer and Rieger (2015) examined how heavy metal fans use the music as a way to deal with the psychopathological anxiety caused by the fear of death. The researchers measured the cultural views of mortality of 30 students and alumni using a power analysis. They posited that similar to other terror management theory research that shows how media is used to overcome a fear of death by providing meaning, music subculture membership also provides a significant internal immortality prompt. Findings from the study concluded that the communal identity formed from sharing distinct attitudes and beliefs strengthened self-esteem in being part of a bigger whole, which in turn buffered anxiety about mortality. They also suggested that music that was beneficial in one’s youth could also serve as a buffer against death anxiety later in life in the form of nostalgia.

In sharp opposition to the above findings related to community-derived identity, Venkateshm, Podoshen, Urbaniak, and Wallin (2015) found evidence that certain extreme heavy metal music subcultures instead use membership to self-express individualism and isolationismithout any community-supported bonding. They used a qualitative research framework to analyze data from email, video, and personal interviews examining the black metal scene in Norway, a unique subgenre of metal subculture. The researchers explained that this particular subgenre involves an aggressive, angry, and harsh form of doom music derived from its followers’ unique cultural history – including Norse mythology, politics, and often anti-Christian influences – and whose members prize isolation and reject the notion of community. The researchers noted that the intense sense of individuality, which is reflected in one-man bands and lack of interaction at concerts, was in stark contrast to non-extreme metal subcultures that participate in group-based rituals. The data showed that while non-extreme fans show a sense of community-derived identity, extreme metal fans use symbolism, such as inverted crosses, for a self-narrating feral identity. This study shows that researchers need to be aware of the existence of the numerous subgenres of heavy metal music and understand that music subculture research cannot be generalized. It is noted, however, that extreme metal culture has a commonality with anti-mainstream identification development.

The results of a study by Howe et. al, 2015 summarized many of the above findings in its conclusions after researchers examined the long-term effects of heavy metal music subcultural participation by studying members who were now in middle-age. The study categorized 377 subjects into five total groupings: three study groups included middle-aged (mean age 44) 1980s heavy metal groupies, musicians, and fans, and two control groups included middle-aged non-metal fans, and college-age students (mean age 21). Snowball sampling procedures were used to recruit middle-aged subjects and university recruitment was used to enlist college students. Group comparisons were made from statistically analyzed data collected by skip-logic surveys that utilized a variety of psychologically tested, quantitatively scaled forms, and qualitative questionnaires. The study results suggested that while members experienced a “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” lifestyle that foretold of risky behaviors, the subculture appeared to serve as a protective factor against negative outcomes by assisting in the early identity development stage with connections to socially-supporting, like-minded others. The researchers found evidence that the subcultural support was crucial in emotionally empowering sensation-seeking young adults to acquire emotional control within a communal identity outside the mainstream, allowing for healthy development into later adulthood. The study found that overall “…these middle-aged metalheads are middle class, gainfully employed, relatively well educated, and look back fondly on the wild times they lived in the 1980s” and were otherwise happier and more well-adjusted than the two comparison groups (p. 623). The researchers noted that current developmental psychologists theorize that identity is based on continual self-reflection from a cultural perspective. This study posits that subcultural identification evolves into middle-age, as many members of the study group remain connected to the heavy metal subculture.

In conclusion, the examination of this research appears to demonstrate that consumption of heavy metal music within its subculture can assist, rather than hinder, with healthy psychological and psycho-sociological processes. This is not to disregard the many casualties and victims of the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll lifestyle, as they are significant in number and tragedy (Bellis et al., 2007). However, the findings from the articles show that heavy metal music subcultural integration involves ritual leisure activities that can benefit identity development issues and emotional control processes. They have also shown that youthful heavy metal music subculture participation can contribute to overall emotional well-being throughout adulthood.


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Copyright 2016 Rocksandy. All rights reserved. 

2 thoughts on “What Psychologists Say About Metalheads 2016

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