Since the beginning of heavy music, whether that be Sabbath and Zeppelin or even their classical forefathers, there’s been a concern that such dark, aggressive sounding music must be something truly evil. Connections to Satan have been made repeatedly, with some ultra-conservatives blaming metal for various societal woes, such as violence, depraved sex, or social distortions.
At times, these claims have resulted in high-profile affairs, such as when Tipper Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), an infamous 1985 campaign against bands they thought exemplified corrupting influences in children, such as AC/DC, W.A.S.P. and Judas Priest. Although unified moral panics have died down over the decades, the theory that metal makes people, especially kids, into violent Satanists still persists.
Media reporting sure gives a lot of attention to the minuscule connections between heavy music and something terrible. The Columbine shooting was a prime example, as was the case of the West Memphis Three, where heavy music was implicated in some shocking, heinous murders. Later, when additional evidence emerged to suggest that other factors were relevant or that something initially reported was revealed to be false, it didn’t make headlines in the same way.
When the world needs answers to complicated problems, nothing feeds the machine more than simple answers that are usually wrong.
Metal is an easy target for such claims. Satanic imagery and even traditional Christian imagery has always been associated with metal. According to the Bible and traditional lore, nothing is scarier than the devil, no place has the power to instill horror like Hell, and no being is more powerful than a vengeful god who will rain down fire and brimstone, smiting an entire land. So clearly, a lot of seminal bands have co-opted religious iconography or language to invoke these powerful themes. Think Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Eyehategod, and Lamb of God, among many others.
Similarly, visual imagery on album covers and at live shows does the same thing. It’s blatant and obvious, because that’s the point. The imagery, the band names, and the music is enhanced by these themes and it works. A band such as Ghost, which certainly looks the part, even if they don’t sound that evil, is simply playing with these notions. They’re artists after all, and their job is to invoke emotion.
Their success is further evidence that the meanings behind the use of these religious and faux-Satanic themes are effective at that. Nobody is actually trying to disprove the connection to Satan either. Remember that these people are artists and understand that not everyone needs to like their art or even approve of it.
Famously, Jimmy Page, though accused, never actually denied being involved in the occult, because, frankly, he had better things to do and the mystique that had been growing around him was also a big draw for the band.
When a handful of truly heinous things did happen that involved artists in the metal community, such what happened with Norway’s black metal scene and church burnings, those same concerns about metal corrupting people and causing violence are reinvigorated by the American media, despite the fact that bands like these never really became that commercially popular in the United States.
So why does this myth persist?
Why are we still, decades later, trying to argue that metal isn’t evil, that it doesn’t cause violence, and that this form of creative expression is actually a good thing?
(Loudwire contributor Steve Byrne is a licensed psychologist and an associate professor of counseling. He is also the instructor for the university honors course The Psychology of Heavy Metal and Punk Rock.)
Social Reasons Behind Demonizing Metal — A Scapegoat
The reasons for violence, crime, and hatred are clearly more complicated than many individuals want to acknowledge. People want simple reasons for complex problems. Why do some people do terrible things to others? Abuse, suicide, violent crimes, ruthless bullying? It’s hard to say – and when we do have a better idea, it’s usually a confluence of different factors – exposure to poor modeling, propensity to violence, a lack of coping skills, and others.
But the public doesn’t want to hear how it’s complicated, they want to know one thing they can target: a scapegoat. The real things we can do to prevent these bad things, if that’s even possible, involve all kinds of difficult endeavors that we’re not actually ready to do as a society, like reducing barriers to education and healthcare, increasing opportunity in stigmatized communities, improving social/emotional learning in schools, and allocating the appropriate public funding for these things.
Figuring out how to help the adults who have already been affected by the previous generations’ issues is another gigantic task without an easy answer. None of these things are easy, nor will they actually change quickly once we actually implement policy change.
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Cultural Reasons for Demonizing Metal — Religious Extremism
Religious extremists think they have the answer to these complicated problems. Whatever targets they see as the source of evil, corruption, and violence become their enemy. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been swayed by the guy with the “the end is near” sign or the incessant “protesting” by the Westboro Baptist Church.
These people’s cultural and religious beliefs — often informed by some charismatic but ultimately hateful spiritual leaders — are firmly embedded in their identities and resist change. When an established group believes that there is only one answer, all the others must be wrong and can never be right. The more attention they get, the more they’ll continue pushing their erroneous and hateful messages.
Outside of religious extremism, similar narratives are pushed in other groups – communities, families, and others. If, within these groups, dissent is not tolerated and debate unwelcome, things will not change and the individuals growing up in these systems don’t get exposed to alternative viewpoints.
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Personal Reasons for Demonizing Metal — Emotions
Individuals cannot handle not knowing some things. Intense difficulty with ambiguity is why people prone to depression feel terribly when something bad happens to them and they don’t have a clear answer. The same with anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions.
Are you worried about your kids living in an unpredictable world full of school shootings, opiate abuse, mental health problems, and other social ills? There has to be an answer, right? But unfortunately, the answer to individual people, much like it is to larger groups, gets oversimplified and is often wrong.
It’s especially wrong here, as there’s growing evidence to support the idea that metal is a healthy outlet for all the negativity we experience. Connecting with a group of peers, finding solace in words that echo your internal state, and realizing that you’re not the only one who feels this way is a great, positive byproduct of metal, but not one that makes headlines every day.
Similarly, the court of public opinion pays virtually no attention to whatever connections don’t fit the existing narrative. For instance, do we focus on what kind of music murderers and rapists and pedophiles listen to when it isn’t metal?
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So will this article sway any of the torchbearers who still insist that violent music is a bad influence on our youth and responsible for all the evils in our world? It’s doubtful.
Change usually takes a long time, as well as a younger generation who stand by, willing to exert their influence when the opportunities arise. While it would be great if these silly arguments about violent extremism and moral corruption being connected to our favorite art form could be put to bed already, we can take comfort in the fact that the tide has already turned.
More and more, the public is realizing that heavy music is a great way for people to process difficult emotions, to find a sense of belonging, and to showcase some amazing musical talent, and these silly notions promoted by narrow-minded people will face a just armageddon.
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