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The fate of the metalheads

Fans cheer on the heavy metal band Motörhead. brandi/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The fate of the metalheads

Fans cheer on the heavy metal band Motörhead. brandi/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Adults often worry about adolescents who identify with fringe-style cultures, whether it’s emo, hip hop or juggalos.

But every generation has its own set of musical cliques that draw millions of teenage fans. In the 1980s, heavy metal – a style of music characterized by blistering guitar solos and soaring vocals – was, by some measures, the most popular musical genre.

Adults were up in arms. There were congressional hearings about heavy metal’s inherent “dangers.” Parents (and their elected representatives) feared that their kids, in identifying with the subculture, might be lured into devil worship, sex or drugs. Tipper Gore and the Parents’ Music Resource Council (PMRC) sought to ban recordings, while artists like Judas Priest were put on trial, blamed for the suicides of two teenagers.

Growing up as a heavy metal groupie in Hollywood in the 1980s, I was certainly exposed to a lot of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But I was also part of a community of like-minded peers who loved the music and lyrics. My friends and I donned micro-mini skirts, leather jackets over lace bras and stiletto heels. We gave the hypocritical “establishment” the middle finger.

Cut to the present day: I’m a psychology professor and two-time Fulbright Scholar. Did metal affect me? I believe it did. I believe it helped me cope with a very difficult and dysfunctional home life. I found friends and boyfriends and an aggressive style of music that helped me safely vent my anger over my lot in life.

But a few years ago, while I was writing a memoir, I began to wonder: what happened to the metalheads I’d known in the 1980s? I may have emerged relatively unscathed, but had the others become drug-addicted and destitute, like so many parents predicted?

My mentor, social psychologist Howard Friedman, suggested I conduct a study to find out.

Early 1980s research on teenage metalheads suggested that they were more aggressive, more emotionally disturbed and less well-adjusted than non-metal fans. However, other research suggested they were more intelligent or that it was really family dysfunction that led to their poor adjustment.

Unfortunately, no one followed these kids over time; no one had examined what became of them as they reached adulthood.

Megadeth performs in Berkeley, California in 1984.

In our study, we used social media networks to recruit people between the ages of 35 and 60 to answer questions about their adolescent years during the 1980s. We reached out to metal groups on Facebook and used “snowball sampling,” in which we had individuals ask their friends to participate, who then asked their friends and so on. (This is a typical method for recruiting specialized or hard-to-find populations.)

We ended up with a sample of 377 people, which included two comparison groups: middle-aged folks who did not like metal in the 1980s and current college students. We needed to be sure that anything we found about the metal group was not also true of other people who grew up in the 1980s or of youth in general.

In the first question, we asked participants what their favorite music was in the 1980s. Those who picked anything but metal (like pop or new wave) were put into a comparison group, as were students. Those who chose metal (like Metallica or Guns-N-Roses) were then asked whether they were groupies, paid musicians or simply fans. Groupies self-identified as sleeping with rock stars and doing anything possible to get backstage. Musicians were not in garage bands but were paid to play.

Then we developed an 85-page questionnaire asking them about personality traits, education, income, marital status, childhood trauma and abuse, past and current sexual behavior, how happy they were as kids and how happy they are now, in addition to a number of other variables.

We expected that the metal groups would be similar to the other middle-aged adults. But we never expected how much better they fared in important ways.

First, some of the stereotypes from the 1980s ended up being generally true of metalheads in their youth. Metal fans took a lot more drugs and engaged in a lot more sex than either comparison group.

In fact, groupies reported some serious drug problems in the 1980s. Groupies also experienced more childhood trauma than other groups. On the whole, the metal group had more adverse childhood experiences and engaged in more risky behaviors than the other two groups. On the other hand, many of the metalheads reported that they found a sense of belonging and acceptance in their musical clique.

What was fascinating, however, was that metalheads also reported being significantly happier in their youth compared to the other two groups. They also reported having significantly fewer regrets about anything they did in their youth. The comparison groups were more impulsive, more likely to experience manic symptoms like hyperactivity and sleeplessness, and were more likely to seek psychological counseling for emotional problems.

And despite politicians’ fears about metalheads not amounting to anything, they ended up, on the whole, not differing on education attained, income, marital status or on any personality traits measured, such as neuroticism.

Associating with subcultures can offer emotional support and a sense of belonging. Tim Schapker/flickr, CC BY

In response to open-ended questions, the metalheads discussed feeling like they were part of an important social movement, rebelling against the status quo. They were living in the moment, enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle and feeling connected to like-minded peers. They loved the lyrics, the complexity and the intensity of heavy metal music. They felt a sense of freedom and social support as part of the metal clan.

It appears that “fringe” style cultures may actually act as a protective salve for youth: metal, with its ready-made set of beliefs, styles and behaviors, acted as a path to identity formation for many of our subjects.

We hypothesize that this is true for all youth cultures: all youth need a sense of belonging to a group that is different from that of their parents, that is their own, one that speaks their own language and convinces them that they matter.

This is especially true for kids like the 1980s metalheads, many of whom had dysfunctional families at home. Social support for the developing adolescent identity is perhaps the most important function any group can provide.