In 1987, after the press had exploded with freaked-out suggestions that heavy metal might be an easy scapegoat in the suicides of Ray Belknap and four teens in Bergenfield, NJ, 20/20 felt it was time to explain “the truth” behind heavy-metal music to unsuspecting parents.
It weaves a lot of sensationalism throughout — this type of broadcasting was particularly rampant in the 1980s, between 20/20 and Geraldo Rivera — but it also does a number of things right, including talking to metalheads, musicians (Bruce Dickinson is fantastic), and heavy-metal experts. It’s too bad it’s also full of misinformation and scaremongering, by Tipper Gore and others.
00:13: “When a form of music that our children like becomes linked with ghoulish images and violent theatrics, and even (sensitive but dramatic pause) … suicide…” Very objective, Barbara.
00:24: “So-called hea-vy-met-al music…” I love how she’s enunciating this like it’s the first time anyone’s heard it. Maybe then, it was.
00:45: Using sensationalized news reports on heavy metal to bolster your own sensationalized news report on heavy metal: Always a smart journalistic move.
1:00: Know how you can tell this reporter doesn’t understand music or metal? He calls Iron Maiden a “supergroup.”
1:18: “Screeching guitars, flamboyant bands, lyrics obsessed with sex, Satanism, and even suicide…” Several sociological surveys of themes in heavy-metal lyrics showed that these topics were in the minority. Mostly, it was the journalists who were “obsessed” with them.
1:33: “Togetherness!” The first metalhead quoted in the program says this is what metal is all about. If everyone listened to this kid, we could have all saved ourselves a lot of trouble.
1:47: “As Frank Zappa was saying, if your kid comes home with an album with a guy with a chainsaw between his legs, you’d better find out what that music is talking about.” That’s not exactly what Zappa said (during the PMRC hearings): “I would say that a buzzsaw blade between a guy’s legs on the album cover is a good indication that it is not for little Johnny.” He was referring to the cover for W.A.S.P.’s “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” single.
2:05: “Teenage suicides, like the ones in Bergenfield, New Jersey.” Yes, they were AC/DC fans. But they were also despondent about the death of a friend a few months earlier — not to mention the fact that adults viewed them as losers. Read Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland for the whole story.
2:30: Lyrics, badly quoted, from Metallica’s “Fade to Black.” People failed to recognize the difference between a song about suicide and a song encouraging suicide. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said, “We got hundreds of letters from kids telling us how they related to the song and that it made them feel better.”
2:45: I still encounter people, metalheads included, who think “Suicide Solution” is about suicide. It isn’t. It’s either about Ozzy’s unhappiness that his friend, Bon Scott, drank himself to death — or about Ozzy’s own struggles with alcoholism.
3:09: Record-burnings. Because that worked so well for the Nazis.
3:29: Tipper Gore: “We have explicit and graphic sex, extreme violence, suicide in lyrics, that is going to children that are sometimes not even teenagers yet…” Keep in mind, this is a woman who was embarrassed to discuss masturbation with her daughter. The poor girl had to find out about it in a Prince song.
3:40: Bruce Dickinson. Bless. It’s time someone said something sensible. “Who are the real people who are poisoning people’s minds, and why are they doing it?”
4:45: “Teaneck High has its own group of so-called tough kids, hoods, or burnouts.” Note the dire tone in his voice, like he’s talking about people who roast babies.
5:28: It’s great that 20/20 actually bothered to talk to some metalheads. And I love that these kids chose to play SOD for the reporter, who was never going to pick up on the satire.
5:35: “It calms me down.” LISTEN TO THESE KIDS, people.
5:44: “And you can sort of drown out the world that way,” says the reporter, putting words in his mouth.
6:05: Note how it transitions without warning from real-world scenes of kids hanging out to a dramatic, fictional clip from a Twisted Sister video.
6:31: “They spend their afternoons in the record shop…” A different reporter could have picked up on how metal serves as a lingua franca for these kids, a way of connecting. Instead he blows it off as though it were a waste of time compared to sports, clubs, etc. Kids who develop encyclopedic knowledge about any subject — and then use that knowledge to connect — are smart kids. Period.
7:11: And now, an interview with a preppie girl, who deeply understands these poor, troubled kids. “They need some support. They need some people to inspire them. Some people to look up to.” What, a fencer/pilot and a musician who overcame an industrial accident aren’t worth looking up to?
7:52: “This song is about nuclear war.” He’s talking about Megadeth’s “Peace Sells.” A song which actually challenges stereotypes about metalheads. Oops.
8:19: Tipper Gore quoting Motley Crue’s “Too Young to Fall in Love.” Because everyone knows all music lyrics are meant to be taken literally.
00:06: “They say parents pay more attention to the lyrics than they do.” I think there are plenty of kids who do pay attention to the lyrics (I’m one of them), but again, there’s a difference between a song being about something, and encouraging that something.
00:24: “You just avoid the music you don’t like, that’s all.” Kids know their limits. Really.
1:24: “Without heavy metal, there would probably be a lot more suicides.” It’s too bad they buried this halfway through the segment, because it really ought to be the headline.
2:00: Aw, little Jay in KISS/corpsepaint. His dad has the right approach: try to listen along, even if you don’t like it.
2:55: Ah, moshing. Great for some scary-looking video. “At times it looks more like a contact sport.” (Because contact sports are so wacky and unAmerican).
3:35: RULES TO DEMETAL KIDS. Didn’t anyone listen to the guy who said without metal, there would be more suicides? Why would anyone think this is a good idea? We can’t see all the rules, but the ones he reads off — tear down posters, impose a dress code — are more like a dictatorship than a parenting strategy.
3:45: This kid realizes it’s rude to talk back to his parents or take out his anger on them, and he’s found an appropriate and safe outlet. Some adults don’t know how to do this!
3:59: This kid’s dad threatens him. And people are worried about what music he listens to?
4:30: Tipper says, “I advocate a system where people can make up their own minds according to their own values and their own assessment of where their child is on a developmental spectrum.” It’s true, her book does that. It’s too bad the rest of it is filled with anti-metal propaganda designed to do the thinking for readers.
6:05: It was smart that Iron Maiden and Bruce Dickinson get to be the heavy-metal ambassadors in this program. I wonder if the producers realized that, or whether they thought they’d just get a bunch of Satanists talking about “the number of the beast” and were unpleasantly surprised to discover how thoughtful and forthright Dickinson is.
7:05: “This is hostile music.” Barbara was apparently watching a different program than the one the rest of us were watching.
7:18: “But it isn’t the music that does them harm.” “No.” Okay, maybe she was paying attention.
7:34: “The point is, tune in, and let it be known…” And there the video cuts off, so I guess we’ll never know what the point was, exactly.