In 1990, Judas Priest was sued for allegedly inspiring the suicides of two teen fans. They were cleared of all charges. Was the judge wrong? Photo by Flickr user Fernando Catalina Landa.
By now, the old moral panic over heavy metal and suicidal behavior is so old-hat that it’s almost laughable, right? Bands like Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were taken to court over allegations that their music had inspired suicide attempts among fans, but the judges in those cases found them innocent of all charges. Heavy-metal researchers like Jeffrey Jensen Arnett have gone deep into the subculture to find out why some kids love metal so much — and found that the music provides solace for all kinds of listeners. Sure, depression, suicide, and dark music sometimes go hand in hand, but it’s usually the depression that came first.
Not so fast, according to University of Melbourne researcher Katrina McFerran. She has just published a new study claiming heavy metal causes depression and suicidal feelings in listeners. (Editor’s note: the link to the news item about the study lists it as number 666! Coincidence?) Since the actual study appears to be unavailable, we’re going to just have to go on what it says in the press release:
“The mp3 revolution means that young people are accessing music more than ever before and it’s not uncommon for some to listen to music for seven or eight hours a day,” she said.
“Most young people listen to a range of music in positive ways; to block out crowds, to lift their mood or to give them energy when exercising, but young people at risk of depression are more likely to be listening to music, particularly heavy metal music, in a negative way.
“Examples of this are when someone listens to the same song or album of heavy metal music over and over again and doesn’t listen to anything else. They do this to isolate themselves or escape from reality.
“If this behavior continues over a period of time then it might indicate that this young person is suffering from depression or anxiety, and at worst, might suggest suicidal tendencies.”
Whenever I like a song — whether it’s a heavy metal song or not — I do tend to listen to it a lot. I think this is pretty normal among people who passionate about music (as opposed to folks who simply have a passing interest in it). I clearly remember listening to Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” on endless loop. And, yes, I’ve done this with plenty of heavy-metal songs, too. It wasn’t to block anything out. It was because the song touched me.
Now, McFerran may have a point. Some kids who are already depressed may also listen to the same piece of music over and over, to find comfort in it. But she suggests that this behavior on its own is worrisome and might mean a kid is at risk of suicide. There are already well established warning signs of teen suicide, and “listening to heavy metal on endless loop” isn’t one of them. Generally, people listen to music to make them feel better. Even if it doesn’t seem on the surface that they feel better, it’s keeping them from feeling worse, and that’s an important distinction.
What I’m getting at is: there may be a correlation between depression, suicidal feelings, and love of heavy metal (although fans of any kind of music are certainly susceptible), but that correlation doesn’t suggest that heavy metal is causing those feelings — or that it’s making them worse. But McFerran is suggesting it does, and that’s like suggesting Bic Macs cause bank robberies simply because some bank robbers have eaten them every day for several weeks. (If anything could be said for such eating habits, you could say it causes you to make documentaries. Right?)
At any rate, I suspect McFerran is seeing things a bit backwards — and putting out information that might frighten, rather than assist, parents.