Smart, nerdy kids and worried parents: three views on the influence of heavy metal


Slayer, doing what they do best. Photo by Flickr user Metal Chris.

Heavy metal has a ill-begotten reputation as music for dumb people. After all, the stereotype of the metal fan — at least in the 1980s — was the stoned, burned-out, dropout kid. Documentaries like heavy metal parking lot and that Geraldo Rivera special didn’t help.

But there have been studies — at least one — showing that some of the smartest students are among heavy metal’s biggest fans. According to the Telegraph, “Researchers found that, far from being a sign of delinquency and poor academic ability, many adolescent “metalheads” are extremely bright and often use the music to help them deal with the stresses and strains of being gifted social outsiders.”

“We are looking at a group with lower than average self-esteem that does not feel quite as well adjusted. They feel more stressed out and turn to heavy metal as a way of relieving that stress,” said the main researcher, Stuart Cadwallader.

When I shared this article among friends who like heavy metal some months ago, nobody was particularly surprised. Certainly the idea of the bright, nerdy metal fan was present in the San Francisco Bay Area when Brian Lew, AKA ümlaut, was a young photographer and friend to several struggling bands, including Metallica, Death Angel, Slayer and Exodus. His story about growing up with metal fits the Cadwallader study perfectly:

I never really tried to be a punk, because punks talk about real life, and how much it sucks. I didn’t want that. Metal gave me an escape. When a band like Venom would sing about sacrificing babies to Satan, I gravitated towards it—not because I wanted to sacrifice babies, but because it was a mythic fantasy thing that tapped into the epic things that fascinated my as a history geek, a science fiction geek, you name it. Iron Maiden sang about this stuff, and it gave me an identity, not an agenda.

Teens today who love heavy metal aren’t really all that different, nor are their reasons for loving the music. If parents chafe against the idea of kids listening to metal that carries a certain shock factor, such as Watain, then the best approach is simply to be curious. Ask questions, and keep an open mind to the answers. You never know — your interest may turn into something more, as happened with one father who recently wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune:

Metallica’s show proved quite a spectacle. A mostly steel-looking stage with lights that looked like hovering space creatures filled the arena floor. Near the end, we saw smoke coming from the sound mixing area. Seconds later, a roadie completely engulfed in flame dashed out from under the stage. I was ready to call my office with a real news story. Then the space-creature lights began exploding and falling everywhere. Soon, the stage was in shambles. …

I thought that one experience might be my last metal show. Was I ever wrong.

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