Tag Archives: heavy metal

Interview With Adam Lanza’s Father Makes Clear: We Need a New Approach to School Shootings

I’ve been thinking a lot about this interview with Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza’s father, Peter Lanza, since it ran in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. I read about it before I read it, in various articles attempting to summarize its more shocking elements: Peter describing Adam’s crime as “you can’t get any more evil,” or saying he sometimes wishes his son had never been born. But if you read the whole piece, you come away with a much more complex and nuanced picture of what happened in this family, and in a situation which has no easy answers or living scapegoats.

We can speculate — at length — about whether Adam’s parents should have paid more attention or done more. Much has been made of the fact that Adam was prescribed different therapies and even antidepressants, and the fact that both Adam and his mother, Nancy, appeared to be uncomfortable with these options and failed to stick with them. Plenty could also be made of the fact that Nancy kept Peter at a distance after their divorce — a distance he didn’t appear to fight.

But the more I write about these topics, the more I think it’s impossible to determine which one of 100,000 troubled adolescent boys (to pick a random number) — autistic or no, depressed or no, schizophrenic or no, angry or no — is going to plan and commit a mass shooting in a school or elsewhere. Obviously, there are the rare instances where one of them posts or emails a warning, or divulges his plans in a fit of confidence or attention-seeking. But in most cases, even in hindsight, the “warning signs” aren’t clear — or aren’t common only to other fellow perpetrators. They’re qualities other people have, too.

We’re coming up on the 15th anniversary of the Columbine High School killings, and the narrative surrounding that incident is still very similar to the one surrounding Sandy Hook: wayward, perhaps emotionally disturbed teens. Angry music and violent video games. Access to guns. A lack of comprehensive mental-health options. Parents who didn’t recognize the signs that their child might be turning violent, either because the signs were well hidden or because it was difficult to tell those were the ones that would obviously lead to murder. The narrative hasn’t changed because we still don’t have answers, and we may never have the answers we’d need to actually identify potential perpetrators and prevent more school shootings.

Given that, what COULD we do to minimize the number of these incidents, or protect students and school staff if they happen? Much better mental health services, sure. De-stigmatization of mental health issues. Massive amounts of education and outreach for parents of troubled kids. None of this would be aimed at singling out potential perpetrators, but to make sure any kids in this category have a broad and comforting safety net, which is something pretty much all teens need, but particularly those who might otherwise be prone to extreme acts of violence.

What about the guns? Whether or not guns are allowed to minors is almost irrelevant; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had an over-18 friend purchase guns for them. Adam Lanza learned his way around firearms from his mother, but he was also 19, a legal adult able to purchase his own weapons, when he committed his crimes. There are Constitutional issues associated with limiting access to guns, and there are varying opinions on gun control, but I think someone who is willing to go into a school and open fire is going to find a way around whatever gun laws we have. We could turn schools into gun-free zones, but there’s likely ways around that.

At the end of the day, the New Yorker article suggests we — Americans, parents, educators, and journalists all included — need to think and write differently about school shootings, the ones that have happened and the ones that have yet to happen.

So. Where do you think we should start?

The First Stats on Subculture Hate Crimes Are In


Photo by Flickr user fluffy_steve.

Some of you may recall the stories of Sophie Lancaster and Melody McDermott, two Manchester-area women who were beaten — one of them to death — for looking “goth.” Well, in 2013, Manchester police began coding these attacks as hate crimes, and at the end of the year they revealed their statistics on hate crimes in the region.

While the number of hate crimes against goths, emos, metalheads and others in the area is small compared to the vast number that target people based on race, sexual orientation or other factors, it’s a big step for police to recognize them at all. To call out attacks that are specifically driven by the way a person looks — and their sense of otherness — is to prevent the attacker from being able to hide behind other excuses, and it also reminds others that harming someone because they’re different isn’t acceptable. That’s especially true given that many places, including in Greater Manchester, the punishment for hate crimes is greater than for other types of assaults. This, in turn, can encourage victims to report them.

More police departments need to follow Manchester’s model and recognize hate crimes against subcultures. As the region’s crime commissioner, Tony Lloyd, told the BBC:

“The impact of hate crime extends far beyond the initial incident.

“By their very nature, hate crimes are very personal attacks that leave victims, who are often already vulnerable individuals, feeling defenceless physically and emotionally.

“Because of this, victims may be reluctant to report the crime or — worse still — may come to accept hate crime as an inevitable part of their lives.”

Researchers study people who like heavy metal, discover they’re not so bad after all!

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Windhand onstage. Photo by Flickr user Metal Chris.

A new study led by University of Westminster psychologist Viren Swami puts metalheads under the microscope again — and finds, refreshingly, some surprising results. I’m reluctant to analyze it much because the full study is paywalled, but the jist is that they took more than 400 Brits and had them listen to “clips of 10 tracks of contemporary heavy metal,” asked them what they thought of the music, and then gave them a questionnaire meant to test them for the “Big Five” personality traits: Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to new experiences.

There are a few additional details in this (unnecessarily sexist) writeup from Pacific Standard, including the fact that the study included 219 women and 195 men. Here’s their quick-and-dirty explanation of the findings:

Matching music preference to the Big Five personality traits, Swami was not surprised to find “openness to experience” was associated with enjoyment of heavy metal. People who embrace the new and different tend to be “drawn to forms of music that are intense, engaging and challenging,” he notes, “of which heavy metal is but one example.”

Those with a strong preference for metal “were also more likely to have lower self-esteem,” the researchers write. They speculate this style of music “allows for a purge of negative feelings,” producing a catharsis that may “help boost self-worth.”

Appreciation for metal was also associated with a higher-than-average need for uniqueness, and lower-than-average levels of religiosity. “It is possible that this association is driven by underlying attitudes towards authority, which may include religious authorities,” they write.

Trying to draw correlations between personality traits and musical preferences — particularly when studying people who are outside of that musical culture — is tricky business. I would loosely agree with the suggestion that people who are more open to new experiences would be into extreme music, but it could also be said that people who prefer things to be very structured and regimented would like metal, because the genre — prog and “math metal” in particular — offer that kind of structure. Likewise, it’s a safe guess to say that folks with lower self-esteem might be drawn to metal because its lyrics often offer messages of catharsis and empowerment. But the culture, as well as the music, offers a support network for misfits, and that can’t be ignored.

Lastly, the topic of metal and religiosity is a sticky one (and one I touch on briefly in The Columbine Effect; does it have to do with attitudes toward authority, as the researcher suggests? Others have theorized that people who belong to one of the dominant faiths are less likely to be tolerant of metal because of how the culture and iconography toys with religious criticism, pagan and Satanic themes, and blasphemy. But then again, there’s the argument that metal is a kind of religion.

It’s tough to say what the value of studies like this are. To overcome the stigma and biases against heavy metal and its fans? Others — such as filmmaker Sam Dunn — are arguably more effective. I’d rather see a deep, longitudinal study of longtime metal fans, starting when they picked up their first Black Sabbath or Metallica CD and following them until they’re in nursing homes. I’m happy that studies show not all metalheads are delinquents, but you don’t need a study for that. Just talk to fans.

New book, “The Columbine Effect,” Dec. 1

I have big news! My new book, “The Columbine Effect: How five teen pastimes got caught in the crossfire and why teens are taking them back,” will be released Dec. 1. Those pastimes — violent video games, heavy metal, paganism and the occult, goth culture and RPGs — are also the foundation of this blog, and the book is a partner to what I’ve been writing here. I’ve been working on this project for a long time and I’m excited to finally be able to share it. Please watch the trailer above, and check out a more detailed summary, as well as the first chapter, on my website. Enjoy.

The bright side of choosing dark music

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Metal’s misunderstood haven: the mosh pit. Photo by Flickr user Metal Chris.

Heavy metal isn’t blamed for so many things anymore — not like violent video games. But even 30 years after the PMRC attempted to paint loud, aggressive music as a one-way ticket to juvenile delinquency, metal still has reputation issues. People who listen to metal regularly (or dare go to shows) are seen, as Atlantic writer Leah Sottile puts it, “like I’m a ticking time bomb that could go off anywhere between the water cooler and the break room.”

But the paradox, as she points out, is that many people who listen to metal say the music calms them down. This is something Jeffrey Jensen Arnett confirmed at length in his book Metalheads, and that many other fans have said over the years. Sottile has her own theories for why this is, which she feels are backed by a recent small study out of the The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The study found that people who chose music that suited their mood, whether they were happy or angry, experienced better well-being overall.

Sottile says:

It’s no novel idea that someone might choose to rev themselves up with aggressive music before a engaging in a tough task: A fourth quarter tie-breaker, a tense salary negotiation. And no surprise, the folks who chose angry music had no problem completing their tasks.

But [the study] also found that the people who chose to be pissed off actually showed a greater sense of well-being overall than the people who avoided feelings of unpleasantness.

She also talks about the concept of constructive anger: “if you listen to Judas Priest’s ‘Hell Patrol’ in your cubicle and then finally ask your boss for a raise, that’s a form of constructive anger. You’re getting mad, and it gives you the courage to solve an issue.” No wonder such people feel better about themselves.

What do you think? Do you listen to metal? How has it helped you deal with your emotions in a constructive way? Do you feel like you’re more content than the average person?

What does “black metal” have to do with Varg Vikernes’ terrorism arrest? Nothing — sort of.

The news broke this morning that Burzum frontman Varg Vikernes was arrested in the Correze region of France after his wife, Marie Chachet, after Chachet purchased four rifles (which she was licensed to own). The couple, who have three children, were charged on suspicion that they were fostering a terrorist plot, based in part on the fact that Anders Breivik sent Vikernes a copy of his 1,500-page manifesto before he went on a terrorist spree near Oslo, killing 77 people.

For readers who don’t know, Vikernes is one of the most famous — and most divisive — figures in the Norwegian black metal scene, to the point that it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about that scene’s early days without his name cropping up. In 2009, Vikernes was released from prison after serving 15 years of a 21-year sentence for the murder of his friend/rival, Mayhem guitarist Oeystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, as well as for the arson of several historic churches in Norway. His involvement in these crimes, and the subsequent coverage in international magazines like Kerrang!, put black metal on the world stage for the first time.

I recently finished reading “Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness,” an anthology of essays and interviews regarding the scene and its progression in the 20+ years since Vikerness stabbed Aarseth to death. Vikernes’ crimes cast a long shadow; they were mentioned in almost every piece in the book. Given that those crimes have now almost become synonymous with black metal’s origin story, it’s easy to see why. However, the book showed again and again how wrong it is to view all of the genre through the lens of Vikernes’ actions. By and large, the musicians and fans involved in the scene are not violent, destructive criminals. Sure, some adore theatrics, simulated rituals and references to Satanism (either real or metaphorical). But that’s another matter altogether.

It’s also worth noting that many, particularly within the black-metal scene, actively boycott Burzum’s albums both because of Vikernes’ actions and because he’s an avowed racist and adherent to neo-Nazi beliefs — which may be part of what attracted Breivik to him, though that’s speculation on my part. Even fans find supporting him complicated.

Euronews’ headline today reads, “Neo-nazi and black metal star Varg Vikernes arrested in France.” They’re not wrong to do so, given that Vikernes’ identity as a black metal musician is his claim to fame. This isn’t like calling Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris “goths,” or Breivik a video-game lover. Those facets, true or not, aren’t what made those figures known to the world.

What would be a mistake is to once again paint all of black metal with the Burzum brush, as happened in the mid-1990s after the arsons and Aarseth’s murder. Again, the genre has largely moved on, incorporating other elements, other philosophies. It’s still dark and harsh and rebellious in plenty of places, but the overwhelming majority of folks in the scene, musicians and fans, are focused on music, philosophy and community; not criminal mayhem.

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.