Tag Archives: Iron Maiden

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.

I watch the 20/20 special on heavy metal so you don’t have to (but you’ll probably want to anyway)

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.
5:28: \m/
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.

The war against metal is still alive — in some minds

Did Rick Santorum declare war on heavy metal? No — but a hoax is making people think so. Santorum photo by Gage Skidmore.

These days, it can be doggedly difficult to tell truth from fiction. When some of the best news broadcasting comes from Comedy Central, and political candidates say things that seem straight out of The Onion, it takes a sharp eye to know what you’re seeing.

Last week, Tyranny of Tradition posted “Rick Santorum Declares War on Heavy Metal.” Tyranny of Tradition, written by Keith Spillett, is was created “in the hopes of working out some internal questions I have been struggling with in a public way so that those who wrestle with the same questions can have the opportunity to gain deeper insights to their meanings,” Spillett wrote. “There will be some inconsistencies, oversimplifications and illogical arguments in the posts ahead.”

But most people didn’t know that when they read the following:

“If you listen to the radio today, many of these brand new, so-called heavy metal music bands like Black Sabbath, Venom, The WASP and Iron Maiden use satanic imagery to corrupt the minds of young people,” announced Santorum at a 10,000 dollar a plate sock-hop in Valdosta, Georgia on Thursday.

Santorum’s popularity in the polls has grown substantially since he began speaking out against metal and its assault on traditional values. He has spent much of the past week in the Midwest encouraging young people to stay away from metal artists and listen to performers like Michael W. Smith and Pat Boone. In a recent Gallup Poll, 87 percent of Republican voters think that the biggest problem in America today is “the demented bloodlust of teenagers caused entirely by heavy metal music.”

Many blog commenters got the joke right away: “1984 called, they want their controversial topic back,” one quipped. But many others fell for it, believing that the conservative Santorum was reviving the PMRC’s crusade against metal — in fact, against the same metal bands (WASP, Venom) that stuck in Tipper Gore’s craw in 1985.

Apparently, the post went viral on Facebook and Twitter, with many metal fans outraged to be facing the same old moral panic.

What’s interesting to me is that a hoax like this can get so far before people catch on. It means a few things: one, that metalheads’ perception of Republicans is that they’re stuck in the past, ill-informed, and ready to go on the warpath against teen culture. Two, that the spectre of what the PMRC did in the 1980s has not completely gone away, even nearly 30 years later. And three, that the culture of heavy metal has not yet made peace with the dominant culture — and likely never will.

Letting teens confront their own fears

Geraldo Rivera did more than his fair share of fear-mongering, convincing parents that heavy metal would harm their kids. Photo by Flickr user John Brian Silverio.

Being a kid or a teenager today is, in some ways, very different than it was when I was growing up. Many fewer kids walk to school (or ride the bus) on their own. Eating, television, computers — every aspect of their lives are closely monitored. Instead of simply teaching kids not to give out personal information, we write software that does it for them. We read something in the paper or see it on TV and get scared. We stop trusting the world to keep our kids safe, and in turn we stop trusting our ability to teach our kids to navigate an unsafe world — and we stop trusting our kids’ ability to learn to navigate it independently.

But kids still pick up on the fact that it’s a scary world. STDs, gunfights, terrorism, war, dictatorships, massive fires and floods — you don’t arrive at adolescence without at least a vague awareness that the world is a pretty messed-up place. But if you’re shut off from the music and media that can help you process those impressions, then what happens? There’s little left to do but internalize it.

Fortunately, many teens find their way toward catharsis — even if it’s forbidden. Justin Norton wrote this piece for Invisible Oranges about heavy metal music and its role in helping him — and other teens — confront their fears.

The family across the street had a reputation for fighting and arguments that ended in screaming and door-slamming. While my parents were at work, the imposing live-in boyfriend slept through the day like Nosferatu (vicious hangovers were the likely culprit). A giant record store standee from Iron Maiden’s Killers dwarfed his window. The victim’s arms reached up at Eddie, but it was obviously too late. I looked up at Eddie every day, scared.

Everyone my parents wanted me to avoid seemed to have a tangential relationship with metal. The tough who flailed his nunchucks on the front lawn – he would have been perfect in a Mike Judge film – played Judas Priest on his boombox. Troublemakers had metal stickers on car bumpers. The music, while taboo, seemed a readily accessible way to enter a world that oozed strength and defiance.

The fear and power associated with metal became alluring. I was 13. Junior high was more brutal than elementary school, and I looked for ways to set myself apart. My bowl haircut damned me to comparisons to another nerd who had since left the school. I wanted to be something and someone else. I needed to change.

At the same time Justin was discovering heavy metal, television personalities like Geraldo Rivera and political influencers like Tipper Gore were telling parents to be afraid of this music. They said it caused children to become victims of Satanic plots, or caused them to become violent, even sexually violent. (We’ve since seen the same tactic applied to certain video games.) Teen metalheads were portrayed as the victims of a monstrous record industry who only wanted to prey on their curiosity and innocence, selling them toxic messages packaged as entertainment.

If you listen to metalheads, however, you discover that they were — and are — not unwitting victims. They know what they’re getting into with this music. They think a lot about the music and lyrics, and how those messages reflect against their own life experiences. They know when something in the music scares them. Sometimes they put it down, other times they investigate that fear until they conquer it. You can see that in Justin’s piece, which speaks for the experience of many teens who discovered metal in the 1980s, or who are discovering it now.

On the other hand, parents bought into the scary messages they heard:

Geraldo Rivera’s “Satanic panic” special was the worst. “This is not a Halloween fable, this a real life horror story”, Geraldo said before claiming teenagers could be “driven to commit terrible deeds”. The report immediately cut to video clips of Venom and Mötley Crüe, likely boosting record sales. Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” played in the background. Geraldo mentioned that most kids who listen to the music won’t end up killers, but the implication was clear: heavy metal will turn your kid into the equivalent of Jim Thompson’s sociopathic narrator Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me.

Watched decades later, the piece is laughable and frightening in a real way. These kinds of stories can ruin lives. Megadeth is called a Satanic band, despite never writing a Satanic song and the eventual conversion of their frontman to Christianity.

It’s hard to say for sure why so many parents fail to see through this kind of anti-metal propaganda, particularly when their kids — the very kids they assume are blank, undiscriminating slates — are the ones thinking hard about this music, its messages, and its relevance to their lives. It’s so important to trust kids, to trust their instincts when it comes to media. Sure, talk to them about it and make sure they’re actually listening to those instincts. But then let them explore. Take the training wheels off. Let them ride off on their own, fall down, pick themselves up again, and ride on.

Did your parents ever “protect” you from anything they thought was an unsafe influence — something that really enriched your life? Share your stories in the comments.