Tag Archives: PMRC

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?

Metal culture thriving in Botswana, Afghanistan


In Botswana, a generation of people taking classic heavy metal and making it their own. Photo by Frank Marshall.

When people think of heavy metal music, I think many still think of the United States in the 1980s: Tipper Gore, the PMRC, kids throwing the horns, bulldozers driving over CDs, sawblades on codpieces, pentagrams — all that business. Metal has come a long way since then, but it’s still the music of rebellion, wherever that rebellion happens to be.

Take, for example, Botswana, where South Africans have adopted the leather and studs. They’re listening to the classics, but also playing their own heavy metal.

For these folks, one thing that seems to appeal about heavy-metal culture is the unique combination of devoted tribalism and sanctioned aggression:

“There’s a strong sense of camaraderie amongst them. That’s the first thing you’ll notice about them as an outsider coming in. They’ve got a very strong bond and friendship with each other.

“They’re very physical. At the shows, you don’t just shake their hands. They’ll grab your hand and shake you around.

“They embody the very aggressive elements of metal. It’s an expression of power. Everything is an expression of power for them, from the clothes to the way they speak to the way they walk.”

Unlike the Hell’s Angels they are said to resemble, these rockers hang out on the streets of Botswana at night, making sure people get home safely and scaring away thugs. The music seems to give them hope, optimism, a sense of belonging.

In Afghanistan, it’s not all that different. There, young musicians are coping with the recent war and its aftermath by playing in bands with names such as District Unknown, and songs titled “Two Seconds After the Blast” and “The Beast.” It’s not so far from Leyton to Kabul.

District Unknown’s founding brothers, Qasem and Pedram Foushanji, discovered heavy metal by way of Metallica — and fell in love:

The brothers immediately took a liking to the fast-paced, aggressive sound, saying a childhood spent amid war and violence helped them to connect with the music.

“I feel most comfortable playing metal music because you go out there in everyday life and you get a lot of negative energy,” Pedram said. “Playing metal makes me feel better. It does for me what meditation does for others.”

The bandmates are part of a new rock-music school in Kabul, which would have been banned under the Taliban. Even now — as in many Middle Eastern countries — metal bands do not enjoy full freedom; the band frequently wears face masks to avoid persecution from religious conservatives.

Some people were never able to make sense of why metal fans love this noisy, angry, uncompromising music as much as they do. By looking at metal fans worldwide, we can gain a better sense of its appeal. It’s best loved among young men (though there are many female fans as well) who are experiencing a rift between their current reality and the one they believe is ideal. They’re undergoing stress, tension and alienation — and perhaps facing threats or violence. Whether that violence is taking place in a warzone or a city, or threatened at home or at school, or perceived from society at large, doesn’t matter. Metal provides a way of meeting the world’s aggression halfway, and making peace with it.

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.

Congressmen revive, expand failed proposal for warning label on violent video games


A new bill proposing warning labels on almost all video games is giving at least one of us PMRC flashbacks.

Here we go again.

US Congressmen Joe Baca (D-CA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA) have introduced a bill that would slap a warning label on almost all video games (except those labeled “EC” for “early childhood”) that reads:

WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behavior.

If the name Joe Baca is familiar to you, it’s because he tried this a year ago and failed. That bill, which would have placed a warning label only on “T” (teen) and “M” (mature) games, died in committee. And that was the second time Baca and Wolf introduced that bill.

It’s unclear what makes them think a new, broader bill will fly — particularly in the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court decision rejecting a California ban on the sale of violent games to minors, as well as the demise of an Oklahoma bill that would have taxed the sale of violent video games.

Here’s what Baca had to say for himself this time:

“The video game industry has a responsibility to parents, families and to consumers — to inform them of the potentially damaging content that is often found in their products. They have repeatedly failed to live up to this responsibility.”

Actually, no, they haven’t. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board has created very clear labeling for its video-game ratings. In addition, every video game has a detailed content description on the back. Buyers who want more information can find a wealth of it, including screenshots and videos, online. (A quick check with a smartphone can bring this to your fingertips, right in the store.) In addition, underage undercover shoppers have found it increasingly difficult to purchase M-rated games — much more difficult than getting into an R-rated film or buying a stickered record.

Let’s get down to the business of the warning label itself: It claims that “exposure to violent video games” (What does that mean? Does it mean glancing at one as you’re walking through the living room, or does it mean playing Manhunt like it’s a full-time job at a startup?) “has been linked to aggressive behavior.” While it’s true that a number of flawed studies have shown that subjects who play violent video games in a lab are slightly more aggressive immediately after gameplay, there’s little evidence that such behavior is lasting, or that it’s related to the violent content at all.

Here’s Wolf’s two cents’ worth:

“Just as we warn smokers of the health consequences of tobacco, we should warn parents—and children—about the growing scientific evidence demonstrating a relationship between violent video games and violent behavior.”

The only reason there is “growing evidence” is that people keep studying the same false correlations. Adding one more flawed study to the heap does, indeed, make it grow.

But you know what else is growing? Evidence that video games are good for you. Why don’t we put that on a label? If we can claim that sugary cereal “may reduce the risk of heart disease,” surely we can put labels on violent video games claiming the much-more-proven health benefits of playing them.

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.

What if your favorite music could send you to jail?


Heavy metal and Egypt, hand in hand.

Even though plenty of Americans see heavy metal music as immoral, dangerous, violent music, there are are limits to what can happen to its listeners in this country. When Tipper Gore was waving her “filthy fifteen” flag at bands like Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P., and Venom, the worst would be that your parents might take your records away and break them or burn them.

Not so in Egypt. In 1997, police broke down the doors of some 70 homes and arrested the young men inside. Their crime? Being heavy metal fans. Some were released after two weeks. Others remained in jail in Cairo for a month and a half. The same happened in Morocco in 2003 — where 11 metalheads were acquitted and three were convicted of devil worship.

It was black T-shirts that seemed to cause the most offense. (“Normal people,” pronounced the judge in the case, “go to a concert in a shirt and tie.”)

Acrassicauda, the Iraqi band featured in Heavy Metal in Baghdad, was perhaps the only such band in that city — and ultimately fled, because their lives were in danger for playing and celebrating the music they loved.

It’s one thing to listen to this music in America, where doing so is an act of individualism, of rebellion. It’s another when you can be jailed or killed for it. Why would young men risk their lives just for a few heavy guitar riffs?

For Accrasicauda in Iraq, as it was for many in Egypt, metal is the only outlet available, and it becomes the only thing worth fighting for. These kids take serious personal risks in trying to put on shows, in identifying with anything “American”, in growing their hair.

“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” reminds us there are still real outsiders in the big wide world, and it is not an easy position to stake. The documentary depicts, among other things, Accrasicauda’s last Iraqi show in Baghdad’s Al Fanar Hotel – played to intermittent blackouts and the background accompaniment of gunfire – and how much the success of the show means to the participants. “If we cannot find some fun here,” asks one audience member, almost begging the camera, “then where?”

The devotion to metal in Muslim countries, where it is dangerous to listen or perform this music, can tell us something about why anyone, in any country, would do so. It’s more than just entertainment. Kids who listen to metal feel as though they’re part of a tribe, as though they’ve found kinship with music and musicians who understand how they truly feel inside. Taking the music away doesn’t kill those feelings. It makes them more painful.

Muslim countries aren’t the only place where rebellious music is suspect. In Uzbekistan, a state television documentary warned citizens that such music is “evil” and “Satanic.”

“This satanic music was created by evil forces to bring youth in Western countries to total moral degradation,” according to the documentary.

Thankfully, America left that sentiment behind (mostly) in the 1980s, though it still lingers in some parts of the country. It still brings doubt to parents’ minds when they see kids listening to, say, Slipknot or Dir En Grey.

However, this music doesn’t mean anything less to American fans than it does to Egyptian, Moroccan, Iraqi, or Uzbek fans. It’s a powerful outlet, one that many kids need. The fact that some fans are willing to endanger their lives for it only shows how important heavy metal is to all its listeners, in Cleveland and in Cairo.

What if your favorite music could send you to jail — or worse? Would you still listen to it?