Catharsis: An Insight into the Effects of Metal and Extreme Music
TLDR; metal music is good, actually.
When most people think of metal music, they may imagine violent scenes of devils and bloody gore and mosh pits. However, those observations are only on the surface level. Ever since the metal genre’s inception in the late 20th century, it’s been held up as a danger to youth and all who dare listen due to the rebellious and extreme overtones of the scene. To worried parents, the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” lifestyle was bound to rub off on their children if they listened. Although these misconceptions have mostly cleared up over the decades, they still exist in some form or another. There’s a common belief that metalheads (along with participants in other alternative subcultures such as goth and emo) always suffer from depression or engage in self-harm, but this just isn’t the case, and isn’t significantly more common than in other circles. Extreme or unclean vocals (informally known as “screaming”) are also a contributor to metal’s unruly reputation and, to untrained ears, can definitely sound like disorderly nonsense. The music might come across as aggressive and off-putting to some, but for people who enjoy it, it can actually derive a sense of calm and release. Metalheads and other listeners of alternative or extreme music genres find solace in the chaos. Especially in a messy world with messy emotions, they need a “messy” way to get it all out. Despite its unseemly reputation that has persisted since its beginning, the benefits of metal and other extreme genres of music heavily outweigh the detriments to avid listeners of the genres: from the music being used as a method of catharsis to a like-minded community that serves as protection against the world many metalheads feel outcasted from.
Metal and other extreme music genres are often characterized by “chaotic, loud, heavy, and powerful sounds, with emotional vocals, often containing lyrical themes of anxiety, depression, social isolation, and loneliness” (Sharman and Dingle). They may also contain unclean vocals depending on the subgenre. There are numerous subgenres in metal, including but not limited to: glam metal, metalcore, death or black metal, thrash metal, and gothic metal. With as many genres as there are, there is an equally diverse population of fans that have all been painted with the same brush. They may get stereotyped as rude, violent, antisocial, or otherwise hostile in some form. It’s easy to assume this when mosh pits and stage diving exist, but the reality is quite different. A 2013 study examining emotional dysphoria in extreme metal listeners showed that, while symptoms of depression and anxiety were more common in heavy music fans than non-fans, “there was no difference between the two groups on trait anger” (Shafron and Karno). Although, listening to heavy metal may cause anger in non-fans (Gowensmith and Bloom). This is not evidence of the genre inherently doing so as it is unclear whether their response was from the music itself or the fact that they didn’t like it. However, for fans of heavy metal, it was quite the difference. Within the sample group, 69% of heavy listeners reported that the music helped them regulate emotions, 79% said it allowed them to experience anger fully rather than repressing it, 87% experienced enhanced happiness, and 100% stated that metal overall improved their wellbeing (Gowensmith and Bloom). Because of their music choices, many heavy metal fans find themselves with a good emotional outlet, and anyone in the scene would be able to tell that they’re compassionate and well-adjusted individuals. Down in the pit at concerts, violence doesn’t fly, and people are lifted back up when they fall. Essentially, metal bands scream so their fans don’t have to.
In spite of the emotional regulation extreme music provides, there remains a popular stereotype that metalheads have higher rates of depression, self-harm, or suicide. This is most likely from mainstream culture’s morphing of different alternative subcultures into one and applying one stereotype to them all. But even then, listeners of metal are no more at risk for the aforementioned afflictions than their non-metal counterparts once all factors are taken into account (Baker and Brown). In reality, listeners are also more likely to be open to new experiences and have more of a need for uniqueness despite their lower self-esteem (Swami et al.). In fact, as stated by Jeffery Arnett (the author of a 1996 study), “heavy metal songs served the function of helping purge their destructive and self-destructive urges” (qtd. in Baker and Brown). It not only aided in an emotional release, but also a physical one that contributes to the prevention of a tragedy. If heavy metal takes someone off the edge, then that’s one more precious life preserved. Similar cathartic effects can be seen in concert goers, especially in the ‘pit’ (the area where the most moshing and slamdancing is seen). In a controlled area, “negative emotions are discharged within an environment where violence is contained and codified” (Baker and Brown). The aggressive dancing and moshing aren’t perceived as violent, but rather as an emotional release that’s encouraged by the community and is nearly impossible to find outside of a heavy metal concert. It’s not difficult to understand that bottling up emotions- especially negative ones- can be extremely damaging. So, when an outlet presents itself, it’s going to be taken even if it’s deemed inappropriate by those looking in. Heavy metal fans have and will continue to use the subculture as a mode of liberation regardless of what others may think. Arnett also stated that rather than the community being something poisonous or simply a fashion statement “that pushes them towards feelings of desperation, into self-harming, to commit suicide, it can help fans survive mental ill-health” (qtd. in Baker and Brown).
It’s virtually every aspect of the genre that provides this sort of help, including the lyrics. Though it’s undeniable how some extreme music has less-than-savory lyrical content, a very large percentage contains content that deals with loneliness, isolation, occasionally politics, and mental illness, or other emotional turmoil. Of course, the majority of songs in other genres also have meaning, but it’s a far too common misconception that metal songs sing (or scream) about nonsense made to shock the listeners. There are examples all over the spectrum, such as the violent (and sometimes odd) lyrics of the death metal band Infant Annihilator. Though it’s understandable why a parent wouldn’t want their preteen listening to music such as theirs, many other genres also have questionable lyrical content. If songs about sex aren’t allowed when they’re screaming, why are they allowed accompanied by a trap beat? Regardless, many metalheads enjoy music they can relate to. One of the best examples of this is the metalcore band Silent Planet. Every line of every song is written with intense meaning. Among other subjects, the lead singer and lyricist Garrett Russell has written songs about his personal struggles with a particular emphasis on his journey with mental illness. Silent Planet’s songs, just like countless others in the genre, aren’t just written for the shock value. It’s evident in every aspect, from the lyrics to the production to the way the band performs at concerts, that they create songs that mean something to them and those who listen. Sometimes this also includes writing songs like “Trilogy,” written by Russell in a mental hospital as he felt like a machine (@SilentGarrett).
Borrowed light, a parasite.
I fed on the dusk and hid myself from the night.
And we don't speak, we barely hear,
I watched you watch me disappear
As I'm fading to static in the disconnect. (“Silent Planet - Trilogy.”)
The truth is that people typically enjoy music with lyrics they can relate to, even if just on a vague level. It’s no secret that extreme genre listeners may have personal issues, but it’s frankly an act of misconstruing to act like the lyrics or the music itself causes these problems. It’s the same logic as saying violent video games cause violence in players while ignoring the underlying issues that are actually at play. Both are using media (that are generally regarded as in some way dangerous by popular culture) as a scapegoat. It’s also been mutually accepted that violent video games don’t cause aggression, so the same logic should be applicable to metal music regardless of lyrics or instrumentals. When someone is struggling, they may not connect with music that doesn’t reflect their experiences. Therefore, people will engage with certain songs to “connect with their emotions through the music to fully experience sadness and consequently improve their affect” (Sharman and Dingle). Heavy metal fans in particular use their music when angry to “match their anger, and to feel more active and inspired. They also listen to music to regulate sadness and to enhance positive emotions” (Sharman and Dingle). This level of connection is essential when in a difficult place emotionally. People are drawn to heavy metal because of this. The music doesn’t make listeners ‘damaged’ as most vocals nay-sayers may insinuate. It’s simply not how the wheel turns. Those in turmoil turn to the music that helps them, no one stumbles upon a genre and suddenly becomes suicidal. And it’s not only the music that serves as a catharsis, either, it’s also the community that surrounds the entire subculture.
Heavy metal has been around for several decades, and with that comes hundreds of thousands of fans spanning across the years. A Humboldt State University study followed musicians, fans, and groupies involved in the heavy metal scene from the 1980’s to witness if there were any long-term effects of the music or culture. There were of course effects as everyone is shaped by their youth, but the ones presented were mostly positive. The “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” lifestyle was more common than in non-fans, but they were no more likely to commit suicide, have sex earlier, or experience mental problems than their counterparts (Howe et al.). But, the nature of the community served as a “protective factor against negative outcomes” (Howe et al.), acting like a shield against the world that (especially during the 1980’s) looked down upon the subculture they loved so much. For youth, finding a group or niche to fit into serves as a building block for identity, and metal is no different. Having this sort of tight-knit circle helped the subjects followed in the study become happier and better adjusted in adulthood than their non-fan equivalents. Metal isn’t just a loud and brash genre, but a wide and welcoming crowd that provides support for all involved (Howe et al.).
With these factors in mind, catharsis is everywhere to be found in the heavy metal scene and related genres. Those who may feel left out from the world at large in some way find it easy to gravitate towards extreme music, leading to them mingling with those who are like-minded in both music taste and personal thoughts. And within that community is the music itself, the heavy sounds that resonate so deep accompanied by lyrics that are written from the heart, the live performances where no one cares if the other is screaming their lungs out. Turbulent times call for equally turbulent music, and heavy metal is definitely intense enough to soothe the scattered soul. The genre is a blanket, a comfort, a shield. While there may be a bad side to every genre (metal being no exception), extreme music and culture may very well prove to be a life-shaping force rather than the destroyer it has been made out to be.
Baker, Charley, and Brian Brown. “Suicide, Self-Harm and Survival Strategies in Contemporary Heavy Metal Music: A Cultural and Literary Analysis.” Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 37, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1–17., doi:10.1007/s10912-014-9274-8.
Gowensmith, W. N., and L. J. Bloom. “The Effects of Heavy Metal Music on Arousal and Anger.” Journal of Music Therapy, vol. 34, no. 1, 1997, pp. 33–45., doi:10.1093/jmt/34.1.33.
Howe, Tasha R., et al. “Three Decades Later: The Life Experiences and Mid-Life Functioning of 1980s Heavy Metal Groupies, Musicians, and Fans.” Self and Identity, vol. 14, no. 5, 2015, pp. 602–626., doi:10.1080/15298868.2015.1036918.
Shafron, Gavin Ryan, and Mitchell P. Karno. “Heavy Metal Music and Emotional Dysphoria among Listeners.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 74–85., doi:10.1037/a0031722.
Sharman, Leah, and Genevieve A. Dingle. “Extreme Metal Music and Anger Processing.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 27 Apr. 2015, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00272/full#h1.
“Silent Planet – Trilogy.” Genius, 14 Feb. 2020, genius.com/Silent-planet-trilogy-lyrics.
@SilentGarrett. “the lyrics for our next song won’t really be like a research paper or whatever. i was in the mental hospital and basically just wrote it from the gut in one pass. while some of it helped me, i also felt like a machine while being there, so it’s about trying to become human again.” Twitter, Twitter, 7 Feb. 2020, twitter.com/SilentGarrett/status/1225855713219465216
Swami, Viren, et al. “Metalheads: The Influence of Personality and Individual Differences on Preference for Heavy Metal.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, vol. 7, no. 4, 2013, pp. 377–383., doi:10.1037/a0034493.