Heavy metal, along with rap, is one of the most commonly referenced genres in psychological studies of how pop music affects adolescents. Research into heavy metal is prone to a bias against the genre as a positive influence due to the music’s pounding drums, distorted guitars, growling vocals, macabre lyrics and the sheer volume at which it is designed to be heard. However, new perspectives on heavy metal and other “negative” musical forms question whether the music is responsible for societal ills, or if the music is meant as a response to cultural evils and a healing catharsis for dedicated listeners.
Heavy metal lyrics often depict worlds or characters for which the standard rules of society do not apply. Semioticians studying this phenomenon recognise that these lyrics may not be meant to promote breaking the law, but to question what right modern society has to impose mass conformity on individuals. Fans that find themselves at odds with the status quo appreciate the alternate universes of heavy metal in which experiences are visceral, non-commercialised slices of life and death. Karen Hanlon refers to these outwardly bleak depictions in heavy metal as utopian alternatives to superficial modern existence. Listeners seeking to break with social conformity may actually find liberation and refreshing perspectives in between the gory lines of death-metal lyrics.
Although heavy metal is often associated with anger and depression, the music may actually not be aggravating those conditions, but rather alleviating negative feelings among listeners. A study conducted at the University of Warwick demonstrated a connection between having low self-esteem and a preference for heavy metal. In a “chicken or the egg?” scenario, the researchers suggest that heavy metal does not create poor self-images, but was chosen by participants when already in a bad mood. Moreover, respondents who were heavy metal listeners generally did not identify themselves with the metal subculture, but rather listened for a practical purpose: venting anger and frustration or escaping the daily grind.
People who classify themselves as “metal heads” are able to reap the benefits of belonging to a social circle. Although some heavy metal listeners are considered outcasts by mainstream society, in the metal scene they belong to a distinct social group in which they can develop a sense of personal identity and self-worth by seeing others like themselves. Activities such as going to concerts, debating about favourite bands and simply listening to music together is great practice for adolescents and young adults learning the ins and outs of social interaction in a relatively safe and trusting environment. Finding that others share your interests is a tremendous boost to self-esteem, which is often an issue among participants in heavy-metal psychology studies.