1980’s Heavy Metal Kids Turned Out OK

Relax, Mom and Dad. The kids aren’t really into Satan.

A new study claims that kids who listened to heavy-metal music in the 1980s turned into “middle-class, gainfully employed, relatively well-educated” adults. That is, despite taking in hour after hour of people screaming about sex, drugs, suicide and the devil himself, most of heavy metal’s fans turned out OK. All those warning labels on albums brought to you by Tipper Gore were a giant waste of time and money.

The study, which was just published in the journal “Self and Identity,” included 377 adults, about half of whom described themselves as heavy-metal fans. Compared with the kids who listened to other kinds of music the metal fans were actually less likely to seek psychological counseling and more likely to say they had no regrets about what they had done when they were younger.

What does this mean? It’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions. Perhaps the metal music was, as the authors suggest, a way of coping with the problems of adolescence. And really, who can blame teens for preferring Black Sabbath over a mewing shrink trying to dig up their innermost secrets? Or maybe the parents of metal heads were just less likely to take their kids to therapy in the first place.

Other studies — and, yes, this question has been taken up by academics before — do suggest a correlation between experiences of depression in teens and listening to heavy-metal music.

Katrina McFerran, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, reported in 2011 on her survey of the listening habits of 1,000 young people. She found that while most tended to feel better after listening to music — it can block out the noise of crowds, lift their mood or give them energy — young people at risk for depression listened to the same things over and over again and often it was heavy metal. “If this behavior continues over a period of time then it might indicate this young person is suffering from depression or anxiety, and at worst, might suggest suicidal tendencies.”

Of course, it might be the suicidal tendencies leading to the musical tastes not the other way around. Clinically depressed people in the 1980s probably likely weren’t enjoying New Kids on the Block. That really would have put them over the edge.

Meanwhile, other studies suggest that many smart teenagers are attracted to heavy metal over happy pop tunes. Studying over a thousand members of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth in Britain, Stuart Cadwallader, a psychologist at the University of Warwick in England, found that while more students listed rock or R&B, a third of the students surveyed put heavy metal in their top five genres.

“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,” he wrote. “Participants said they appreciated the complex and sometimes political themes of heavy metal music more than perhaps the average pop song. It has a tendency to worry adults a bit but I think it is just a cathartic thing. It does not indicate problems.”

The bottom line, unfortunately, is we know little about what impact media — be it music, movies or video games — has on young people.

As the authors of the “Self and Identity” article led by psychologist Tasha Howe of Humboldt State University, acknowledge, “The participants were volunteers who had access to Facebook and Survey Monkey and wanted to tell their stories anonymously to researchers. Thus they may be higher functioning than other metal heads who may have died early, declined to participate, or experienced problems in employment, relationships, and so on as they grew up.”

Well, yes, that seems like a rather large caveat. Not only would the people likely to participate in such surveys be members of, broadly speaking, the middle class. They would also have something to prove. That is, they wanted to show there was nothing wrong with them when they were teenagers and there’s nothing wrong with them now.

And maybe they’re right. The things that tend to affect whether we turn into well-adjusted adults have a lot more to do with our family structure, education, health and disposable income than what kind of music we listen to.

But just to be on the safe side, maybe I’ll keep Megadeth off the kids’ playlist.


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