I was first inspired to study the fans of heavy metal music by a student of mine. At the time I was an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college in Atlanta, teaching several courses and beginning some research on adolescence. One of the classes I taught at the college was Introductory Psychology, and one day after class I got to talking with a student named Henry. At some point I had mentioned my research interests in adolescence and at another point my musical interests (I play guitar and piano). Henry saw the possible intersection of the two before I did. "You should go to a heavy metal concert," he said. "If you're interested in adolescents, you should see this. Besides, the music's great."
I expressed my skepticism about his assessment of the music, but I was intrigued by what he had to say about it. It interested me that he should be such an avid "metalhead" (as heavy metal fans call themselves). He did not conform to the metalhead stereotype: scruffy-looking, sneering, apathetic. On the contrary, he was always well groomed, nicely dressed, polite, and respectful. He was also one of the brightest students I had ever taught. What did a guy like him find so appealing about heavy metal? Over the course of many conversations, I learned the answer.
A few weeks after my first conversation with Henry, the heavy metal band Metallica came to town, and I was able to get a free ticket through a friend of mine who was running the concessions for the show. It was an amazing spectacle, as reflected both in the zealousness of the fans and the violence of the music. I found it fascinating and also disturbing in some respects. I came away from it determined to do a study of metalheads and their subculture.
The study involved over 100 metalheads, including 70 boys and 38 girls.1 The boys were interviewed in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, and the girls in Atlanta and in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, they had grown up in diverse places all over the country. To find the metalheads, I put up a sign in a music store describing the study and offering a free cassette tape of their choice in return for their participation. I conducted all the interviews for the boys; female research assistants interviewed the girls. The interviews lasted anywhere from twenty minutes to over two hours.
Some metalheads were reticent, but most were eager to talk not just about heavy metal but about every aspect of their lives. As the interviews accumulated, I was struck again and again by the depth and pervasiveness of their alienation. Most of them held high hopes for their own lives, but they were deeply cynical about the adult world they were preparing to enter. Few of them had reliable and gratifying ties to family, school,