Metal Heads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation

Metal Heads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation

Metal Heads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation

Metal Heads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation


Heavy metal is a violent, head-bashing music complete, in its live performances, with its own arena of rage and celebration, the mosh pit. It is a music in the red corner of society, loud, angry, and, to a well-tuned ear, practically intolerable. And yet, the art form radiates a message about American adolescents well worth examining and comprehending: Its devotees, primarily adolescent boys, are alienated from their world and angry about its future. Heavy metal speaks throbbingly the message of rage, loneliness, and cynicism. In this sensitive book, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett synthesizes the stories and experiences of seventy male and thirty-eight female "metalheads" in a successful attempt to understand the often crippling results of a society and an image of the nuclear family steeped in conformity, self-denial, and obedience. The vacuum such an atmosphere creates in the individual can be temporarily obliterated by a heavy metal concert, which Arnett sees as a substitute manhood ritual. This conclusion is just one of the many striking hypotheses the author advances in this dynamic study of a music and its followers. Of the one hundred metalheads interviewed for this volume, ten have allowed themselves to be profiled in depth- the reader becomes fully acquainted with Jack, for instance, and with the multiple crosses decorating his body, his black rose tattoo, and his tumultuous family life; or with slim and well-groomed Jean dressed entirely in black, her favorite color, and wearing the temperament of withdrawal. This is a unique study filled with compassion for a disenfranchised subculture and the respect to want to understand it.


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. 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 . . .

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