Response: “The Negative Effects of Rap and Heavy Metal Music”

I recently read Julian Treasure’s interesting Sound Business, a book aimed at getting business to make sound design a core element of their management. Overall, I found this to be a rewarding read – however, late in the second part of the book, Treasure writes something startling

 Of more concern lately have been the negative effects of heavy metal and rap music, which combine tempo, rhythm, pitch, texture, density and sheer volume to create a profound effect on their listeners and are strongly suspected of creating unhealthy psychological and attitudinal states, including misogyny, aggressiveness and depression, and of causing a range of violent and antisocial behaviours such as violence, crime, self-harm, cult membership, and even suicide.

This surprised me. I had thought that the era of heavy metal moral panic had passed, or at least passed into the domain of individual parents and isolated events. Yet further down the page, Treasure makes a yet bolder statement:

 …violent and aggressive lyrics is rap or heavy metal music are clearly instrumental in creating the effects noted above.

From ‘strongly suspected’ to ‘clearly instrumental’ – an alarming jump in confidence in half a paragraph. He does at least give a citations for the earlier claim (Donald A Hodges (ed) 1996, Handbook of Music Psychology (Second Edition), Institute for Music Research Press, pp520-522, and Joshua Leeds, The Power of Sound, Healing Arts Press, pp107-113). I am currently trying to track down these books, as I am genuinely interested in what the articles in question have to say, and how these results were obtained. This claim is so far removed from the music I know, the scene that I know, and the individual metalheads that I know, that I’m not sure how to account for the disparity. My best guess (assuming unbiased research and interpretation, which I am reluctant to do at the moment), is that the age of the publications (bear in mind research published these years may have been carried out earlier) describe a scene very different to the one I am familiar with. A second, though related, hypothesis, is that they may be focusing on the Norwegian Black Metal scene – I consider this scene to be anomalous. The events that transpired in Norway in the early nineties appear to have more to do with political ideologies, the individual philosophies of a small number of people, and the dynamics of the group. Black metal did not cause church burning or murders, though the music may have arisen from the same source as their other behaviour.

The point of this article is not to claim that metal is unfairly victimised – that’s an article for another time, although frankly I’m not sure if that interests me. Defending the music itself is somewhat more interesting to me, but that is also not the intention of this piece. Rather, I intend to present my contrasting view of metal music and its wider context.

For the whole, I find metal gigs friendly places to be, as I’m sure is the case with gigs in every genre. Perhaps the niche appeal of the music encourages a camaraderie among the fans, and between the fans and the audience – I’d have to attend many shows in other genres to reliably tell, but the fact remains that I have always experienced friendliness when I’ve seen metal bands.

A common concern about metal is moshing. It’s important to note that in metal, moshing is an entirely voluntary activity. I have never seen anyone get pushed into or stuck in a pit against their will. When people fall in pits, the fans around them stop and help them back to their feet before continuing. I remember being right in the front of the crowd for Napalm Death, when a huge guy in front of me, flailing his arms, hit my friend on the back of the head and knocked off his glasses. The accidental assailant then stretched out his arms and stopped everyone within reach from moving (this guy was enormous) while my friend retrieved his glasses and stowed them away safely. This is not an unusual occurrence – from all the metal gigs I have ever been to, I don’t have a single memory of people falling or getting into difficulty in the pit and being ignored by other fans.

It does happen that you get troublemakers who turn up just to cause hassle for other people, but this is hardly unique to metal, most of them are teenagers who soon grow out of it, and this behaviour is not tolerated by other concertgoers.

Regarding lyrics: gore lyrics such as those of Cannibal Corpse or Aborted are intended to be received in the same spirit as horror movies – over-the-top and not to be taken seriously. As with violent films, games, or any other media, anyone who is inspired to imitate what they see or hear portrayed has something fundamentally wrong with them; the art is not to blame. American drama series Dexter has inspired at least one actual copycat murder, but (rightly) there are no moral panics calling for it to be banned.

I have been to three music festivals outside Ireland – Hellfest in France (attended in 2007) and Brutal Assault in the Czech Republic (2010) were primarily metal, while Rock am Ring in Germany (2010) featured a wide selection of genres, but included many metal bands. When compared to Ireland largest music festival Oxegen (and taking differences in size into account; I would guess that Brutal Assault is smaller, Hellfest about equal, and Rock am Ring larger), there was nothing like the violence and crime at any of these festivals as gets reported at Oxegen every year. Violence and crime are unavoidable, and regrettably it is the result of any large gathering of people; I think my experiences show that metal festival do not attract a notably high level of violent behaviour. Of course, even if they were to attract violent fans, that does not mean the music itself is to blame for violence; despite the flurry of outrage in the media after the (admittedly, horribly violent) Swedish House Mafia in Phoenix Park in July, house music doesn’t cause stabbings. It seems unreasonable to blame music for the actions of its fans, and I think I’ve shown in the case of metal that there is nothing in particular to blame the fans for.

Suicide mentioned by Treasure, is a difficult issue, and one I don’t feel qualified to address. I’ll say that, in the two cases of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest being blamed for fan suicides, all of these lawsuits were unsuccessful.

It’s frustrating that people can still believe bizarre notions like this; I’m not saying that as a metal fan, but rather as a reasonable human being. Attributing a criminal’s behaviour to their favourite genre of music is not only stupid, it also seems to lessen the burden of responsibility on the criminal themselves, and provide a handy scapegoat to distract attention from the actual causes of crime and social problems.

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3 responses to “Response: “The Negative Effects of Rap and Heavy Metal Music”

  1. I think I said it when you initially told me about Treasure’s claims of rap and heavy metal but quoting a source from ’96 (the ’90s being one of the more violent decades of rap) is just confirmation bias coming into effect. Treasure obviously had these preconceptions himself and dug around a little until he found someone who agreed.
    He’s still got an awesome name, though.

  2. Really balanced approach. Very good article as it avoids becoming polarised in response to a viewpoint that seems extreme and slightly poorly researched/held.

    I will only echo that I’ve never found metal gigs to be dangerous. And in that troublemakers in such places are often those who are not part of the ‘metalhead’ community as it is.

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