Among Americans' periodic periods of panic over the corrosiveness of pop culture, the 1980s campaign to vilify heavy metal music stands out for the decibel level of both the music and the protests.
With dramatic testimony in courtrooms and at Congressional hearings, concerned parents and even government officials warned that groups like Iron Maiden and Metallica were enticing our teenagers into moral and spiritual darkness—up to and including devil worship.
So now that three decades have passed since this alleged attempt by Satan to infiltrate young brains via eardrum-shattering sounds, how are those headbangers doing? Did their punishingly loud and intense music send them spiraling into lives of despair?
Not so, according to a newly published study. In fact, researchers find that former metal fans "were significantly happier in their youth, and better adjusted currently" compared to their peers who preferred other musical genres, and to a parallel group of current college students.
"Social support is a crucial protective factor for troubled youth. Fans and musicians alike felt a kinship in the metal community, and a way to experience heightened emotions with like-minded people."
"Metal enthusiasts did often experience traumatic and risky 'sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll' lives," reports a research team led by Humboldt State University psychologist Tasha Howe. "However, the metalhead identity also served as a protective factor against negative outcomes."
The study, published in the journal Self and Identity, featured 377 adults: 154 who were heavy metal fans growing up in the 1980s (including musicians and "groupies"); 80 who typically listened to other types of music during their teen years; and 153 current students at a California university. Members of the latter group were recruited from a psychological department participant pool; the others were recruited online.
All participants answered detailed questions about their youthful experiences and current levels of success and happiness. The results will surprise the scolds.
"Despite the challenges of adverse childhood events, and other stressful and risky events in their youth," the researchers write, former metal aficionados "reported higher levels of youthful happiness" than peers with other musical tastes as well as today's college students. "They were also less likely to have any regrets about things they had done in their youth."
In fact, those who focused on types of music outside of heavy metal "sought psychological counseling for emotional problems more than any other group, indicating a less happy and fulfilling perspective on their 1980s adolescence." Perhaps, then, Tipper Gore and company were focusing their concern on the wrong kids.
Most importantly, the researchers found "no statistically significant group differences in life experiences or current functioning" between the groups they examined. "This suggests similar developmental trajectories and adult functioning" between former metal fans and their less-rebellious counterparts.
The research comes with a caveat: The study featured "relatively high functioning individuals who volunteered to participate and report on their lives." If some people really were so drawn into a dark lifestyle that they became drug addicts or suicide victims, they'd obviously not be around decades later to take an hour-long survey.
But the evidence suggests a different emotional trajectory was far more common. Echoing studies from the 1980s and '90s, these results find that "metal fans, and groupies in particular, came from troubled families characterized by turmoil," the researchers write.
But in spite of these disadvantages, "metalheads in general were not significantly more likely to attempt suicide or have sex at earlier ages than other youth," Howe and her colleagues report. "Nor were they more likely to miss work due to physical or mental health problems as adults."
So how did they survive to become "middle-class, gainfully employed, relatively well-educated" adults? Howe and her colleagues have a pretty good idea.
"Social support is a crucial protective factor for troubled youth," they point out. "Fans and musicians alike felt a kinship in the metal community, and a way to experience heightened emotions with like-minded people." This sense of belonging ultimately helped propel their positive transition to maturity.
In other words, if you're going through a difficult time, it really helps to commune with like-minded others—even if your peer group is a motley crew that loves Mötley Crüe.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.