Ex-teacher says heavy metal music could provide emotional catharsis for troubled individuals

There is comfort and camaraderie in knowing that other people (even musicians halfway across the globe) are feeling the same dark thoughts...

By Chew Wei Shan/

I don’t listen to Watain, neither am I knowledgeable enough to remotely consider myself a metalhead, but this whole thing disturbs me so deeply. Not least because the poor Swedish band’s concert (meant to happen tonight) was abruptly cancelled for “social harmony” and “public order”, but also because of all the horrid things people are saying in response, about heavy music in general.

I have met some of these influential conservatives in the flesh, arguing that dark themes of “death” and “suicide” have “no place in our society” and are “detrimental to our youths”. I try to remain quiet and respectful but it really gets to me, hearing these fallacious and uninformed claims, delivered with such conviction and self-righteousness.

I taught English Literature to teenagers for 5 years. In the classroom we grappled with mortality, existential despair, suicidal characters. Soon, I noticed that many of my students struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts happened to be metalheads. They put Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy beside some metal song verses and broke down, for me, how similar they were.

These students explained to me that the emotional catharsis heavy music provides helps them deal with and express their suicidal thoughts without actually committing suicide. The comfort and camaraderie of knowing that other people (even musicians halfway across the globe) are feeling the same dark thoughts… is precisely what assures you that you’re not alone, that it’s a universal struggle, that you don’t have to do anything rash or extreme.

Isn’t that the same with all art and literature? Novels, poems, non-fiction, films, plays, artwork containing themes of death, suicide, subcultures, even satanism are in all our libraries and bookstores; far more accessible and prevalent than this little gig tucked away in an industrial building, rated R18, privy to only a select group of gig-goers. If we clamp down on metal bands, shouldn’t we apply this standard to everything else?

We always say that violent and gory films or games are not an espousal of doing the same in real life, because they inhabit a narrative context to serve the work. Well… maybe the same can be applied to metal, except that we outsiders are not educated on this context and culture. We are not privy to the tacit understanding of certain motifs, images and metaphors in metal lyrics that are not meant to be read literally. You want us to read the Bible literally? And hold you accountable to that?

But get this.

Countless studies in neuroscience, sociology and psychology have shown that listeners of heavy music are statistically far more capable of controlling their emotions and are far less aggressive than listeners of pop / mainstream music.

This sentiment is echoed worldwide, with a study by Humboldt State University going so far as to say that metalheads generally lived happier lives than non-metal music listeners. Psychology professor Tasha R. Howe notes that “fringe style cultures can attract troubled youth who may engage in risky behaviours … what we found is that they also serve a protective function as a source of kinship and connection for youth seeking to solidify their identity development.”

A similar study published in 2016 found that metal music allowed listeners to cope with their own mortality. Researchers added that the genre served as an “escape from depression and even helpful against death-related thoughts.” In fact, studies show that other more mainstream music genres have far greater correlation with increased substance abuse, violent behaviour, and suicide among youths.

Other psychology papers also support the notion that “metal identities and community protected youth from mental health problems.” This was especially so for youth who are “bullied or marginalized through social relationships at school; they enjoyed the impact of metal music and lyrics when angry or ostracized; they felt part of a protective community of metalheads … metal identities were helping participants to survive the stress of challenging environments and build strong and sustained identities and communities, thus alleviating any potential mental health issues.”

Here are some studies, if you’d like a read: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, US National Library of MedicineJournal of Community Psychology, AustraliaThe Guardian; and the University of Queensland.

It is precisely the expression of struggle and existential fear that helps us to connect, to cope… be it in a novel, poem, pop ballad or heavy metal track. Is this not one fundamental purpose of art? So, when people insist with such conviction that “depressive thoughts” or “themes of death” should “not be accepted in this society”… it is the most ludicrous thing.

Heavy metal is a frequent topic in meetings with a little discussion group I happen to be a part of. Initially, it really tickled me to watch certain elders gape and gasp at references to Lucifer and so on. But soon, it wasn’t so funny anymore. Some began to share sentiments that heavy metal was “pure evil” (yes, verbatim), and that they can’t imagine “why anyone would subject themselves to it”. Snide jokes are made about metalheads having to get “leather and piercings and tattoos” to avoid getting “thrown out” of gigs. Blatant derision fills the air –– dramatic readings of metal lyrics, mockery, laughter.

Sure, they may look and sound unfamiliar to you. They may not be literary geniuses by your measure, or even mine. But if, in their own way, they’ve helped a bunch of youths cope with difficult thoughts and build a supportive community, who is to say they are not a valid form of art, deserving of a place in our society?

My own sister Wei Li –– a geeky, petite, bespectacled, baby-faced academic –– is a huge metalhead, and she’s warmly welcomed to all these gigs. They mosh, they head-bang, but they have a huge culture of care and take pains to keep each other safe. She says that fellow gig-goers at metal concerts are way more warm, friendly and approachable than most pop or indie gigs, even.

So many Singaporeans I’ve met have thrown all heavy music into one category –– some sort of sadistic, satanic, suicidal cult. But if we don’t even try to understand it, or what it means to people, who are we to describe and prescribe? To damn and denounce?

Besides, there are so many genres and subgenres of metal, punk, hardcore, and heavy music in general. There is even “unblack metal” –– Christian metal! Perhaps Kong Hee –– in light of his impending release from an exceedingly short jail term –– can look into that, given his church’s world class sound system.

I just really wish we would all recognise that there are several nuances and layers to everything, and refrain from adding to the cacophony of uninformed voices who undermine and misrepresent an already misunderstood community. Not just metalheads, but so many alternative voices that are constantly repressed and overlooked.

This article was first published on the author’s Facebook page. It has been re-published with permission.

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