Popular Culture Meets Psychology

Understanding ourselves through pop culture.

Underground Death Metal: Is It In You?!

The road to hell is orchestrated by death metal

I have no problem admitting that when I was a teen, I was, by today's adolescent standards, a nerd. And before God and the blogosphere, I will now admit that I used to excitedly share my new favorite songs with my mother. I remember being so smitten by Don McLean's American Pie that I listened to it hundreds of times in order to memorize the words, typed them out on 80 character IBM punchcards, and then had my mother transcribe them. While I had, and still have absolutely no idea of what the song means, I loved it back then, and still do.  I think it is a combination of the beat, the power of the elusive lyrics, it's length and intensity that combine to capture me...at a cellular level.

My teenage son has been trying to interest us in his newest, and I must say most challenging form of music yet,underground death metal.  Sadly, I must admit that I, like past generations of doting and doubting parents, am trying to wrap my head around this form of music...and it is very difficult.  I feel the pain of 1950's parents who must have said something like "who the hell is Buddy Holly?, I'm trying to listen to Tex Beneke,  as well as those of the 1960's who must have wondered if The Platters were going to be forced off stage by the musical antics of those mopheads from Liverpool. 

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As a psychologist who works with teens and their families, I am painfully aware of the epidemic of suicide, substance abuse, disenfranchisement, anomie, depression, eating disorders and violence that palgues our youth. So it is natural, perhaps reflexive for me to cringe when I read (becuase I certainly can't comprehend)  lyrics about death, suuicide, poisoning and ultra-violent behavior, accompanied by excruciatingly loud, gutteral, atonal and dys-synchronous music sung by groups with names like Death, Possessed, Morbid Angel, Embodiment, Entombed, Acid Bath, As I Lay Dying, Throwdown, The Faceless, Festerday, Fleshcrawl, Glass Casket, Gutworm, Septic Flesh, Soils of Fate, Torture Killer, and Vomit Remnants.image

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Wikipedia describes death metal as "an extreme subgenre of heavy metal [which] typically employs moderate tempos, heavily distorted guitars, deep growling vocals, blast beat drumming, and complex song structures with multiple tempo changes." Related to 'thrash metal' and 'heavy metal', it has spawned the related genres of "melodic death metal", "technical death metal", "death doom", black death metal", deathgrind" and deathcore". Whew!!!

Whatever happended to those gentle teenage tragedy songs that we knew and loved including "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro, "The Leader of the Pack" by  The Shangri-Las, "And When I Die" by Blood Sweat and Tears, "Tell Laura I Love Her" by Ray Paterson, "Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning, "Dead Man's Curve" by Jan and Dean, "Ode to Billy Joe" by Bobbie Gentry, and "The Last Kiss" by Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders. They were mournful, yet melodic lamentations of love lost through tragedies, sometimes violent and other times accidental, ranging from motorcycle accidents to brain tumors to suicide. We instantly understood and empathized with the painful messages, and we could understand the words.

Back to death metal. The field of psychology has alot to say about heavy metal and death metal, and the most interesting, and perhaps predictable findings converge on the relationship between heavy metal consumption and other troublesome and troubling behaviors, including depression, suicide, substance abuse, and alienation.  Emprical investigations seem to converge on the association between heavy metal use and these pathological "externalizing behaviors". Interested readers may review articles by Selfhout and colleagues in Youth and Society, 2008, volume 39, as well as by Lacourse and colleagues in Youth and Adolescence, 2001, volume 30.  

However, and as in past blogposts, I choose to seek the wisdom of other disiplines for their insights.  Certainly,it is compelling to listen to the ear-splitting music and watch the gory and graphic music videos and ponder on the pathology of both the musicians and the audiences. But, once again, it is sociology, cultural anthropology and semiotics which provide me with a deeper and richer understanding of the genre.  In a fascinating article in the journal "Symbolic Interaction", 2006, volume 29 (edited by my friend and colleague Simon Gottschalk), Karen Hanlon, building on Bakhtin's study of the "carnival grotesque", suggests that the "grotesque realism in metal music and performances constitutes a pro-utopian liminal alternative to the impersonal, conformist, superficial and numbing realities of commercialism, and more abstractly, to a society of spectacle and nothingness."  She adds that [death] metal provides the audience with a "suspension of hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions [and therefore] provides liberation from internal censors [and in so doing] challenges exposes and transcends the limits between body and world, life and death interior and exterior." In short, the experience of heavy, dark, black and death metal allows us to "question whether we are really alive amidst the numbing pressure of commercial culture."

In his book "Breaking Through to Teens", therapist Ron Taffel suggests that in order to understand teens, we must enter their world.  The same would attach to understanding young adults, and any other of the  hoards of the "seemingly" lost, subversive and disenfranchised among us. As for me, I choose to appreciate those moments when my son urges me into his room to show me a death metal music video. For him, it may very well be the deep existential angst that he, as a contemporary teen feels. Or perhaps it is the ever changing and unpredictable beat that resonates with and through him, or the fact that he can connect with peers if he knows the words of the latest Emmure song...or that in listening to something so bad and violent, he acheives purgation and redemption.

Here is "Bludgeoned (to Death) by Suicide Silence

Lawrence Rubin, psychologist and counseling professor, is co-author with psychiatrist Mike Brody of Messages: Self Help Through Popular Culture.

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