What if Your Stairway to Heaven Is My Highway to Hell?

Judging creative expression leads to harmful emotional suppression.

Posted Nov 28, 2020

“There is not one truth cast into stone,

Only lies cast into flames”

From “Not One Truth” by Hatebreed

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s I noticed that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was played at almost every school dance and Bar Mitzvah, whereas AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” was hardly ever played. This was a curious contrast as both Led Zeppelin and AC/DC had established themselves as immortal rock legends and these were two of their respective anthems. And from what I could tell, most kids sang, “I’m on the Highway to Hell” with the same enthusiasm that they sang, “And she’s buying a Stairway to Heaven.”

Andreas Klodt, used with permission
Source: Andreas Klodt, used with permission

Why? Well one possibility is that “Stairway To Heaven” is an epic slow song ideal for closing out a party, and “Highway to Hell” may have been supplanted by AC/DC’s perhaps more danceable hit “Shook Me All Night Long.” But I suspect it was something more. Putting aside the legend of Zeppelin’s dabbling in the occult, at face value, “Stairway To Heaven” conjures images of the “light” and “positivity,” whereas “Highway to Hell” evokes more of a sense of “darkness.” And as a society, we have always been more welcoming, accepting and promoting of art that appears to appeal to the “light” as opposed to the “darkness.”

I talked about this perspective with Jamey Jasta of Hatebreed during our conversation for The Hardcore Humanism Podcast. While discussing Grammy-nominated Hatebreed’s new album Weight of the False Self, Jasta reflected on how he experienced this type of judgment when Hatebreed first started out as a band. Jasta explained how intense music like the metalcore style Hatebreed plays provides the same “jolt to the senses” as other forms of expression. And yet unfortunately, his brand of art and its fans were judged rather than celebrated for their creativity.

“We talked to martial artists, you would talk to athletes, you would talk to performance artists and dancers and people who've had that jolt of adrenaline or that release of whatever they were going through at work or at school through their art or through their sport or through their creative process,” Jasta told me. “But not in that way where all of a sudden, people are saying, ‘Oh wait, these are bad people going to a bad part of town, doing bad things, in a bad venue’ or whatever. And it really started to make me think like, Alright, well, we’re just being mischaracterized.

“We're being misunderstood.”

Unfortunately, Jasta’s experience is not unique. There is a long history of specific forms of art that may explore darker themes being scrutinized, criticized, and censored. As an example, Jasta and I discussed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) that sought to label certain type of music as “filthy” and harmful to children.

The famous “Filthy Fifteen” included eventual music royalty across genres such as Madonna, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Def Leppard AC/DC and Twisted Sister. These artists were targeted for addressing sexual and violent themes in their music, risking their careers and reputations. And at times such scrutiny turned into outright stigma discrimination. Marilyn Manson was famously accused for inciting the mass murder at Columbine with no evidence presented, which he said severely damaged his career despite having no connection to the incident. And Judas Priest was put on trial for allegedly causing the death of a young fan through subliminal messaging of one of their songs, despite there being no evidence that such messaging can compel an individual to commit suicide.

Research shows that in general, engagement with any form of music therapy, art therapy and expressive writing has the potential to enhance emotional well-being. People who feel uplifted by more positive, hopeful and optimistic art should be free to embrace the artists, songs and other forms of creativity that validates and inspires us. But those of who are more prone to darker feelings – anger, depression, terror – need art forms that validate their feelings and let them explore and express intense negative emotions.

Many people need to explore the darkness in order to find a pathway into the light. They may need outlets to understand, explore and process their darker thoughts and emotions in order to come to a more emotionally stable place. Sometimes that means talking with therapists, friends and loved ones. But often their creative outlet includes darker, more frightening and more intense forms of art, music, film and writing.

There is substantial research backing the notion that heavier forms of music can have emotional benefits. And despite biases against heavy metal music as harmful and dangerous, there is extensive research showing metal’s specific positive mental health benefits. Longitudinal research suggests heavy metal fans grow up to be well-adjusted individuals. And for those who enjoy the genre, listening to extreme metal music actually is calming and promotes positive emotion rather than anger. Further, listening to extreme metal apparently improves scientific thinking when educators utilize it to explore the complex issues that are presented in the music.

Thus, people who might otherwise benefit from hearing music that helps them explore, confront and process darker and more intense emotions may be dissuaded by family or societal pressures who judge a specific form of art, thus robbing them of a chance for an emotionally validating and beneficial creative experience.

Worse, by promoting more “positive” messaging as compared to more “negative” messaging, there runs a high risk of people feeling that their darker, more intense emotions are invalid and unacceptable. Studies suggest that emotional avoidance and suppression that could result from these invalidating experiences can exacerbate depression and anxiety and perpetuate poor physical health.

In contrast, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which has been shown to be effective in reducing suicidal and parasuicidal behavior among individuals diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, utilizes a more accepting, validating approach to managing intense emotion. 

So, what can be done? It’s very simple – choose the form of artistic expression that feels most enjoyable, validating and useful to you. Celebrate it. Find people who share your love of it. But if you see someone who is drawn to and connects with a different art form – don’t judge them based on what you think of the music, or how it makes you feel.

Let them have the music that resonates for them in peace without stigma or bias. Because without realizing it, you may not only be criticizing their style of music, but also their emotional experience. And that’s not healthy for anyone.

And always remember, your Stairway To Heaven may just be someone else’s Highway To Hell.


You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Jamey Jasta on The Hardcore Humanism Podcast at HardcoreHumanism.com, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app.