Howard S. Friedman Ph.D.

Secrets of Longevity

Groupies, Deviants, Devils and Flourishing

Can groupies and metal-heads go on to flourishing lives?

Posted Jun 27, 2015

In my work on the Longevity Project, I and my colleagues have been studying over 1500 bright American men and women who were first examined as children in the 1920s. They were followed for their whole lives. One of the puzzles that emerged was why some children were able to overcome challenging childhoods—with family strife and parental divorce—but still flourish later in life. We had many clues from these participants, but what about the more general issue of young deviants in society? What happens at the extremes?

My distinguished colleague (and former student), Dr. Tasha Howe, had an idea. Well, she thought, "I am former groupie and a former denizen of the seedy world of the heavy metal music scene. And, I turned out fine." (She is happy, healthy, and successful, with many friends and a meaningful life.) So she set out to study other "metalheads" from the 1980s. How did they turn out?

You might think that lines like these come from heavy metal bands like Guns N Roses, Metallica, or AC/DC:

On the pillow of evil is that Thrice-Great Devil Trismegistus

Who lulls our hypnotized spirit;

And the rich metal of our Will

Is vaporized utterly by this savvy alchemist.

It is the Devil who holds the strings by which we’re moved.

But in fact, these verses were written 150 years ago by the rebel poet and enfant terrible, Charles Baudelaire. (He wrote in French, in Les Fleurs du Mal). For decades and decades, there have been outlandish challenges to proper society, and they have usually been misunderstood.

Attempts to censor or even ban "wicked," "devilish" songs, games, exhibits, and similar deviant artistic tools engage society with fights over freedom of expression. But, from a mental health point of view, we usually do not have enough detailed research on the likely outcomes across time. Warnings of "Explicit Content: Parental Advisory" are one result and certainly help keep inappropriate material away from young children. But what about adolescents?

Dr. Howe conducted surveys of metal groupies (young women who, in the 1980s, had sex with metal band members) and fanatic heavy metal fans (metalheads), as well as with comparison groups. Many of these metal-obsessed individuals had faced serious adverse childhood experiences, such as abusive or addicted parents, or maternal neglect, and they turned to the heavy metal scene to hear songs about devils and destruction. The metal enthusiasts did also often live deviant lives in their youth. But how did they turn out?

Certainly some individuals at the deviant corners of society face addiction, overdose, injury, or even criminal activity. But should we blame the wild music, or the outlandish art, or the over-the-edge theater, or the poetry of Motley Crue or Baudelaire? Probably not. Au contraire, it appears that with this meaningful identification with others struggling with challenge, many were able to grow up to be mentally healthy people—thriving members of their communities. Not only that, but they report that their youthful experiences made them very happy!

This does not mean that most adolescents will not benefit more and thrive in the core positive institutions of society. We know the value of volunteer youth organizations, church groups, scouting, and so on in building maturity and a positive identity in most young people. But perhaps we should not over-simply things or condemn those individuals finding their road to adulthood at the artistic fringe.

So, Professor Tasha Howe was correct. For at least some troubled young people, participation in cultural and artistic movements at the fringes of society can give them the sense of belonging—and ironically, a sense of meaning—that helps them navigate the rough waters of a challenging adolescence.

If you are interested, The Longevity Project, which explains the long-term pathways to thriving, was published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ ) and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.

For the article on heavy metal (in different participants) see: Howe, T. R., Aberson, C. L., Friedman, H. S., Murphy, S., Alcazar, E., Vazquez, E. & Becker, R. (2015). Three decades later: The life experiences and mid-life functioning of 1980s heavy metal groupies, musicians, and fans. Self and Identity.  doi=10.1080/15298868.2015.1036918.

The Baudelaire lines were translated by Howard Friedman.

Copyright © 2015 Howard S. Friedman, all rights reserved.

Photo of Charles Baudelaire statue Public Domain Yair-haklai [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACharles_Beaudelaire_by_Pierre-...