Does Heavy Rock Music Cause Violence Media Essay

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The teenage period of growth can often be difficult for any individual. Within the sphere of youth culture, music provides a prominent resource for coping in this trying period. Since the birth of popular music in the 1950's, a moral issue has arisen, which concerns the questionable impact that certain genres of music have on youth (Zillmann and Gan, 1997; Ter Bogt, 1997).

Some argue that the content within these genres serves to influence the thoughts and actions of young individuals, through the promotion of violence, substance abuse and racism, amongst other negative attributes (Christenson and Roberts, 1998). Hip hop and heavy metal have had particularly high media coverage surrounding this issue. Over the years, a high level of pressure has been applied to artists within these genres by individuals and organizations that believe they're music to contain material of an inappropriate nature for youthful listeners. Such bodies have gone so far as to blame musicians for suicides amongst teenagers (Binder, 1993; Fried, 2003).

Within so-called sub-cultures and the music they inhabit, suicide is an issue that is often raised and it is perhaps not surprising to read articles and watch individuals within the media, claiming that young people have committed suicide, as a result of listening to the music of they're favourite band. However this appears to be a simplification of a problem that could have and, likely has many route causes. Such causes could stem from any entity of influence on an individual, such as the educational system, friends, peers, parents or even the media itself. All of these areas will be discussed within this paper.


The issue concerning the questionable moral impact of music on the young began with the birth of popular music in the 1950's (it can be and, has been argued that popular music existed before this period, however that argument belongs to a different debate to this one). Elvis Presley introduced the young, white population to rock and roll, a style of music strongly derivative of rhythm and blues (RnB), which had until that point been reserved predominantly for black people in America. Elvis became the spokesman for this generation, his voice, music and actions symbolizing a break from the past, through the rejection of the established, conservative attitudes and values characteristic of the time. Young people found it easy to relate to Elvis, through a shared longing for liberation: morally, sexually and otherwise. Intrinsically linked to this was a rebellion on some level to parents and other authoritative figures.

Of course such authoritative figures became worried and threatened by this movement and reacted by attempting to ban the music, via various methods of censorship. One such method was used on The Ed Sullivan Show , during a performance by Elvis Presley. Elvis was known for his suggestive movements on stage involving hip gyration. As a result he was only filmed from the waist-up on the show, as these movements were seen as lude and inappropriate for television by the producers of the show.

The older generation believed that the type of behavioural aspects Elvis flaunted, were potentially hazardous to the moral development of the young and wished for this threat to be ended. However the growing infamy of Elvis among media facets because of this, only further ignited the admiration of the artist amongst the teenage population. The saying: 'there's no such thing as bad publicity' certainly applies here and, proves the futility of regulating the connection between musicians and they're fans.

Early Tensions

Gilbert O'Sullivan released 'Alone Again' in 1972, a song in which the artist expressed his feelings of betrayal, by contemplating the notion of jumping off a tower. The song was a huge success, spending six weeks at number 1 in America. In a similar vein, the suicidal action of wrist-slitting was portrayed by Leonard Cohen in the song 'Dress Rehearsal Rag' in 1971. However both O'sullivan and Cohen had appeal to the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, a conservative body. Thus the aforementioned artist's perceived suicidal tendencies did not induce any substantial moral panic at the time. Thematically in music, suicide entered popular culture in a romantic way, similar to tragedies in plays: it was a common occurrence and acceptable in those times.

With the advent of MTV in 1981, a strong dichotomy arose between generations. MTV now held the torch, previously held by radio, as the main platform for exposing new artists (Shuker, 1994). Radio catered for the older generation, through providing listeners with music that affirmed the status quo through familiarity. MTV catered for the younger generation, offering cutting-edge music that playfully explored the boundaries of acceptability in a wide variety of ways.

Turner (1993, p. 145) commented on how radio as a format, failed to keep up to date with music and the audience simply wanted to hear the music they already had on record. Radio became a prominent platform of struggle within culture during the 1970's. However digital radio and increased diversity among stations has somewhat dissipated this struggle in the 21st century.

There is a tendency amongst critics of rock music today, to regurgitate tried stereotypes, as opposed to making judgments on the grounds of compositional merit. The various styles of metal within the rock umbrella (e.g. heavy, new, thrash) are all usually viewed as being made up of dark, menacing and destructive music. The music emulates the bands attitudes, based around a lack of respect for authority and conformity. Metal is a genre that has always been under scrutiny by regulating authorities. Accusations have been made that metal music can often be sexist, racist, satanic and advocate the tendency to commit murder/suicide (Shuker 1994, pp.260-2).

"1980's rock critics, most of whom were drawn from the ranks of white male baby boomers still wedded to countercultural notions of 'authenticity', were equally ruthless in their derision of heavy metal. Critic Charles M. Young spoke for many when he observed in Musician Magazine in 1984 that 'heavy metal' is transitional music, infusing dirtbags and worthless puds with the courage to grow up and be a dickhead" (Wright, P. 370)

It would be difficult to prove that this genre of music is instigating listeners to commit heinous acts and thus there is really no evidence to suggest this, beyond mere correlation. Some listener's perceptions have been inclined this way, because on face value, the music doesn't seem to possess the positive elements that other genres do. In a study conducted in 1993 involving high school students, only a small "subgroup" of rock/heavy metal fans reported feeling worse after listening to the music and for most the affect was positive (Martin, 1993), with students reporting being in a better mood after listening. Arnett (1991) argues that music can provide a cathartic remedy. Some findings of intrigue were made by Stack (1994). This researcher found that subscriptions to heavy metal magazines were strongly correlated with suicide amongst young readers and not older ones. Controls were also employed regarding financial situation, divorce rate etc. and the results remained similar. However both the subscription rate and controlling factors could have been influenced by independent factors and it is by no means concrete proof. It appears unlikely that any study will provide a definitive answer to this question.

The Blame Game

The 'Parental Advisory' sticker was developed in 1985 by the RIAA. The stickers were placed on audio/video recordings that included language and (or) content of an offensive nature. The Parents Music resource Center (PMRC), lead by Tipper Gore, took action to add the label "explicit Lyrics' to albums.

1985 was also the year that several court cases took place against recording artists. Following the attempted suicide by 19 year-old John McCullom, Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath fame appeared in court on charges that his song 'Suicide Solution' was the route cause of the incident, even though Osbourne claimed that the song was supposed to have anti-suicidal messages. The case however, went into dismissal, as the First Amendment protects lyrics as a form of speech. (Wright, 2000)

In 1990, two teenagers, James Vance and ray Belknap attempted to commit suicide. Heavy metal band Judas Priest was held responsible by the parents, for hiding subliminal messages in they're songs and a court case was made against the band on these grounds. The claim was, that in the band's song 'Better by you Better than me', the phrase 'Do it' could be discerned on a subliminal level as an instruction for suicide. Unlike the Osbourne case, the song wasn't given first amendment rights because:

"Since the recipient of a subliminal message is unaware of it, the message can't contribute to dialogue, the pursuit of truth, the marketplace of ideas, or personal autonomy." (Vance V. Judas Priest, 1990)

However as the phrase "do it" is essentially meaningless on its own, there would have to be an antecedent to which "it" refers. For this reason, the parents of the boy's had to admit that they already possessed potential suicidal tendencies. It appeared that both boys had histories laden with crime and violence, amongst other undesirable characteristics. These facts certainly didn't help the case against Judas Priest and the ruling judge Jerry Carr finally ruled against the plaintiffs stating:

"The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude…the strongest evidence presented at the trial showed no behavioural effects other than anxiety, distress or tension" (Vance V. Judas priest, 1990)

Of course anxiety, distress and tension could be derived from any number of sources, music or otherwise, regardless of the statement above.

This shows that there is often no limit to the perception individuals can have of lyrics and meaning within music and it would be futile to attempt to decipher and then regulate on these grounds. The accusation of subliminal messages appearing in rock music and the 'powers of hypnotism' from such messages, dates back to the 1970's and even then, wasn't given serious or significant consideration by many (Billard, 1990; Henry, 1990, p. 65).

Rob Halford of Judas Priest commented that the case was an attack on artistic expression and that: "It was nothing to do with real belief in subliminals…We really feel that it was a completely different issue". (Considine, 1990)

The 1980's saw an unprecedented rise in suicides, provoking the use of the term 'epidemic'. Birmaher (1996) stated that towards the end of the 20th century, individuals possessed a much greater likelihood of developing disorders that could lead to possible suicide attempts and that the manifestations of such disorders are developing at an earlier age. Conservative groups such as the PMRC continue to relay speculative claims of a connection between certain genres of music and suicide, or other violent behaviour. Blaming cultural figures who are constantly in the public eye seems like an easy route to gain support for this ideological opinion. There continues however, to be no substantial evidence to back up claims of music being a significant influential factor in the problem.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) conducted a study in 1997, which concluded that suicide amongst youths aged thirteen-twenty four were largely due to a breakdown in relationships, other personal problems and poor financial situations (beautrais et al., 1997). These are clearly highly individual problems that demand long-term solutions and not simply a ban on aggressive music.

Marilyn Manson

Towards the end of the 1990's, the dark, gothic-clad rock figure Marilyn Manson was unleashed upon the music industry. He remains highly renowned as one of the ultimate figures of controversy to gain success through the means of MTV and quickly rose to fame through a series of chart-topping releases. Manson was by no means an average artist:

"Onstage and off, he wears black lipstick and cakes his face in mortician's white, giving him-self a deathly, freshly exhumed look" (Thigpen, 1997) (TIME!!

Amongst other facets, the controversy surrounding Manson came from his exposure on stage and his preponderance to self-mutilate. The visual aspects of his live performances and music videos were certainly the main instigating factors in the PMRC targeting him as the new musical offender.

In April 20th, 1999, when two teenagers committed a massacre at Columbine High School, the press was (ill) informed that they listened to Mason's music. Almost instantaneously, the artist was widely accused by news reporters and other media figures as the puppet-master, goading the boys to commit the violent act. A speaker at a protest in Denver shortly after the incident made the following comment, with the accompaniment of a huge applause by the crowd:

"If Marilyn Manson can walk into our town and promote hate, violence suicide, death, drug use and Columbine life behaviour. I can say, not without a fight you can't" (Unknown speaker)

A member of Manson's band stated following an interviewer's question on if they feel responsible:

"You may as well blame Clinton for adultery then"

(Marilyn Manson band Member)

Of course mass-murder and adultery are not on the same scale of seriousness, however where do you draw the line? The Columbine tragedy happened at a time when Manson was achieving great success, with his most popular album to date, Antichrist Superstar recently released, which entered the charts at no.3. So it seems that he was a victim of being the widest recognized artist amongst the boys' record collection, even though it transpired later that they were not actually fans. Even if they were fans, what of the other music they listened to? If Manson's music were to blame in some way for they're behaviour, then so is anything similar to the artist in question that they had been listening to prior to the incident. To refer to the previous analogy: Clinton could be blamed for individuals committing adultery; however what of the many other, lesser-known politicians that have committed such acts? Rolling Stone published a letter written by the artist, stating his views on the incident and how he became demonized.

"I was dumbfounded as I watched the media snake right in, not missing a teardrop, interviewing the parents of dead children, televising the funerals. Then Came the witch hunt. Man's greatest fear is chaos. It was unthinkable that these kids did not have a black-and-white reason for their actions. I remember hearing the initial reports from Littleton, that Harris and Klebold were wearing makeup and were dressed like Marilyn Manson, whom they obviously must worship, since they dressed in black. Of course, speculation snowballed into making me the poster boy for everything that is bad in the world". (Mason, 1999)

The use of the phrase 'witch hunt' here is a reference to the 1960's communist witch hunts in America. A number of musicians (Bob Dylan and John lennon amongst others) and other culturally important figures were targeted by the FBI as possible communist threats to America. In some way the targeting of individuals in this case does run parallel to that of the case with Marilyn Manson. In the letter Manson continues to relay how the boys didn't apparently listen to Marilyn Manson but that bands they did listen to, such as Rammstein for example were not big enough in the industry to blame. This shows the media's tendency to generalize and its failure as a result to accurately distinguish. A similar mistake was made by the FBI in generalizing all progressive social ideology as communism.

Upon reading his autobiography, one gets the sense that Mason takes his music and other artistic endeavors in a more serious way then many would give him credit for. The promotion of "hate, suicide, murder…" and other morally destructive forces are certainly not characteristic of his ideology. His views on religion actually suggest the contrary: that he is attempting to promote self-empowerment.

"I think art is the only thing that's spiritual in the world. And I refuse to be forced to believe in other people's interpretations of god. I don't think anybody should be. No one person can own the copyright to what God means" (Manson)


Following the tragic events of Columbine, regulating bodies have been desperately attempting to seek apparently quick-fix, short-term solutions for complicated problems, such as suicide and extreme violence amongst teenagers. All too often the possible route causes of such problems are sidelined by those immediately responsible. In the case of Columbine, this was the teenagers and the answer: the installation of metal detectors in schools across America to deter students planning to bring in firearms. On one level, if children can't bring guns into schools anymore, they can still use them outside of school. The main issue should be concerned with stopping them obtaining the guns in the first place.

"I think the National Rifle Assoiciation is far too powerful to take on, so most people choose Doom, The Basketball Diaries or yours truly" (Manson, 1999)

This provides an analogy to the actual socio-anthropological issue apparent here: It seems obvious that the actual educational system itself and respective up-bringing of school students would serve as the key influencing factors behind such an incident as Columbine and, should thus become the objects of re-evaluation. To extrapolate to a musical context: even if heavy metal music had the effect of a gun, a teenager would always be able to obtain it in some way or form. An authority's attempt to remove this will often only make the object more desirable.

Certain individuals such as Tipper Gore, believe that suicides can be blamed on specific genres of music that influence such behaviour. They have attacked the industry on these grounds through the medium of groups like the Parents Music Resource Centre. In one case, the fact that a teenager wrote down the lyrics to "Fade to Black", by Metallica, before committing suicide served as evidence that the band's music was an encouraging factor in the act. If such a claim is to be given precedence, then maybe claims should be made against supposedly 'positive' pop star icons, such as Britney Spears. One only has to look back a year or two to witness how the rise to stardom eroded Britney's mental and physical health. The point here is that individuals listen to the music they like because it makes them feel good in some way, whether this is sitting in a darkened room, amongst candles, brooding to Metallica, or dancing around ecstatically to Britney Spears. This is probably what they would be doing without the music anyway.

Organizations such as the AACAP have declared "the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of suicide among teens to be one of their top priorities" (Wright, 2000). This is certainly a move in the right direction and such organizations have yet to be involved in the accusations of musicians as harbingers of moral destruction amongst the young. The AACAP does recommend psychiatric evaluations of teenagers who engage in music with possible "destructive themes" (Alessi, Huang, James, Ying and Chowhan, 1992), however this is merely seen as an indicator of a problem that has already been established. They conduct research that is more likely to be of use in solving the route causes of problems amongst the youth of today than the neo-conservative attitude of instant blame and reprisal.

If an artist is to be in anyway blamed for an incident such as that of Columbine, then those forcing blame should make a more in depth analysis of this person and make sure that it is not simply a face-value judgment. Music becomes a complex art form when any meaning is being applied and on face-value the intended meaning by an artist may not be obvious. However to somehow regulate this would first of all be extremely difficult. Secondly it would destroy an art form that gives pleasure and asylum to so many individuals, with the likely result of another cultural resource becoming the object of moral attack.