“Metal music is predominately a teenage phenomenon.”
That’s what researcher Robert L. Gross wrote in a 1990 study published by The Journal of Popular Culture. Mr. Gross essentially argued that metal fans would outgrow the genre and its subculture as adults.
But when a team of researchers led by Tasha R. Howe found that no one has tested whether Gross’s theory would hold true over time, they carried out their own study. And their findings argue otherwise.
They found that those who were growling or head-banging along to metal songs in the 1980s were “significantly happier in their youth and better adjusted currently than either middle-aged or current college-age youth comparison groups.”
The researchers discovered this after gathering middle-aged participants who “both did and did not gravitate toward heavy metal in the 1980s, in order to assess whether their life trajectories and experiences were significantly different from each other.”
According to their research, the “metalhead” subculture served as a protective shield against negative outcomes in life. The team also noted that rebellious or “edgy” music might actually help adolescents develop and solidify a “cohesive sense of identity.”
“Non-traditional role models may provide a sense of belonging,” the researchers wrote, “as they do not judge youth for being outside the mainstream. Instead, they celebrate it.”
While alternative role models may offer a sense of belonging to young, confused listeners, another study shows that it may not necessarily be the genre that brings “metalheads” together, but rather the values the genre represents.
In 2011, a research team led by Diana Boer of the National Taiwan University published a study that analyzed how shared musical tastes can create bonds between young people.
The team had to first identify what personality traits matched with specific musical genres. For example, a 2006 study shows that listeners who prefer music with vocals are usually extraverted, while those who have a love of jazz tend to be intellectual.
But Boer’s team took that discovery a step further and argued that the music we listen to doesn’t only reflect our personalities, but the values we live by. Their study shows:
“Individuals who reject conservative values and who endorse openness to change values like listening to rock and punk; individuals who are guided by self-enhancing and openness values tend to like popular music, such as international pop and hip-hop; and individuals with self-transcendent value priorities like listening to jazz and classic.”
Based on these categories, Boer’s team found that when listeners share musical tastes, they also share values and are more likely to be attracted to each other and form social bonds and communities.
It may be that “metalheads” aren’t the only ones seeking belonging through music after all.