The sensory thrill of heavy metal / by Beth Winegarner

A mosh pit. Photo by dr_zoidberg. Creative Commons license.

A mosh pit. Photo by dr_zoidberg. Creative Commons license.

When I first got into heavy metal as a teenager, I was surprised by how calm and happy it made me feel. It was just after the peak of the moral panic around heavy metal, in which conservative religious groups — as well as the Parents Music Resource Center, headed by Al Gore’s wife, Tipper — convinced much of the U.S. that heavy metal was evil, that it led teenagers into violent and risky behavior, or tempted them toward the occult. Part of me came to believe that nonsense, too, but when I began to listen to the music, my nervous system said otherwise.

I wanna feel the wind in my face
And the velvet shimmering limousines
Like a kiss from the queen of the damned
Like the smell of gasoline

It wasn’t until much later, when I read Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s book Metalheads, that I learned this calming effect was common. I knew plenty of other metalheads myself, but our response to the music wasn’t something we talked a lot about. Arnett wrote:

Adolescent boys who are high in sensation seeking tend to be attracted to heavy metal music and also tend to have higher rates of reckless behavior, because both heavy metal music and reckless behavior provide intense and novel sensations. … Enjoyment of heavy metal music and enjoyment of reckless behavior tend to be found in the same boys, not because heavy metal music causes reckless behavior but because both experiences reflect an enjoyment of intense and novel sensations.

(It should be noted that Arnett, when he researched these questions, spoke mostly with young, white, male metal fans. His finding likely extends to a lot of white female metalheads, but it would be speculation to go beyond that. I’m not sure anyone has replicated his research among girls and women, people of color, trans and queer folks, etc., but they should.)

I am, in most circumstances, quite sensitive to sounds — especially loud sounds, whether they’re high and sharp or low and rumbling. (As I write this, a car with a bad muffler is idling outside my house and it’s really stressing me out — but I will happily listen to drone/doom bands that make not-dissimilar sounds. Go figure.) I spend a fair bit of time explaining to people how I can be so sensitive to noise but adore heavy metal which, to mainstream ears, is the definition of noise. But it’s organized sound, I tell them, with a steady rhythm of bass and drums, structured around repeating patterns of riffs, often infused with a lot of gorgeous melody and grandeur. It’s exactly the right kind of noise.

Black leather and glittering steel
They're calling me back, so I'm turning my head to the wheel
Black leather and glittering steel
I'm thirsty for more, so I'm sending my foot to the floor

Although kids and adults on the autism spectrum are known for being sensitive to sensations — tags and seams in clothing, food textures, visual clutter — we all have sensations we avoid, or seek. Maybe it’s the feel of velvet or silk, tight jeans or a loose, faded flannel shirt. Maybe it’s the sweet bite of whiskey, a pull on a cigarette, riding a motorcycle at 70 miles per hour on the freeway, swimming as the water hugs you, the pressure in your joints when you do yardwork, or the rhythm of a rocking chair. Maybe it’s the swirl of the mosh pit, knocking into your comrades, crowd-surfing to the edge of the stage.

I was listening to Riot’s song “Black Metal and Glittering Steel” this morning (lyrics quoted throughout this post) and realized that it’s essentially an ode to sensation, to the sensory-seeking lives of those metalheads Arnett interviewed way back in the early 1990s. Riot were masters of speed metal, and “Black Leather…,” although it only clocks in at 85 bpm, feels much faster, thanks to its fast riffing and high-energy vocals. The lyrics talk about the feel of speeding, the smell of gasoline, the sight of shimmering limousines, the taste of a kiss — it’s pure sensation, in song form.

"It's a vicarious release of aggression," one subject told Arnett, and he said he needed heavy metal as a release: "Otherwise I'd lose control." "It calms me down," said several others; "it helps me get things out," said another, explaining that he was referring to the stress accumulated from school, disagreements with parents, and so on. One described it as "like taking a tranquilizer."

It still kills me that, for at least a generation, parents were taking their kids’ metal records away, scared that the music would make them violent or evil. If anything, listening to music led kids to engage in less risky behavior, because they had a safer outlet at hand. That sounds like a prescription for more heavy metal, not less.