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Satan's Scapegoat: The Daily Mail & Blaming Metal For Murder
Joel McIver , May 1st, 2014 06:44

The Daily Mail has once more blamed listening to heavy metal as in some way contributory to the tragic murder of Ann Maguire, and a recent teenage suicide. Joel McIver explains why this argument needs to be challenged

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This article should never have been written. It didn't need to be commissioned, planned and tapped out over a coffee. It's about a stupid, unnecessary attitude that has no reason to exist in 2014 because it was obsolete in 1980. As a society, we should have grown past all this nonsense years – decades – ago.

I've been asked by the folks at The Quietus to ponder the eternal mystery of why heavy metal is so often cited as the reason for destructive behaviour, primarily among young people. The reason why they've asked me to write this, rather than any of several other learned metal experts, is because of two concurrent news stories that are doing the rounds, to one of which I responded and had a letter printed yesterday (30 April) in our old friend The Daily Mail.

The first is this one, the sad story of 16-year-old Oliver King, printed in the Mail on 25 April. King, a teenager plagued by depression caused by a failed relationship and pressure at school among other problems, is said to have taken his own life after watching some YouTube videos, one of which was a song called 'The Body Of Death Of The Man With The Body Of Death' by Pinkly Smooth, a short-lived side project featuring members of Avenged Sevenfold, a Californian metal band popular among teens. Back in 2008, the newspaper did the same over a murder committed in South Africa by a teenage fan of Slipknot.

If you're an average Mail reader, which is to say middle-aged and conservative with a small 'c', that song title might scare or irritate you. I've just watched it, and it's a lightweight, ska-punkish tune with a few riffs thrown in. It is in no way upsetting or threatening, unless you happen to be in the small minority of people who are suffering from very poor mental health, which would appear to have been one of Oliver King's problems.

My response to the Mail's report was this letter, which they edited down and published as follows:

I don't think I wrote anything particularly challenging in my letter. It basically said: 1) Don't blame heavy metal for anyone's suicide, 2) That attitude is ancient and wrong anyway, 3) Metal is fun. Even if you think heavy metal is stupid, sexist, macho, posturing idiocy for inadequate males (the prevailing way of thinking among most non-headbangers until around 1990), you'll still agree, I hope, that there's no harm in listening to the stuff. It's fantasy-based escapist entertainment which makes its fans smile, unless – and I'll say this again – you happen to be among the small number of people whose mental health is fragile. You could say the same about horror movies, although in fact that exact statement has been made so many times before now that I literally can't face reading it, let alone writing it, one more time.

The second story, concerning the murder of teacher Ann Maguire at a school in West Yorkshire by a 15-year-old male student, also mentions the fact that the killer enjoyed heavy metal. It'll be at least a few days, if ever, before we find out any details of his identity, but various news sources have noted the metal detail because, with soul-destroying predictability, that is somehow thought to be relevant to the case.

Let's be professional and look at the other side of the argument. I note with interest that two studies in California and Australia have concluded in recent years that teenagers are at a greater risk of depression if they listen to a lot of metal. I have no way of assessing the efficacy of the studies, or the agendas of those who executed them, but let's say for the sake of argument that they are legitimate. What these results suggest to me is that cause and effect have been confused here: kids who are already depressed or depression-prone will choose metal to listen to as an escape or healing mechanism, rather than the music being the initial cause of their depression. Unless, and I'll say it a third time, you're referring to the smaller number of individuals who suffer from a genuine chemical disorder. Your average teenager with average mental health will not suddenly develop depression from listening to too much (is there even such a thing as too much?) heavy metal.

As I said before, I can't quite believe that we're still having this conversation. I won't go through the entire history of music censorship, or indeed the relevant part relating to metal (see here for that) because this debate is just so old. It's 30 years since the 'Satanic panic' of the 80s, when Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest and the rest of them were earnestly told off for using naughty words in their songs. It didn't make sense then, and it doesn't make sense now. It is literally only bastions of foolishness like The Daily Mail who attempt to rehash the same old arguments, time after time.

Life isn't all about what the naked eye can see, of course. A lot of people think that we're all the unwitting slaves of a shadowy, unelected elite, and I'm sure that's true to an extent. But when it comes to the influence of heavy metal, it's simple: it is there to make you feel good. In this case at least, life is really not one giant conspiracy, although now I've written that I'm reminded of this great song by Lard, which should be played throughout the Mail's editorial offices every day at 9am sharp.

What a strange species we are. We fetishise each other's failings, we gloat as we fall, we instinctively seek out the worst explanation for each other's behaviour. We hate things we don't understand and we actively create a culture of misery and repression. But those behaviour patterns can change, and indeed they must change, or we'll never evolve into a mature society.

Now go and listen to this extremely fast, violent song. I guarantee you'll feel happier and more energised afterwards than you were before. That is what heavy metal does, and no more.

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May 1, 2014 11:36am

As a perceived society norm people would much rather believe that metal or video games (the other scapegoat rolled out time and again) are to blame for the tragic loss of somebody at their own hand or another. Taking on board the pains and ills that people can feel due to nothing more than a normal modern life is too great a thing to acknowledge and confront at any great level and thus the path of least resistance gets followed so people can get their head round it.

Great article but, as you say, it's a symptom itself that it is even still needed as discussion.

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May 1, 2014 12:35pm

i remember reading an article in the guardian a few years ago, where someone was still blaming the Columbine Massacre on the fact that the perpetrators listened to Marilyn Manson. Even though they wrote specifically that they hated him. The writer of the article didnt even pick them up on it, so it was just left there hanging, perpetuating a myth.

The claims that people make about metal have no back up, as plenty of killer listen to classical or jazz or pop. They are just applying their own bias to attack something they do not like. I dont really know how to stop it, as even when the author of the piece wrote to them, they edited and stuffed it on the letters page. What chance of changing the peoples minds that just read the headlines?

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Mark Eglinton
May 1, 2014 3:24pm

In reply to simon :

What none of these people ever mention or acknowledge is that heavy metal broadly- perhaps more than any other genre of music - is capable of giving people suffering from low self-esteem or with feelings of abandonment, something to actually belong to. I would even bet that dedication to heavy metal has saved considerably more people from suicidal/murderous situations than it has caused them. But that wouldn't make headlines, of course...

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Taun Aengus
May 1, 2014 5:25pm

In reply to Mark Eglinton:

Mark Eglinton---Well said.

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May 1, 2014 5:51pm

Great article. The standard of pastoral care is appalling in many schools, and kids with mental health issues are often ignored or neglected: if they're still getting the grades, nobody cares. Yet we're supposed to believe that metal is responsible (when its cathartic and empowering effects and sense of a broader community are often the only thing that pulls people back from the edge). If someone feels invisible and worthless, is it really surprising that they end up doing something drastic? Metal can often be, on a social level, a force for good.

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Mark T
May 1, 2014 6:01pm

I'll bet plenty of people who rescue other people from burning buildings also listen to metal.

I'd explain that to The Daily Mail if I thought their editorial stance amounted to anything more principled than "trolling for page hits".

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May 1, 2014 6:43pm

I doubt that metal or any outlet on the more aggressive side is - or should be - as harmless an escapism for frustrated World of Warcraft-players as the author suggests. Of course there is more to it, starting from the very beginning rock'n'roll was never meant to be docile, it was always a tool for a) the youth to express passion, be it aggression, anger or fear or desires of any kind, and b) for those who marketed it, to make money out of these feelings. And as an outlet for those who do not have the creativity etc. to express themselves in their own way, it is of course a documentation of how people are set up in their brain box, so it is a sympton, but not a harmless one, because this music, esp. the independent forms of it, is made from young people who feel exactly like their 'fans', this is what makes the connection even stronger. Point in case here is of course the infamous second wave of norwegian black metal, with the church burnings and the murders and these things. Of course I do not condone murder or the destruction of cultural heirloom, but what makes this fascinating is the actual danger present here, which is being made immediate by the music of Burzum and the like. This kind of music (or take the partly militant british crustcore movement (I still listen to Electro Hippies, thanks for the brillant The only good Punk... record!) is dangerous, not only in a harmless entertaining way, but because of the characters and ideas behind it. And, in my opinion, so should it be. Despite all video surveillance, life is still dangerous, and people are hungry for excitement beneath the idiocy provided by the culture industry, so they seek outlets, and these are provided by people who are as dangerous as they are - and the most of us.

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May 3, 2014 12:23am

In the late 90s there was a study which showed that goth and metal kids did better in GCSEs.
When you dug beyond the headline it just turned out that goth, metal and good GCSEs are all attributes of introspective teens from moderately well-heeled backgrounds whose parents emphasise the importance of academic achievement.

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Jon Thomas
May 4, 2014 8:14pm

I fucking love that Lard album.

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Random guy from Finland
May 18, 2014 2:08am

Finnish university and the institute of psychology made a reasearch about the subject in the 80's. They didn't find anykind of evidence that Heavy Metal causes changes in mental behaving. The institute did another reasearch during the Black Metal wave and also in the early 2000's. The only thing the whole team agreed was that metal music can offer positive ways channel to your mental suffering.

Who do I believe in well educated and professional researchers or conservative American politics, parents and newspapers who all have this unscientific "I have a feeling that metal music damages people"? Well, I have this feeling that conservatism and unproved myths damage minds more. If you're mentally unblanced you are no matter what you listen to, 90% had something wrong alerady in their minds already.

P.S.The Finnish Metal Festival Tuska Open Air is the most peaceful event of the summer: no drunk fights, no police action. Before it moved to another place of the capital, the festival took place in the center of it.

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Idi 'Big Daddy' Amin
Jun 7, 2014 10:11pm

Modern life is what causes suicide, not metal.

Humans aren't supposed to wake up before dawn, spend an hour in traffic, sit in a cubicle for eight hours staring at a screen, spend another hour in traffic, then arrive home at night, completely drained, with no energy to do anything other than sit in front of the telly until they finally crawl into bed, have a joyless wank and fall into a restless sleep, ready to do it all again tomorrow. All just to pay ever-increasing amounts of something that doesn't actually exist, in order to earn the right to existence for ourselves.

We simply aren't meant to live like this, and it's slowly destroying us all.

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