Songs in the key of depression, suicide and death: how metal musicians sustained a dialogue of community with their fans in a period of moral panic about heavy metal music, 1984-1991

Brown, A.R (2017) Songs in the key of depression, suicide and death: how metal musicians sustained a dialogue of community with their fans in a period of moral panic about heavy metal music, 1984-1991. In: 3rd ISMMS Biennial International Conference - Boundaries and Ties: The Place of Metal Music in Communities, 9 - 11 June 2017, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada.

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With the partial exception of ‘Suicide Solution’ (Ozzy Osbourne, 1980), a song about drinking yourself into an early grave (‘Wine is fine but whiskey’s quicker/Suicide is slow with liquor’), none of the songs cited in the US Senate Hearings (1985) on the ‘Labelling of Rock Music’ and in legal proceedings thereafter, concerned to link the popularity of heavy metal with an increase in youth suicide rates, are actually about suicide. This did not prevent elite politicians and the PMRC, aided by a phalanx of academic ‘experts’, conveying the opposite impression, often via sensationalist tactics, to the media and the wider public. Indeed this period can be characterised as one where a number of professional groups, including teachers, lawyers, social workers, psychiatrists and academic psychologists, claimed and sought (or simply assumed) evidence of a ‘causal’ link between the popularity of heavy metal music with ‘blue collar’ youth and an alarming rise in suicide rates in North America. For example, Osbourne’s song was twice cited in separate legal indictments linking it to male youth suicides, while Judas Priest’s cover of Spooky Tooth’s ‘Better By You, Better By Me’ (1978) was claimed, in a ‘show trial’ held in Reno, Nevada in December 1990, to carry a ‘back-masked message’ (‘Do it, do it’) that drove two young men to act out a suicide pact. After the ‘not guilty’ verdict, lead singer Rob Halford was quoted in Billboard as saying: “It tore us up emotionally hearing someone say to the judge […] that this is a band that creates music that kills young people. We accept that some people don’t like heavy metal, but we can’t let them convince us that it’s negative and destructive. Heavy metal is a friend that gives people great pleasure and enjoyment and helps them through hard times.” (November 3, 1990). The political rhetoric, pseudo-science and ideological attacks aimed at heavy metal notwithstanding, I want to argue that – despite the fact that neither politicians nor academics could correctly identify them – heavy metal music in this period did feature a number of songs that address mental illness, depression and suicide. For example, Suicidal Tendencies’ ‘Institutionalized’ (1983) and Metallica’s ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ (1986). These songs, and others like them, I argue can be viewed as a musical commentary on the times and on the situation, in particular, that metal youth were facing. For example, Suicidal Tendencies, both in their name and in their songs, offer a satirical, confused and sometimes angry commentary on the plight of the characters in their songs and the situations they find themselves in. ‘Institutionalized’ is a crossover thrash song, that features a troubled youth who is imprisoned by his parents, placed in a straight jacket in room that they have fitted out to resemble that of an ‘asylum’: ‘They stick me in an institution/Said it was the only solution’. Metallica’s song ‘Sanitarium’, similarly is about a character who is falsely incarcerated in a mental institution: ‘They keep me locked up in this cage/Can't they see it's why my brain says rage’ (1986). These songs, I argue, reflect the impact of the national ‘moral panic’ about heavy metal and how this resulted in the development of local institutions, such as the Fullerton, CA ‘Back in Control Centre’, that had a vested (financial) interest in labelling youth as depressed, unstable and in need of psychiatric assessment and 30 day detentions. First, I aim to identify and document the occurrence of such songs across the time period and how they can be linked thematically (as social and political commentary) to it, discussing their lyrical themes and musical structures. But I want to go further in suggesting that, particularly within the genre of thrash metal – a genre not generally associated with narratives of despair and inner turmoil, even by metal scholars – there is clear evidence of a song type that is especially concerned with these themes, particularly suicide. Not only this but the majority of these songs, perhaps surprisingly, take the form musically of a ballad that is concerned with a troubled ‘interior’ contemplation about depression, suicidal thoughts and death; or offer, in effect, a ‘suicide note’ (or a set of notes on suicide, such as failed attempts, etc.) to the listener. The better-known examples are Metallica’s ‘Fade To Black’ (1984) and Megadeth’s ‘A Tout Le Monde’ (1994); but there are many others. In this paper I want to explore what is musically and lyrically distinctive about the ‘thrash metal ballad’ as a suicide note before going on to locate its occurrence within a wider context; one characterised – I would argue – by a dialogic conversation between metal musicians and metal fans that is concerned to address the experience of trying to ‘live through’ this difficult economic and politically distorted period, and in the process is able to cohere a shared sense of community, collective identity and feelings of empathy between metal musicians and metal fans.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

Paper presented as part of the panel titled ‘Back to the Culture: 80s Heavy Metal as a Community of Creativity, Resistance and Difference’. Panel members were Andy R. Brown (Chair, Bath Spa University), Kevin Ebert (Xavier University) and Ross Hagen (Utah Valley University).

Divisions: Bath School of Art, Film and Media
Date Deposited: 18 Jun 2019 15:41
Last Modified: 05 Jan 2022 15:43
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