The Atlantic ran a piece on Monday entitled "Finding Happiness in Angry Music." Its author, a Spokane-based writer (and Decibel contributor) by the name of Leah Sottile, has at times been painted with a broad brush by non-metal folk:

My combination of being a weekend hesher and weekday career woman draws more than a few cocked heads and second looks, like I’m a ticking time bomb that could go off anywhere between the water cooler and the break room.

A familiar experience for all of us, I suspect, and an irritating one.

In response to such prejudices, Sottile sets out to defend the emotional benefits of listening to metal. In doing so, she cites a recent Hebrew University of Jerusalem study which found that people who indulged in angry music before engaging in 'aggressive' tasks (the given example is "interrogate somebody") reported a greater overall sense of well-being than those who did not. Sottile goes on to quote the psychologist Frederic Luskin, a proponent of the idea of "constructive anger," for elucidation:

[Luskin] says that unlike destructive anger, constructive anger is the type of anger that aims to fix a problem. “Constructive anger usually leads people to feel that they've accomplished something somehow,” he says. “They've protected somebody or solved a problem.” So if you listen to Judas Priest’s “Hell Patrol” in your cubicle and then finally ask your boss for a raise, that’s a form of constructive anger. You’re getting mad, and it gives you the courage to solve an issue.

It's an intuitively compelling argument, and my own experience certainly supports it. Metal has gotten me through physical challenges, personal frustrations, and professional setbacks without number, as it has for many others.

I wonder, though, how far this logic goes. Listening to metal can give you a boost, to be sure. But is dyed-in-the-wool metal fandom really a recipe for happiness?

This question may sound silly, coming as it does from a metal writer, but I mean it seriously. Consider Sottile's intuition that "metal isn't for angry people." Judging by the bands Sottile mentions — Judas Priest, Poison, Black Sabbath, Mötley Crüe, Mastodon — her tastes run towards the relatively listenable end of the genre's spectrum. In these realms, she's probably right. But to me, the claim sounds crazy. Of course metal is for angry people. The world of death metal, black metal, grind, and so forth is a morass of bitterness and negativity that few would choose to enter without cause. I have a hard time imagining a perfectly well-adjusted and carefree individual blasting some Watchmaker to get fired up before a client pitch. Tortured aesthetics draw tortured souls.

And self-torture can become a cycle. Once you begin to think of yourself as an outsider, which a great deal of metal encourages you to do, you start to behave more like one. The potential opportunity costs of such a mindset are huge. How many metal fans have failed to pursue jobs or relationships because they think of themselves as losers? How many metal bands have carried on for longer than they ought because they "could never make it in the straight world"? An Australian study from 2011 linked obsessive metal listening with suicide, after all.

As one of the academics in Sottile's piece points out, humans use emotions strategically. Negative emotions can be just as useful as positive ones. But serious metal fans — the type who spend much of their day listening to insane-sounding shit — bathe constantly in negative emotion. Where is the line between bathing and wallowing? Is there any way to accurately measure the effect that metal's parade of pessimism and violence has on the minds of those who consume it regularly? Would "serious" metalheads be happier if they weren't awash in evil and brutality at all hours? Most metal fans would undoubtedly say no, myself included. For me, the darkness of metal provides a productive space in which to confront the horrors of modern life. But even that logic might be a post-hoc rationalization for my metal addiction. It's effectively impossible to conclusively answer these questions, and so I'm left to wonder.

But Sottile isn't really addressing the metal-obsessed in her piece. Rather, she's speaking to the uninitiated — those who haven't even considered the possibility that metal could be good for your mental health, not those who gorge on it. In this sense, it's a useful article, and I'm glad that the Atlantic ran it. It tells laypeople what most of us devotees have already learned: metal is a tool. It can tear you down if used incorrectly, but it can also lift you up.

Doug Moore


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