Death metal, religion and the socialization of emotion

Photo by George E. Norkus

Over at The Immanent Frame, a website on religion, secularism and society supported by the Social Science Research Council (USA), Jim Robertson reflects on the presence of religion in Death Metal after a trip to Wacken Open Air (in Germany), the world’s largest music festival and ‘loud as hell’ according to its website.

Robertson’s piece, Death metal: A “pipeline to God”?, is well worth the read, if for no other reason that it will be an eye-opener for the non-metalhead to what these guys are screaming through the din. (One personal disclosure: Although I went through a phase of fascination with Canadian power trios with front-man shriekers that sounded like modern castrati — Rush, Triumph — and developed a now-mildly-embarrassing love of Supertramp, Aerosmith, and the Who, I was never really a native metalhead, so I can’t talk about these genres from any deep affection.)

I won’t rehearse all of Robertson’s arguments, but he basically asks why Death Metal and related genres are so obsessed with religion, from Satanic album covers to song lyrics that drip with Apocalyptic motifs to echoes of everything from neo-paganism to blatant anti-Christianism. It’s a great question because not every popular music genre, even iconoclastic subcultural genres, features religious imagery so heavily. One would probably have to move to something like gospel or 1970s reggae to find genres that were more saturated with spiritual symbolism (I have no statistics on this, only my own fleeting engagement with these genres).

Robertson explains:

What is fascinating here is the consistency with which black metal has pursued religious forms. Satanism is replaced, not by a basic materialist atheism but with almost anything else: Occultism, Nietzsche, paganism, mystical nazism. Such religious pluralism begs the question as to whether these are just new and interesting attempts at youth rebellion, or whether something more is playing itself out.

Robertson finds several reasons for the dominance of religious themes in Death Metal:

1) ‘Metal’s rebellious streak’ led to a backlash against attempts to censor or criticize these musical genres, most prominently efforts by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the mid-1980s. According to Robertson, the criticism actually hardened the resolves of many musicians to criticize mainstream religion, sparking very explicit anti-religious themes.

2) Extreme lifestyles among the musicians, a character of many Western popular artist communities, but featuring some extraordinary acts of violence, self-destruction and nihilism, especially among proponents of Scandinavian ‘Black Metal’ in the 1990s, Robertson discusses. In this sense, ‘Metal’s obsession with religion is part of its obsession with living at the limit.’ Robertson goes on to explain: ‘This concern with limit experiences explains metal’s obsession with religion. In its aspirations, metal parallels a kind of religious mysticism.’

3) Competition with mainstream religion to provide similar experiences, such as community belonging, emotional transcendence, and mystical experience, what one participant refers to as a ‘pipeline to God.’

4) Shifting philosophical and religious commitments within the community of Metal musicians, including a move away from Satanism toward various forms of paganism, ecological mysticism, and Nietzschean nihilism, reflect a groping to find a language to talk about these profound emotional-mystical experiences: ‘The constant grasping for new ideologies amongst the black metal scene, then, is an attempt to give this transcendental path discursive form.’

Robertson’s discussion is both colourful and insightful, but there are several dimensions I might add just to bring it into the Neuroanthropological fold. Borrowing some ideas from Simon Frith’s piece, ‘Towards an Aesthetics of Popular Music,’ I want to argue that Metal, like many musical genres, has a special role in educating emotion and moods among young people when they are trying to understand social interaction and their own emotions.

Although many musical genres perform a similar function (a kind of aesthetic appreciation of emotion performed and articulated) Metal gets particularly religious because the emotional palette on which it draws — the stances it takes toward such emotions as righteousness, rage, death, awe, and solidarity — is very similar to Christian emotional footings, especially in more baroque forms of Christianity (like Catholicism). The use of religious iconography and themes is not simply an act of sacrilege, but rather a cross-fertilization because the music approximates some of the emotional stances believers can take toward the sacred.

That is, Metal doesn’t get linked to all religions, but to very specific religions that share some of the emotional dynamics found in Metal and compelling to its audience. We don’t find too much Buddhist Heavy Metal, nor do we find Islamic Speed Metal (although this is easier to conceive), even though we find Metal expanding into regions where these religions are present, for the same reason that we don’t find too much Catholic reggae or Baptist New Age or Shinto Gospel; musical genres and religious-emotional complexes have to work together. While these suggestions are facetious, the point is one that has come up in studies of Afro-European syncretisms, religions like vodun,

Cultural theorist, Simon Frith, the Tovey Chair of Music at the University of Edinburgh, has written some of the most perceptive stuff on popular music aesthetics that I have ever come across. When I used to teach a course, ‘Black Music, World Market,’ on popular musics in the African Diaspora, a book chapter he wrote (Frith 1986) was always a high point for the students each semester, a jumping off point that helped them to see how they could better understand the musics that moved them, the odd tastes of people around them, and a host of other pervasive pop culture phenomena. Time and time again, the students would go back to the piece in their individual research projects finding easy-to-understand but really robust insights for interpreting popular music.

The crux of the chapter, entitled ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music,’ was to clearly state Frith’s ideas about the social functions of music, laid out elsewhere in greater detail. According to Frith, popular music is important to listeners because:

1) ‘Good’ pop music serves in processes of identity creation, offering an experience of one’s own identity and passions united with the sense of sharing these passions with other people. For example, not only does Black Sabbath form a key point of reference for me, but I also realize that I’m part of a group when I feel that clear statement of my identity.

2) The popular music we like can give shape and elaboration to our inchoate or ill-defined emotions, forming a kind of rich language of sound, texture and lyrics that seem to capture what we are feeling, even if we did not initially know what we were feeling. This effect can produce really ironic moments in emotional communication: e.g., I love you so much that I will now use a song written by someone else and sung by another person to express my deepest, most profound feelings. Frith points out that singers especially become vehicles for feeling and articulating emotions.

3) Over time, popular music actually organizes our sense of the present and past, becoming heavily involved in periodizing eras and defining generations. The experience of listening to popular music can be a profoundly powerful channel for experiencing nostalgia and emotional recall, helping to explain why so much of our popular discourse about decades and generations in most Western countries is often anchored with musical references. If I want to recall or evoke the 80s, for instance, I am almost certain to use music to do so (in addition to fluro colours and hair mousse).

4) Finally, Frith points out that we become terribly possessive of ‘our’ music, demonstrating a kind of territoriality and willingness to defend it against insult, rival or corrosion of all sorts. This very strong sense of ‘ownership’ can make music fans seemingly irrational, such as when they feel very betrayed by an artist when he or she changes styles or when they seem to wish that no one else should like their favourite bands, but they should remain obscure and undiscovered by the vast masses of other music listeners (‘I liked them before they were popular!’).

I’m playing a bit fast and loose with Frith’s framework, but I hope he wouldn’t be too offended as he, too, is good at the fast and loose of cultural commentary. And I’m going to ignore all but the second function for the purpose of this post; that is, I’m going to focus entirely on the emotional articulation function of popular music, the way that singers and musicians seem to express our emotions even more powerfully and evocatively than we can. When I used to teach these points, I’d ask students about this second function: ‘Which is more powerful; saying, “I love you,’ or letting Marvin Gaye do it for you?’ Unless you’ve got a hell of a set of pipes, Brother Marvin’s probably got you beat.

Especially in young people, almost all of these social functions are most pronounced (except for the nostalgia one, which is often later tied to the music people experienced in their youth). But the emotional articulation function (#2), I would argue, is perhaps the most important for most young consumers of pop music. At a time when their emotions are particularly intense and their capacity to both inhibit and understand them is not as well developed, when teens are prone to extremes of emotion, popular musics offer this incredibly powerful symbolic-sensory medium to experiment with emotional ways of being in the world.

Although we may talk about ‘consuming’ music, in fact, we don’t consume music in the sense that, as Christopher Small (in Walser 1993: xii) points out, a) music is not a thing, and b) the music’s still there after you ‘consume’ it. More accurately, we ‘live through’ a song. We give over some portion of our attention to the sensory dynamics of the experience, letting it unfold around and through us. To listen to a song is to have one’s life, for the song’s duration, partially taken over by the artists’ unspooling of experience through sound. Emotion is perhaps most central to this as even afficianados of a particular artist or genre may not even understand the literal meaning of the lyrics (or in some cases – I’m thinking of REM and some of the Brazilian artists I like – the lyrics themselves may be incoherent except as a sort of impressionist poetry).

The point is not that you necessarily have the emotion that the music entails; listening to the Blues doesn’t make you sad any more than watching a tragedy necessarily makes you want to give up hope. But you do have an aesthetic appreciation of the emotion and rehearse ways of being in that emotion. For example, listening to the Blues may not give you the Blues, but it does provide a model for the emotional dynamics of being down and how to respond. You can learn how to express emotion, what to expect of that emotion, and where you might be headed next or what you need to do, whether that’s just staying ‘down so long’ or demonstrating the emotional resiliency featured so heavily in Blues, in my example (for example, contrast with fatalism about depression or a broken heart in other musical genres, even the idea that one’s life must end for the emotion to have been real).

In a response I wrote to a Behavioral and Brain Sciences article by Marc Lewis on dynamic modeling of emotion (Downey 2005), I sought to point out that emotions could be culturally educated, especially in their unfolding over time with neurological consequences. That is, even if there are ‘universal emotions’ like grief or anger or fear, different societies provide diverging models of how emotions should unfold: should grief be quickly suppressed or elaborately expressed? Should we act on fear or try to recover as quickly as possible? If angry, should we feel guilty about that, or dwell in it as a dominating mood for everyday life? Clearly, there’s a complex interplay between pervasive emotional dynamics that underlie human commonalities in emotion with widely different expectations of how emotions should play out which affects our emotional lives. Rehearsing these emotional dynamics over and over again could reinforce culturally appropriate emotional response chains, making them more likely to recur in suitable and culturally-expected fashion. Religious music, for example, helps to rehearse the appropriate awe and respect for the sacred, cuing a whole set of behaviours and moods for sacred settings.

To live through a Black Metal song, then, is to, in some way, surrender over to a musical flow that communicates a set of verbal images in the lyrics. More importantly, however, the sonic stream psychologically summons emotions and sensations through the sound: texture, volume, intensity, pitch, harmonies, and especially vocal dynamics. As ethnomusicologists point out, these aesthetic associations are largely cultural, not natural, but some are very much grounded in pervasive experiences of the human body; screaming lyrics, for example, link to those emotional and social situations where a person would be screaming. It’s hard to get phenomenologically from screamed lyrics to affectionate contemplation of puppies, but I don’t want to dwell on this too much for the moment as it’s a very long running discussion in a number of fields that don’t always communicate too well.

I would argue that the emotional dynamics enacted in Metal are pretty intense; the extraordinarily loud power chords in keys that code majesty and awe in Western music; the frenetic pace of some metal with kick drums pounding as fast as a human heart at the extreme of exertion; the vocal timbres which echo, not just screaming, but particularly powerful human howling… It’s a heady brew of emotion and sensation, too much for many listeners (in surveys of musical taste, Metal tends to beat out even gangster rap as the genre provoking the greatest negative reaction).

To me, this extraordinarily intense, provocative experience is a kind of education of emotions, especially for young people who are already feeling an intense stew of emotions (this isn’t just the case for adolescents and young people who listen to Metal, but to most genres, and helps us to understand their intense appreciation of emotions in music that, to older listeners, may seem exaggerated or melodramatic). Metal offers a model for dwelling in particular emotional spaces, a whole constellation of moods, powerful symbols, sonic textures and other subcultural elements that some listeners will find terribly compelling and emotionally authentic.

Like I said, I don’t think this makes Metal unique, nor do I think that the emotional persuasiveness only affects young people; it’s just that the emotional intensity of youth tends to be crucible in which aesthetic loyalties to some forms of popular music are forged (in part, Frith might argue, to the identity forming function of popular music consumption). The point, however, is that the particular mood and emotional posture of Metal is – ironically perhaps – parallel to certain Western religious ways of dwelling in the world. Robertson suggests that ‘religious’ imagery is present in Metal and that aesthetic innovations don’t lead to secularism or materialism but imagery from a range of religious sources, from Satanism to Nietzschean nihilism to ecological mysticism. I would simply point out that this is a very selective sample of potential sources of religious inspiration; the selectivity is crucial.

I think Robertson’s assertion that both religion and Metal are ‘limit experiences’ has solid foundation, but I want to add to the emotional parallels between certain forms of Christianity, Satanism, nihilism, and ecological mysticsism, on the one hand, and, on the other, Metal: the focus on end times and Apocalyptic violence, the intense moral outrage, the polarized, almost Manichean world view, the sense of awe and respect for ritualized group behaviour, imagery of damnation, focus on the individual as a flawed moral actor, even the disregard for a material world seen as hopelessly corrupt. You can’t get every religious tradition to offer up apt symbols of the sorts of emotions and existential commitments that we find in Metal.

I like Robertson’s piece, but I just feel like, from a neuroanthropological perspective, considering how emotions are encultured requires us to look for forms of emotional education and to recognize that religions might bring diverging experiential dynamics. In Western consumer culture, a number of important channels offer models for contending with, expressing and responding to one’s own emotions. Sometimes it’s the constellation of pop psychology and wellness models clustered around media imagery like Oprah and a range of emotional hygiene practices that have been adopted in schools and other institutions (like self-esteem programs for dealing with bullying). Or one might find emotional postures found in hip hop or another popular musical genre to be a better fit to one’s own grasp of the world. In my research on violent sports, I tend to look more closely at stereotypically male emotional management models instilled through athletic training.

But Metal, like a number of especially powerful musical genres and subcultures, offers its own model for responding to emotion. Although sometimes steeped in a language of sacrilege, paradoxically, Metal entails emotional postures that are surprisingly similar to Apocalyptic and Manichean religious commitments.

From my days as a graduate student, in a seminar on Claude Lévi-Strauss I believe, I vaguely recall one of my professors saying that opposites are alike in all regards except one. Perhaps that’s the greatest sacrilege of Metal: not just to oppose religion, but to oppose it by occupying a very similar stance toward the world.

I’m not entirely persuaded by my own argument; moreso than usually, I feel tentative posting this discussion here. But I thought I’d share it in the spirit of thinking about cultural modes of shaping emotional reality. In my own experience, I find that popular music gets used so often as a form of long term emotional formation, but also short-term or immediate self manipulation; if we need to feel better or want the world to reflect our mood, many people — myself included — use music to tint the immediate experiential environment an appropriate hue. For some, the appropriate colour is obviously Black (as in Metal).

For more:
Online exchange with Simon Frith at Rock Critics

If you’re really into Metal and academically inclined, you should definitely look up Robert Walser’s book, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan University Press, 1993) (Here on Google books). It won a Choice Outstanding Book Award, and is just a great read, even if it’s a bit dated by now.

Photo art 2010 by George E. Norkus, Heavy Metal Band Member Paul DiAnno, used under a Creative Commons, attribution license. Original downloaded from Flickr.

Downey, Greg. 2005. ‘The contribution of cross-cultural study to dynamic systems modeling of emotion.’ Commentary on Marc D. Lewis, ‘Bridging emotion theory and neurobiology through dynamic systems modeling.’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (2): 201-202.

Frith, Simon. 1987. ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music.’ In Richard Leppert and Susan McClary, eds. Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance, and Reception. Pp. 133-149. London: Cambridge University Press.

Walser, Robert. 1993. Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Wesleyan University Press.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

13 thoughts on “Death metal, religion and the socialization of emotion

  1. Pingback: bible peace

    1. Jack, just wanted to say that there is that type of music in Muslim countries. Check out the book Heavy Metal Islam:

      Through interviews with musicians and fans, LeVine reveals young Muslims struggling to reconcile their religion with a passion for music and a desire for change. These are the risk-takers and revolutionaries, as much on the front lines of the culture war as the suicide bombers and Al-Qaeda martyrs. Heavy metal, punk, hip-hop, and reggae are each the music of protest, and in many cases considered
      immoral in the Muslim world.

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