San Francisco-based author and journalist Beth Winegarner is tackling a subject that most of us are familiar with: the media’s frequent mistreatment of metal music and the resulting misunderstandings of its effects on young people. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on her as-of-yet untitled book and hunting for a publisher. Check out the website for the project here: Why Teens Love Metal, Gaming & The Occult: A Guide For Parents.
I was able to get Beth to answer a few questions about the book, metal and mass media:
To start off, could you maybe give a brief overview of what your book is about?
Beth: It’s a guidebook for parents who are worried because their teens are interested in one or more things that have been blamed for violent or suicidal behavior. So, there are lengthy sections on heavy metal, violent video games, and paganism, and will likely have smaller sections on goth culture and role-playing games. Each section provides an overview, a breakdown of the different types (or subgenres, in the case of metal), a look at where misconceptions come from, and advice for parents regarding how to approach and talk to their kids about that topic. It’s not exactly a book on parenting, but more of a resource parents can turn to when they’re frightened and not ready to talk to their kids directly.
A lot of the negative perception of video games and metal music stems from media coverage when killers such as Richard Ramirez or the Columbine shooters are linked to metal music or violent video games. Does the book deal with this?
Beth: I spend a lot of time with this topic because I feel like it’s the root cause of many
parents’ fears. As a reporter, I sympathize with my fellow journalists who are trying to put together news articles on tight deadlines without always having all the facts. The idea that the Columbine shooters were Marilyn Manson fans came from a CNN interview with a guy at the scene who was posing as a student and talking to reporters. They didn’t have time to check this before they went on the air, but it was later revealed that this “student” wasn’t a student and didn’t know Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. But by then it was too late — many other news outlets had run with the information. There are still people out there who think that Eric and Dylan listened to Manson, and that his music had something to do with the shootings.
Even now, when much of the misinformation has been dispelled, you still see reporters making the same mistakes over and over — linking metal music, or the occult especially, with violent activity. There are news stories daily blaming violent actions on Satanism, for example, when Anton LaVey specifically forbade Satanists from harming humans or animals.
Although journalists think they’re reporting the truth, they’re off base. And this kind of thing freaks parents out — especially if they come home and find their kid listening to scary music or reading a book with a pentagram on the cover. I’m trying to provide an antidote to that fear, in part by explaining how this stuff makes it into news stories to begin with.
I’m curious what prompted you to write a book on this topic in the first place. Was it a personal experience you had, or perhaps something you saw in the media?
Beth: I suppose it started when I was in high school. I had a very personal reaction to what the PMRC was trying to do; I was a young metal fan, and knew that there were kids, like me, who needed certain music just to get through the day. And here these women were, saying kids shouldn’t be allowed to listen to certain songs. It broke my heart and made me very angry, but I didn’t feel like there was anything I could do to fight it at the time. As an adult, I followed the stories of several school shootings, especially the one at Columbine High School, and was appalled that rather than focusing on kids’ mental states, as we do when adults commit hideous crimes, the focus was on video games and music. And then there was the case of the West Memphis Three, in which three teenage Arkansas boys were sent to prison for the murders of three little boys — because two of the teens wore black, listened to Metallica, and were interested in Wicca, the police and prosecutors painted them as ritualistic killers. DNA evidence has since shown they were not involved in the murders, but they’re still in jail, 17 years later, awaiting a new trial. These kids’ early adulthood was ruined — and their lives forever altered — because of their tastes in music and spirituality. And some very bad legal representation.
I just think it’s wrong to divorce teenagers from the music, spirituality, and video games they need. There may be times when these interests are cause for real concern, but in those cases something else is going on, usually psychologically.
I can certainly agree with that! However, there are a lot of pretty bad examples in heavy metal itself - you’ve got the early black metal scene with its various murders and arson, and then bands like Hate Forest, Arghoslent, etc. where either the lyrics or the musicians themselves have very strong racist elements. How do you reconcile the point of view that metal can have a positive influence with the presence of these negative elements? Do you think teenagers are able to tell what to ignore?
Beth: Well, it depends on the type of teenager. Some teenagers are listening to certain bands because they have maximum shock value — it’s the cultural equivalent of putting on body armor. If the kids at school know you listen to certain bands, they leave you alone. Or maybe you want your parents to leave you alone. Either way, it works. And then, on the other hand, you do have plenty of teenagers who find that there are limits to what they’ll listen to, what they can stomach. I asked a lot of metal fans if there were bands that were too intense for them, or anything they found unlistenable — and a lot of them said yes. They named different parts of the metal scene, but some definitely had boundaries about this sort of thing. Satanic or gory lyrics came up a lot in those responses.
I think, also, there are some people who see the music and the musician as separate. Plenty of fans love Burzum but don’t like Varg Vikernes‘ politics or his criminal behavior. Even people who act violently are capable of creating something that enriches or uplifts people’s lives.
Metal not only seems like it might serve as kind of an emotional catharsis for teenagers, but alsoits own kind of community among the fans, so there’s kind of a sense of belonging or companionship associated with it. Is that something that you found to be valuable for young people as well?
Beth: Absolutely. A lot of the teens and former teens I interviewed for this book said that, regardless of whether they were able to find social outlets before discovering metal, once they became metal fans it was kind of like joining a tribe. I remember one, in particular, said his parents uprooted from their home in England to Finland when he was in his mid-teens. Because he was a metal fan, and there are so many metal fans in Finland, he was able to make new friends easily — despite being in an unfamiliar country where he didn’t speak the native language.
My experience is that death metal, which is much more violent and over-the-top, seems to attract a slightly younger audience than other genres such as black or doom metal. However, other styles such as depressive/suicidal black metal seem like they would be quite relevant to your topic as well. Are there particular artists or subgenres that the book spends a lot of time on?
Beth: I go through all the major subgenres of metal to some degree or another, because I want parents to familiarize themselves with those genres — that will help them figure out what their kid is listening to. I mean, maybe they’re freaking out but it turns out their teen is listening to glam or something relatively fun-loving. Or maybe their teen is listening to black metal or death metal, and they don’t understand why the lyrics are so focused on death or nihilism. So I try to explain each genre, and how to tell them apart, and how to go about learning more about what their kid is specifically listening to. Both black metal and industrial metal get slightly longer writeups because they’ve earned a lot of press — black metal for its ties to the church burnings and murders in Norway, and industrial metal for its ties to the Columbine High School news reports.
I also spent quite a bit of time on Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, and Marilyn Manson — again, because they’ve earned a lot of press coverage for supposedly “causing” suicides or school shootings. I describe each situation in depth and show how these bands had nothing to do with violent or self-destructive behavior.
What was the most shocking thing you found while doing research for the book?
Beth: Probably the most shocking thing I learned was that when police do their seminars on “occult” crimes, how to identify different pagan practices at the scene of a crime, etc., that a lot of their information has come from fundamentalist Christian sources. There’s no way for them to be sensitive to different pagan communities if all of their knowledge comes from a group that hates pagans. And that misinformation can lead to all kinds of negative profiling.
From talking to various people for your book, do you think that there’s a certain type of person who is more attracted to things like metal or the occult? Or is it more a factor of a person’s background or upbringing?
Beth: Certainly all types of people are interested in metal, violent games, or the occult. But I do spend some time with the idea, that comes from Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s fantastic book “Metalheads,” that metal appeals to kids who have a need for intense sensory experiences. In his research, he found that many metal fans are prone to thrill-seeking behavior — driving too fast, engaging in petty crimes, etc. — because they’re predisposed to it. For them, metal is very calming music; it’s something that takes away some of the need for riskier behavior. For them, he prescribed a steady diet of music, and said it would be a mistake to keep these kids from listening to metal. However, he said the fact that these kids listen to metal AND engage in risky behavior makes parents think that the music is causing kids to act out.
Finally, what do you think should change about society’s treatment of metal, violent video games, the occult, and other similarly extreme or taboo topics?
Beth: First, journalists need to stop making the connection between these interests and violent activity unless it’s really pertinent, which it almost never is. For many people, the only time they read about metal, violent video games, and the occult is when it’s mentioned in a news article about some grisly murder scene, and that doesn’t create a very good impression in people’s minds.
Second, if someone’s concerned about a friend, child, etc. who is interested in one of these things, it makes sense to learn more and ask questions. Ideally, they’re going to learn more by reading this book, but there are certainly other ways to educate yourself.
I recognize that everyone comes to the table on these topics with certain biases. I was talking with a woman this week who is a fundamentalist Christian and loves video games, but still thinks it’s wrong for kids to dabble on the occult, because of what the Bible says about it. I hope to show some people with that background that it’s important to put religion aside and understand some of the needs teens have — for meaning, for some say in their own lives — and to see how a pagan faith can satisfy some of those needs when Christianity doesn’t. Yes, you might think it’s wrong, but try to understand it anyway, particularly from your kid’s point of view.
Thanks Beth for taking the time to answer my questions, and for deciding to tackle a topic that’s so important to us metal fans!
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Beth’s book needs some help to get published, so if you liked her views then please check out the book’s site on Kickstarter and make a donation to help get Beth’s book published!!
Also check out BethWinegarner.com for more information about Beth and her previous publications.