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Metalheads Survived the '80s, and They’re Doing Fine


Metallica's James Hetfield commands the stage at the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium on June 10, 1988. Tony Mottram/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Metallica's James Hetfield commands the stage at the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium on June 10, 1988. Tony Mottram/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mötley Crüe is no more, AC/DC's Brian Johnson left the stage with wounded ears, and Johnson's replacement, a bloated, hobbled Axl Rose, screeches insanely from an aged throne. At times, our post-Lemmy world seems the darkest timeline for 1980s metalheads, with our heroes reduced to aging mockeries by the ravages of time.

But hey, it's not all bad! According to a 2015 study published in the journal Self and Identity, '80s metalheads who grew up tall and proud in the shadow of the mushroom cloud have actually fared exceedingly well, despite dire warnings of sex-, drug- and Satan-fueled self-destruction. In one of the more outrageous expressions of this vibe, the 1988 horror film "Black Roses" depicted heavy metal's power to mutate young fans into demonic monsters.

Now granted, metal tends to delight in such visions of hedonistic, devil-saluting doom. Glenn Danzig threatened to beat up your dad, Poison spent all their money on women and wine and Crüe's Dr. Feelgood was hardly a licensed physician. No teen wants to rock out to a song about sensible alcohol consumption and a rock-solid 401(k).

Yet despite parental fears and head-thrashing zeal, most metal groupies, musicians and fans survived the jungle, baby. The study authors conducted a 377-participant self-selecting online study to see if now-middle-aged metalheads actually suffered from childhood traumas, risky youth behavior, personality problems, adult attachment problems, decreased life satisfaction and the frayed ends of sanity.

Lead author and psychologist Tasha R. Howe confirmed that, yes, many metalheads of the 1980s engaged in risky sexual and substance-related behaviors. Groupies especially were more likely to emerge from troubled and tumultuous home lives. Yet metal fans as a whole expressed significantly more happiness in their youth and were better adjusted in their middle-aged present than fans of other genres.

Contrary to the stereotype, these findings suggest a beneficial side to the metal's hedonistic darkness — or at least to the social support offered by a tight-knit subculture. Yet, as the authors also point out, middle-class demographics and white privilege may play heavily into the scenario. More research is needed to gauge the effects of metal and other musical subcultures on the life-trajectories of young fans.

It's also worth noting that the metal fans polled in the study were all living humans with access to Facebook and SurveyMonkey. History is written by the survivors, and metalheads transformed into mutant demons probably didn't chime in.