Society Needs Demons, Just Not Teen Demons

Here’s something a little bit different from the norm. We interviewed San Francisco's Beth Winegarner, an author who is currently in the process of raising funds to write a book for parents about why they should let their kids listen to heavy metal. She believes that many of today’s parents buy into the negative stereotypes about metal that are put forth by the media, so they attempt to shelter their kids from listening to the music they want to hear. In her forthcoming book, she offers insight into why parents shouldn’t freak out if their kids are blasting Sabbath and Slayer in lieu of the Jonas Brothers. She also delves into why playing violent video games and exploring the occult can be healthy parts of growing up.

I’m supportive of anyone who wants to enlighten the public about metal. I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve brought a clueless friend to a metal show and watched them flail around in a totally new scene.  Most of the time, I’m happy to do it and it’s a damn good time. Occasionally though, I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall when I try to explain why I listen to the music I do. When people are against metal because they’re scared of it for whatever reason, that’s when it gets a little bit tricky. In the past few decades, major media outlets have broadcasted events that associate metal with acts of murder or suicide. I feel like the majority of people are just uninformed and automatically write it off because of the way metal has been presented to them. It gets a little more serious when you think about parents who punish their kids for exploring and listening to it.

Winegarner is currently in the process of raising funds in order to bring this book to the public, and I’d like to encourage everyone to contribute if you can. You can pledge money here at her Kickstarter site.  Every dollar counts. Her fundraising deadline is September 30. Not only will this be an interesting read for anyone, but it should be a helpful source of information for parents who are naturally scared of the unknown. The last thing we want is for kids to be barred from listening to the good stuff.

Here’s what Winegarner had to say about her book and her motivations for writing it:

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you connect to the subject matter of your book.

Probably my strongest connection is to heavy metal, which I discovered in my mid-teens. I remember very clearly thinking that metal was atonal noise, right up until I heard "Welcome to the Jungle" on MTV, and it was like someone flipped a switch in my head. Suddenly, metal made sense. Not only that, but I needed it, most days, like people who drink coffee need coffee. It put me in a good mood. It soothed any bad feelings or loneliness I felt. Although I had plenty of good, real, friends, metal was like a friend to me. In a lot of ways, it still is; I listen to it often, although I listen to different bands now.

I had a brief period of exploring paganism, and have spent a lot of time in online circles with people who either dipped their toe briefly into occult waters or have studied the occult seriously for many years. Likewise, I know many avid video-game players, including my partner and my brother, who played throughout their childhoods and teen years, and still play today. So I've seen these things influence people's lives, over a period of many years, and I've read widely on all three topics. And the picture I have of these interests is very different from the picture you get if you read about them in most newspapers.

Why do you believe that exploring the occult, playing violent video games and listening to heavy metal music can be “a healthy part of growing up”?

First, one of the things I'm finding in the course of my research is that there's very little trust for teenagers. They are often painted as impressionable, reckless, and unable to decide for themselves what's healthy and what isn't. That may be the case sometimes, but for the most part, teenagers seek entertainment and spiritual experiences that mirror what's going on in their lives, and for most teenagers that means stress, emotional turmoil, and the pressure to succeed academically and socially when they are just beginning to figure out who they are. Each of these interests, which have been so maligned by older generations, answers a need among the teens who are involved with them. For example, metal helps satisfy a hunger for intensity, violent games satisfy a hunger for aggressive play, and many pagan paths provide a sense of empowerment for teens, who don't necessarily get to experience a lot of empowerment. There are many adults who would tell you these things are nothing but toxic for teens, when typically the opposite is true -- they're quite nourishing.

Was there a specific event that motivated you to write this book?

There were a number of events that influenced my decision to write a book. The first was the rise of the Parents Music Resource Center in the '80s. I know it may seem like a long time ago, but I think there are still many parents who feel like the PMRC did them a favor by putting stickers on "offensive" albums. Unfortunately, what they did was provide an opportunity for parents to divorce kids from music they might need in order to survive adolescence -- in order to avoid hearing words or ideas they're going to hear in everyday life anyway. Rather than encouraging parents to listen along with their kids and discuss what they're hearing, the PMRC provided a way for parents to shut music out of their kids' lives, and I think that's really unfortunate.

The second event was the conviction of the West Memphis Three, three teens who were convicted of killing three little boys in rural Arkansas. There was no real evidence against them, just the confession of one of the teens, who is mentally disabled and was coerced by police into confessing. Because the two other teens wore black, listened to Metallica, and read a couple of books by Aleister Crowley, a jury bought the idea that they might be guilty. Recent DNA evidence, along with witness reports, suggest one of the boys' fathers was likely the killer; these teens had nothing to do with it. But they've spent more than half their lives in prison, now, for crimes they didn't commit -- because of their tastes in music and reading material.

And the third was the reporting following the Columbine High School shootings, which did more damage to the relationship between teens, dark music, and violent video games than anything else in the past 15 years. Teens, especially teen boys, suddenly became the focus of intense scrutiny -- even deep suspicion and fear -- because the media made it seem like any one of them could explode at any time, particularly if he was playing first-person shooters or listening to Rammstein.

All these events have painted the picture that heavy metal, violent video games, and the occult might turn you into someone dangerous -- as though personal background and mental state, or history of violent behavior, had nothing to do with it.

Have there been times where you felt you’ve been looked down upon based on your love for heavy metal?

Not really. I've been pretty lucky. My dad complained about it a few times because I was parked on the couch every afternoon watching metal videos on MTV and he didn't like the sound of it. There was also a period in the late '90s when it was somewhat uncool to listen to metal and my friends gave me a hard time. But loving this kind of music, as fans know, gives you a kind of strength to withstand it when people complain that you like it.

Did your parents even try to stop you from listening to certain types of music or watching violent TV shows?

My parents were pretty permissive. They didn't get involved in my or my brother's entertainment choices that much of the time – we listened to our music in the house, played video games, watched television -- all in places where our parents could watch or listen along if they wanted to, but for the most part they didn't. That might have been different if we hadn't also been reasonably good kids who stayed out of trouble, did well in school, generally got along with our parents, and so on. But my adolescence provided me with at least two examples -- me and my brother -- that you can be a peaceful, creative, successful teenager and still be into these things. I knew there had to be plenty more examples out there of kids like us, and I was right.

Is there any scientific evidence out there that’s supports the theme of your book?

I wish I could say that there are good scientific studies that empirically prove that these interests are good for you -- or even that they're bad for you. Of these three topics, the one that has been studied the most is video games, and even then the studies have not been conclusive.

What we do have is a lot of research. For example, within heavy metal you have academics like Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who interviewed hundreds of metalheads and found the crucial link between teens who crave intense experiences and teens who love heavy metal. These teens might do reckless stuff -- driving too fast, committing petty crimes, experimenting with drugs -- because they need intensity. Metal provides one form of intensity -- one that calms them down and relieves the need for other, riskier, sorts of behavior. He said, rather than separating these kids from the music, they should be prescribed a steady diet of it. And then you have Natalie Purcell, who wrote about the death metal scene and surveyed fans, only to find that plenty of them favor religion, family, and marriage, have healthy social lives and are generally pretty happy and optimistic. 

Parents aren't necessarily going to read these more academic approaches to the music, so I'm trying to gather everything up and present it in a manner that's accessible. I've also done a lot of my own interviews with fans to bolster my points. I figure parents might not be ready to talk to their own teens, but they can hear similar stories in the voices of other teens.

Did you structure your book specifically for parents?  

Each major section of the book starts off with an overview of the topic, including any relevant statistics, and then launches into the reasons why teens might be interested in that topic, and what benefits it provides. Then frequently there's a longer, more detailed breakdown of the topic -- the subgenres of heavy metal, for example – so parents can get a better feel and learn some of the language they might need to talk with their teen. This is followed by an examination of where fears and misconceptions come from, and a concluding section on what parents can do -- and how they should talk to their kids about the topic.

Ultimately, what would you like to see come out of this project?

I would love to see parents do more legwork in terms of understanding what their teens are listening to, playing, and exploring spiritually. I know many parents already do this, but this book is for the parents who don't know where to begin, and who might be a little freaked out by what they saw -- a poster, a book, whatever -- in their teen's room one afternoon. And then I'd like them to discuss their fears and concerns with their teen, and then listen as their teen talks about their interest and what it means to them. I'd also like to see the media stop bringing up the occult, video games, or music when they're reporting on criminal activity. I know it's fascinating to read, but it's not relevant and it's very damaging to the vast majority of law-abiding people who also happen to share those interests. As a friend of mine said to me recently, society needs its demons, but I would prefer that those demons not be teenagers -- or the interests that matter so dearly to those teenagers.