Rowe, Paula-Heavy Metal Youth Identities (Book Review)

Spread the metal:

Reviewed: April 2020
Released: 2018, Publisher: Emerald
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: JP

It is no secret that the academic study of Metal has grown immensely in the past few years.  Organizations like the International Society for Metal Music Studies, academic conferences held annually around the world, documentaries, and the now regular publication of formal papers on Metal related topics, have all contributed to a generous body of work that has really only scratched the surface.   While some observers (academic and otherwise) tend to denigrate or dismiss study of the genre, I for one am very interested to read what others have to say about Metal.  As Metal, as a genre, now hits it’s silver anniversary, I can only see the amount of time and money dedicated to exploring and understanding the genre increasing exponentially.   To that end, this spring (2020) as we hit the official anniversary of the birth of Metal (Feb 13th, 1970) I am going to write a series of three academic book reviews.  The good people at Emerald Publishing have been supportive of the study of Metal and to date have published no less than four books about Metal and more enroute!  When I say books, I am more specifically meaning published collections of studies and papers written by academics from a variety of disciplines from around the world.  These titles are…(in order of publication)

1. Gender Inequality In Metal Music Production (Berkers, Jun, 2108)

2. Heavy Metal Youth Identities: Researching The Musical Empowerment Of Youth Transitions And Psychosocial Wellbeing (Rowe, Oct, 2018)

3. Australian Metal Music: Identities, Scenes, and Cultures (Hoad, Jun 2019)

4. Medievalism and Metal Music Studies: Throwing Down The Gauntlet (Barratt-Peacock/Hagen, Sep 2019)

5. Metal Music And The Reimagining Of Masculinity, Place, Race and Nation (Spracklen, May 2020)

On this site, I have previously reviewed Gender Inequality in November of 2018, Australian Metal in December of 2019  and  Medievalism in February of 2020. I decided to formalize all these reviews into a more comprehensive and hopefully on-going review series. My thanks again to Emerald Publishing who provided me with these titles for review and while I am merely a Metal fan with a lowly BA and not currently engaged in any formal academic institution (other than being an occasional guest lecturer), my hope is provide a centralized set of reviews for academics to use these books as material for their own research into the wonderful world of Metal!  To visit any of these titles, consult your local library or visit.

HEAVY METAL YOUTH IDENTITIES is the second book in the series. This 180+ page hard-bound book was first published in 2018.
Author Dr. Paula Rowe hails from Australia is a social work scholar at the University of South Australia in Adelaide.  She also happens to be a full-on Metalhead.  Combining her love of helping youth and her love of Metal, her career took in her directions she never expected.

In the introduction, ‘The Accidental Metal Scholar’ she provides an interesting background her own youth and her involvement in the Metal scene, long before she became a formal academic.  After an unpleasant stint in high school, being bullied and ostracized, she latched onto Metal and got into playing music and eventually managing bands and promoting gigs.  As a single-mother she struggled at times and eventually made her way back to higher education.   The two worlds started to mesh; her ability to sympathize with alienated youth and a desire to help and a strong pedigree and substantial credibility in the Metal community combined into a Metal social worker!  HEAVY METAL YOUTH IDENTITIES is a culmination of years of work and her doctoral research.

One of her driving motivators it seems was a book by the American academic Jeffery Arnett.  Back in 1996 Arnett wrote a book called METALHEADS:HEAVY METAL MUSIC AND ADOLESCENT ALIENATION.  I reviewed it on this site back in 2012.   You are welcome to read my review (and his book of course) if you wish.  However to save you time, the synopsis of his book is that Arnett conducted a very unbalanced and poorly designed study of Metal youth and drew some very negative conclusions which boiled down to his own pre-determined opinion that all Metal kids are bad kids. (For the record, I didn’t think it was a very well done book)  This study seemed to have sparked a reaction in Rowe because that was not at all her experience so she set to work to do her own study of Metal youth.  The results are this fine book.

Her study boils down to extensive interviews over a five-year span of 28 youth of various socio-economic statuses, ages (18-24) both genders, genre-preferences and so on.  Early in the book she describes her methodology, the challenges of being a Metal ‘insider’, which might taint her research, much as Arnett’s status of being an anti-Metal outsider, tainted his own research and therefore his conclusions.

A predominant theme of her study was transition. How do teenagers get into or discover Metal?  How do they identify with Metal? Why and when?  How do they navigate complex social situations, like high school and early employment, as self-identified Metalheads?  These questions broken into two main sections, ‘Becoming Metal’ and ‘Being Metal’.

Through the course of eight chapters we get an insight into how youth, (or specifically these particular individuals) got into Metal and ‘are’ Metal.  It might come as no shock that many gravitate towards Metal in school as a form of rebellion against societal norms, as protection, to project a certain image, to belong to a peer group and many more reasons, and all those reasons are explored in detail.

My only criticism to this point is that her conclusion seems to be that most (all?) youth are drawn to Metal in some sort of negative fashion. Kids were bullied, kids were alienated, kids were ostracized, kids use Metal as a defense mechanism so they joined a sub-cultural group. While I fully understand and accept the research that the phenomena is common, it was quite far removed from my own (and those of my friends and peers) youth experiences with Metal as being  very positive overall.

This review isn’t just about me but I got into Metal because it was just freaking awesome!  The music, the imagery, the lyrics, the concert experiences, the album covers, the magazines, the videos, all of it; my transition into Metal was a positive life-affirming experience, not a desire to rebel or because I was bullied.   I’m sure that my own experiences are not unique so I found it her conclusions interesting.  I’m sure there are many reasons for this dichotomy, I grew up in the 80’s, her interview subjects were 90’s and 00’s Metal kids.  It was a different era, a different country and different scenes.  To her credit Rowe says this is not the only method or reason that youth transition into Metal, just a pre-dominant one, which is reasonable enough.   In addition, in her defense, she does address a phenomena she calls ‘Bedroom Metallers’ in which some fans do not embrace the stereotypes or dress-code or hairstyle of conventional Metal people and for them it is a very personal taste and choice that doesn’t extend into too many other facets of their social life. I probably fall along those lines a little more than the stereotypical Metalhead.

Back to the book, Section Two discusses how once people have become Metal how do they retain that by ‘being Metal’.   This section follows the participants of the study through early adulthood, and the mundane but necessary functions of post-secondary education for some, employment, dating, getting driver’s licenses, and of course engaging in the metal community outside of the confines of high school.  I did find part of this section a bit more dry.  There were some extended sections of how the participants secured funding from various Federal or State agencies or what aid programs exist to help youth transition into stable housing, better jobs and so on. It is all useful and important information but I’m just a little detached as a 50-year old guy for whom all of that stuff is ancient history.   However, it did make me think about my own young kids who will eventual transition into young adults and how they will navigate life.

This transitions us (there is that transition word again) nicely into Chapter Seven titled, ‘Mum Hates It, She Thinks All Metal Dudes Are Evil’,: Practical Wisdom For Parents and Others.   This chapter was a bit unusual in that in academic studies you don’t see too much personal advice, however the advice was framed in how that, in her estimation, there are three types of parenting styles (Non-Adaptive, Reactive, and Adaptive) and how their interactions/perceptions of Heavy Metal will impact how their kids perceive and interact with Heavy Metal.

For the record my parents fell in between two categories, Reactive (20%) and mostly Adaptive (80%) making my own transition into a full-blown Metalhead quite easy. Once in a while they would raise an occasional eyebrow or raise some pointed, but legitimate questions but for the most part my parents felt that buying loud records with evil sounding names and depictions of monsters on the front cover art was preferable to me spending all my allowance at the video arcade. This way at least I’d have something to show for it. I felt Chapter Seven added a really nice personal touch.  I don’t know how many parents are going to actually dive into Chapter Seven of an academic text with a sub-tile of ‘Researching The Musical Empowerment of Youth Transitions and Psychosocial Wellbeing’, to try to understand their kids obsession with Cannibal Corpse album covers, but every little bit of ammo that demonstrates how a parents can interact with their seemingly weird kids in a positive manner helps in the long run!

I want to somewhat selfishly and narcissistically expand on a personal example of the above, but again this book review is not about me, (and it is already too long) so if you want skip this next paragraph or two fell free!   My colleague Dayal Patterson of Cult Never Dies Publishing says, ‘ Reviewers should keep your personal stuff out of reviews, no one cares’. He is probably correct but I’m doing it anyway!

One of the few examples of my parents being mostly ‘Adaptive but occasionally Reactive’ came in of February 1986. I was 15 years old and I had just bought my vinyl copy of Ozzy Osbourne’s album THE ULTIMATE SIN.  My parents saw my new treasure and were quite concerned.  To them the ‘ultimate sin’ was to be interpreted as incest and child molestation!  In hindsight that seems to be reasonable position, I think most people on the planet might feel that those crimes are the ultimate sin, or at very least in the top 10.

I explained to them (and they listened) that the song is actually about the threat of nuclear war. Remember this album was conceived and written in 1985 at the height of the Cold War when President Regan and General Secretary Chernenko were constantly rattling their nuclear sabres.  (The album was released on Feb 22nd, just two weeks before a more moderate Gorbachev attained power.) During a decent and open conversation with my parents, I showed them lyrics and demonstrated that there were in fact a few other anti-war songs on the album such ‘Killer Of Giants’ and ‘Thank God for the Bomb’.  I can’t imagine anyone jumping to conclusions at the latter song title!   Fortunately reason prevailed and my parents felt they could get behind crazy old Ozzy and his anti-war message so I got to keep my record. However, if my parents were ‘Non-Adaptive’ my beloved Ozzy album probably would have met an ignoble fate in the dustbin. Back to the book review…

In my estimation, virtually all of Rowe observations and comments about Metal; becoming metal, being Metal and so on were very insightful and accurate, even if it wasn’t always my exact experience, I feel she really nailed it. She was obviously sympathetic to the participants and had a keen desire to help and learn but not biased as to overlook some of the negative characteristics that can and do manifest themselves in Metalheads…or in fact any young person.    That was the key aspect for me, not all Metal heads are bad obviously, we all have many of the same neuroses and foibles.

In the end HEAVY METAL YOUTH IDENTITES carries a very balanced yet positive message and the conclusions are well thought out and intelligent. Some readers/parents/Metalheads might balk at tackling an academic book but I found it fascinating and enlightening.