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Mental Health and the Power of Heavy Music

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alt blk era perform on stage
ALT BLK ERA / Credit: @jadekvowles

Words by Aimee Phillips

An NHS report, the Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2022, found that 1 in 6 had a probable mental health disorder. Due to financial concerns, anxiety is on the rise.

Yet through it all, music offers a means of escape, of solace, expression, and connection.

Youth Music research has consistently proved that music aids mental health, with 85% of young people telling us that is makes them feel happy (The Sound of the Next Generation report, 2020). A powerful contributor to young people’s wellbeing, listening to and creating music can encourage positive emotional states, as well as forming communities and helping young people to feel understood.

Crucially, it can offer catharsis, and nothing is arguably more cathartic than heavy music and its subgenres.

Stress reducing and confidence boosting

Despite a long-standing public perception that heavy music is aggressive, studies have found that listening to it can in fact lessen negative emotions. PsychCentral reported that metal music can even help to reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone).

Youth Music NextGen Fund recipients, ALT BLK ERA, are a nu-metal/rap/punk sister duo using their funding to create an EP. They found themselves drawn to heavy music genres for a cathartic outlet. “We wanted to be able to scream, rap and express ourselves unreservedly in our music. However, the genres of music we grow up listening to were RnB, Reggae and mainstream pop that tend to be a lot more reserved in their content and delivery,” ALT BLK ERA’s Nyrobi recalls.

“It's the freedom of expression that stands out for me. The raw emotions of pain, love and rage that can come through in a well-pitched scream!”

As well as a form of catharsis, young people lean on heavy music as a confidence booster; the powerful sonics and assertive lyrics making them feel more able to take on the day.

Youth Music project participant, Hope Lynes, attests to this. “As someone who struggles with anxiety, having the power, loudness, passion in my ears…it makes me feel unstoppable, even on my way to work.”

A new generation of heavy music fans

While heavy music has thrived since its heyday in the 1980s as an underground subculture, it’s clear that punk, metal, and other heavy genres are currently having a resurgence amongst young people.

But why now? BBH Labs proposes that Billie Eilish, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lil Nas X – some of the biggest artists on the scene today – play a big part in the increased popularity of heavy music with young people, as they “all borrow liberally” from heavy genres, particularly in their aesthetic.

In March, Guardian rock and metal music writer Matt Mills claimed that “the best time to be a British metalhead is now.”

Mills recognises the internet for breaking down borders between heavy music subcultures, enabling young heavy music fans to connect with each other and find a community where they feel accepted.

Feeling alone or isolated are key contributors to ill mental health. Knowing you share a love of the same kind of music as so many others can reinforce the notion that you are not alone and are a part of something bigger than yourself.

The power of community

Subcultures have historically created strong communities as fans seek identity and belonging together, away from the mainstream. One study in Journal of Community Psychology of (2018) discovered that metal communities “brought about a sense of social protection,” for their participants.

Additionally, a UCL study by Anthropology student Lindsay Bishop found that metal thrives on its sense of community. Not only this, but it has a supportive and knowledgeable social hierarchy full of customs and traditions such as ‘mosh pit etiquette’ that gets passed down from generation to generation.

Andy Pritchard, co-founder of the Heavy Music Awards - Youth Music is the official charity partner this year – explains, “there's always the idea that if somebody falls down, as crazy as everybody's going, everybody stops and picks them up again. That’s the kind of attitude that spreads out across into life as well, beyond listening to the music and going to the shows. People try and pull each other up. There's no gatekeeping, there's no telling people they're not good enough to be involved. It's just, let's help each other and everyone's gonna have a great time.”

fans raise their hands in the air at a music gig

Hope Lynes further attests to the importance of finding your tribe: “I started going to heavier gigs, finding my people, getting more comfortable in moshes and expressing myself, and now you can spot me stomping around town, music blasting, full goth makeup. It makes me so happy that I can express myself in a confident way without fear of judgement.”

It’s the younger generation of fans, however, that are creating a more accepting space than ever before.

A new generation of talent

In his Guardian piece, Matt Mills argues that metal “has never had this much talent, or represented as many disaffected voices, as it does today”.

Take Nova Twins, for example, the British rock twosome whose rallying cry of a song, ‘Cleopatra’, speaks of inclusion in its lyrics: “Blacker than the leather that's holding our boots together/ If you rock a different shade, we come under the same umbrella”.

Active social media users, ALT BLK ERA are already creating an international online community with acceptance and belonging as their M.O. “JOIN US on our mission to unite all the outcasts, misfits & rejects!” they wrote in one Instagram post.

It’s this new generation of artists and creatives that Mills says are widening the pool of heavy music, making it a more diverse and welcoming space.

In Lindsay Bishop’s UCL study, it is revealed that despite the historic masculine stereotype, metal fans are on average, a third female. Plus, gigs are often full of families, older, Disabled and LGBTQ+ people.

“As young Black women in a white male dominated genre, we thought we would have an uphill struggle to be accepted, and in the early days it was worrying,” ALT BLK ERA’s Nyrobi tells Youth Music. “We would walk into a venue and be the only Black people there. However, I'm so happy to report that we really had nothing to worry about as we feel fully embraced by the metal and alt community. My hope is that more and more people see that artists like us can exist in these spaces - so that more people of colour will feel comfortable attending and ultimately enjoying live metal/alt music.”

Hope Lynes attests to this sea of change. “I feel like the younger, more accepting generation is creating its own community where everyone is welcome. I see so many girlies and people like me in metal and heavy music now and that makes me happy because I never used to see that. From the outside, as an indie kid, it didn’t feel I could break into the scene, but if I was five years younger now, I feel like I could because the online support networks are incredible.”

Looking ahead

The Heavy Music Awards aims to reflect the changing heavy genre landscape with an event that is as inclusive as possible. “We didn't think that existed, so we made something that was a platform celebrating the best,” Andy Pritchard explains. “And we wanted to make sure that that included every single background possible.”

“We are the first rock awards event in the world that had a Transgender host. We always make sure that the line-up is as diverse as possible. And we think that by doing that, we're having a positive effect on the future of musicians who are going to come through and see that those opportunities are available to them.”

The future of heavy music is in the hands of the next generation, which is why it is crucial that they receive the necessary support to fuel their ideas.

Deeply mental health-conscious and politically aware, with encouragement and funding, young people will be empowered to speak about their thoughts and feelings. Already, it is clear they are creating the spaces and communities they need.