Musical subcultures and Self-Harm: Goths, and Metalheads

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“Turn that music down!”

Parents of teenagers have long been appalled, repelled and even frightened by their children’s musical choices.

In their time, Jazz was considered decadent, Elvis Presley downright scandalous. Hip-hop and rap music were widely criticized for their violent and misogynistic lyrics. Heavy metal music’s aggression exploded on the music scene with pounding bass lines and drums and a style that features skulls, skeletons and Satanism, as well as promiscuity, alcohol and drug use, occultism, violence and death.

Jazz and Elvis turned out to be benign, but are the more recent, darker musical cultures dangerous? New research suggests that for some fans, they can be.

Western cultures are experiencing alarming increases in suicide and self-harm. That is not the case in Israel, where suicide rates have been falling in most groups. Nevertheless, according to the most recent statistics available, about one-third of suicide attempts were among young people up to age 21.

They are the prime demographic who might identify with a musical subculture.

The British Journal of Clinical Psychology recently published a review of studies on suicide and self-harm to find those that measured affiliation to a subculture – defined as marking oneself out through particular clothes, makeup, body art as well as musical preferences. Nearly all the studies focused on people under 24.

The researchers found that moderate or stronger identification with a subculture is associated with the three times higher risk of self-harm and six times higher risk of suicide. This was true even after adjusting for preexisting risk factors such as depression. There was also some evidence that alternative subculture affiliation predicts self-harm over time.

Art is often a thorn in the side of society; it challenges and criticizes the status quo. That is true for music as it is for the broad range of visual and performing arts. Anti-establishment, and even anti-social music have their place. They are and have been enjoyed by many, with impunity. The study raises more questions than it answers.

But despite the study’s limitations, its results can be useful to educators and parents and those who work with young people at risk. It is helpful to be aware of the possible risk these groups hold in order to design interventions for those who are vulnerable.

About the Author
Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D. is a psychologist, radio host and writer for various publications, including The Washington Times and Psychology Today. She lives in Jerusalem and can be reached at
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