Heavy Metal Deviant Behaviour and the Moral Panic Literature

Claire Shepherd
Claire Shepherd

Since the late 1970s, the genre of heavy metal has come under criticism and has at times been constructed as a “problem” by concerned parent groups, religious groups, and the media.

Concerns surrounding the genre have most often been about the potential danger it presents to young people, with some believing that young people may act on the Satanic subliminal messages that are said to be present in the music.

For this reason, the 1980s, in particular, saw a number of moral panics surrounding heavy metal music.

Central to this research is moral panic theory and how it plays a role in the understanding and subsequent stereotyping of heavy metal music.

Stanley Cohen was a key moral panic theorist in the 1970s with the publication of ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers’ (1972). This classic work speaks of how moral panics are created and what they involve.

Cohen’s description of moral panics is as follows: “Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnosis and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges and deteriorates and becomes more visible” (Cohen 2002: 1).

This definition shows that moral panics are a constructed threat, and that sociologists study how the perception of threat is constructed.

Cohen goes on to say that some panics can be quite novel, and at other times they have been in existence for some time, but suddenly appears as a “threat” (2002: 1). He describes the way that perceived threats are stereotyped by the mass media, and how these stereotypes often need the “expertise” of doctors, scientists and so forth to declare that the threat was one that should be taken seriously, and ultimately be solved (or diagnosed) by the relevant “experts” (2002: 1).

Although Cohen was a pioneering sociologist in moral panic theory, his work has subsequently been revised and developed by other sociologists, such as Goode and Ben-Yehuda.

Erich Goode’s ‘Deviant Behaviour’ (1978), is about behaviours that society deems as deviant and unacceptable. Goode states that: “In every society that has ever existed, there are rules governing the behaviour of members. Certain actions are regarded as good, acceptable, conventional, in accord with the rules; other forms of behaviour are regarded as bad, unacceptable, unconventional, in violation of the rules and the norm. [People] continually make judgements about the behaviour of others and the individuals who engage in that behaviour” (Goode 1984: 3).

To define deviance, says Goode, three general perspectives must be considered: “the absolutist, the normative, and the reactive” (1984: 7-10).

Each perspective on deviance provides a different definition of what deviant behaviour is. Each of these perspectives can be seen to take place within the assessment of heavy metal behaviours, most notably that of the normative perspective, which “locates the quality of deviance not in the actions themselves, but in the fact that they violate the norms of the culture in which they take place” (Goode 1984: 8).

Goode has also worked with Ben-Yehuda on moral panic theory as part of the social construction of deviance. Their definition of moral panic is not at all too dissimilar to Cohen’s: “During [a] moral panic, the behaviour of some of the members of a society is thought to be so problematic to others, the evil they do, or are thought to do, is felt to be so wounding to the substance and fabric of the body social, that serious steps must be taken to control the behaviour, punish the perpetrators, and repair the damage” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda 2002: 31).

Their text, ‘Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance’ (1994), claims that there are five indicators of a moral panic: “concern, hostility, consensus, volatility, and disproportionality” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda 2002: 33-45).

With their five criteria, four overlapping territories must also take place: deviance, social problems, collective behaviour, and social movements (Goode & Ben-Yehuda 2002: 52-53).

When all these criteria and overlapping territories have been met, a moral panic has occurred. While there has been much research into moral panic theory, Goode and Ben-Yehuda say there are still a number of questions that need to be answered.

For example, exactly who is it that expresses concern that leads to something being classified as a moral panic? Why are some panics subculturally and socially localised, and others grip an entire society? Are there certain individuals or groups who are more likely to initiate a moral panic than others (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2002: 51-52)?

While moral panic theorists like Cohen and Goode and Ben-Yehuda seem to lead the way in moral panic theory, others have suggested that approaches to moral panic theory, like Cohen’s, are now outdated and in need of revision in order to better understand the society we live in today.

Kenneth Thompson (1998) is one such person, as he argues that some of the most practical contributions to moral panics have yet to be fully explained in one framework (1998: 7-11).

Thompson also claims that early moral panic theory focused too much on analysing subcultures that were said to cause the panic, rather than the media who were fuelling the panic (1998: 2).

Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton have also made such claims when they challenged Cohen’s moral panic theory with their paper ‘Rethinking ‘moral panic’ for multi-mediated social worlds’ (1995).

McRobbie and Thornton first challenged Cohen’s moral panic theory because they believed it no longer applied to modern media coverage.

While aspects of Cohen’s research may still be applicable, McRobbie and Thornton argue that other aspects of the classic theory simply no longer suit modern society (1995: 559-560).

For example, McRobbie and Thornton highlight that the term “moral panic” was once only to describe extreme cases of anti-social behaviour, but the term is now regularly used by journalists to generate interest and debate within the news media, and has become “a routine means of making youth-oriented cultural products more alluring” (1995: 559).

Further reasons for explaining why the term is in need of revision include: the suggestion that the classic folk devil, as described by Cohen (1972), “now produce their own media as a counter to what they perceive as the biased media of the mainstream” (1995: 568); that the media is no longer separable from society because society can now also be the media (570-71); and that both the police and the media now show an awareness of the dangers of overreaction toward moral panics (1995: 572).

They also suggest that a rise in interest groups, pressure groups, and lobby groups means we can no longer “ignore the many voices which now contribute to the debate during moral panics” (McRobbie and Thornton 1995: 566).

For this reason then, moral panics have now become a routinised way for reporting within the media, and they are not always “periods… [that emerge] as a threat to societal values and interests” as Cohen claimed in the 1970s (2002: 1).

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