Finding Happiness in Angry Music

Shiny happy heavy metal people: There’s something cleansing about engaging with emotions we might not usually let ourselves feel.
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When I was 13, I dreamed of kissing boys in the backseat of a car while Scorpions, a German hard rock outfit, crooned “Winds of Change” from the car stereo. It’s still kind of a bummer that never happened: Boys at my high school were much more infatuated with the idea of making out to Dave Matthews Band, and I had to work with what I could get.

I’d known for a long time that my love for heavy music wasn't shared by many of my peers. I’m sure there were other girls like me out there—ones who’d owned a tape of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction since they were six, other kids who thought Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood” was a song about a nice guy who just wanted to share his “sugar” and “candy cane” with his friends. I just never met many kids, especially girls, who liked music on the louder end of the spectrum—I chalked that up to being quirky.

Though loud music always had some place in my heart, it wasn't until my early 20s when I truly fell in love with the power of the riff. And it wasn't because I wanted to feel angry. Loud music had the opposite effect on me: It calmed me down.

I started to do this thing where at the end of a long work week, stuck in the corner cubicle of a windowless room, I’d go to this crappy club in my town that booked a lot of loud bands and stand right up next to the speakers, close enough that I could actually feel the music passing through me. It was like meditation. Something about the way the bass would actually shake my bones and internal organs was cleansing. It was in those moments, my senses overloaded, that I felt like I could take a full breath again.

I've found that I’m constantly explaining this fascination of mine, except to the bearded dudes standing next to me at those shows. My combination of being a weekend hesher and weekday career woman draws more than a few cocked heads and second looks, like I’m a ticking time bomb that could go off anywhere between the water cooler and the break room.

But that’s the funny thing: In my experience, metal isn't for angry people. It’s bigger than anger. Better, even. I've found most metal musicians and heavy music aficionados aren't nearly as pissed off and angry as people assume.

And that got me thinking: Is it possible that listening to angry music could make people happier? Do hours and years of loud riffs and screeching vocals pummeling your ear drums actually mellow you out? 

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It’s a theory backed up in a recent study conducted by Maya Tamir and Brett Ford, researchers from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In one study, 175 people were asked to participate in role-playing exercises where they had to either confront a person—like a cop interrogating a suspect—or collaborate with someone. But before the role-playing began, the subjects were allowed to choose from a selection of music to aid in evoking the emotions they would need: Anger, happiness, or neutrality. It was up to them to choose what they wanted to hear. “Music is often used as a way to manipulate emotions, I just had people decide how to manipulate their own emotions,” Tamir says.

The subjects were also asked questions about their emotional health, happiness, and feelings of social support.

It’s no novel idea that someone might choose to rev themselves up with aggressive music before a engaging in a tough task: A fourth quarter tie-breaker, a tense salary negotiation. And no surprise, the folks who chose angry music had no problem completing their tasks.

But Tamir also found that the people who chose to be pissed off actually showed a greater sense of well-being overall than the people who avoided feelings of unpleasantness.

“Rather than seeking happiness at all times, it may be important to seek happiness at the right time,” Tamir concluded. “Encouraging people to seek happiness and shun unhappiness irrespective of context may not necessarily be adaptive in the long run.”

Her study reinforces the idea of engaging in “constructive anger,” an emotion that Frederic Luskin, a Stanford University professor and co-chair of the Garden of Forgiveness Project at Ground Zero, has lectured on at length. He says unlike destructive anger, constructive anger is the type of anger that aims to fix a problem.

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“Constructive anger usually leads people to feel that they've accomplished something somehow,” he says. “They've protected somebody or solved a problem.”

So if you listen to Judas Priest’s “Hell Patrol” in your cubicle and then finally ask your boss for a raise, that’s a form of constructive anger. You’re getting mad, and it gives you the courage to solve an issue.

Though I can hear Luskin brace a little over the phone when I tell him about my love for heavy metal, he says he gets where I’m coming from about listening to loud music and engaging in feeling anger once in awhile. But he’s careful to say there’s a line between listening and then acting out on that anger. Essentially, he says that when you enter the mosh pit and start engaging in violence, no matter how fake it might be, that’s where the line between constructive and destructive anger is crossed.

Luskin says there could be merit to the idea that people who enjoy getting blasted by riffs and fake blood at a Slayer show—screaming angry lyrics at the top of their lungs in a crowd of thousands of other heavy metal fans—are actively engaging with their anger in a controlled, safe, temporary way.

“It could be nothing different than doing other sorts of thrill-seeking. When people go bungee jumping…it stimulates adrenaline, it gives them a sense of adventure,” he says. “It serves as a wonderful discharge for certain energies.” He laughs. “It’s different strokes for different folks.”

I take it he’s no Black Sabbath fan.

Maya Tamir says that emotions are something that we humans know how to use strategically, and that avoiding the bad ones and always seeking the happier ones won’t really get us anywhere.

“We all have a deeply ingrained belief that we want to feel emotions that feel good and avoid those that feel bad at any cost,” she wrote in an email. “But emotions do much more for us than merely provide pleasure and pain.”

I got on the phone with Bill Kelliher, who plays guitar and sings in Georgia-bred heavy metal band Mastodon, to see what he thought about my theory. I don’t know the guy, but he sounded a little relieved by what I was saying.

“Most of the people I've met in this genre have been super cool people to me,” he says. “Tom Araya from Slayer is one of the most laid-back, nicest, always-smiling guys. He plays [some of] the heaviest, most satanic music out there.”

Kelliher says that people often have the same reaction when he and his burly tattooed bandmates turn out to be just a group of nice, Southern gentlemen: “‘What a nice, lovely bunch of people you all are.’” he says. “I always hear that.”

We share a laugh when we talk about some of the best loud shows we've experienced. Neither of us are big moshers—he’s an older guy now, and, well, I’m a girl—but we both feel this intense sense of pleasure by hearing our favorite heavy musicians blast at us from the stage. Yeah, sure, it’s music that’s pissed off. But there’s something sincerely happy and cleansing about engaging with that anger—anger we might not usually let ourselves feel otherwise.

“When I go out to see my favorite band and I see somebody just shredding the guitar riffs I know, I just kind of laugh,” Kelliher says. “I have an overwhelming sense of happiness.”

I know exactly what he means.

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Leah Sottile is a writer based in Spokane, Washington.

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