Joy and Melancholy, Together At Last

The modern trope of heavy metal music (an admittedly broad and vague descriptor), or more generally, rock ‘n’ roll, as the archetypical corruptor of youth could not be more true, at least in one particular aspect: it engenders an ambiguity wherein joy and melancholy exist simultaneously, without any supersession of one over the other. It is the ambiguity which “corrupts” the developing psyche, not darkness in and of itself (regardless of whether or not this darkness actually exists). While those guarding the efficacy of traditional values suspect this corruption to be altogether negative—for what could be more disastrous to a young life than listening to the Devil’s music?—it is in my mind beneficial. Irrespective of upbringing, social context, or place in time, heavy metal music corrupts toward a positive end. The formative process it engenders dismantles the equivalency of darkness to evil, and melancholy to negativity; it disrupts the logic of order and false positivity, revealing the joy of melancholia, and not having to choose between one or the other. Joy as melancholy, melancholy as joy.

As a child I was wholly unaware of a musical world outside Christian praise and worship and adult contemporary; such is the lot of those raised by pastors. To their credit, my parents ensured access to music and never prevented me from listening to anything as I grew older (though I do remember a tense conversation with my mother in Walmart, trying to assuage her concerns about Switchfoot being “too” secular). Like many parents, they provided gracious warnings when certain artists came up in conversation or when they perused my iTunes library. (And yes, like many good Christian teenagers, several times I cleaned out my music collection of dangerous recordings, only to repurchase said albums after a reasonable time of penitence had passed.) Initially, my attraction to heavy metal music was simply for the riffs, something I’d rarely experienced in such potent measure. It seems to be a prototypically modern teenage thing to do: increase the volume substantially to the point of pain and proceed to headbang relentlessly. It also helped that around this time, most of my friends also appreciated heavy metal music. There is something cathartic to be with like-minded people headbanging to the latest offering of holy riffage.

Riffs alone, however, did not satisfy my youthful appetite. The luxury of being a product of the Internet Age is the ease in discovering new music. Thus, researching one artist’s influences revealed a “new” genre, which revealed connections to a genre I’d already begun exploring, which revealed a new, “favorite” band…wash, rinse, repeat. Yet something peculiar was happening as I followed this meandering path deeper into the world of heavy metal music. I was no longer satisfied with the simple purity of how fast or pummeling the riffs were, but increasingly with the moods and aesthetic experience which revealed themselves in times of devoted listening. Of course, not all heavy metal music is marked by melancholia; there are bands which thrive upon joy and otherwise innocuous moods and lyrics. However, it is common for heavy metal music to explicitly prefer melancholy or negativity, as it rightly notices that such experiences are intrinsic to human existence, whether one cares to admit it or not. I began to notice how events in my life, specifically those I perceived to be negative, could actually offer a positive push forward, provided I remained long enough within the darkness to discover the secret to it all.

Such a discovery was initially disconcerting. The prospect of encountering otherwise melancholic music on its own terms—accepting the journey of sadness common to the music and lyrics without any recourse to interpret the darkness away—rubbed against the philosophical and theological framework I inherited which deemed such aesthetic avenues to be certifiably dangerous and unwise. Would I be able to accept the terms of the encounter? In the pursuit of understanding and the euphoria of experiencing “good” music, would the darkness engendered be something I could navigate successfully?

To my initial surprise, in the darkness I discovered a path unlit yet nonetheless clearly marked. Following my favorite artists and singers through the throes of death, depression, pain, and suffering of all sorts—whether voiced through a guitar or a tortured scream—only revealed the extent to which I had ignored my own pain and suffering. The ambiguity I encountered in heavy metal music revealed the expanse of the ambiguity of experience in my own self. It is not a matter of making the two equivalent, as if my life were identical to that of any particular musician, vocalist or lyricist, but simply similar. I found a way to relate to both myself and others which no longer relied upon a false positivity or the desire to achieve positivity in all things; it was actually more than enough to sit within the sadness than it was to fight it. Of course, life has its sweet moments and for those I am thankful. It also has its bitter moments and for those I am thankful  as well.

Does ambiguity corrupt? Absolutely. And yet the ambiguity of which I write, the ambiguity I found within heavy metal music of varying sorts, corrupted my preconceived sensibilities and reminded me of how deeply intertwined joy and melancholy are in the cacophony of existence. What was previously worlds apart was now joined together at last: if life never lets me choose between the purity of only experiencing one emotion at a time, or the idealistic preference for simple joy above all, why should I pretend to live as such?

To assume that the initial offering of negativity is by default “bad” ignores the potential for discovering more of oneself in the music. Who knows what elements of ourselves are hidden in the darkness? Why assume revelation requires light? Perhaps, then, something like heavy metal music corrupts for the purpose of progress, or corrupts for the purpose of honoring life. I can think of no better appreciation for life than something which honors the spectrum of emotion without superseding one element over another.

This is why, even to this day, I am grateful for heavy metal music. Beyond the riffs, the spectacle, or the rebellion, at its core lies a simple secret: joy as melancholy, melancholy as joy.