AP Photo/Alik Keplicz

This music of disillusion and despair is, strangely, biggest in countries with very high quality of life. 

Popular music styles are often closely connected to the social situations where they first began. Rock 'n' roll grew out of the heady culture of American cities following the Great Migration and World War II, as formerly rural blacks brought rapidly evolving jazz and rhythm and blues into cities. Decades later, the disinvested inner cities of 1980s America helped foster the rap and hip hop that we listen to today.

Heavy metal is a strange case, then. The music sprouted originally from working-class kids in economically ravaged, deindustrialized places like Birmingham, England. Even today, it seems to be most popular among disadvantaged, alienated, working-class kids.

But take a look at the map below, which I wrote about two years ago, and have been thinking again about over the past couple of months. It tracks the number of heavy metal bands per 100,000 residents using data from the Encyclopaedia Metallum. The genre holds less sway in the ravaged postindustrial places of its birth, but remains insanely popular in Scandinavian countries known for their relative wealth, robust social safety nets, and incredibly high quality of life

When I wrote about this map back in 2012, commenters had all sorts of explanations for why heavy metal spread so far north so intensely. Metal’s emotional darkness, some said, reflected northern Europe’s long, cold winter nights. The fury of the music and the violence of some of its lyrics resonated with Scandinavia’s pagan past, what with all those Viking raiders and Berserkers. One commenter suggested that the music correlated worldwide with high levels of alcoholism.

Indeed, a decade-old article by Mark Ames, “Black Metal Nation: What do Norwegian Dirtheads and Richard Perle Have in Common?” suggests that metal might be the adolescent id that is simmering beneath Northern Europe’s outwardly complacent façade. “Norway,” he wrote, “is not only a completely humorless society … but … a deeply oppressive society, in a recognizably bland, caring, pious, Social Democratic way.” Metalheads experience their boredom, he speculated, as “real suffering.” According to this logic, metal may instead be the product of affluent societies, a countercultural backlash for the privileged.

I thought it would be fun to dig a little deeper into the economic and social factors associated with the popularity of heavy metal across various nations. I’m not a metal head but have long been a Black Sabbath fan. They were the first rock band I ever saw in concert and I cut my teeth on guitar playing "Iron Man" and "War Pigs" in my middle school band.

So with the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I examined the connections between heavy metal and a range of economic and social factors. What we found may surprise you. Mellander, who is Swedish, attributes Scandinavia’s proclivity for heavy metal bands to its governments’ efforts to put compulsory music training in schools, which created a generation with the musical chop to meet metal’s technical demands. (As The Atlantic noted last fall, this has helped the region excel in pop music as well). As always, I point out that correlation does not equal causation and points simply to associations between variables. 

What we found is that that the number of heavy metal bands in a given country is associated with its wealth and affluence.

At the country-level, the number of heavy metal bands per capita is positively associated with economic output per capita (.71); level of creativity (.71) and entrepreneurship (.66); share of adults that hold college degrees (.68); as well as overall levels of human development (.79), well-being, and satisfaction with life (.60).  

The bottom line? Though metal may be the music of choice for some alienated working-class males, it enjoys its greatest popularity in the most advanced, most tolerant, and knowledge-based places in the world.  Strange as it may seem, heavy metal springs not from the poisoned slag of alienation and despair but the loamy soil of post-industrial prosperity. This makes sense after all: while new musical forms may spring from disadvantaged, disgruntled, or marginalized groups, it is the most advanced and wealthy societies that have the media and entertainment companies that can propagate new sounds and genres, as well as the affluent young consumers with plenty of leisure time who can buy it.

 

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    How Seattle Bucked a National Trend and Got More People to Ride the Bus

    Three experts in three very different positions weigh in on their city’s ridership success.

  2. Transportation

    If You Drive Less Than 10,000 Miles a Year, You Probably Shouldn't Own a Car

    Up to one-quarter of all U.S. drivers might be better off using ride-sharing services instead.

  3. Equity

    The Side Pittsburgh Doesn't Want You to See

    Pittsburgh filmmaker Chris Ivey has spent over twelve years documenting the lives of the people displaced so that the city can achieve its “cool” status.  

  4. Construction workers build affordable housing units.
    Equity

    Why Is 'Affordable' Housing So Expensive to Build?

    As costs keep rising, it’s becoming harder and harder for governments to subsidize projects like they’ve done in the past.

  5. People use leaning bars at a bus stop in Brooklyn in 2016.
    Design

    Cities Take Both Sides in the 'War on Sitting'

    Cities are removing benches in an effort to counter vagrancy and crime—at the same time that they’re adding them to make the public realm more age-friendly.