"Real obscenity" of shock music isn't in the lyrics

July 15, 2005

The best-selling and award-winning music lyrics and styles of controversial performers from Eminem and Marilyn Manson to Limp Bizkit and Slipknot have been called vile, disgusting, uncivilized and even dangerous, particularly in recent Congressional hearings. But Karen Halnon, associate professor of sociology at Penn State Abington, said that's just nonsense.

Halnon said what makes this music so attractive for an increasingly diverse fandom -- from college students to white-collar professionals such as brokers and lawyers -- is its "difference" from the commercialized mainstream.

Music that breaks nearly every conceivable rule for morality is embraced by fans because it breaks though the "noise" of commercial culture. She calls it a "refreshing time-out" from the pressures of commercial conformity, a place where difference, self-expression and equality are celebrated, if not demanded. It is a temporary escape from a world in which, it seems, everything is a commodity, she noted.

In the recent article "Alienation Incorporated," published in the May 2005 issue of Current Sociology: Journal of the International Sociology Association, Halnon argued that the "real obscenity" is how the culture industry has found a way to commodify the consumer alienation that it created in the first place. This recent version of the "commodification of dissent" has the effect of distracting youth from more pragmatic avenues of social change, Halnon added.

"The real obscenity of this music is not its anti-everything rebellion against all that is moral, sacred or civilized, but rather that it serves to control and contain what might otherwise be a directed and pragmatic youth movement aimed at social justice," said Halnon, noting that military violence, presidential politics and social security are just a few of the topics to which youths could be channeling their collective energy. Instead, as Eminem has aptly put it, youth alienation "just sprays and sprays," but in "no particular direction."

Halnon said that shock music is much more complex from the inside than outsiders might imagine. She has conducted five years of concert field work and extensive music media analysis of the most transgressive heavy metal (and also punk, alternative rock and white rap) artists and bands increasingly making it into the mainstream.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017