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‘Sympathy for the Devil': Satanism, Music and Moral Panics in America (Part 4 - 1990s)

Late twentieth-century America saw a widespread moral panic surrounding the alleged rising threat of occultist behaviour. Due to the satanic components present in growing forms of popular culture, specifically rock and heavy metal music, American society was whipped into a frenzy, adamant that the morally corrupting music was inviting the devil into the lives of their children. Using Stanley Cohen’s model of moral panic as presented in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, this article will examine the folk devils and moral entrepreneurs of the satanic panic over rock and heavy metal music, continuing from my previous article by focussing on the 1990s.

According to Stanley Cohen’s model of moral panic, the 1980s satanic panic and subsequent congressional hearing of the Parents Music Resource Centre should have been the final stage in the story. However, the moral panic did not end with the hearing, nor did it recede of its own accord. Recurring panics bubbled up throughout the 1990s when the horrendous phenomenon of mass school shootings began to become commonplace in American society. In this final chapter I will explore the effects of the PMRC hearing, and how despite it, musicians were continually condemned for the actions of violent individuals, which is not consistent with Cohen’s theorisations.

The most notable result of the 1985 PMRC congressional hearing was the advent of the Parental Advisory sticker to be placed on CDs and LPs in American stores, which was standard procedure by 1990. The PMRC were triumphant in making obscenity into a felony and institutionalising the satanic panic of the 1980s. The PMRC hearing had a great impact on how musicians were able to create and market their music with around 225 albums carrying the Parental Advisory sticker by 1992. Wal-Mart was infamous for censoring albums and marking them as “‘edited’, ‘clean’ and ‘sanitized for your protection’.” As one of the biggest retail corporations in America during the 1990s it provided one of the largest markets for musicians to distribute and sell their albums. However, due to the ‘family-friendly’ nature of the store they only sold censored versions of albums, and often “removed songs or altered artwork on the covers to make them acceptable”. If a musician did not produce a non-explicit version of an album then they would lose a significant number of sales, so bands and their record labels began to “design different covers and booklets, omit songs from their albums, electronically mask objectionable words and even change lyrics” to avoid being dropped from the shelves.

One of the artists that was affected by album censorship was Marilyn Manson, whose second album Antichrist Superstar was rejected from K-Mart’s shelves when it was released in 1996. His later 1998 album, Mechanical Animals, was also rejected by retailers Target, K-Mart and Wal-Mart “due either to the ‘parental warning’ sticker the album is expected to carry or to the album’s explicit cover art”. Marilyn Manson, who drew inspiration for his name from the notorious Charles Manson, is perceived as one of the “highest profile Satanist ever” due to his Church of Satan membership, friendship with its founder Anton LaVey and blatant nonconforming, anti-Christian views. The album Antichrist Superstar acted as Marilyn Manson’s social critique of American society, with his lyrics alluding to the fact that conservatism in the United States was based on fascist regimes, so it is no surprise that the album generated serious backlash. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, called the band “the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company”, and this quote was widely published in the press alongside the fact that Marilyn Manson “tears up bibles onstage” and “sings about rape, murder, blasphemy and suicide”. Many of his performances were further protested by moral entrepreneurs; Reverend Charles Elliot and Reverend Randy Kennedy staged a prayer meeting outside of a Marilyn Manson gig in Louisville, with Elliot claiming that “we’re losing too many of our children to Satan”.

Similarly to that experienced by Ozzy Osbourne in the 1980s, artists were further subjected to blame for the wrongful deaths of teenagers by parents. Slayer, one of the biggest heavy metal bands in America, had a lawsuit filed against them by the parents of Elyse Pahler, who had been murdered by three young men in the summer of 1995. The teenage boys that committed her murder were reported by the San Luis Obispo Tribune as being in a band that was “styled after a group called Slayer, whose albums feature lyrics about the devil and sacrificing virgins”. The teenagers thought that by sacrificing a young girl their band would “receive power from the devil to help them play guitar better”. These connections made between the murderers and Slayer led to Pahler’s parents claiming that the band’s lyrics led to the rape and murder of their daughter, but the case was dismissed from court because the judge did “not consider Slayer’s music obscene, indecent or harmful to minors”.

Marilyn Manson was also subject to senate hearings and liability for teen suicides, with Raymond Kuntz calling the band “the ‘hand grenade’ that led to his son’s suicide” in 1996. As we have seen in previous chapters, cases of musicians being blamed for teen suicides were widely reported in both the liberal and conservative media. However, in the 1990s changes occurred in the liberal press while conservative press corporations continued to slander musicians and utilise tactics of fear. The liberal press began to simply report rather than inflame stories and thus aggravate the panic; for example, The MTV News corporation even published an article on the Raymond Kuntz case which defended Marilyn Manson, stating that “parents of suicide victims are going through very emotional stages, where they want to blame everybody without looking at the reality of the problem”, and claiming that scapegoating musicians “distracts people from the real sources of violence in society”.

However, by the late 1990s a new form of juvenile violence was becoming commonplace in American society: school shootings. From 1997 onwards there were “several high-profile incidents occurring within a short time frame”, which generated widespread fear throughout society over the increasing violence of teenage students. Horrifying accounts of each incident flooded newspaper headlines and were televised directly into people’s homes, which generated fear in the public over “a breakdown in the social order, as no place feels safe anymore”. The press focused on a plethora of issues that led up to the tragedies including involvements with satanic cults and the effects of violent media. Each new shooting furthered the fear and moral panic that was developing over juvenile violence and behaviour; in terms of Cohen’s theory, the media shifted towards a “moral panic rhetoric […] from ‘how could it happen in a place like this?’ to ‘it could happen anyplace’”. However, while musicians had been blamed in the past for influencing violent behaviour in teenagers, it was the tragic events of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 that stimulated the worst case of heavy metal scapegoating shown thus far.

The Columbine High School massacre took place on the 20th of April 1999, the perpetrators of which were named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Dressed in black trench coats to conceal their weapons, the pair were heavily armed and proceeded to open fire on crowds in the school. Their actions led to the deaths of 13 students and teachers and injured countless others, before they committed suicide in the school library. The tragedy was plastered all over the press, alongside horrifying images of injured students lying on the ground in pain and crying in each other’s arms. Many of the articles also contained interviews with Harris and Klebold’s classmates, who commented that other students “avoided them because they were different […] anyone dressed in black you’re scared of because it signifies gothic or death”. The most frequent comment made was the fact that they were fans of heavy metal music, specifically Marilyn Manson. The press quickly picked up on this and relentlessly scapegoated the musician as being partially responsible for the violence committed. Even The New York Times, customarily liberal, contributed to the moral panic by reporting on the tastes of the perpetrators. They classified the shooters as being “part of a group of misfits” who dressed in a “gothic look popularized by the rock singer Marilyn Manson”; such allegations being significantly damaging to his career. Moral entrepreneurs began to jump on the bandwagon blaming the musician, with a group in Texas offering “Marilyn Manson awareness training” to parents to prevent their children from turning to criminality because of his music. However, the most interesting act of moral entrepreneurs after the massacre was the way they made martyrs out of the Christian students. Eric Harris allegedly asked one of his victims, Cassie Bernall, if “she believed in God moments before he shot her, and she said yes”. Sarah M. Pike argues that Bernall’s death was seen to be “part of God’s plan to bring forth witnesses out of the Columbine killings who could then win others to Christ”. Bernall became a powerful figurehead in the Christian community after her death, and evangelicals saw her martyrdom as an opportunity to further their influence.

Whilst the moral panic over school shootings developed largely from the drastic media coverage, and was exploited by moral entrepreneurs, it was also furthered by “proponents of increased punitiveness with regard to juvenile justice” like legislators and politicians. President Bill Clinton even referred to America’s youth as “a generation desensitised to brutality by its own culture of violent media”. When analysing the moral panics that surrounded school shootings, Cohen argues that society began “scurrying around for a causal theory” to make sense of the tragic events, which is a key component of any moral panic. The tragedy was publicised as a product of “a randomly violent and alien culture” as an attempt to understand the atrocity. The press had many explanations as to the causes of the shootings; there were claims of racism due to the fact that the shooters admired Hitler amongst further fears that guns were too easily available to teenagers. However, the favourite reason most cited by newspapers was the glorification of violence in popular culture having a negative impact on America’s youth. Perhaps by providing an unorthodox explanation like Nazism or occultism for a school shooting makes the atrocity seem exceptional. If notions of mental health or an over availability of guns become involved, it would give the impression that anyone could become a mass killer, which sequentially would make everyone paranoid.

Whilst school shootings can definitely be considered as a moral panic in Cohen’s terms, there was one stark difference in the case of Columbine. The aftermath of the shooting saw Marilyn Manson and heavy metal fans taking the form of the folk devil, but dissimilar to Cohen’s theorisations, the folk devils were given a voice in the press. As Eric Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda state, since Cohen released his book in 1972, the “folk devils” began to “fight back”. Marilyn Manson fervently fought back against moral entrepreneurs after the events of Columbine, with multiple news corporations publishing his views. He argued that “from Jesse James to Charles Manson, the media, since their inception, have turned criminals into folk heroes”, and that it was “unthinkable that these kids did not have a simple black-and-white reason for their actions […] and so a scapegoat was needed”. Furthermore, the case of Marilyn Manson demonstrates how news corporations could change their editorial stances, a fact that was also ignored by Cohen. The Rolling Stone magazine changed its views on the involvement of musicians in tragedies, as they evolved from chastising Mick Jagger in 1969 over the Altamont Speedway Free Festival to allowing Marilyn Manson to provide his defence over allegations made against him.

It is evident from my research that the school shootings that occurred throughout the 1990s became a moral panic in their own right. Whilst there were blatant connections drawn between the panic over juvenile violence and heavy metal musicians, it has become evident that musicians were used as scapegoats when there were no other palatable explanations. According to Cohen’s theorisations the legal action taken against musicians in the 1980s in the form of album labelling and censorship should have signified the end of the panic, but the events of the 1990s demonstrate that this moral panic did not follow a linear pattern of stages as presented by Cohen. This begs the question; can the panic over rock and heavy metal musicians be considered as a moral panic in Cohen’s terms?

Throughout each of the decades in question, it has become clear that the moral panic over rock and heavy metal music emerged due to the wider anxieties that American society was experiencing. From its origins with black musicians, rock music encapsulated 1960s fears of race mixing and declining traditional morals amongst youths who were beginning to experiment with sex, drugs and mysticism. Society in the 1970s experienced increased paranoia over occultism due to a rise in serial killings and cult activity, which when mixed together with an emerging ‘satanic’ music style and the rising influence of religious groups led to musicians being blamed as there were no easy explanations for the horrors that were being reported in the press. An alleged increase of cases of satanic crime in the 1980s coincided with a growth in conservative ideals, and the influence of moral entrepreneurs resulted in legal action taking place against musicians in the form of music labelling and censorship. Finally, the tragic events of the 1990s demonstrate that the moral panic did not follow a linear pattern of stages as Stanley Cohen presented, as fears of school shootings became a moral panic in their own right with musicians being scapegoated for the perpetrators actions.

As has been demonstrated throughout this dissertation, elements of my research can be considered to be a moral panic in Cohen’s terms. Despite the fact that the timeframe in question surpasses the more temporary, concentrated panics that Cohen imagines, until the final chapter the events that were investigated follow the stages of concern, hostility, reactive deviance, consensus, disproportionality and response that make up a moral panic. Furthermore, as Mathieu Deflem argues, the debate over musicians “involved an exaggerated or disproportional reaction to a problem that is believed to threaten the moral order”, with obvious folk devils and moral entrepreneurs at play in the form of musicians and their fans, and religious groups and the media. However, whilst my research compliments Cohen’s theories in a multitude of areas, there are also serious areas of contention that must be considered.

The folk devils in this case were not a small group of ‘deviants’ that caused trouble; there were multiple folk devils that included musicians, record labels and fans of the genre. Musicians suffered the worst of the condemnation, but unlike in Cohen’s theories they cannot be considered a “soft target” due to the wide influence and cultural significance they possessed. Furthermore, there were a multitude of societal reactions to the panic in comparison to the monolithic reaction presented by Cohen. Moral entrepreneurs may have reacted in the same way that Cohen theorises where religious groups strictly condemned the ‘immorality’ that musicians represented, but there were also myriad positive reactions involved as well, including the fierce loyalty of fans, the commercial successes that musicians experienced and even from the press who began to change their editorial stances and give folk devils a voice in the media.

The rising threat of school shootings in the 1990s, which Cohen himself describes as a moral panic in itself, demonstrates that it was not the musicians who were generating the fear but the perpetrators of the tragedies that were being daubed all over the press. Instead, musicians were scapegoated as the causal theory behind the actions of those who were instigating fear as a way for society to explain the unexplainable. Due to the complications involved, I believe that the fear over developing music genres cannot be considered as a singular moral panic in Cohen’s terms, but instead a series of recurring bursts of panic that erupted over wider anxieties that already existed in society; anxieties not seriously considered, understood or investigated by those in power which were exploited by moral entrepreneurs.

To conclude, I argue that the concept of a ‘moral panic’ has changed since Stanley Cohen’s research in 1972, with the term now being used to describe any moment of anxiety about increasing crime, new forms of popular culture or the constantly developing subcultures and rebellion that youth culture encapsulates. No longer are they concentrated episodes of fear as demonstrated by the Mods and Rockers, but long running modes of generating anxiety and resurrecting scapegoats usually for the purpose of religious or political gain. In the words of Cohen himself from his revised third edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, discrete moral panics have been replaced by “a generalised moral stance, a permanent moral panic resting on a seamless web of social anxieties”.



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