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Heavy metal and violence: More than a myth?

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  • Heavy metal used as a scapegoat according to anthropologist
  • Storytelling and drama important, not violence, says Iron Maiden singer
  • Heavy metal is pantomime compared to torture-porn films says NME journalist
  • Iron Maiden accused of being Satanists in 1980s
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By James Donkin for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Violence and heavy metal seem to have been inextricably entwined since the dawn of the metal genre.

Accusations that the Columbine killers were influenced by Marilyn Manson's music were found to be false.

Judas Priest, Marilyn Manson and Black Sabbath are just some of the household metal names to have come under public fire for supposedly inciting teenagers to commit murder and suicide.

It's a fire the international media has been happy to flame, quick to draw links between various acts of savagery and heavy metal even if, as in the case of the Columbine shootings and Marilyn Manson, evidence points to the contrary.

For anthropologist, documentary filmmaker and self-confessed "Metalhead" Sam Dunn, heavy metal is often used as a scapegoat to distract from the thoroughly more complicated societal problems surrounding such incidents.

"I think people look at heavy metal and label it for all sorts of things because we need easy answers to complex questions," Dunn says.

"I think that it's easy to target a heavy metal band for inciting violence or making kids turn to a cult than it is to actually look at real problems in the real world."

It's easy to see where the journalists, parents and religious groups get their ideas from.

A quick scan of the lyrics of any heavy metal band worth its salt will often reveal some gasp-inducing subject matter.

For instance in his film "A Headbanger's Journey," Dunn quotes some of his favourite lyrics by a metal band called Autopsy: "Burning from the inside out, bloody foam spews from your mouth, smell the putrid stench of flesh, as it burns you to your death."

Not the sort of poetry to be quoting to grandmother over lunch, but can such ludicrous gore really incite people to violence, not to mention murder?

As one young Norwegian metal fan told the UK's Guardian newspaper: "It's all fantasy, none of this is real, you can't take this seriously, it's just like a movie."

But compared to some of the images filling our cinema screens -- The Devil's Rejects, Wolf Creek, The Passion of the Christ to name a few -- even Autopsy's lyrics seem a little tame.

"I have listened to enough metal for me to essentially be a serial killer," says James McMahon from UK music magazine NME.

"But there's something in me that says no, that's not what I believe life is about. Serial killers existed before Slayer, you know."

"I'm a big fan of horror movies but Hostel, Saw, those torture porn films, I found myself repulsed -- metal is pantomime comparatively."

As Alice Cooper quips: "There's more blood in 'Macbeth' than in my shows and that's required school reading."

For metal musicians, death, blood and mayhem, in its various guises, are all simply part of the act, part of "the show."

"I think it comes from being a child of the '70s," says Iron Maiden's lead singer Bruce Dickinson. "I was brought up on Hammer horror movies and things like "The Devil Rides Out," classics like that."

"So while we do the devil type things, it's done... I wouldn't always say in a tongue-in-cheek way, but there is an element of it. It's done with a view to storytelling and drama, with a bit of dressing-up going on."

Iron Maiden has also endured its fair share of controversy. The title of its 1982 album, "The Number of the Beast," and repeated use of "666" in the titular track's chorus had America's religious right up in arms.

They accused the band of being devil worshippers, Satanists and of "trying to pervert our kids."

"When I play that song I think, well, ok, this isn't glorifying the devil, because that's certainly not what I would do," says Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, a born-again Christian.

"It's making an awareness that yes he's out there, and you've got to be aware. There is a man with 666 tattooed on his noggin somewhere."

Ironically, the fundamentalist reaction to "The Number of the Beast" packed out Iron Maiden tour gigs in every American town they visited. Kids squeezed into arenas desperate to see what was scaring their parents so badly.

Despite this marketing draw, Dickinson is keen to distance Iron Maiden from the violence for violence's sake approach practiced by some of his contemporaries, such as musicians from the extreme Black Metal and Death Metal sub-genres.

"We're not interested in being extreme," he says.

"We're interested in being interesting and in animating people's imaginations with the stories that we tell and the songs."

It's an approach that chimes with what one female Iron Maiden fan, Ruth, tells us, "I really don't see any violence in the fans and I have been to loads of their gigs," she says.

"I am in a tiny minority of women, in a room full of men wearing black -- which should seem scary, but it totally isn't. The men hold doors open for me and apologize if they bash into me. They are basically really meek and polite."

So while upside-down crucifixes, homicidal zombies and lashings of blood might continue to fuel our preconceptions about heavy metal music, it's worth remembering, appearances and reality can be very different beasts indeed.

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