THE BEAST UNDER YOUR BED: THE CHILD IN METAL MUSIC
“She said that childhood was a frightening time and that hearing scary stories was a way of feeling less alone” – Kate Morton, The Clock Maker’s Daughter (2018)
The combination of children and heavy metal has prompted widespread panic from the beginning. Now, over four decades since Pink Floyd infamously had real children singing “We Don’t Need No Education”, I am officially turning the tables and asking: What does heavy music itself say about childhood?
My research is about constructions of childhood in metal music. Even since I was a kid, I’ve hated sickly sweet two-dimensional children in books and even more in music – you know the sort, where it’s all about good ship lollypops (by Shirley Temple) and castles on clouds (from Les Misérables). These are ‘the child’ imagined as an innocent to be protected, but there are others, ones which look more gruesome, like Legion of the Damned’s Feel The Blade album.
Metal music is deeply concerned with what it means to be a child. It engages in ongoing discourses around childhood, not least at the nexus of religion and science like in Rammstein’s ‘Mutter’ or Slayer’s ‘Silent Scream’. Still other bands dedicate entire albums to narrating experiences of broken homes from the child’s perspective, like After Forever’s Invisible Circles album. Metal can use other children’s media (like fairy tales), sound samples, and voice types to also talk about childhood in different ways. For example, symphonic metal like Nightwish uses boy soprano voices to symbolise innocence in ‘The Poet and the Pendulum.’ When they do this, they draw on the Romantic idealisation of childhood as a natural state and its role in the creative process.
Metal music ‘speaks back’ against dominant models of childhood in society as well. When Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ used a voiceover of a child praying the children’s bedtime prayer, “if I die before I wake, pray the Lord my soul to take”, they subverted the Walled-Garden ideal of childhood in 1990s America just when the country was in the grips of a moral panic about the negative effects of ‘satanic music’ on young people.
Metallica are not the only ones who’ve used children’s media in their music. Bands like Custard draw on child characters from literature in songs like ‘The Little Match Girl’ to bring the cruelty of childhood sharply into focus. Considering the treatment of migrant and refugee children in detention in Australia and the USA right now, these stories are as relevant now as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries. Other bands are more overtly political in this regard.
In Extremo’s cover of the anti-war song ‘Lieb Vaterland magst du ruhig sein’ uses wartime photographs and children’s voices to really tug the heart strings. The ‘innocent’ child has pull; it is cultural capital. Like all capital, I want to know how it is being used and by whom.
Songs to keep in your ear
In Extremo, ‘Lieb Vaterland’ (cover/adaptation) (2016)
Rammstein, ‘Mutter’ (2002)
Slayer, ‘Silent Scream’ (1988)
After Forever, Invisible Circles (2004)
Nightwish, ‘The Poet and the Pendulum’ (2007)
Metallica, ‘Enter Sandman’ (1991)
Shirley Temple, ‘On The Good Ship Lollypop’ (1934)
Andy Rehfeldt and Dori Kreisz, ‘Good Ship Lollypop Death Metal’ (2017)
Hannah Chick, ‘Castle on the Cloud’ (from Les Misérables) (1995)
Dr. Ruth Barratt-Peacock studied musicology and literature in Australia and Germany. She became a mother last year. Her greatest achievement so far is teaching her daughter to head bang. Burning the Patriarchy to the Ground 101 is next.