Black metal – rebellion, panic and acceptance
Nina Nielsen is working on a doctoral thesis on black metal at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Her work is cross-disciplinary and may be of interest to sociologists, historians, media analysts and musicologists, she believes, although she is casting her net even wider: “The history of black metal touches upon issues that everyone can relate to and reflect on. So I’m hoping to reach out to more people than just academics.”
Musician and academic
Nina Nielsen has a varied background. She is a singer-songwriter. She gained a Master’s degree in media studies and a bachelor in television production, literature and languages in Canada. She has studied composition and music production at the conservatoire in Stavanger, and she has studied philosophy, the history of philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Oslo. She first encountered black metal in her childhood.
“I grew up in a small village in Western Norway. Some might describe it as Christian-conformist. I wouldn’t go that far, but it was certainly Bible Belt country. There was also a metal scene which my brother was part of. It was evident in this small community that there was a stigma attached to that sort of music, to the visuals and aesthetics and to boys with long hair – even though they were only teenagers. I remember there was much fear when the spate of church fires began. I was receiving classical music training, so black metal was not my kind of thing, but I was close to the scene and understood that the reactions had something to do with social issues. I sang in the local church; a completely different repertoire to that my brother was being stigmatised for listening to. Ever since then I’ve been interested in how music can play such an extremely important role in a tiny community – as well as nationally and internationally.”
“What I’m trying to highlight with my work is some of the ideology behind black metal and media’s portrayal of it. It’s not the case that black metal is a style and the media coverage a response to that style. The two spawn”ed each other to a significant extent. I’m also trying to understand how the transformation that has taken place was able to happen. How could black metal go from being a rebellion surrounded by extreme controversy to almost a cultural emblem that we use for cultural diplomacy internationally, promoting it as exemplary entrepreneurship?”
Music and crime
“The black metal scene attracted much media attention in the 1990s. The coverage was different to that normally given to music,” according to Nina Nielsen.
“Most people remember black metal from the days of church arson attacks and the trial of Varg Vikernes. Murder, crime and suicide were linked to the scene. It led to what academia calls moral panic. The events also drew international attention. What I’m interested in is those very relationships between black metal and the culture that surrounds it: the social, economic and cultural circumstances that gave rise to the genre and what it later went through. When it comes to the church fires, I think it’s important to understand that the Satanist narrative that accompanied them was partly invented by the media. When you talk to black metal artists today, they probably have a much more complex and nuanced picture of the genre than when they started out, but it was not about Satanism. It was a rebellion against conformity, especially the conformist institution that was the Church of Norway, many would argue. So it was not necessarily the case that they hated Christianity or worshipped Satan, but that they were simply anti-conformist.”
How do these events tie in directly with the music?
“People who were involved in the music scene were also involved in arson. So, as the moral panic started to spread, people began to think: can this music lead to violent behaviour? It’s a good question. Giving a voice to an ideology through music is one thing; another is becoming consumed by an image. Artists themselves, including former Mayhem member Kjetil Manheim, have said this is a problem in some subcultures. Much of it is about performativity: dressing up in all black and screaming your head off on stage on top of blast beats – it’s all a performance. It triggered a pattern of behaviour whereby people would challenge each other: how extreme is it possible to get? How far can you go in realising what has been expressed on stage? When can you take the performance and turn it into reality? Some of those who were involved in the arson attacks probably egged each other on to see how realistic they could make it. For example, could you see arson as part of the performance? I wonder about that. I don’t know how correct that would be as an hypothesis, but it’s something I want to look into.”
“When a subculture or music scene emerges, it doesn’t happen just on stage. It’s something you take with you in day-to-day life as well. It’s what you’re wearing, it’s tattoos – the culture gets under your skin.”
Aggressiveness and ambivalence
Nina Nielsen has written an essay for Ballade – an online newspaper for the Norwegian music industry – in which she describes the ambivalence that many black metal fans feel about loving a genre that to others represents hate. How does she interpret this ambivalence?
“That’s one of the aspects I’m interested in. How listeners or fans negotiate between the two poles: the fact that you like the music and find something good in it versus how others use it to preach hate. Black metal fans really have been able to reflect on the music they listen to and like. They have to think about why they are doing it and what it means. I’ve heard fans say that black metal is a difficult genre to like, not because of how it sounds, but because of what the music can represent to different people.”
“I think we have to be careful about assuming that music should always be something good, that its function must always be good.”
Black metal music creates fear and is seen as brutal and extreme. Can you see the attraction in this?
“Yes, I can. Black metal is aggressive, with its blast beats, hard drums, tough image, screaming and so on. The vocals are almost other-worldly, the sounds coming out are almost inhuman. At the same time, to me black metal contains more nuances and contrasts than, say, death metal or hardcore punk. To illustrate the difference between death metal and black metal, I tend to say that death metal is a machine, while black metal is nature. What many black metal artists do is to try to express the extremes of nature, not just of human nature, but of the natural world. Nature is not merely a beautiful, national romantic landscape that is harmonic and only good: it’s brutal, there are dark forces, and this dynamic, this ambivalence, is used in the music. If you start listening to black metal, you will gradually begin to notice the various nuances, the tender and vulnerable elements that also exist within the music. Some theorists take the view that the aggressive style is a way for people to work through and process their rage or frustration. I think it’s interesting but also problematic to see the music as catharsis, as cleansing. I think we have to be careful about assuming that music should always be something good, that its function must always be good.”
Writing in order to understand
When working on something like this you are confronted with actions and events that everyone has a moral take on. How are you able to detach yourself?
“I’m not writing in order to create distance. I’m writing because I want to understand an aspect of Norway's cultural and musical history that I think is important if we are to understand ourselves. This music would not have been what it was if it hadn’t been part of that history. There were a lot of things happening when black metal emerged in Norway and turned into the scene it did. The media were becoming more international, there were new TV channels, the oil industry was growing, the economy was becoming more global. When there are so many major changes over a short period of time, you begin to look at yourself; you start developing a greater awareness of who you are. What does Norway mean? What is this small, provincial nation in the north? What if you don’t fit in? Can you be something else than what this small, conformist country wants you to be? I don’t think black metal culture would have come into existence without some of this factors.”
“Can you listen to Mozart without thinking about society and culture? All music is part of a tradition.”
Eclectic tastes in music
What is your own relationship with black metal?
“I think it’s difficult to talk about black metal as one kind of music or one genre. Personally, I feel that there are some artists who are making good, exciting and innovative music. Then there are many who don’t interest me much. The things I do like have rich soundscapes with lots of dynamic, interesting elements that you just don’t get anywhere else. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that this music represents me or my identity. On the other hand, I’m not sure I could say that about any genre. If I put on some black metal, it’s for very different reasons than when I put on Bach or whatever else.”
Why do you listen to black metal?
“There is a lot of different music, thankfully, for different situations, times and spaces. The more diversity there is, the better. I see how many people believe that you form an identity based on the music you perform or the scene you’re part of. But then there are people who switch between genres, from contemporary to black metal, from rock and pop to classical. I think we’ll see more such eclectic musical tastes and consumption in the future. This will create greater acceptance of all types of music and more interest in listening to different genres, including black metal. Suddenly there is nothing stopping you from going from baroque to black metal in one evening.”
Is it possible to listen to black metal and completely ignore how it is a response to society?
“Can you listen to Mozart without thinking about society and culture? All music is part of a tradition, and the more you know about it, the more associations you can make and the broader the world view you can create from the music.”
Nina Nielsen started her PhD at the Norwegian Academy of Music in the autumn of 2015. She is planning to defend her thesis on black metal in the spring of 2019. Considering the cross-disciplinary perspective she has chosen, it is easy to envisage her doctorate being done at a university. Why did she choose the academy?
“Black metal is part of Norway’s cultural and musical heritage. That’s why it belongs here. The institution should look after this heritage just as it should look after folk music and folk music traditions. Arts education is becoming more multidisciplinary in the same way as the humanities are. I think we need to take a broader and more critical look at the present day and at our history if we are to perform and understand music better. The Norwegian Academy of Music has an incredibly strong and important tradition of performing arts education, and I feel it’s important that the institution also embraces theory, science and critique. I think that will benefit everyone. It means that the academy is increasingly picking up a tradition it has had little involvement in, because it’s increasingly turning towards science with the new PhD programme.”
“I don’t know whether this project could have happened at the academy only a few years ago. Maybe we’re now ready to look at this part of our history. I’m not the only one doing a doctorate on black metal. There are several of us exploring different aspects of the genre. I’m not as involved in the music and the musical analysis as I am in the cultural analysis.”
When will black metal become an elective module at the academy?
“I don't see that happening, although we may get modules that make room for more diverse styles. In time, the academy may have to embrace greater cultural and musical diversity. As such, black metal could become part of a repertoire that is becoming more tailored to each student according to their background, language and musical styles. This would not only create pluralism but uniqueness, too. I think that would be good for the institution.”
Insight and experience
Nina Nielsen is a singer-songwriter. She has performed with a string of bands and artists including Thomas Dybdahl, Timber Timbre and The Wooden Sky, and she has done toured the US, Canada and Norway. She wants to draw on these experiences during her PhD project.
“I think it’s essential to be a musician and to understand music from a performer’s point of view. You can read deeper into the music you listen to by having that experience.”
In this context, what does it mean to you to have this insight into the black metal scene?
“It’s an advantage. It’s important to have contacts and gain access. I don’t know whether you need to be a metal artist yourself. It’s a constant balancing act for a researcher: how involved should you be, how close should you get? Do you have to be able to play the guitar riffs or tremolo riffs to understand the music, or can you understand them without being that kind of musician yourself? I think you can understand different things by putting yourself in different positions. That way you get different perspectives.”
How easy or difficult is it to get access to the black metal scene?
“I’ve found it easy. There is a lot of warmth, a lot of love and room for being different – perhaps more so than in many other musical environments. Maybe it’s because of the history it has endured. Or maybe because it’s an outsider culture in the first place, a scene that made room for people who didn’t feel at home in mainstream culture.”
A masculine culture
In an article for the Klassekampen newspaper, Nina Nielsen writes about male dominance in black metal, something she will also be addressing in her PhD thesis.
“I think the extremely masculine style is part of the performance. When I’m talking to artists, they might reject that notion and claim there are both feminine and masculine elements. But why are there only men on stage? How did that come about? Some writers have described it as a teenage boy culture, a space in which young men can express their feelings in a society that is not as masculine any more. It’s not my theory, but I’d like to look into it.”
Where is black metal today?
“One thing that’s happened to black metal and given it new status in Norway today is the international attention it has attracted. It has become a cult phenomenon that sells documentaries as well as a vast number of records abroad. When the big publishing houses begin putting out black metal picture books and selling them internationally, then you know that the genre has been accepted by Norway’s cultural elite. It represents something very different to what it once did. Of course, that has to do with the cultural transformation that has taken place both on the scene itself and in Norway in general. Black metal has branched out into different forms. There is a place for it in contemporary music, in the Norwegian countryside and amongst the cultural elite in Oslo.”
What does it mean when people talk about ‘true Norwegian black metal’?
“True Norwegian black metal is seen as the most authentic black metal genre internationally. This authenticity is linked to Norwegianness. This black metal myth is probably stronger abroad.”
What kind of authenticity does it refer to?
“That’s one of the questions I’m asking. What does it mean? Can you hear authenticity in music? Today’s black metal has also adopted a kind of new National Romanticism where they use National Romantic symbols and folk instruments. Ethnicity, religion and cultural history: what impact do they have? What narrative are they trying to tell?”
“Maybe the shock value got in the way. Perhaps people couldn’t listen to the music because of everything that surrounded it.”
Why is entrepreneurship relevant to black metal?
“There is a lot of talk about entrepreneurship these days; that artists have to promote themselves and be businesspeople. Black metal can be used as an interesting example. They were innovative, they made use of the internationalisation of the Norwegian economy and of distribution contacts and networks that they built internationally. And they did all that outside the institutions. They felt their way out of necessity because there was no existing room for them. They didn't knock on the doors of the institutions expecting help, support or education to learn how to do things. I don’t know how many black metal artists have a musical education, but it’s very few. And the style; how did they learn to play like that? They learnt it because they weren’t taught it. It’s the way they were able to play, and so it turned into a musical style. This is an entirely different kind of entrepreneurship to what we are talking about today. We are now talking about how to learn innovation. Isn’t that a paradox? They’re polar opposites.”
But is it art?
Once the shock value has faded, what are we left with?
“Maybe the shock value got in the way. Perhaps people couldn’t listen to the music because of everything that surrounded it. So who knows, maybe the controversy – although it generated a lot of attention and maybe sold some records – left the music in the background and didn’t give it the hearing it demanded or deserved. Maybe there is more to this music than everything that surrounds it?”
Would you apply the word "art" to black metal?
“Yes, I’d say so. It’s an art form like all other art forms. As with all musical performances, there are moments of powerful artistic experiences. I feel that way about all genres and all musical styles. But are black metal performers artists? Yes, they absolutely are. Some of them amazingly able artists.”