Black metal – rebellion, panic and acceptance
Nina Nielsen’s thesis topic for her PhD at the Norwegian Academy of Music is black metal music. Her background includes being a musician and singer/songwriter, she is an academic with a master’s degree in media studies, and studies in TV production, composition, philosophy, the history of ideas and teaching. She carries her knowledge of black metal music with her from her childhood. Her brother was part of the black metal community where they grew up – in a small village in Western Norway.
"In a place like that we were well aware of the stigma associated with that sort of music. I have been interested ever since in how music can play such an important part in a small local community, and also on a national level, even internationally."
Moral panic in the media
Nielsen’s thesis deals with the ideology that underlies black metal’s musical expression, and media coverage of the genre.
"It is not the case that black metal music is a simple musical expression which the media later responded to. Rather, the media and the expression produced each other."
When the media gained an interest in the black metal community in the 90s, attention came in the shape of a news coverage that is unusual for other musical genres, says Nielsen.
"Most people know black metal from the early days of church fires and Varg Vikernes’s trial. Homicide, criminality and suicide were associated with this community. This led to what one in academic terms labels moral panic. The events also gained a lot of attention internationally."
How do these events relate directly to the music?
"People who were involved in black metal music were also involved in arson. So the moral panic spawned the question of whether or not this music could cause violent behaviour. And that is a good question. It was largely about performativity. They created a pattern of behaviour where they challenged each other: How extreme could they become? How far could they go in making the performances they gave on stage real? When can you take that performance and make it into reality?"
Black metal music creates fear and is regarded as brutal and extreme in its musical expression. Nielsen will discuss this in her thesis with use of different approaches, among others the theory that aggressive musical expression is a way humans can deal with and feel rage or frustration.
"I think it is interesting, though also problematic, this view of music as catharsis, a purification. I think we should be careful in assuming that music is always good, that music always should have a positive function", she says.
Is it possible to listen to black metal and entirely disregard the societal response that lies in the music?
"Can one listen to Mozart without thinking about society and culture? All music exists within tradition and culture, and the more knowledge you have of this culture, the more associations it creates, and a larger world-view will present itself in the music."
Nina Nielsen started her PhD studies at the Academy fall 2015. If all goes well she will complete her thesis in the spring of 2018.
"I don’t know if this project could have taken place only a few years ago. Maybe we haven’t been ready for this part of history yet. I am not the only one researching black metal, there are several other PhD students interested in the same topic. We are researching different aspects of it. I’m not as involved in the music and musical analysis as I am in cultural analysis."
When the shock value wears off, which values remain?
"Maybe the shock value was in the way. Maybe one couldn’t hear the music over all the other factors. Who knows, maybe the controversy – even though it generated a lot of attention and sold a lot of records – put the music in the background and deprived it of a listening effort it demanded and deserved? Maybe there is more to this music than all the commotion it brought about?"