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 behindblack 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 beinga 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.”