Thirsty Thursday: The Sociology of Black Metal

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Hey thotlings! What it do? It feels really weird to type right now because I was applying some new Kiss press on nails because I try to stay balling on a budget, but I got half the glue stuck to my hands and now I have these hard pads on my fingers like a fucking cat. I’m also attempting to go vegan for like the millionth try except for real this time (I’ve been vegetarian for seven years but I’ve never been able to commit to the full non-dairy thing b/c froyo), so I’m really hangry and grumpy, so bear with me. You know something? Trying is overrated. I’m three veggie straws away from moving to a cottage with the company of no one but a few capybaras and a lifetime supply of Totino’s pizzas.

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So I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on my life lately as my quest to getting a grown people job has proved to be enduring. Where did I go right? Where did I fuck up? It’s probably pretty futile, but also somewhat inevitable. One conclusion I always manage to come to is that some of my proudest achievements thus far have been my undergraduate research. One of my least proudest accomplishments was that my friend and I tried to step out downtown and be bourgie the other day but we ended up at Hooters instead and had to stop the Uber on the way home so she could piss on the side of the highway. So, in an effort to redeem my bourgieness, I will be discussing the former today.

 

Some of the work that I had some of the most fun doing and I think deserves to see the light of day is my research on black metal for my sociology of masculinities class, and I decided to take the optimistic chance that you guys might find it interesting as well. I was actually a sociology major because it’s super rad in that you can basically apply sociological concepts to whatever it is you’re interested in. Although my initial research got about zero reaction from class, my black metal work was much better received. We actually chose to make masculinities in music the theme to our class-wide project, where I was assigned to the punk group. Never before had I gotten a chance to say “and here’s a nun looking like she’s getting it in the ear” in a class presentation before. It was invigorating. Anyways, what got me thinking about black metal in relation to the performance of gender was just some casual research I did for a content analysis for one of my research classes. Basically, what I did was examine YouTube comments on different music videos belonging to bands from a wide array of metal sub-genres. The science wasn’t full proof, but my methods produced some interesting results that I felt were worthy of further review:

 

  • The comment sections for the bands that asserted hegemonically masculine traits (think Pantera) displayed the most amount of homophobic, sexist, or racial slurs, largely directed to those who dissented from their positive opinion of the band or express favoritism towards other kinds of music.
  • The comment sections for bands that challenged hegemonically masculine traits by engaging in activities like wearing makeup (think Cradle of Filth) also had a fair amount of homophobic slurs, but they were directed more towards the band, and also challenged by fans, who called into question stringent notions of gender/sexuality.
  • The comment sections for bands that did not clearly assert or challenge hegemonically masculine traits (think that band I mentioned in my last article, Karnivool) were largely devoid of homophobic speech.

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I mean comment sections are always a kind of a cesspool, right? But I guess not. I hadn’t really gone into this research expecting to find any kind of pattern or even trying to find anything in particular. I think if anything I would have predicted that the assholery would have been extended to any and all videos. More than anything, I think I was perplexed about how so many assertions of masculinity could be floating around under the roof of one genre. Around this same time I was watching a lot of those rando black metal docs on the YouTubez, so I especially got to thinking about how the seemingly contradictory masculinities found within black metal could be reconciled. That is essentially what I embarked on figuring out in my masculinities class.

Before I take you through that research, though, I figured it would help if I provided a little bit of background. If you already have familiarity with the field of sociology, feel free to read on. I don’t mean to insult anyone’s intelligence. But I know I’ve encountered a lot of genuine questions over the year as to what it is, and I want to answer them to the best of my ability and more accessibly than, say, Wiki would be able to. So, sociology, in a nutshell, is the study of society and its institutions. It is a social science. It differs from psychology in that it focuses largely on the external, and if the internal is considered, it is only really looked at in terms of its relationship with the external. It differs from political science in that its reach extends way beyond just government and policy, and if these things are considered, they are done so in relation to the effects they produce on the structure of society. It differs from anthropology in that it usually, but not always, favors the macro level over the micro, and is focused more on socioeconomic factors rather than understanding facets of specific cultures. Out of the three, though, soc is most similar to anthro.

Most sociological research is conducted either through tedious number crunching or through the analysis of social artifacts that cannot easily be broken down into numerical terms. My research, in this case, represents the latter. Like all scientists, sociologists do not technically “prove” anything, but rather may suggestions and develop theories based on the results of their research. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the notion of universal truths, and disagree with the assertion that any research can be met with complete objectivity.

Gender studies is one subsect of soc, and while Tumblr has kind of made a mockery of it, I swear to you, it is an academically viable field. Sociology tends to define “sex” in terms of biological anatomy (male/female), and “gender” as the norms and expectations associated with each gender (masculinity and femininity). For the most part, sociologists contend that sex is assigned in nature (the heart of the concept of essentialism) and that we learn how to perform gender through socialization. Adhering to the norms prescribed to our particular sex is thought to be one of the most stringent standards to which we are held, which is basically why transgendered people catch so much shit. There is thought to be more than one kind of performance of masculinity, which is why I refer to “masculinites,” plural, even though Word keeps telling me it’s spelled wrong.

So, I hope that clears some things up. Finally, just a note I field obligated to make: I’m not a true kvlt sociologist with a PhD. My methodologies are probably not perfect, but I don’t think they’re so shoddy that it is irresponsible to disseminate my results. Also, no social justice warrior-ing intended at any time. Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer. Blah, blah, blah. Let’s get started!

Intro:

I’m going to assume that whoever is reading this already knows the general history of black metal, so I won’t bore you with that. I think the point to keep in mind that I want to highlight is that black metal was formed as a backlash against something – the commercialization of “regular” metal, for lack of a better word. When one looks at black metal musicians themselves more closely, the androgyny of long hair, make up, and a gender-neutral color like black persists among more hegemonically masculine assertions of toughness and dominance, achieved through spikes, stoicism, and violent rhetoric or actions. When the ideologies behind black metal are examined, you can also find both opportunities for viewing gender as a construction of the demonized Christian mainstream that should be rejected alongside a bleak individualist essentialism. It is this contradiction I sought out to make sense of.

Thesis:

“After conducting a content analysis of five black metal documentaries that present the histories of influential bands and pick the brains of their members, I uncovered that black metal’s rooting in myth, and the extent to which it takes on a myth of its own, lends itself to different interpretations of and motivations behind the masculinity that is being asserted. Despite these differences in interpretation, a common thread of privilege in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic status, and national origin runs throughout black metal, and is what has essentially held the controversial sub-genre together over the past three-and-a-half decades.”

Relation to Previous Research:

As mentioned, there’s inherent deviance in black metal in that it formed as a reaction against something. For a founding band like Venom, the message of dissent was achieved via the use of “heavily distorted electric guitars, fast aggressive drums, and growled or screamed vocals,” as well as an appeal to Satanic and Neopagan discourse and imagery (Moynihan and Soderlind 2013:515). In its second Scandinavian wave especially, a combination of these ideologies, along with the work of Aleister Crowley and general appeals to nature, was blended together to form a distinct black ideology. Neopaganism is conducive for black metal’s individualistic rhetoric and often function as an alternative to the major world religions in modern times, and Satanism was also a logical basing for black metal in that it mirrors the rebellion in which it was founded.

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Neopaganism and Satanism (I apologize for having to link these two together so much) work as opportunities to defy modern religious conventions, presumably in favor of a process of self-actualization that is facilitated through a connection with nature and its subsequent laws, rather than the laws that have emerged from the work of humankind. This influence of the natural environment on black metal is paramount in the same fashion that industrial England played a crucial role in the development of early heavy metal (Harrison 2010). Particularly in the Norwegian wave, themes of winter and wilderness reflect the Scandinavian environment from which it manifested, which only heightens the subgenre’s emphasis on individualism and isolation. This emphasis is general enough that it can be argued in favor of gender being a fragile social construction as well as essentialist inevitability.

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Metal is obviously a pretty male-dominated entity. It is also an outlet for expressing feelings of “the socially isolated role of the angry, enraged dominator and the withdrawn, depressed dominated,” as well as other emotions that may not be socially accepted, while still asserting an element of toughness (Rafalovich 2006:19). This provides a clue as to why metal seems to overwhelmingly resonate with predominately male audiences, but as I later found, black metal is as much indebted to male power as it is emotional oppression (don’t yell at me, I swear I don’t have the “I’m offended by everything” bangs).

 

Spracklen (2010) analyzes the extent to which black metal has served as a form of liberation from hegemony and heteronormativity (the idea that heterosexuality is natural and normative) for the influential vocalist Gaahl of Gorgoroth, who came out as being gay in 2008. Spracklen (2010) asserts that “homosexuality was just another way of expressing the libertarian, individualist ideology of the Norwegian black metal scene, a reaction against the orthodoxy of Christian morality,” citing an interview in which Gaahl explains how “‘[attitudes like homophobia] are exactly what we fight against’” (p. 92). Yet, Gaahl has done his fair share of engaging in physical violence, like having been convicted and jailed for torture – an assertion of dominance that seems to reflect hegemonically masculine value.

 

Spracklen (2010)’s findings are fairly consistent to those of my introductory research; comments both supportive and mocking could be found in response to Gaahl’s coming out, and mocking comments were generally challenged. But whyyyyy? A similar hole can be found in the research of Sarelin (2010), in which an analysis of Finnish black metal concerts detects the presence of heteronormative, protest, and queer masculinities, with queer in this context denoting “the twisted, the different and the Other (p. 67).” While this finding serves as further evidence that there appears to be different kinds of masculinities being performed within black metal, it is unclear as to how or why. So yeah, that’s what previous literature said…if anyone is dying for my complete source list hit me up and I can send it to you. There was actually a lot more out there than I anticipated.

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Methods:

I did a content analysis of the following films, and yes, it took forever:

  • Once Upon a Time in Norway (Aasdal and Ledang 2007)
  • Nocturno Culto’s the Misanthrope: The Existence of Solitude and Chaos (Skjellum 2007)
  • Pure Fucking Mayhem (Rydehed 2008)
  • True Norwegian Black Metal (Vice 2011)
  • One Man Metal (Vice/Noisey 2012)

I realize that not all of these works are journalistic masterpieces, but since I didn’t really have time to go out and conduct my own interviews, I had to work with what I had. Again, if you have any further inquiries into my methods, hit me up and let’s talk, but I won’t bore you with them here (although I would guess you’re probably already pretty bored).

Findings:

Black metal is, indeed, rooted in existing myth, but the men of black metal also become legend in their own right. In True Norwegian Black Metal (2011), for example, there’s all this build up of people giving their accounts of Gaahl and Gorgoroth before he is actually shown. Nearly all of the films made some reference to the tabloid stories of church burnings and such as well. The reality that many of these men isolate themselves in one form or another heightens this sense of mysticism.

Black metal’s tendency to transcend into its own myth is precisely why it lends itself to housing multiple assertions of masculinity and definitions of individualism, because like all myth, it is open to interpretation. Gaahl seems to use BM individualism as a defense mechanism in order to cope with not being valued by the Christian world because of his sexual orientation, and while he stresses the importance of nature, he doesn’t seem to view gender in essentialist terms. Dead used it to cope with his near-death experience as a child. I feel weird speculating about Varg since he writes for this website, but he seems to use it to embody the natural realm that reinforces essentialist views of gender. Darkthrone’s individualism also seems to be guided by nature, but in a much less Darwinian way.

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Black metal, unlike other genres that include themes of violence, is largely devoid of the objectification of women. The men of black metal can have their hyper-masculinity fall short without dire consequences, as they do not live in societies where asserting only hegemonic masculinity is the only chance at meaning making, and ultimately, survival (in my paper I contrasted BM against Jamaican Dancehall music to illustrate this point). Also, like, what if the dudes conspiring to burn churches were African American or Muslim or something – would it be a source of tabloid-level fear shrouded in mystery, or would it spur a wave of white supremacy? Because black metal men are largely not members of other marginalized groups (with an exception of Gaahl) and tend to stem from some of the most stable regions of the world (like fucking rural Scandinavia), they can afford to behave defiantly without serious backlash, unlike racial and ethnic minorities that often must overcompensate in their conforming to societal norms in order to be accepted.

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Also, I couldn’t help but wonder if figures like Sin Nanna would be able to as balance the role of father, husband, and one man metal musician without the help of traditional gender roles. It was sort of implied that it was his wife who took over the childcare role when he went to go commune with Tasmania. It’s, of course, not to say that parents shouldn’t have their own passions and pursuits, and maybe he’s totally cool about being Mr. Dad so his wife can go out and get some press on nails, but it’s something to consider. Leviathan does make fatherhood look pretty badass, though. Finally, I feel like I have to acknowledge NSBM and white supremacy and junk. One of the downsides of black metal myth lending itself to open interpretation is that it can be used to serve any interest, even shitty ones.

Conclusion:

Basically never underestimate people’s ability to adapt art and ideology to their own specific contexts and interests, particularly when it comes to customizing performances of gender, which they then use to shape the world around them. In other words, there seems to be reciprocal relationship with social context and autonomy. Well, for some people more than others. If anyone has any idea of how to expand autonomy to marginalized groups that would allow them to shake up traditional confines of gender throw them at me because I’m shit out of ideas. I also conclude that Varg may not be too hot on this article. I am sorry. I was at least listening to Burzum while I was writing it. On a happier note, I’ve been able to get some of this glue off.

Finally, if anyone has any future topics under the “sociology of metal” umbrella, let me know. My social media presence is wavering these days, so I made an email where you can share things with me.

2 responses to “Thirsty Thursday: The Sociology of Black Metal

  1. This is a very interesting piece. What do you make of Suicidal Black Metal or the Anti-cosmic Satanism trend in bands like Shining, Watain and Behexen? In a way, such bands fight against humanity itself, including their own humanity. This is a bit in tension with the self-professed individualism of some members of the scene, and it tends more toward nihilism or the worshiping of pure Chaos. And Chaos takes also many female forms like Tiamat, Lilith etc. which makes the initiate transcend the boundaries of sex. Anyhow, I took a stab at offering a more philosophical perspective on BM you might find interesting: http://axlbarnes.blogspot.ca/2015/02/black-metal-and-lucian-blaga-pregnant.html

    • Hey there! I’m digging your stuff as well! I suppose the post-humanity trend could be seen as the next stage in the evolution. First it was preexisting ideology in its purest form, then it all got blended together to form black metal ideology, musicians began to shape what this means in their own image, and now seem to be rejecting subscribing to structured concepts in their entirety. Like we’ve hit “post-modern” black metal. I am interested to see what this mean in terms of performance of gender as well. Perhaps I should do a follow-up to my research with some of the current bands you mentioned. Thanks for reading! — Jenna

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