Between transgressive gender constructions and hypermasculinity: the recent balancing of gender in Scandinavian Extreme Metal music.

In this post,1 I want to examine recent Scandinavian Extreme Metal music as a discourse, where gender balancing acts became a crucial field of negotiating the sub-genres’ structures. On the one hand, there is a growing number of female artists who perform harsh, “guttural” style vocals, which was  a strictly male-connoted style of singing until about a decade ago.

This means there are transgressive gender constructions, which allow women aggressive, powerful and empowering enculturations of their gender identities. However, on the other hand, still hypermasculinity is prevailing in the field, being a major part of the genres’ codes of stylistic definition since the 1980s. I want to examine how this immensely conflictual contemporary history is kept in balance by artists, mediators, and their audience.

I start by giving a sketchy introduction to the field of Metal Studies and how contemporary history has an important position within its debates. I proceed by giving two examples of artists in the field: one of a female artist who represents the transgressive pole of the spectrum; and a second example of male gender constructions standing for the persisting and defining hypermasculine keycode. Third and finally, I will give a cultural-historical reading of this history, explaining how both can historically “work” and occur synchronically and meaningfully in a single regional discourse – with European and global implications.

Metal Music Studies and contemporary history

“Metal Music Studies” is a label for a global network of scholars who work on Heavy Metal music and culture, their interconnections, publications, conferences, and workshops. Roughly, research on Metal can be divided into three phases.2 A first phase between the early to mid-1990s saw pioneering monographic books by sociologists, anthropologists and musicologists. This was followed by a second phase of more intensified research and publications after 2000, but there was no such thing as Metal Studies yet.

This has changed since 2008. This year saw a conference called “Heavy Fundametalisms” in Salzburg, Austria. It catalysed the official launch of a learned society called the “International Society for Metal Music Studies” in 2013.3 Since 2015, there also is an own peer-reviewed journal entitled “Metal Music Studies”.4 In 2016, British sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris gave a description of the emergent field of Metal Studies:

 

What is the aim of metal studies? (…) At the one level the answer to this question is obvious. The aim of metal studies is to engage with metal in a scholarly fashion. This project needs no justification. (…) Yet there can also be a greater purpose for metal studies than simply the worthy creation of scholarship. The position of metal studies in relation to metal itself offers the opportunity for engaged scholarship. Most metal studies scholars are also engaged with metal as fans and metal scene members – but critically so.5

 

This is a thoughtful commentary on the current state of Metal scholarship. It is a discourse on the brink of – probably – becoming an own specialized discipline or, at least, a highly specialized subfield. According to Kahn-Harris,6 Metal Music Studies should promote reflexivity by (1) nurturing resilience, (2) nurturing memory, (3) nurturing critique and (4) looking to the future.  

All four of those goals can take several different forms. However, the second one, nurturing memory, is deeply connected to the engagement of historians. There exist many historical reflections on Metal and Metal Studies yet these histories have been written by sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, musicologists or other disciplinary scholars. As in any other specialized discipline, historians ask their own questions, different from the ones in those disciplines. Thus, the nurturing of memory in the field needs reliable scientific narratives of Metal history by historians, too.

This is the background of my own research, which tries to help introducing the “historian’s gaze” to the field.7 In our context, we can suppose a fundamental importance of two key research questions to be formulated by historians: (1) What have been the major historical developments of gender constructions in Heavy Metal music in recent years? (2) How has this particular history interfered, contrasted, or come together with a broader view on global and European gender history?

Two examples of Scandinavian Extreme Metal

In this respect, I choose Scandinavian Extreme Metal as an empirical example because it is a sub-discourse, where gender balancing happens in a dense, crystallized and symptomatic manner. This has at least three major reasons: (1) a first one being that specifically genres such as Thrash, Death Metal or Black Metal feature a pronounced gesture of hypermasculinity as one of their genre codes since the 1980s; (2) a second, regional reason being that several of the most influential forms of both Black and Death Metal music emerged in Scandinavia in the 1990s.

Finally, (3) a third can be found in the fact that, despite its hypermasculinity, Extreme Metal codified permanent transgression of the status quo, also concerning gender roles, as one of its other keycodes. Hence, in Scandinavia, the origin myths of Extreme Metal, its defining code of hypermasculinity as well as its permanent striving for transgression of boundaries form three highly conflictual strands interacting in a single regional discourse.

I want to give two examples of artists who represent both poles – one of empowering and transgressive female gender representation and one of persisting fundamentalist hypermasculinity; the latter should rather be called a “toxic” form of masculinity.8

Myrkur

The first example, Myrkur, is a Black Metal project from Denmark, led by songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Amalie Bruun. In 2014, Myrkur released an eponymous EP, followed by the debut album “M” in 2015, and a live EP, “Mausoleum”, in 2016. All of Myrkur’s records and live acitivities gathered rather wide attention, were partially well received by critics. However, moreover they were partially criticized as being “superficial”, “not real Black Metal” or a “sell-out”.9

All the way through those debates, the fact that Myrkur is led and controlled by a woman build one of the most intensely discussed issues. Bruun even received death threats on her Facebook page.10 Following this discourse, Bruun as Myrkur released her second full-length, “Mareridt”, in 2017. This is the videoclip to the track “Ulvinde”, which accompanied the album’s release:

Representing Myrkur‘s identity after receiving death threats, the clip features differentiated strategies of female gender performance. At a first level, Bruun is shown as the conservative stereotype of a “soft woman” in a bright dress; on another, there also are sequences of female aggression, where blood is dripping from the artist’s mouth and she is screaming furiously. Both modes of female gender construction are shown alternating throughout the clip.

Here, the usual stereotype of male, Northern gutturally screaming Black Metal artists is transgressed, played with; in some ways, it even is dealt with and discussed in a parodistic and ironic manner. Myrkur can be both: “tender” woman and aggressive Black Metal frontwoman. The death threats sent to the artist give this cultural history of gender a very bitter taste; they show that this trend of transgressive and empowering female gender performance was partially perceived of as a “threat” to Extreme Metal’s definitional code of hypermasculinity.

Amon Amarth

Now, I go to my second example, representing the traditional gender codes of Extreme Metal, especially of the subgenres of Melodic Death Metal and Viking Metal. In these subgenres, Swedish band Amon Amarth is one of the most successful ones. Being founded in 1992, the group, so far, released ten albums. Their music fantastically constructs a vision of a pre-Christian, Viking Northern world.

Amon Amarth tell a history of the Vikings, in which brave and “real” men, weak women, violence, wars, and authenticity appear as the defining ingredients. In 2016, as a forerunner to their album “Jomsviking”, the band released a videoclip to the track “First Kill”:

The clip tells a very simple plot: a Viking man commits his first act of killing another man when this other man attempted to “steal his woman”. This form of hypermasculinity implies a representation of gender roles, in which women are men’s property; they can be “stolen” and a “real man” is forced to prevent other men from “stealing his women”. “he story gets even more extreme. After telling their audience of this “first kill”, the group continues the song with these lines:

 

(…) The first blood I spilled was the blood of a bard

I had to wipe the smile away

I was not yet a man, nor was I a boy

But still, I made that bastard pay (…)11

 

In this quote, the “first kill” is told as a story of male initiation. A man’s first act of killing another man is narrated as a prerequisite of becoming a man. And the cause of committing this murder is that another man acted as a “threat” to his maleness.

Of course, Amon Amarth produce music as entertainment and fiction. However, in a frighteningly coherent way, this representation of toxic hypermasculinity, where a threat to one man’s maleness is perceived of as a matter of life and death, even of killing the supposed rival, also is a symptom of the logics of the death threats towards Myrkur. In her case, the artist was threatened to be killed because she invaded “male territory”.

In “First Kill”, the fictional story goes that one man must kill another man to defend or even in the first place achieve his full masculinity. Both cases follow the same logics of discourse: a threat to hypermasculinity requires such drastic reaction – but, shamefully and dangerously, the death threats towards Myrkur happened in the real world and today.

“Enter history”: making sense of the paradoxes

At this point, we know that the recent history of performances of gender in Scandinavian Extreme Metal music is one of the co-existence of seemingly binarily opposed poles: there is the transgressive pole represented by female artists like Myrkur; moreover, the toxic hypermasculinity which re-surfaces in “First Kill”. How can we make sense of this? How are those sharply divisive and contra-dictional gender performances balanced in a single discourse? My thesis is that we need deconstructive European cultural and gender history to start answering such questions.

In 2016, German historian Wolfgang Schmale published a thought-provoking book called “Gender and Eurocentrism: A Conceptual Approach to European History”.12 He put forward the hypothesis that, since Ancient times, a deep structural connection was established between performative discourses and gender discourses of masculinity. His theory of “collective performative speech acts” states that, since Antiquity, performative discourses were constructed to intrinsically, almost “logically” need such gender images to work at all.

This seems to be true for the Ancient performative speech act, which Schmale coins “homocentrism”, implying a dominance of the male. Most of all, this holds true for European cultural history since the 18th century and Enlightenment: since then, until very recently, history knows a collective performative speech act to be called “Eurocentrism”: performative discourses have needed visions of white, European and male hegemony to work at all.

This is a provocative claim because it states a deep and strong, almost “logical” discursive connection between male gender and performance at large. But this is not Schmale’s final conclusion. He comes to the argumentation that, today, history moves towards a new discursive structure of “post-performativity”, in which the almost “logical” connection between male gender and performance gets, step by step, discourse by discourse, deconstruction by deconstruction loosened – because of the disappearance of working speech collectives.

This thought-provoking result needs further research. However, this mode of explanation proves to be illuminating for our case study: it states that, since over 250 years, performative discourses were strategically constructed to need logics of white, male and European hegemony to be able to balance their sense-making.  This is no legitimization of any form of violence or discrimination arising from this; on the contrary, it emphasizes the constructivity of any gender constructions.

This can be applied straight-forwardly to our case: since its inception in the 1980s, Scandinavian Extreme Metal has continued the performative logics of hypermasculinity s to be able of performing performative speech acts at all. Nevertheless, today, we witness an emerging history of “post-performativity”, in which the strict coherence in sense-making between male gender and performance becomes loosened.

Exactly this is the way how artists like Myrkur and Amon Amarth can perform meaningfully in a single discourse. This, the slow trajectory towards a loosening between gender and performance is the way how the paradoxes are balanced. To conclude, this leads me to two main points as my result, perhaps furthermore significant for other discourses:

First, to balance gender and music in Scandinavian Extreme Metal, we need to establish a discourse in which the long-standing connection between hypermasculinity and performance since the 18th century can be discussed critically and historically. So to speak, Scandinavian Extreme Metal is a discourse in which, still today in 2018, the 18th century and the 21st century happen in the same place at the same time – however puzzling that is.

Second, even more puzzling, we need to examine exactly which inventory of strategies makes possible successful transgressions, which could even more loosen the shameful and dangerous connection between Eurocentrism and gender. In Myrkur’s case, it seems to be the trope of courageous irony, strategically juxtaposing hypermasculinity and female aggression.


  1. It is based on my conference talk at the conference “‘Music and Gender in Balance 2018”, Arctic University of Tromsö, Tromsö, Norway, 6 April 2018. 

  2. Important works in the field are: D. Gaines, Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1990; D. Weinstein, Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, New York, NY: Lexington Books, 1991; R. Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1993: K. Kahn-Harris, Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge, New York, NY: Berg, 2007; H.M. Berger, Metal, Rock, and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press 1999. 

  3. www.metalstudies.org, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  4. https://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Journal,id=236/, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  5. K. Kahn-Harris, ‘Introduction: The Next Steps in the Evolution of Metal Studies’, in B. Gardenour Walter e.a. (eds), Heavy Metal Studies and Popular Culture, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 1-2; for introductory texts to the field see besides this anthology also A. R. Brown e.a. (eds), Global Metal Music and Culture: Current Directions in Metal Studies, Milton Park: Routledge, 2016; F. Heesch and A.K. Höpflinger (eds), Methoden der Heavy Metal-Forschung: Interdisziplinäre Zugänge, Münster and New York: Waxmann 2014; and the special issue of the Journal for Cultural Research 15, 3 (2011), devoted to ‘Metal Studies? Cultural Research in the Heavy Metal Scene’. 

  6. Kahn-Harris, Introduction, pp. 3-7. 

  7. http://www.peter-pichler-stahl.at/artikel/homo-ludens-metallicus-on-huizinga-cultural-history-and-sonic-knowledge-in-metal-music-studies/, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  8. A. Anderlin-Mahr, Vielfalt und Diversität anstatt toxischer Männlichkeit, in Blog W. Schmale, Mein Europa, https://wolfgangschmale.eu/andreas-enderlin-mahr_ueber_vielfalt-und-diversitaet-anstatt-toxischer-maennlichkeit/, accessed 02/04/2018. 

  9. https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/6vgqe8/myrkur-facebook-threats, accessed 31/03/2018; http://www.metalinjection.net/hateorade/one-woman-black-metal-band-myrkur-is-tired-of-getting-death-threats-from-men, accessed 31/03/2018; http://www.toiletovhell.com/stangry-manchildren-send-myrkur-death-threats/, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  10. https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/6vgqe8/myrkur-facebook-threats, accessed 31/03/2018; http://www.metalinjection.net/hateorade/one-woman-black-metal-band-myrkur-is-tired-of-getting-death-threats-from-men, accessed 31/03/2018; http://www.toiletovhell.com/stangry-manchildren-send-myrkur-death-threats/, accessed 31/03/2018. 

  11. Lyrics to Amon Amarth, “First Kill”, released on the album “Jomsviking”. Metal Blade Records, 2016. 

  12. W. Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism: A Conceptual Approach to European History, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner 2016. 

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