Next week will see the 2019 edition of the black metal theory symposium in Ljubljana on 18 and 19 April. As I will not be able to make it there (but you should go there! 😉 ), though I want to take the event as my occasion for a short blog post on interidsciplinarity and metal culture.
Cultural-historically, black metal theory, both its journal and its symposia, is an immensely exciting phenomenon. The discourse attempts to bring together the robust spirit of black metal and metal studies. Hence, if taking its own credo seriously, it has to stay permanently pulsating, oscillating and on the move. In this way, it is hybrid. Historically, this discourse can be interpreted as a process of knowledge production, an attempt at creating knowledge practices in such a hybrid way.
Metal studies’ own credo stresses interdisciplinarity. It does not want to be an independent discipline, despite the fact that many of its current academic procedures, processes and gate-keeping rules tend to aim at a direction of canonization and discipline-building. As well, this is a process of knowledge history that influences significantly how metal will be researched in the next few years.
The fascinating historical fact is that we can bind back those processes of researching metal to metal history itself. ‘Invented’ and established above all in the UK in the 1970, then being diversified into mushrooming sub-genres and globalized in the 1980s, currently metal culture adapts itself to a new era of digitalization – with all its advantages and flaws of digital connectedness. Historian Wolfgang Schmale’s theory of a cultural ‘hypertext’ of history seems to be illumating when researching this history in a view of long durée.1
Fascinatingly, all those 50 years of metal history permanently have consisted of processes, in that the knowledge forms and practices of metal culture relied on hybridity processes. Black Sabbath used established patterns, thrash and speed metal cultures combined eclectic elements into a new genre, so did death and black metal – always, newness started from established concepts and genres of doing and knowing rock culture. Genres are results of hybridization processes, so is metal itself.
The essential consequence, which arises from this, is quite a simple thought. Black metal theory tries to know metal culture using a hybrid paradigm. Metal heads and metal musicians know their music and culture in eclectically hybrid ways (despite all claims of ‘authenticity’ and ‘trueness’). This situation given, canonization, disciplinary narrowness and gate-keeping structues are metal music studies’ worst enemies. The academic field itself reflects the hybridity of the culture studied and will only work fruitfully if it will be capable of keeping its positive coherence of heterogenous approaches.
W. Schmale, Gender and Eurocentrism: A Conceptual Approach to European History, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016. ↩
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
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.
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
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 haveneeded 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 toneed 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.
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. ↩
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. ↩
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’. ↩
Usually, Metal is referred to as a discourse of popular culture for and/or of young people, called a ‘youth culture’ and/or ‘subculture’.1 Historically, looking at the origins of Metal in the late 1960s and 1970s, then its spread and diversification in the 1980s, this seemed to be the case. Heavy Metal was established, following the discourse of ‘1968’, as a counter-culture.
Metal is supposed to have been ‘invented’, performed and mediated by young, angry and critical people. Most of all, white, young and maleartists were seen as the stereotypical carriers of its aesthetics, imaginaries and narratives. However, even in these early days, starting with the global success of artists like Black Sabbath, economic success would not have been possible if it had not been backed by organizational structures of the music industry, leisure industry and media – and these institutions of (Western) societies were governed by experienced, often older stakeholders.2
Thus, coining Metal a youth culture or subculture, even in its early cultural history, is an abridging hypothesis. Rather, this narrative of youthfulness and a critique of society should be seen as a construction of discourse – constructed by artists, fans, industry stakeholders, media and other instances. However, until around 2000, this narrative seemed to prevail. Grunge and Alternative Rock as new forms contested Heavy Metal discourse but still it was seen as a realm of young fans and artists.3
Let us take a look at the state of this (self-)narrative in 2017. First of all, the artists who ‘invented’ and popularized Metal in the 1970s and 1980s cannot seriously be called young anymore: the members of Black Sabbath are approaching the eighth decade of their lives; the musicians in Iron Maiden are in their fifties or sixties; so are the members of Judas Priest (with the exception of guitarist Richie Faulker who is not a founding member); also Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield, the creative duo of Metallica, left behind their fiftieth birthdays. We can expect their fans, at least a part of them, to be of a similar age.
The other aspect – interpreting Metal as a critique of society in the shape of a musical subculture – is even more important. In several of my earlier postings, one of my main findings was that since about 2014 Heavy Metal is increasingly accepted as a ‘serious’ form of art. It is seen ‘worth’ being a subject of academic research. Among other processes, this is the context of the emergence of Metal Music Studies as an own discourse in academia. Also, today Metal is seen as integrally linked to a very fragmented and diverse mainstream.
From the point of view of cultural history, these three cultural processes – (1) the (self-)narration of Metal as a ‘youthful’ and ‘critical’ culture, (2) the acceptance of Metal in science and the emergence of Metal Music Studies, and (3) the spread of Heavy Metal music’s imaginary and aesthetics into mainstream – form an interdependent network: the narrative needs acceptance as a ‘serious’ subject of research; research needs the spread into mainstream to ‘prove’ Metal’s global relevance as a subject of scientific inquiry.
From my point of view, this threefold network results in one major cultural-historical consequence: the discourse in its entirety of narrations, imaginaries, aesthetics and sounds, is at a crossroads, where its initial cultural textures – the image of ‘a youth culture’ and ‘subculture’ – is being recoded in this parellelogram of cultural forces.
Cf. Deena Weinstein, Heavy Metal. The Music and its Culture. Boulder, Colorado, 2000; Rolf F. Nohr, Rolf/Herbert Schwaab, Herbert (eds.), Metal Matters. Heavy Metal als Kultur und Welt. Berlin e.a. 2011; Jeremy Wallach e.a (eds.), Metal Rules the Globe. Heavy Metal Music Around the World. Durham 2011. ↩
For an integral approach, cf. Deena Weinstein, Rock’n America. A Social and Cultura History. Toronto 2015. ↩
Myrkur is a one-woman Black Metal project from Denmark. It is the brainchild of songwriter/pianist/guitarist/singer Amalie Bruun. Bruun started out performing with her father and the band Ex Cops as a Rock, Pop and Alternative artist. In 2014, she published, now as Myrkur, an eponymous EP, followed by the debut album ‘M’ in 2015, and a live EP, ‘Mausoleum’, in 2016.1 All of these records gathered rather wide attention, were partially well acclaimed by critics. But also they were partially criticized as being ‘superficial’, ‘not real Black Metal’ or a ‘sell-out’.
All the way through these debates – as a cultural discourse of most recent history of European and global Extreme Metal – the fact that Myrkur is led and controlled by a woman was one of the most intensely discussed issues. Bruun even received death threats on her Facebook page. So, this discourse on Myrkur and her art, first and foremost, is a history of gender in Extreme Metal.
On 15th September 2017, Bruun as Myrkur released her second full-lenght record, ‘Mareridt’.2 From a musical point of view, this album is a progression of her work on the mentioned earlier records. However, aggressive parts of Extreme and Black Metal riffing, blastbeasts and guttural screaming (by Bruun) got fewer; and on two tracks (‘Funeral’, ‘Kvindelil’) the artist cooperates with singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. This new record, at least at its point of release, was well received.3 This is the videoclip to the track ‘Ulvinde’ which accompanied Mareridt’s release:
This videoclip, representing Myrkur’s current identity as an artist, features a combination of hybrid emotional aspects and strategies of narration which are rather unusual in Black Metal: Bruun is shown, on the one hand, as the classic female gender stereotype of a ‘soft woman’ in a bright dress; but then there also are sequences of female aggression where blood is dripping from the artist’s mouth and she is screaming furiously. Both styles and modes of female gender construction are shown alternating throughout the clip. Thus, Amalie Bruun as Myrkur is both: a ‘soft woman’ and a harshly screaming, seemingly suffering female.
From a cultural-historical point of view, especially this videoclip but also the mentioned records and the artist’s live shows are a remarkable strand of discourse. Here, the usual stereotype of male, Northern gutturally screaming Black Metal artists is trangressed, played with; in some ways (ie. the alternating strategies of softness and fury in the ‘Ulvinde’ clip), it even is dealt with and discussed, at least shown visually in a parodistic and ironic manner. The irony is – and remains – that Myrkur can be both: ‘tender’ woman and aggressive Black Metal frontwoman. The death threats sent to the artist by male fans give this cultural history of gender a bitter taste, yet a transgressive and important quality too.
Cf. Myrkur, Myrkur, released 12th September 2014, Relapse Records; idem, M, released 21st August 2015, Relapse Records; idem, Mausoleum, released 19th August 2016, Relapse Records. ↩
Cf. Myrkur, Mareridt, released 15th September 2017, Relapse Records ↩