Here’s an idea of how I develop a taste for various styles of music.I had never paid much attention to black metal before searching for an essay topic for my “Popular Music in Society” class. I friend suggested I look into the documentary called Until the Light Takes Us , and my discovery went on from there. The film features Varg Vikernes talking about the early Norwegian black metal scene, which ended up being the basis for my essay. You can read my essay below if you care for my insight on how media plays with how we perceive music, using the black metal scene as just an example. Varg has some interesting stuff posted in Burzum’s “Library”. I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for black metal ever since.
Essay: Black Metal Through the Media’s Lens
The media plays a significant role in influencing how we are exposed to, and how we perceive music. Popular opinions are more commonly broadcasted by the media, and circulated among the masses, which in turn, may influence the development of the cultural product itself. Black metal culture is just one example of this phenomenon. The black metal genre has less to do with its now embedded connotations of Satanism and arson than commonly expected. Until the Light Takes Us is a film that documents the formation of black metal underground in Norway, and how it was abruptly brought to the world’s attention by the actions of a small group being sensationalized through mainstream media outlets. The documentary illustrates the early black metal scene with the help of black metal pioneer and philosopher, Varg Vikernes, who is interviewed in the midst of serving a 21 year sentence in Trodheim maximum security prison in Norway for convicted arson and murder. John B. Thompson’s work on “The Social Contextualization of Symbolic Forms” proposes valuable concepts of valuation and valorization, and how these ideas relate to the media’s promotion of ideologies which have become the common interpretation of popular music. Until the Light Takes Us attempts to unveil what is behind the social and media-constructed ideology of Norwegian black metal, presenting examples of the conflict in symbolic valorization between the musicians, fans, and media critics.
Black Metal is a musical subgenre that stems from the development of heavy metal. It preserves metal’s tradition of strong guitar distortion and rough vocals, but extends beyond it by rejecting the process of music production. Black metal musicians place a strong emphasis on keeping their music separate from the music “industry”, and autonomous from social structure. For the purpose of this study, the focus will be on the “second wave” of black metal, lead by Norwegian black metal groups in the early 1990s. Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell, a prominent black metal musician and a featured speaker in Until the Light Takes Us, described his music-making process as “using the worst microphone you can find” and keeping the recording completely “raw”. Fenriz also shares one of his experiences while playing with Darkthrone as they transitioned from being a death metal band, to black metal. The record company initially did not accept their black metal recordings, and were told to reproduce the whole album; the band refused, threatening to leave the label. Unwilling to lose the group, the label released their album; a positive response was received from the fans. Fenriz commented that the label were ultimately “happy, financially”, and from then on supported the band’s transition to black metal.
Thompson explains that symbolic forms, black metal in this case, “are constantly valued and evaluated, acclaimed and contrasted, by the individuals who create and receive them” (146). Like any other symbolic form, black metal is subjected to the process of valorization, which determines its symbolic or economic value. Using the example ofDarkthrone, the musicians saw value and authenticity in their creation, while the record label saw no value; this constitutes a conflict in symbolic valorization. The band was ultimately valorized by their fans, who accepted and valued the music, which in turn, instituted Deathrone’s economic value to the record label. The development of black metal in Norway and how it was initially and ultimately received is unique to the area because of the cultural context. Thompson emphasizes that symbolic forms “are produced by agents situated within a specific spacio-historical context” (146); in this case, we turn to the budding Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s.
A significant portion of Varg Vikernes’ interview footage in Until the Light Takes Us involves his knowledge and experience of the early Norwegian black metal scene. He states that is was a very small group of youth who made music and socialized together; an even smaller part of the group, often known as “The Black Circle”, is who later became associated with criminal behaviour. According to Vikernes, it is a common historical discourse among the youth that Norwegian culture continues to be repressed by Christianity and American ideals. He expresses that the black metal scene in Norway worked to reject this oppression in the form of dark and anti-Christian imagery in their music. It becomes apparent that the scene had a small beginning. Throughout many of the interviews with black metal musicians, there are many instances of crediting a certain individual for specific progressions in the genre or recalling specific performances. Vikernes creditsØystein “Euronymous” Aarseth for creating the “typical” black metal riff, but also acknowledges its influence from Bathory, an established Swedish black metal band.
Euronymous played guitar in iconic Norwegian black metal group,Mayhem, along with vocalist Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin; Dead is credited as the first to adopt the “corpse paint”, now known to be worn on the faces of most black metal musicians, which added to their stage persona “instead of standing on stage in jeans”, as noted by Vikernes. Mayhem holds much of the responsibility for the general image of Norwegian black metal perceived today. The band is also known for live on-stage self mutilation, as well as the brutal circumstances of the suicide by lead vocalist, Dead. Euronymous found the body; the suicide was carried out with a shotgun to the head. He proceeded to take photos before informing the authorities. One of these photos was eventually featured in a 1995 bootleg version of Mayhem’s album, “Dawn of the Black Hearts”. Euronymous was in fact a prominent figure in the scene, owning his own record shop called Helvete (translated to “hell” in Norwegian), where a number of the black metal musicians met, lived, or practiced music in the basement. According to Vikernes, “The Black Circle” is a name Euronymous made up for those who met at Helvete, while the media eventually took this term as a name for an actual cult. Various members of this group were in fact convicted for arson, and in two other cases, for murder.
In his interview, Vikernes claimed that he “was frustrated when he realized that this movement was still the same bunch of brain-dead metal heads”. He wanted to take what they were doing to a different level; he eventually went to the media to claim credit of the church burnings as a part of their scene. As Vikernes describes, he wanted the journalist to publish the story in such a way that made it seem as if he had nothing to do with it, but would blame the scene for the burnings. Instead, Vikernes claims the journalist published his own version of the story, and alerted the authorities to have Vikernes arrested. Until then, the media had been unaware of their small movement. Vikernes was convicted for arson on several of the cases in the early 1990s, and is given credit by the group for being the first to start the trend that persisted for years after. Fenriz commented that the members of the scene realized that once this story was being widely reported by the media, “we had something to worry about”. Articles were released with headlines such as “Arrested for Satanic Arson” and “Violent Satanist Caught”, despite confirmation from many musicians, including Vikernes, who said that they had nothing to do with Satanism.
Popular rock magazine, Kerrang!, had an issue dedicated to these events in Norway released in March 1993; the front page read “Arson…Death…Satanic Ritual…The Ugly Truth About Black Metal: Has heavy metal gone too far?”. Black metal had not received media attention to this degree, but it was now being commonly referred to as “Satanic metal” by the media outlets. The “exclusive” article Kerrang! published had less to do about black metal music, but rather a heavy focus on the sensationalism that surrounded the events of the black metal musicians in Norway that have now been exposed. As Thompson writes in The Concept of Culture, “the production and reception of symbolic forms are processes that take place within structured social contexts…but the spatial and temporal characteristics of the context of production may diverge significantly or entirely from the characteristics of the context of reception” (146-147). The media’s emphasis on sensationalizing the small movement in Norway and generally linking it to black metal and Satanism worked to diverge the context of reception from its original context of production. At this point, the black metal movement by this group in Norway had distinguished itself from the black metal music from which the musicians were originally influenced by, but this had not been realized by the media who associated the music genre and the movement in Norway as one and the same.
The spread of this story resulted in copy-cat arsons, committed by misled youth who were fascinated by the black metal genre and what they thought it stood for. The musicians interviewed in Until the Light Takes Us expressed their beliefs that more people found interest in black metal after the group had received this type of coverage. “I guess sales of black lipstick went through the roof”, joked Fenriz. The youth would paint satanic symbols on churches, with the idea in mind that they were participating in what black metal was about. There are also instances of young fans “reporting” to musicians like Euronymous, saying they wanted to burn down particular churches next; of course, these fans had not been taken seriously. By perpetuating the claims instigated by the media, the young fans were taking part in what Thompson calls symbolic reproduction of social contexts. Because this different interpretation of black metal was being reproduced, it resulted in supporting the media’s claims, therefore making it true. The fans’ actions only worked to verify the sensationalized reports, rather than supporting the black metal scene. The genre was subjected to a desire of mass production due to the attention received, which contrasted the musicians’ ideology to remain “authentic”, raw, and underground. Black metal was rapidly gaining “symbolic capital”, which Thompson describes as “the accumulated praise, prestige, and recognition associated with a person or position” (148). The symbolic capital, as well as economic capital, was represented in the extensive production of popular media focussing on stories of the genre, as well as with the number of fans accumulating who carefully attempted to build their own “black metal personas”. Until the Light Takes Us also profiles painter, Bjorne Melgaard, who recognized black metal’s “cultural relevance” in Norway, and decided to create a whole exhibit based on black metal. The genre has come to be recognized by much of the country, even those who had no interest to follow alternative music and lifestyles otherwise.
These events lead up to one of the more notorious instances within the black metal movement. Musicians interviewed in the documentary noted that there was tension, and a sense of rivalry between Euronymous and Vikernes. On the night of August 10th 1993, Vikernes stabbed and murdered Euronymous, after allegedly being attacked first. Vikernes discredited the media’s reports saying that “the killing was a result of a “power-struggle” in a “Satanic movement”, and that I had killed him to take his place as a leader” (Vikernes, Pt. 2). Vikernes writes that this added even more tension within the scene, as even they began to believe in the media’s accusations; they turned on each other and eventually, “because of them, the police solved almost all the crimes committed by black metallers in Norway from 1991 to 1993”.
A case study done of the black metal music scene, “The ‘Failure’ of Youth Culture: Reflexivity, Music and Politics in the Black Metal Music Scene”, by Keith Kahn-Harris acknowledges that sensational accounts of black metal (exemplified by articles such as what was published by Kerrang!) are “an inevitable consequence of readings of youth culture produced without proper appreciation of how meaning is negotiated within the micropolitics of everyday interaction” (98). This links directly to Thompson’s ideas of the reception of symbolic forms may diverge from the original production of the symbolic form. In the case of the black metal music in Norway, it was received differently by the people who identify as “fans”, verses the opinions projected by the mainstream media. The events within the black metal scene in Norway worked to encourage the mainstream perception of black metal as lacking cultural and artistic value; meanwhile, for those who saw the crimes as attributing authenticity to the movement, and to the genre, it was interpreted as gaining more artistic, and symbolic value.
Harris raises a valuable distinction in how symbolic forms may be received, pointing out that “some readings of black metal tend to assume an absolute connection between ‘theory’-as demonstrated in its music and other texts such as fanzines- and ‘ practice’- everyday activity by scene members” (100). Harris also observes that black metal scene members seek to separate music from politics, asserting that “good music must be ‘autonomous’ from social structure” (107). Vikernes’ writings support this desire, referencing his music to be an “escape”; he claims that the media ruined the “magic”, saying “the new bands made Black Metal become a part of the modern world, rather than revolt against it, like they should have done” (Vikernes, Pt. 1). The murders and acts of arson connected to the black metal scene in Norway are arguably separate from the black metal genre (which demonstrated the ‘theory’), and are more to do with the specific scene in Norway (which demonstrated the ‘practise’); a result of “a peculiar set of interactions at a particular time and place” (Harris, 100). In Thompson’s terms, the Norwegian black metal scene is a reproduction of the symbolic form that is black metal. The perception of black metal that was popularly embraced after the crimes committed within the early scene in Norway gave the black metal genre a new cultural meaning, instigated by the valorization of that cultural meaning from the media and fans.
Today, fans consider there to be a complete distinction between “black metal” and “Norwegian black metal”. The original symbolic form has altered in between the process of reception and reproduction by fans and critics. The genre has gained symbolic capital due to the notoriety of Vikernes, and the black metal scene of the early 1990s in Norway. Harris references a 1996 interview with Vikernes in Terrorizer magazine where the author states, “nobody ever really talked about your musical roots and evolution, first as a fan and then as a musician; maybe nobody really thought about you as a musician at all” (101). Although the increase of symbolic capital may have given some a sense of added value to the music produced by these now notorious musicians, it is evident that the media’s depiction of the genre has devalued the music to the more mainstream audience. There are many current examples of parodies based on the Norwegian black metal scene, which are appreciated not only by those who are unaware of the scene’s history, but also to some of the genre’s fans and practitioners. Until the Light Takes Us provides insight into how the black metal scene in Norway was established, and how it evolved while being subjected to a conflict in symbolic valorization. Black metal is just one example of how a symbolic form produced by musicians within that specific spatio temporal context is able to be altered through the process of valorization by fans, media, critics, and also the musicians themselves; symbolic forms are constantly being taken in, digested, and regurgitated again by society, eventually being reproduced into something new.
- Harris, Keith Khan. “The ‘Failure’ of Youth: Reflexivity, Music and Politics in the Black Metal Scene.” European Journal of Cultural Studies7:95 (2004): 95-110. Print.
- Thompson, John B. Ideology and Modern Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.
- Vikernes, Varg. “Part I: The Origin and Meaning”. A Burzum Story. Online Posting. Dec. 2004. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.
- —-.“Part II: Euronymous”. A Burzum Story. Online Posting. Dec. 2004. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.
- Until the Light Takes Us. Dir. Aaron Aites, Audrey Ewell. Feat. Varg Vikernes and Gylve Nagell. Artists Public Domain, 2008. Film.