17 juni: Problematizing Black Metal

Av Chris Thompson
Publicerad:2015-06-17 09:29

Christopher Thompson is a PhD student at the Department of History at Uppsala University. In his thesis, with the working title “Primitive Blasts: Norwegian Black Metal and the Use of History”, he focuses on the use of history in Norwegian black metal and reflections of identity.

1349 in concert at the Inferno Music Festival 2015. Photo: Instagram.

For today’s blog I will cover my research, where and how it fits in my academic field, and how it contributes to popular understanding of music and society. In the previous entries I have alluded to, but perhaps not explicitly stated what it is that I am researching. In simple terms, I am studying how Norwegian black metal uses history. However, as you might guess there is a great deal that goes into such a study. This subject is not new to me and, as of the time of writing, I have been investigating this topic for the better part of four years. Over the course of these years I have had a number of different perspectives on how I answer my questions. Yet, my focus has always remained fixed to the idea that Norwegian black metal has gained acceptance in Norway because it reflects normalized conceptions of the past and constructed identity.

At its core, my research has always been based in history. However, my topic almost demands that it be handled from an inter-disciplinary approach. The same can be said for the majority of studies dealing with metal music. There are certainly researchers that have attempted to view metal within their discipline and some have had good results that have contributed to a greater understanding of metal music in academia. Yet, I believe those are in the minority compared to academic works dealing with metal. Perhaps this is caused by the unorthodoxy of the subject and that it simply does not fit neatly into any one discipline. There is also the possibility that research pertaining to metal music is so beyond the scope of the established disciplines that it falls to the newer, inter-disciplinary focused research centers and institutions. It is in this sense that I feel quite lucky that I am able to pursue my research under the main discipline of history, yet maintain the flexibility to add in other perspectives from the humanities and social sciences. I believe this is partially due to history being one of the first academically professional disciplines, but I am more inclined to think that my department has realized that including more of an inter-disciplinary research enhances the relevance and legitimacy of history at a time when funding is getting more difficult to attain.

While my topic and research does have an appeal within academia, there has also been public interest. Much of this interest comes from black metal fans that are often well informed on many of the bands that I research. Perhaps it is a unique phenomenon that the public audience for my work has the potential to be as well informed on the details of black metal bands as I am and I believe much of this is due to two main factors. The first of these comes down to the simple fact that many fans have a near encyclopedic knowledge of the black metal scene as a whole. They tend to know the specifics of the album releases, line-up changes, and all of the extra-curricular activities that have given black metal its infamous legacy. This detailed knowledge can be partially attributed to the fans’ devotion to this style of music, but consideration must also be given to the proliferation of non-academic, journalistic coverage on black metal. Whether it has come in the form of books, magazines, or documentaries a wealth of information has made available from these sources. The result is that the typical black metal fan is extremely well informed on the genre and different scenes that have developed.

In turn, this then requires me to be extremely accurate when I write about even the most underground bands.  I don’t believe it necessarily represents that big a problem as it makes me work harder to ensure accuracy. However, what does present a problem is the lack of contextual and reflexive understanding the average fan possesses. Black metal ideology is built around a strong sense of individuality and, through this individuality, an open-ended boundary of what can be included as black metal. As black metal is an extreme musical genre, the ideas that can be found within it are also extreme and, in some cases, embrace ideals that are closely related to or explicitly national socialist. When combined with an absence of reflexivity, such ideas are left unchecked and can grow into entire sub-genres as has happened in the case of national socialist black metal (NSBM). While the non-academic work on black metal has produced a vast amount of information, it has not done enough to problematize the absence of reflexive understanding and has lacked the sophistication to comprehend the connections between black metal and social and historical contexts it has developed form.

It is in this respect I hope my work can contribute to the understanding of black metal. Yet my main objective is to not only write to fans of the genre, but to those outside of the genre and to highlight the areas of normative society that are being reflected. Perhaps it is an ambitious goal, but I firmly believe that the research we do in history and the humanities should be understandable and relevant to the public. However, this discussion deserves a segment all to itself and, therefore, it and other related topics will be explored in tomorrow’s entry.