Metal does not exist in a vacuum. Unlike what many people would like to believe, there is not much which is inherently radical about metal. Sure, it prefers an aesthetic, both in music and visual representations, which was once outside the norm but a lot has changed since the 80’s-90’s. While the shock value of those non-musical aesthetic choices was greater in those times, it’s not as if metal invented or revolutionized those artistic styles in anyway: gore and goth, dark industrial and body horror were genres long before metal adopted them for its self expression. And while it’s true that metal is and was a unique and distinct musical classification, a hegemony within it has been around for years. The image of a style which etches rebellion on its flag, constantly pushing the aural limits and redefining what is considered music, is relevant for a tiny, tiny fraction of the bands within it. Most bands, most music in general, conforms to accepted boundaries and takes little risks; metal is no different.
Let’s get something out there: that’s perfectly fine. This is not intended as a criticism but as a preface to our main question for this editorial: if metal is mostly conservative, in an amount that is more or less similar to other musical genres, where does the fascination with authenticity stem from? Non-metal music and styles have their share of discourse and interest in being authentic as well (just think of the 90’s rap feuds) but no where does this obsession reach the heights that it does in metal. The distinctions between “true” and “poser”, “kvlt” or “hardcore”, “true death metal” and the likes can be found everywhere. Being non-authentic is the insult one can levy against another member of the metal community. But why? If we say that there isn’t any inherent radicalism, that metal is no more revolutionary than any other genre, how then can we explain this phenomena? We will attempt to answer this question by looking at a recent case that is a bit more subtle than a YouTube comment calling Periphery “poseurs”[sic].
Not long ago, a new name appeared in the ever shifting personality game that black metal has always been. This is not meant as a slight on the sub-genre but yeah, the antics of this persona-obsessed field can get pretty melodramatic. Which makes it perfect for our investigation; perhaps only in thrash has the fixation with name, authenticity and actions reached such heights of mental energies. Anyway, into this operatic amalgam, arrived a new name: Myrkur. This name, claimed by Relapse Records to be the next big thing in post black-metal, caused quite a stir. This incredibly insightful Bandcamp article summarizes the fuss. We strongly urge you to read it, and the interview which follows, but here’s a quick quote that should easily explain the gist of the event:
In a statement from Relapse, label manager Reynold Jaffe said that Myrkur was signed based on the strength of her debut record and, “we are well aware that context is necessary for many people to formulate an opinion, for better or for worse.” He continued, “Myrkur is categorically controversial and challenging. She’s not someone who discovered Ulver and Burzum 18 months ago; she grew up on it and channeled her passion into a very authentic-sounding Scandinavian black metal record. It’s unfortunate for anyone to dismiss a great record simply because it came from an unusual source that contests the typical narrative.“
Nevertheless, it’s inevitable that Bruun will run into detractors. As Jaffe indicates, among the most severe are those that say Bruun might be deliberately misleading potential fans while dabbling in a genre where listeners are drawn to the music for its perceived authenticity.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg. The responses varied wildly, dividing themselves into two kinds: blog posts and fan comments. The blog posts, having had a bit more thought and time put into them than your run of the mill talkback, were mostly favorable of the music but included some raised eyebrows. One such article, by our good friends over at No Clean Singing (really, we love these guys), went so far as to say this:
Of these two stories (of Myrkur’s origins, back when we didn’t know who she was, -EK), I’m inclined to believe the first, because otherwise Relapse would be perpetrating a pretty big fraud — which would be risky since the truth always does have a way of coming out. But who knows? I’m sure we will learn more in time…
“A pretty big fraud”. Why? Why would the back-story of Myrkur matter so much? Is there a required biography, a certain path that one must take in order to make black metal? In short, yes. Definitely yes; the persona games we mentioned above were much more than just poses or ineffable, aesthetic gestures. They were somewhat intentional choices, intended to inject gravity to what might otherwise be waved aside as childish or inconsequential. The issue of “seriousness” in aesthetics is one which we can’t broach here but suffice to say that ever since the 19th Century (real talk time), “being serious” has had monumental repercussions on how art is perceived. And so, there is a way to be black metal. There is a way to make black metal. And Myrkur does not fit the plan; she’s into pop for god’s sake, she probably likes Justin Bieber or something! Just to give you a taste, here’s the idea in a less, well packaged veneer:
Somebody smash this cunt’s face with a brick. It’s a fucking weak Wolves in the Throne Room rip by some cunt who doesn’t even fucking listen to black metal. Drums sound terrible. Hobbes, you might listen to “black metal,” but you have got to be the weakest representation of a true black metal fan there is. Fucking false-ass poser bitch, go listen to Conqueror or Beherit or fucking Blasphemy, you fucking pussy piece of shit. I would kill you IRL for saying this is almost good, bitch motherfucker.
—”Hussie” comment on Lambgoat.
Stay classy, Lambgoat commenters. Stay classy. So cried the talkbacks. Even worse, she was a woman. For the sake of moving on, we won’t untie that explosive package right here. Simply head on over here to read an incredibly well written and thought out article about the ties between gender and black metal. Suffice to say, Myrkur being from the “wrong gender” was the final nail in the speculation coffin: there was no way that this was a true black metal artist. And therein lies the crux: authenticity is everything. Unless you conform to the accepted story, or deviate from it in accepted ways, you are not real. Not only that, you are predatory; you are here to make money off music, you are here to exploit the fans and their genuine love for the genre. By the way, Myrkur just released a new track this week and it’s anything but predatory. It’s amazing.
But here lies the point of this editorial: black metal, despite enjoying much self-inflicted media attention, is hardly the only sub-genre in metal which demands adherence to an authentic perception of what its musicians, and fans, have to be. Notice the importance of the verb: not “to do”, although that is also important, but “to be”. You have to exist as this ideal of the genre, conforming to its accepted aesthetic or code. If you deviate from it, there are ways to deviate; you can’t just throw everything to the wind, there are ways to act out. To be sure, the codes vary but each sub-genre has them and you’d better adhere to them or the verbal abuse (which can sometimes get very, very physical) is sure to come your way.
In case you’re still not picking up on my all-too-subtle hints, let’s break it down. We can’t really dedicate the space to enumerating every single sub-genre and their respective aesthetic and behavioral code but here’s a quick example for you: the most obvious one is heavy/power metal. All that one needs to do is remember the ridiculous antics of ManOWar and their oft-knuckle dragging fanbase (if you’re a fan of this band, A) take a hard look at your life, B) we’re not saying you’re all this way, but the fanbase you associate with can be very embarrassing). If you’re in need of a reminder on how one needs “to be” as a ManOWar fan, here’s a clip from one of their own DVDs:
The interview we chose and the one after it are especially telling: the heavy/power metal aesthetic is about power and totality. It’s about dominance (male dominance, in most cases) and about a grandiose reality which is far removed from our own. Now, before we continue, let’s get something straight: I am not saying that the people pictured here are wrong or that we are better than them. I’m simply pointing out their ubiquitous nature; take a look at the full video, and the other one that’s out there, and try and see how many different people you can spot. Little to none; they’re all dressed the same, they all use the same language. They all operate under a code. Even the glaring counter-examples, such as more aged people for example, still all dress in the uniform way and pretty much use the same terminology for everything.
What’s the problem though? “So what?”, one might ask. The answer to that is, obviously, there’s no problem. We all live under codes, we all conform to many sets of behaviors and ways to be. However, we don’t all say things like “kill all posers” while dressing exactly the same as every other person in the crowd, or striking the exact same poses (get it? Posers). Very few codes put such heavy emphasis on the authenticity of their members and place such heavy gatekeepers on acceptance to them. Even among the ones that do coughgamerscough, the punishment which such trespassers are deserving of usually steers clear of outright calls for death. Sure, some maniacs that threaten people with rape exist, but a community where “you should fucking die for doing this!” is a common thing? We’ve yet to hear of one, and even if one or two exist out there, it’s definitely the exception(by the way, the gamer community is strikingly similar to metal’s. Perhaps my explanation below fits both).
The problem that does exist then is not with adherence to a code but the often rabid, martial defense of it. The problem is with the tension between a community like all other communities, with its hegemony, tastemakers and disciplinary elements which, while levying abuse upon abuse on outsiders, still wishes to claim to be outsiders and radicals themselves. The issue is with genres that are so obsessed with their own accepted sounds and ways of being, whether that is dress, gender or other personality elements, that they become stale, repetitive and boring. It’s a sort of unwritten, widely accepted fact that there is something inherently wrong with metal today. That the community is consuming itself and that, while we have seen our share of great releases, much of the music is going nowhere. Perhaps this is where we need to start in order to remedy that? Perhaps loosening the barriers between sub-genres and between the community and the “outside” is where our efforts should be focused?
To summarize this, we’d like to propose a “why”. Why does this unique tension exist within metal and where does the enmity stem from? This is a whole other discussion and one which could take up a full editorial, in and of itself. But allow us a musing, a random thought which we believe might bear closer scrutiny: the persecution complex is still strong within the metal community. Stemming from the adverse reaction which the mainstream had to metal in the 80’s and 90’s, metal fans still feel as if they are an under attack minority. Metal used to be a social offense punishable by ostracization: the members of the metal clique in high school were always the unwanted, the unwashed, the freaks and miscreants who were pegged for every offense. In media, we were the criminal, the gunman, the senseless, goth man screaming into a microphone.
Cultural groups that are under attack, whether a perceived attack or an actual one, cannot afford to be open or unclear about who they are. In the face of the overbearing and omnipresent reality of the mainstream, these smaller groups need to raise stout defenses. These defenses come in the form of stricter codes: if you know who you are, and your friend knows who they are, then there’s less chance of the mainstream telling you who you are instead. If you know how to dress, speak and behave, there’s less chance of the mainstream telling you how to do those things. Understandably then, the metal community dug deep, driving its heels into the ground, and bared its teeth. It was needed to be strong, twice: once, to make sure that we could resist becoming like the rest. Twice, to make sure that we didn’t become the pale imitations of ourselves that the mainstream saw us as, distorted versions of who we really were.
And perhaps we internalized that distorted version of ourselves. Perhaps we’ve internalized it so much that we’ve failed to notice that this is no longer true, if it ever was true. Metal is one of the highest grossing musical genres nowadays. It’s a pioneer in the age of digital music, sells out live shows on a daily basis and has been accepted in various shapes and forms into the mainstream. Should we turn around and hug that mainstream, accept a bear-like embrace that would ultimately shunt us off from the sources of our uniqueness and inspiration? Hardly. But is it time to accept that there are things, beautiful things like Myrkur, that the mainstream can give us and teach us? Undoubtedly. It’s time to stop acting like a frantic minority, defending every little piece of its cultural territory. It’s time to open up a bit and realize that we are strong enough to maintain our own identity while allowing it to be transformed by that of the majority. The authenticity of metal is no longer at doubt. We can perhaps stop worrying about it so much.