The other day I find myself trapped in a Youtube hole when this video cropped up:
It’s a fairly standard clickbait screen rant. I’ve watched a few from this chap in the past. His ‘What Killed the Genre’ series offers some distracting summations of various genres of metal and rock. As with any journalism of this calibre, the quality of the music is paid lip service, the real focus being on what makes the music popular. Which inevitably leads to an unironic discussion of the importance of branding in alternative music.
I was surprised to see him upload a video tackling black metal, given his apparent ambivalence to it. The focus: why do people like it? The video starts out in the usual format, giving a brief history of black metal, key releases, and the well-trodden ground of its many misdemeanours. We are then treated to his own feelings on the genre. He doesn’t like it. And it’s not because it’s unlistenable, lo-fi, noisy etc….it’s because it’s boring.
To his credit he does not hold Deafheaven and the gang up as some shining new light of the genre as I was expecting. No, he lumps them in with the rest as being boring as well (his focus is largely on the Norwegian scene and the hordes of imitators it spawned. Scenes in Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Quebec are conspicuous by their absence. But we’ll set that aside for now.) No, to my surprise Havohej, Torture, and Abruptum are given special mention for doing something interesting with the black metal framework. The rest of it is yes…boring.
Well how fucking dare he? Call black metal boring? He must not have heard of all the bands that I know that are not boring.
Well, that was the reaction I imagine him hoping for anyway. No, it’s all fine if someone thinks black metal is boring, I’m not responsible for other people’s intellectual shortcomings. But the real kicker in this video is his assessment of why people like black metal. It seems an odd question to ask of any genre given the spectrum of people that are attracted to music. But of course, the subtext (and eventually the text) of this question is really ‘why do dickheads like black metal?’ Never mind the dickheads who like jazz, or ska, or jungle, or any other genre.
And, to rub salt in the wound, his answer to this broad and far reaching question is branding. Black metal was a really good brand. And like the born entrepreneur that he is, he explains what lessons we can learn from black metal in building a good brand. All this seems so specifically catered to piss black metal fans off, one would be mistaken for thinking that was entirely his intention. It’s made me so angry that I’m actually writing words about it, online! And maybe it’s made you angry because you’re reading these words.
So let’s take a two-pronged approach to this mess. Firstly, we’ll deal with the branding. His assessment loosely involves the idea that black metal was successful because it created an ‘us and them’ dynamic. Referencing one of Euronymous’ many megalomaniacal rants as evidence that an international, decades old form of music is a reaction to death metal. Of course, that was initially true in Norway; but something similar was initially true of thrash metal, or punk, or fucking pop music when it first sprung up. All musical movements are in part a reaction to circumstance.He then drops the ‘if everyone rebels then it’s no longer rebellion’ truth bomb on us. Well blow me!
This assessment is so lazy that it fails to reach the dizzying intellectual heights of triviality. The reason? He essentially treats the Darkthrone school of black metal as the only school. The grainy corpse painted figure on the album cover, the four-track tape recorder production, the tremolo picking and the hair-dryer-in-a-wind-tunnel vocals. Sure, that is a prevalent and largely boring strain of black metal’s history. I for one never look forward to Satanic Warmaster’s tri-annual release of the exact same EP. Like I said, the likes of Varathron and Summoning are conspicuous by their absence in this video.
But the point is not to convince this guy that if he listened to x or y band he would suddenly be turned on to black metal. The heart of the issue is his motives….which largely involve money, and how to make money from music. The point is not how this video is catered to provoke the basement dwellers, the point is what this assessment of black metal tells us about this commentator’s real views on the purpose of underground music in general.
Rather than seek out genuine answers as to why people like a genre – which is a complex and far reaching question, ill-suited to the saturated market of Youtubers – he looks to one very outdated and very surface level view of why black metal is a marketable product. Of course this is partly true, Dimmu Borgir exist after all. But it is not the truth. In fact I’d warrant there are as many reasons for people to like this music as there are people who like it.
But, beyond the foolishness of me expecting something more from a clickbait Youtube video, the real truth bomb here is what it reveals about how some people view underground music. And in this case it’s viewed as a branding tool, a marketable product, something we can poach for ideas on how to stand out in a competitive market. This is not the language of someone that has any interest in music as art, in music as a community, an identity, an escape from the crushing demands of capitalism. This is not even the language of a marginally interested journalist. No, for him music is capitalism. A neat little product you can use to improve your brand. It’s the language of a sales guru.
But I know what you’re thinking. ‘What on earth did you expect from a cheap ass Youtube video?’ Well, certainly not a far reaching and introspective analysis of black metal and music psychology for sure. But I expected more than such blatantly callous and transparent cynicism. Sure, we can’t expect black metal to get a fair hearing from someone clearly keen on opening hostilities with the scene. Sure, it’s common for treatments of black metal from the outside world to to focus primarily on the fire and blood of the Norwegian scene, regardless of the actual music that these kids made, and the many evolutionary twists and turns of black metal since that time. But this time it got me riled up, and I had to call it out for what it is: gen Xers like this can don all the baseball caps and tattoos they want, they’re still just a bunch of cynical capitalists obsessed with brands, marketing, and all the things that suck the joy out of underground music.