What the left gets wrong about black metal’s latent radicalism
Thus far, the left’s attempts to develop a political counterweight to black metal’s far right tendencies have misunderstood the radical potentials inherent in black metal itself. Rather than jettisoning the deeply problematic elements of black metal’s history wholesale and seeking to build on new, politically acceptable ground, I would argue that we must instead face the problematic head on by “making Burzum a contested space”.
Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘Death of the Author’ from which this idea is borrowed, is often misunderstood as a moral argument, one justifying our interaction with art made by people we regard as abhorrent by metaphorically “killing” the author. Whilst this could be one implication of Barthes’ essay, it is not his central thesis.
Rather than asserting that it’s ok to listen to Burzum because art and artist are separate (as if such compartmentalisation were some kind of magic spell that we cast to make all the bad feelings go away), we must instead look at the act of consuming art as one of reclamation, of wresting its power from the hateful figures that produced it and casting it in new and potentially radical contexts. This idea is explored in depth by Robert G. H. Burns in his article ‘German Symbolism in Rock Music: National Signification in the Imagery and Songs of Rammstein’, in which he argues that Rammstein’s appropriation and play with fascist imagery resituates said imagery in new and politically novel ways, neutering otherwise dangerous historical material of its power rather than ignoring or denying it. One reading of this is a kind of reverse cultural appropriation.
We don’t listen to Burzum reluctantly, listing the specifics of our personal moral boundaries (pointing to the alleged apoliticism of Burzum’s actual musical output, withholding financial support, not wearing Burzum t-shirts in public etc.), nor do we listen proudly and without self-criticism. We do it in order to make the art of Burzum a contested space, filled with interpretations and possibilities that extend well beyond Varg Vikernes the man, his beliefs, and his actions. Consider this quote from ‘Death of the Author’:
We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.https://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/Barthes.pdf
Just as a text is a “tissue of citations”, so too is music a collection of cultural antecedents, right down to the history of mass production that makes music with loud guitars and drumkits even possible. It is for this reason that overtly political interpretations of black metal so often miss their mark, misunderstanding both black metal as an artform, and the manner in which political activism plays out in the real world. To be a radical black metal fan is to understand our power and responsibility as audience members, and using this power to appropriate the art of its problematic or extreme figures, forcing it into new and unexpected interpretations.
Thus far the left has only got as far as producing political equivalents to movements such as national socialist black metal. But I would argue that making an explicit political argument via the medium of black metal is misguided.
Let’s expand on this idea by looking at metal’s relationship with homosexuality. Everyone knows that metal is gay…like really, really gay. It’s a point that’s often painted as a source of deep contradiction and embarrassment by many. A brashly homophobic subculture in historical terms, metal’s self-denial vents itself via rampant male aggression, gauche celebrations of the traditional masculine form, and overtly misogynist lyrics and imagery. It’s hardly surprising that such a potent brew would result in metal being anything other than an archetype of repressed male gayness.
But this observation is nothing new. It’s a known truth of metal culture that only the most intellectually vacant of its residents are blissfully ignorant of. But even in the most overtly gay avenues of metal – the unintentionally camp aspects of black metal, the sword and sorcery worship of the male form in power metal, the sweaty chest beating aggression of thrash, the bare male skin-on-skin contact sport of the mosh-pit – there’s a sense in which the transgressive potential of this latent queerness draws its power from the very fact that it goes unsaid.
We all know it’s there, but any explicit acknowledgement of its existence immediately saps it of all subversive and creative potential. This is why attempts to “out” metal so often fall flat. In exposing metal’s subconscious preoccupation with homosexuality, we immediately rob it of it’s potential to explore and understand gay (and to this point predominantly male) identities in new and unexpectedly radical ways.
Metal is a sea of such contradictions. The music is dense and rife with activity, yet fixated on death and absence. It’s obsessed with the finitude of human life, yet reaches for forms of musical expressions that suggest a desire to leave a legacy beyond our mortality. It’s a deeply radical and transgressive artform that remains riddled with backward and conservative attitudes toward gender, sexuality, and race. Many strands of metal are suspicious of the consumer capitalist societies in which they flourish, opening up channels to deep history, the natural world, and ancient mythologies as a means of articulating this discomfort. But such things would not be possible without modern industry, affluence, leisure time, the liberal tenet of freedom of expression, and global supply chains that give easy access to amplification, guitars, and recording technology.
This makes metal a fascinating flashpoint of contested values. Of course music this extreme would be deeply political at its very core. Yet huge swathes of the metal community remain uncomfortable with or in flat out denial of metal’s radical potentials. Raise the political dynamics of metal in conversation and you will often be met with calls to “keep politics out of metal”. Cognitive dissonance comes with the territory. I would argue that the reason for this is another contradiction inherent to its culture. Much like the subtext/text tension of homoeroticism, to directly reference, expose, or acknowledge metal’s political genetic code is to rob it of subversive power.
This is why – abhorrent ideology aside – genres like national socialist black metal fail as black metal. It directly addresses the elephant in the room, and in doing so attempts to express overtly extremist political views in a medium ill-suited to the task. Whilst I have a great deal of sympathy with its red and anarchist black metal counterweight, the same criticism could be made from an artistic standpoint. Both are directly addressing a tangible political struggle in an environment not designed to carry out this task.
In asserting this I do not mean that black metal is apolitical, quite the opposite in fact. I would argue that black metal is one of the most radical and ideologically driven forms of contemporary music there is, just not in the way that its fans and even many of its key artistic figures understand it to be.
But far from attempting to draw out a coherent ideology from black metal’s many disparate historical threads, it might be helpful if we approach this from a different angle. What if we understood black metal as an environment in which we are given the freedom to play out fantasies and ideas that would simply not be permissible in other arenas?
The idea isn’t as odd as it sounds. A similar case is often made for aspects of cinema, comic books, gaming, all manner of cultural outlets. Black metal grants unique access to interpretations and expressions of existence not currently on offer from other institutions residing under consumer capitalism.
From this angle the national socialist attraction to black metal is not hard to understand. Here we have an aggression and extreme form of music, riddled with elitism, shibboleths, in and out groups, wedded to the idea of life as a struggle; it’s the simplistic reading of Nietzsche’s ubermensch all over again. But in giving voice to an explicit and pre-existing ideological code with its own extensive body of theory, NSBM artists rob black metal of its most powerful expressive potentials: its ambiguity.
We as metal fans are required to call out fascism within the scene as much as we are in any other cultural arena. Unfortunately, it seems that many left wing fans of black metal have thus far misunderstood what this responsibility amounts to. Consider this quote from the radical left wing metal blog Astral Noize, from an article tellingly entitled ‘Curating Resistance: A Guilt-Free Guide to Black Metal’:
Do you consider Rotting Christ “safe” because they contributed to a refugee benefit compilation; or does the fact that they’re signed to Season Of Mist – who sell shirts by a convicted paedophile in Inquisition – trump that? Panopticon may often be held up as one of the most well-known RABM bands, but they still planned to tour with Winterfylleth, whose English nationalism (already a thorny subject) increasingly looks like white English nationalism.https://astralnoizeuk.com/2021/08/24/curating-resistance-a-guilt-free-guide-to-black-metal/
Switch out the names of the artists and the specifics of their actions and one could be forgiven for thinking that we were reading about the least worst corporate brands to buy from. However sincere the desire to create a counterpoint to NSBM through “safe” black metal in RABM (and I genuinely sympathise with this motivation), I’d argue that its scope for lasting change is limited.
At best this treats the consumption of black metal as equivalent to the decision not to buy from Amazon or to go vegan, thus robbing it of its deeply radical and ideologically transformative potential. We are no longer challenged by art, no longer troubled by it. It becomes nothing more than a mirror to reflect our pre-existing values, and therefore shuts us off from perspectives and experiences to which consumer capitalism does not usually grant access. At worst this is simply white guilt looking for an out, a way to ease our inherent shame by seeking a level of ideologically purity that can never be reached.
An important distinction needs to be made between black metal as a real-world scene with real people and contested spaces – gig venues, festivals, online interactions – and black metal as an abstraction. The former is undeniably a site of political struggle, in the same way that football matches or workplaces are.
But black metal itself, as an abstraction, is not a site of political struggle, it is rather a site of political experimentation. Much like Nietzsche’s idea that we must turn our lives into an experiment in order for humanity to reach the next stage of its evolution, black metal is an arena into which we can inject any manner of ideals, hopes, visions, and anxieties. The desire to explore worlds and ideas beyond our immediate experiences is a current that runs through its many and diverse styles, and it is one of its most enduringly appealing facets. The fact that the self is often once removed in a lot of lyrical content – with the narrator adopting the position of a dispassionate external observer – only adds to the idea that we must treat this music as a form of self-experimentation.
It explains why black metal is deeply contradictory, dangerous, and comedic in equal measure. An artform that seeks to juxtapose concepts that traverse, twist, and distort real world ideological boundaries with a suspension of disbelief is too fragile to survive hard-line positivist scrutiny.
This is also why debates around art/artist segregation so often come down to weighing up metal-fandom-as-civic-duty vs. the liberal attachment to the sanctity of what we do in the privacy of our own home. Or else they become convoluted and highly opaque discussions about deeply held personal limits, as evinced in the Astral Noize quote given above.
One may wish to argue that although red anarchist black metal is a toothless reflecting pool of values, we must still reclaim black metal from white male homogenisation and diversify the voices that have a stake in defining its meaning. With this I am in complete agreement. We should champion a diverse array of actors and voices within the scene. But this is not tantamount to producing a reem of politically explicit content that directly addresses this head on (how many RABM bands are made up of white middle class musicians?).
Black metal has a long history of diverse regional and cultural interpretations – from Europe and the US, to South America, Japan, and more recently Africa, China, and the Middle East – and is often understood as a unique vehicle for expressing regional culture and history. There’s still much more to be done in this regard, especially in terms of gender equality, but the point still stands that as far as overtly political messaging is concerned, black metal as a medium is ill-suited to the task.
It should be noted that this argument could apply to other forms of music only insofar as they are similar to black metal ontologically, sharing the specific sui generis aspects of the music itself. Punk by contrast, as perhaps the most overtly political arm of Post War counterculture, was conceived and designed with the nuts and bolts of ground level political activism in mind. It is an artform that – through its simplicity, directness, and technical accessibility – not only allows for, but actively calls for specific forms of political action, and therefore does not lend itself to experimentation fraught with ambiguity.
None of this is to say that we are now free to listen to any and all black metal with a clear conscience. On the contrary, if you’ve come to black metal looking for a “guilt-free” experience you have been misguided. And this brings us back to the gay analogy. The politics is there in black metal, beneath the surface, but to directly address it removes this transgressive power, robbing us of our ability to “make Burzum a contested space”. This is not an argument for apoliticism. The very fact that black metal (and metal at large) offers a sea of profoundly disturbing ambiguities is a deeply radical and revolutionary idea in a society that craves moral certainties.
Being a black metal fan is and should be disturbingly uncomfortable. We as fans are currently engaged in a struggle to determine the meaning and significance of its symbology, not a total erasure of these symbols from history. This process, this ambiguity, rife with possibilities and risks, this is where our relationship to black metal starts and ends, with an all-encompassing, compelling, and irresistible question mark.