Controversy around Metal in Europe - A focus on Norwegian Black Metal
In the mid eighties a moral panic arose in America about the social dangers of heavy metal. The Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) was established by a group of women which were politically connected to Washington, led by Tipper Gore, wife of then Senator Al Gore of Tennessee. They testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to argue that the lyrics of rock music incited to violence, suicide, drug use, sexual perversion and occultism. This invoked a major debate in the media about the harmfulness of rock music. It resulted in the removal of rock and metal magazine from American stores such as Wal-Mart. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) agreed to put labels with “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” on controversy records, which many record stores refused to sell. This huge moral panic makes one wonder whether a comparable situation ever occurred in Europe. This is the question this essay deals with, so first of all there will be looked where and when a comparable situation in Europe existed. Subsequently it will further elaborate on the question how was dealt with this situation. In the search for controversy we will come across a number violent crimes committed by the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s, because of the intensity and quantity of these crimes there will be focussed on this scene and chain of events.
By the time that heavy metal criticism came to existence, rock criticism was already long established, it emerged with the counterculture of the 1960s. In the 1970s one of the first bands which can be labelled as a real metal band, instead of rock which many of its contemporaries were, was Black Sabbath. The four band members came from the downside of English society and the only worthwhile future for them ahead was to become professional misfits. Previous rock stars wanted to change the world with positive means like flowers and parades; Black Sabbath instead dealt with the negative, like the wickedness of the world and they obtained a sinister image which caused a small amount of church crusaders to protest. Black Sabbath could nevertheless freely explore this new negative approach to society in England, but their first American tour in 1970 had to be cancelled in light of the Manson Family murder trial; America was extremely cautious toward possible threats to society. In literature about heavy metal, from its very beginning, can be read about numerous cases where the conservative part of American society rejects the negative stylistic approach of heavy metal bands, Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward for instance said about an American tour: “We were banned all the time. They were afraid of us. They really thought we were going to put a spell on you. We’d have to confront forty or fifty cops or something.” Contrarily, there can be relatively little read about controversy around heavy metal in Europe.
The relatively few cases of controversy around heavy metal in Europe couldn’t be caused by a stylistic difference between European and American bands, because bands from both continents were equally shocking. European and American bands both had much more resistance to face in America than in Europe. Off course, In Europe there also were protests against the rebellious and blasphemous character of heavy metal, but the moral panic was less extreme than in America. Alice Cooper was for instance banned on his first tour in England, though not for long, and some parts of his show had to be skipped in Germany, but never did it came to such a social outrage that a committee like the PMRC was founded to constrict musicians’ liberty of speech. Also big law suits against bands didn’t occur in Europe, which did happen in America, for instance in 1990. Five years earlier two young men in Nevada attempted suicide, of which one succeeded. Judas Priest was sued because of the band’s 1978 release, Stained Class, which was ought to drive to suicide, but Judas Priest was not found guilty. Comparable law suits against bands and heavy metal in general did never occur in Europe. It has to be mentioned that the first three albums of Cannibal Corpse are still banned in Germany, but since this seems to be an exception in Europe and the ban is dubious because equally offensive material of the band isn’t banned, it isn’t of real significance. Overall, Europe seemed to accept the negative critique on society and understand that shocking horror elements like those of Iron Maiden were merely meant as entertainment.
The vision of the sober Europeans that saw heavy metal merely as a form of entertainment and an expression of rebellious youth was heavily countered by events at the beginning of the 1990s. At that time a number of church burnings started in Norway by members of black metal bands. These bands were musically and stylistically influenced by bands that came to existence roughly ten years earlier like Venom from England and Mercyful Fate from Denmark, who made blasphemy their trademark. In early interviews however, the members of Venom explained that the Satanism in their act was a mean to get attention and become infamous, there was no real philosophy behind the juvenile rebellion. Also Mercyful Fate explained that their lyrics were not to be taken serious and it was just a form of entertainment.
The young Norwegian metal scene that developed at the beginning of the 1990s was taking its bands and lyrics a lot more serious. The black metal scene which arose by that time was a small network of dedicated people. They were led by Øystein Aarseth, aka “Euronymous”, which inspired the whole scene with his extreme vision; his band Mayhem is praised by many for its sparking of the Norwegian black metal scene, his shop Helvete (hell) was the gathering place for the scene and he ran his own label, Deathlike Silence productions. The bands Darkthrone, Burzum, Immortal, Thorns, Enslaved, Arcturus and Emperor all had contact with Aarseth and he had plans to release most of their CDs through his label. Many bands shared the same artists and the inner core of friends of these bands would be named the “Norwegian Black Circle”.
The black metal scene heavily rebelled against Christianity; Christianity arrived around 1000 C.E. in Norway. A lot of wooden churches were built since then, which were called stave churches and since it is almost exclusively a Norwegian building it has really become synonymous with the country. Only 32 of the original 1200 hundred were left until the 6th of June 1992, when this number was reduced to 31 by arson, of which Varg Vikernes (from the band Burzum and he briefly joined Mayhem in 1993) was strongly suspected, but could never be convicted. Off course, this burning of one of Norway’s cultural landmarks made national headlines and it ignited a series of church arsons. Within four months six churches were burned down and since then there have been at least 45 to 60 church fires, near-fires and attempted burnings in Norway of which roughly a third is related to the black metal scene. Authorities didn’t want to get deep into the details of the burnings, because they feared that the attention would cause copycat behavior.
In the documentary Metal: a Headbangers Journey, by Samuel Dunn, a couple of black metal artists are questioned about their vision on the arsons. Some of them tell with firm believe that they support it for the full hundred percent and that they think it should happen more often. The breakdown of Christianity is their purpose, a moderate Grutle Kjellson from Enslaved explains: “In the beginning [Christianity] wasn’t something that the Norwegians chose, it was forced upon them. You can say that it was 1000 years ago, I wasn’t sad or really happy either, but in a historical point of view they deserve it.” There will probably be quite an amount of people who support church arsons because they simply follow the trend and show copycat behavior, but without a doubt there are also people who seriously, with firm believe, support church arsons.
At the second of October 1992 Hauketo Church was burned down, at first the police didn’t want to hear anything about Satanism. They said it was an accident caused by a waffle iron or coffee machine, but later they had to accept that someone had been in the church and deliberately set the church on fire. Parishioner Per Anders Nordengen didn’t want to meet the 19-year-old offender on radio or television because he didn’t show any regret and therefore Nordengen found it useless to go in discussion with him. Interestingly Nordengen didn’t think that the action was very ideologically motivated, the boy had a difficult upbringing and so Nordengen believed he got into the black metal scene because he wanted to oppose authority.
The news about the crimes also reached other countries in Europe where the same phenomenon arose, though in lesser amounts. These youths claimed that they were influenced by the events in Norway. This essay will however only deal with the Norwegian events, because this is where all the controversy was sparked and it gives more space for a deeper analysis of the Norwegian scene.
The Satanic activities didn’t just stick to the burning of churches and grave desecrations, from the beginning it also involved violence. In 1991 the vocalist of Mayhem, Per Yngve Ohlin with the nickname “Dead”, committed suicide with a shotgun. Aarseth hereafter claimed to have made a necklace of pieces of his skull and to have eaten small portions of his brain. A year later Bard “Faust” Eithun, drummer of Emperor, killed a homosexual in Lillehammer when he was approached by him to go together into the forest. Then, again a year later, Vikernes killed his own band mate Aarseth. A tension between the two men had arose for a number of reasons, police identified one of them being that Aarseth didn’t pay Vikernes his royalties for the Burzum releases on his Deathlike Silence label.
Noticeable about all the analyses of the authorities is that they looked for underlying sociological motives, instead of simply condemning black metal along with its Satanic ties. On the other hand Vikernes was sentenced with the maximum penalty, 21 years in prison, while Eithun received 14 years for an equally brutal murder. This difference may be political, because Vikernes had tried to provoke the court by still holding on to his rebellious and Satanic image. This might have made the court make an example of him to show that the black metal youth phenomenon would be strongly condemned. In correspondence with this is a report titled Church Fires and Satanically Motivated Criminal Damage, issued in 1998. It tried to place the black metal Satanism in a larger context, so sober cops left their profession to speculate about religious practices which opened the door to wild exaggerations and it contained factual errors. Nevertheless, only the crimes themselves were sentenced, maybe not from a 100% down-to-earth perspective, but black metal itself wasn’t convicted by putting a ban on any aspects of it.
The black metal scene came for the first time to the mainstream attention at the beginning of 1993 because of an article in the Bergens Tidende journal. The article, which was based on an interview with Vikernes, showed the danger that Satanist youth posed on society, but left in the middle whether he was a kid excited by weapons and Satanic symbols or that he was really serious about his believes. With this article media attention quickly grew and also had coverage in the media abroad. Striking is that the media focused on Vikernes, who became somewhat a mythical person; the portrait that the media painted of him did not coalescent with reality. He became the center of the black metal controversy and was directly and indirectly held responsible for the crimes relating to black metal, because he was assumed to have led people into action. A further focus on Satanism occurred and the media wildly exaggerated the mysticism and occult surroundings of the crimes and with this the touch with reality was lost. The police tried to rationalize the media, because these wild exaggerations led to more mystification and attention and therefore the black metal scene would gain in popularity. That was exactly what happened, so even after Vikernes’ sentence church burnings continued and this is when the media realized they had to stop presenting the crimes and scene as exciting.
When we compare the moral panic about metal in America, which involved the foundation of the PMRC, to the history of controversy around metal in Europe we see that metal in Europe was to a less extent judicial condemned. Due to the crimes that involved the black metal scene in Norway a moral and social panic is fully justified. In contrast to America there was looked for social and rational reasons for the committed crimes, in stead of simply condemning black metal in general and try to censor it, something which the PMRC did try to achieve. A clear difference in approaches can be seen here; America saw the rebellious metal music as something that had influence on their youth. This is called the shaping approach and suggests that the youth’s identity was shaped by the metal music and that the metal music caused them to rebel. In Norway there was looked differently upon the rebellious youth; Norway had adopted the reflection approach in their analyses. In their view black metal and Satanism was a product of a youth that tried to rebel and shock the existing authorities, instead of black metal causing the rebellious and criminal attitudes. That is why the moral panic in Norway didn’t cause the rising of the question whether black metal should be banned. Although the media wildly exaggerated the mysticism around black metal criminals, also they didn’t point at black metal as the initial cause for the crimes. It is true that the black metal crimes did start a wave of crimes inspired by this scene, but this is rather seen as a sociological phenomenon and sparked by the exciting media attention. This essay finishes with an option for further examination, this is the question why America applied the shaping approach and Europe, specifically Norway, applied the reflection approach, which reasons for instance could be a cultural difference or the difference of the time setting. This would be an interesting deepening of this subject.
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