New Study Declares Folk Metal Racist and Sexist, Sort Of
Metalsucks just posted an article about a paper written by metal scholar Karl Spracklen and published in the Metal Music Studies journal. This particular issue was dedicated to gender, race and class (wifey was going to write a piece for it about ethnicity in metal in the NYC area, but her thesis work made it impossible to finish in time). I haven’t gotten to read the original paper yet, but the Metalsucks article said:
“The basic idea of the study, which was written by Professor Karl Spracklen and published in the journal Metal Music Studies on gender, race and class, is that by focusing on ancient European myths full of Scandinavian warriors who enjoy wenches and mead, folk metal bands create a ‘safe leisure space’ for white European men who in recent decades have been forced to share their power and privilege with women and people of other races.”
That’s an interesting observation to make, and it might be valid. I don’t quite look at it as a negative though. Music, in general, abstracts emotion. When lyrics are added in, that heightens the ability to convey specific thoughts, feelings and ideas. As an expressive medium, its used to share statements about politics, feelings and, in the case of folk metal – fantasy. This idea of conveying fantasy isn’t necessarily limited to mythological Norse imagery. Alex Webster, from Cannibal Corpse, has answered questions about the band’s gruesome and misogynist lyrics in the past. He explains that they’re fantasy in the same vein as horror stories and movies which, somehow, don’t get attacked in the same way that musicians – especially extreme metal musicians – do by the media.
I don’t know the reason for this. I’m not sure why the public, at large, is fine with movies like Saw or I Spit on Your Grave but take up arms when exposed to The Bleeding. Its even more perplexing when we consider the numbers of horror fans in comparison with the numbers of extreme metal fans. There’s a lot of overlap between the two. The metal fans might even be looked at as a subset of the horror fans, but in terms of sheer number, more people are entertained by visual enactments of violence against women (and others, to be fair) than those who enjoy extreme metal, regardless of its inclusion of similar subject matter.
I look at this from a different perspective than Spracklen for another reason: I’m not a white European male. I’m a brown New Yorker. My family are West Indian. They’re from Trinidad. They’re not metal. My wife is Filipina and is as equally a fan of extreme metal as I am. We both enjoy folk metal, along with a myriad of other sub-genres, like many other metalheads. A good number of these people aren’t white European males either.
I’m not discounting Spracklen’s work. Wifey and I are actually both fans of his output and appreciate academic scrutiny of the music that we love, along with its social, cultural and even political meanings and its art and history. I think that Metalsucks hit on an interesting point in their article though. Its the line in which they state “white European men who in recent decades have been forced to share their power and privilege with women and people of other races.”
Metal doesn’t have the same reach as popular music. Its a worldwide presence, regardless. Sam Dunn helmed the documentary, Global Metal, which was released in 2007. Two years before that, he released Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey. Both of these films brought attention to the fact that metal, in various flavors, has been embraced all over the world. This brings two thoughts: (1) Folk metal has travelled the world, along the same currents as other styles and (2) As it leaves its mark, metal is transformed by musicians and other fans, in the areas in which it touches down.
In a quote from Spracklen in that Metalsucks article, he says the following:
“Through the study, I found that although women fans of heavy metal enjoy folk metal with the same kind of passion and intensity as male fans, and there is no doubt they find identity and belonging through the music, the heart of folk metal is predominantly masculine. The warrior myth that folk metal is focused on is normalizing this masculine predominance in our modern day world- men still have enormous social, cultural and political power.”
This is an important finding. Although they’re in the minority, there are fans of folk metal who are women and who identify with its themes. Whether they do this by placing themselves in male roles or not probably warrants further investigation, simply for the advancement of sociological information and the study of metal, in general. However, there’s something else that’s missing from this acknowledgement: non-white, non-European fans also enjoy and identify with the music.
As stated, I’m not a white European. I’ve also been a fan of folk metal for more than 2 decades. I’d probably have been a fan for even longer if I was older. 😉 I went through my late teens listening to Bathory and Amorphis. Bathory has elements of folk metal in some of his viking metal (and the opposite can also be said, with viking themes present in folk metal). Amorphis used to take much of their lyrical content from the Kalevala and Kanteletar. They even called their music Finnish folk metal, in the 90’s. My friends, many of whom are non-white, and my siblings, have listened to and enjoyed these bands with me. Some of us have even read the Kalevala and Kanteletar.
The point of this is that although Spracklen might be right in his observation, the bigger picture is that other demographics are enjoying the same warrior myths as white European men and have even co-opted them in different ways. This might even have existed since the beginning. Blood Fire Death‘s cover (The Wild Hunt of Odin, by Peter Nicolai Arbo) shows female warriors on horseback – most likely representing Valkyries – and is definitely an influence on folk metal.
So, does folk metal create a “safe leisure space” in which white European men can fantasize? Most likely. However, I’d posit that its no longer only showing “white men how to be white men and showing women and ethnic minorities their place in European society.” We listen to it too, and we’re not relegated to the spaces that have been reserved for us by non-inclusion. It drives us in the same ways that it drives white European men – by gifting us with feelings of empowerment, as metal is wont to do.
I don’t know if Spracklen’s study goes into outside reactions to European folk metal, but recent years have seen a rise in folk metal from other parts of the world. India and Southeast Asia bring us Vedic metal, which holds inspiration from Indian mythology in the same manner that European folk metal takes cues from Scandinavian tales. China produces bands which have taken elements of Chinese mythology and paired it primarily with black metal, to produce something of an analogue there, and there are likely other scenes which I’m not familiar with at this time that bring regional influences of their own to metal.
The imagery and poetry that some of these folk metal bands draw upon for their music is powerful and has withstood the test of time. Its inevitable that cultural influences from other parts of the world will penetrate metal as time goes on and produce new strands of folk metal, much like how Vedic metal is growing where its taken root. Some artists are drawn to that type of art and identify with those particular values, much like how European folk tales and values influenced what we’re currently calling folk metal.
I look forward to reading Spracklen’s work, once we get our hands on the recent Metal Music Studies journal. I also look forward to metal permeating the globe and coupling with global mythologies to bring us ideas, stories and sounds that we haven’t explored as a whole.