Death metal, religion and the socialization of emotion

Photo by George E. Norkus


Over at The Immanent Frame, a website on religion, secularism and society supported by the Social Science Research Council (USA), Jim Robertson reflects on the presence of religion in Death Metal after a trip to Wacken Open Air (in Germany), the world’s largest music festival and ‘loud as hell’ according to its website.

Robertson’s piece, Death metal: A “pipeline to God”?, is well worth the read, if for no other reason that it will be an eye-opener for the non-metalhead to what these guys are screaming through the din. (One personal disclosure: Although I went through a phase of fascination with Canadian power trios with front-man shriekers that sounded like modern castrati — Rush, Triumph — and developed a now-mildly-embarrassing love of Supertramp, Aerosmith, and the Who, I was never really a native metalhead, so I can’t talk about these genres from any deep affection.)

I won’t rehearse all of Robertson’s arguments, but he basically asks why Death Metal and related genres are so obsessed with religion, from Satanic album covers to song lyrics that drip with Apocalyptic motifs to echoes of everything from neo-paganism to blatant anti-Christianism. It’s a great question because not every popular music genre, even iconoclastic subcultural genres, features religious imagery so heavily. One would probably have to move to something like gospel or 1970s reggae to find genres that were more saturated with spiritual symbolism (I have no statistics on this, only my own fleeting engagement with these genres).

Robertson explains:

What is fascinating here is the consistency with which black metal has pursued religious forms. Satanism is replaced, not by a basic materialist atheism but with almost anything else: Occultism, Nietzsche, paganism, mystical nazism. Such religious pluralism begs the question as to whether these are just new and interesting attempts at youth rebellion, or whether something more is playing itself out.

Robertson finds several reasons for the dominance of religious themes in Death Metal:

1) ‘Metal’s rebellious streak’ led to a backlash against attempts to censor or criticize these musical genres, most prominently efforts by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the mid-1980s. According to Robertson, the criticism actually hardened the resolves of many musicians to criticize mainstream religion, sparking very explicit anti-religious themes.

2) Extreme lifestyles among the musicians, a character of many Western popular artist communities, but featuring some extraordinary acts of violence, self-destruction and nihilism, especially among proponents of Scandinavian ‘Black Metal’ in the 1990s, Robertson discusses. In this sense, ‘Metal’s obsession with religion is part of its obsession with living at the limit.’ Robertson goes on to explain: ‘This concern with limit experiences explains metal’s obsession with religion. In its aspirations, metal parallels a kind of religious mysticism.’

3) Competition with mainstream religion to provide similar experiences, such as community belonging, emotional transcendence, and mystical experience, what one participant refers to as a ‘pipeline to God.’

4) Shifting philosophical and religious commitments within the community of Metal musicians, including a move away from Satanism toward various forms of paganism, ecological mysticism, and Nietzschean nihilism, reflect a groping to find a language to talk about these profound emotional-mystical experiences: ‘The constant grasping for new ideologies amongst the black metal scene, then, is an attempt to give this transcendental path discursive form.’

Robertson’s discussion is both colourful and insightful, but there are several dimensions I might add just to bring it into the Neuroanthropological fold. Borrowing some ideas from Simon Frith’s piece, ‘Towards an Aesthetics of Popular Music,’ I want to argue that Metal, like many musical genres, has a special role in educating emotion and moods among young people when they are trying to understand social interaction and their own emotions.

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