The extreme music scene in Scandinavia may have a lot more in common with my beloved field of comedy than one would initially think. Black Metal is an atmospheric sub-genre of heavy metal that rose to infamy in the early nineties. The cold and barren Scandinavian landscape combined with the theater and pageantry of heavy metal makes for a fascinating and bizarre area of culture – and one with interesting lessons for other performers and artists. How so?
Don’t be afraid of looking silly
The classic image of a black metal band is a bunch of long-haired men standing around in a sparse, snowy forest. They are wearing black leather covered in spikes and have garish white face paint that would make a mime blush. This is a deeply silly way to look. I would also argue it is deeply awesome.
It doesn’t matter how theatrical these bands are – they are fully committed to an aesthetic and the flipside of looking deeply silly is a deep authenticity. People generally aren’t trying to fit in with the cool kids when they grow out their hair and dress like a wizard from a comic book.
Comedy does well when it takes this approach – two of the most successful comedians today are Russell Brand and Dane Cook, comedians who eschewed ironic detachment and went instead for highly energetic, theatrical performance. Many in the cognoscenti have ridiculed them for such – but I would be thrilled to receive such ridicule if it accompanied the sold-out stadiums and television and film success that Brand and Cook have enjoyed.
The look is half the battle
When I saw the group Sunn o))), I was thrilled before the first note had even been struck. The scene was so perfectly set – the band was completely hidden in black robes and thick layers of mist from the fog machine. The massive stacks of amplifiers were flickering menacingly and crowd was absolutely rapt with attention. When I listen to a Sunn o))) record at home it is often a powerful experience. but even if I played it at the exact same volume with the exact same fidelity as the concert it can’t come close to the experience I had that night.
On a slightly less grand scale the same is true of comedy. When a performer gets in front of a brick wall and adjusts a microphone – the crowd is ready to laugh. I have seen the exact same set in a live comedy club and on television and the difference in degree of laughter and joy is staggering. This doesn’t reflect poorly on the performer or the audience – it just means that setting the stage (literally) is massively important as an entertainer or artist.
A little controversy never hurt sales
Black metal rose to infamy in the United States when some of the musicians were arrested for violent acts and arson. The majority of the bands had nothing to do with this but the sordid stories were great for business – stories which were quickly amplified by outcries from religious and conservative watchdogs. Want to sell music and merchandise to youthful discontents? Have conservative and religious groups fiercely oppose it.
Obviously committing an illegal or amoral act is a horrible way to create or promote art but comedy is no stranger to outrage and controversy and ignoring doesn’t do any good for anyone. Even though I find certain material like rape jokes abhorrent – it does create a public dialogue and entertainment like heavy metal or comedy can be an important lightning rod for difficult subjects in public discourse. This leads right to the next important lesson:
How to deal with awful artists
While it was only a few musicians who were genuinely involved with violence and arson, they were important figures in the Black Metal scene and some created important, even beautiful music. I have long struggled with how to engage with ”art made by assholes” – people with awful viewpoints or who have committed awful acts but who have also created important or enjoyable art.
Comedy is certainly no stranger to this problem. Whether its a respected and talented comedian who makes rape victims the butt of the joke or a true luminary like Woody Allen with a deeply troubling personal life I don’t think we can just ignore either the work or the personal problems. Art and entertainment is gloriously a refuge for people who are outside mainstream society. However that includes people who are outside society in very negative ways and we can’t get rid of that either.
I don’t have a perfect solution but for now I acknowledge the awful things that these people (comedians or musicians) have done and avoid supporting them financially but I still study their art and try to gain from it the same way a student might read Mein Kampf. By talking and thinking about the darkness in art we can help make our humble niche a more beautiful place and maybe even spill a tiny bit of that in to the world at large.