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Nordic Note

Imke von Helden has analyzed the construction of cultural identity in Norwegian metal music

Freiburg, Jul 03, 2017

Nordic Note

Artwork: Ben Pehl

Wild Vikings, vast fjords, rapid rivers and loud music – these are the common associations people have when they think of Norway. The Scandinavia expert Dr. Imke von Helden dedicated her dissertation at the University of Freiburg to metal music in particular. The thesis entitled „Norwegian Native Art – Cultural Identity in Norwegian Metal Music“ focuses on the meaning of Nordic history and mythology in the construction of cultural identity in Norway.

“In Norway, metal is a part of the mainstream. Besides, metal culture is a phenomenon stemming from globalization that illustrates the current trend in constructing identity,” says von Helden. Her analysis of constructing and experiencing cultural identity concentrates on three main points: She relies on the aesthetics of Nordic metal to identify thematic categories. The special connection between speaking and performing is taken into account in the analysis of music videos and a brief look at the world of sound: In order to identify current perspectives about what is “Nordic” and its role in constructing cultural identity, the author includes the perspectives of various Norwegian musicians through interviews, thereby exposing their motivations and ideologies as well as gaining perspective on sources.

For many centuries, topics such as the Viking age, mythology and the representation of the Nordic natural landscape have served as a source of national and pan-Scandinavian identity-building across the entire Scandinavian territory. “In 21st century Western culture, these ‘Nordic’ elements have experienced a transformation from being a cultural-political marker to a nearly omnipresent phenomenon of popular culture. We see them in films, comics and video games, but also in the naming of chainsaws, rubber boots and hockey clubs. With the label ‘Viking’ we associate the notions of strength, stamina and freedom,” explains von Helden.

This range of topics between Viking age, mythology and nature has also been centrally adapted in the heavy metal culture and serves as a resource for cultural localization. “Using Nordic topics in metal had already begun in 1988 when the Swedish band Bathory used such references in their album Blood Fire Death.“ Viking metal, as this phenomenon is often called, became a sales hit during the late 1990s and early 2000s in Europe, North and South America. In Norway, a series of opposing bands emerged that abandoned anti-Christian sentiments in reaction to the rise of Black Metal with its rejection of Christianity in the 1990s. These groups dealt with Viking history in the Scandinavian countries and recordings of Nordic sagas. “The history surrounding Nordic gods, saga heroes and the illustration of the battlefield fit perfectly with the metal’s already war-like aesthetics.”

Based on these aesthetics, musicians and fans alike were often accused of being far right racists because a lot of neo-Nazi groups referred to the reputed world during the Viking age and relied on elements perceived to be Nordic, such as runes. In her dissertation, von Helden poses the question about the reasons and motivations of bands that wanted to distance themselves from such scenes and groups. “The constellation between the Viking age, Nordic mythology and nature provides the basis for cultural positioning and contributes to constructing and experiencing cultural identity.” According to the author, the motives and intentions in this context are very different, as are their potential ideological implications.

Dr. Imke von Helden
Tel.: +49 (0) 261/287-2015