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“He’s a Fucking Maniac:” Rape, Black Metal, and the Fetishization of Illness

Content Warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual assault, extreme violence, and fetishized concepts of mental illness. 

On January 10, music writer Christopher Weingarten encouraged metal fans to “throw [their] Leviathan and Twilight records in the trash.” Pitchfork’s metal critic, Brendan Stosuy, retweeted the invocation, endorsing it.

Less than nine months later, on September 2, Stosuy deemed the new Leviathan record, True Traitor, True Whore, “one of the best metal records of the year.” The album, which will be released on November 8, is “intense, expansive, claustrophobic, strange, and maddeningly beautiful.” Jef Whitehead, musician and tattoo artist, is the singular architect of Leviathan, part of a long tradition of one-person black metal bands reaching back to Varg Vikernes, who alone formed Burzum in 1991.

Stosuy interviewed Whitehead for his column, Whitehead’s first interview in nearly 10 years.

Stosuy’s first question to Whitehead is “Do you feel like your name’s been sullied by the charges of earlier this year?”

On the morning of January 8, Jef Whitehead’s girlfriend regained consciousness on the street outside Taylor Street Tattoo and Piercing in Chicago. Whitehead allegedly choked and beat her into unconsciousness and then raped her with tattoo instruments.

Stosuy and his long memory acknowledged the retweet, acknowledged the dense terror of Whitehead’s alleged actions, and yet acknowledged the curious bliss of the new Leviathan record. Stosuy preferred to “confront controversial art instead of brushing it under the rug.” This was the purpose of interviewing Whitehead, to “give someone the rope and see what they do with it.”

Reputation is an obscure line of questioning, in that it is not even a rope. Stosuy instead decided to initiate the conversation in Whitehead’s defense. Whitehead does hang himself by clarifying the unquestionable semantics of his new album’s title, True Traitor, True Whore (“The true harlot has been revealed… I’m playing O.J. and paying for my freedom…”) and by casually referring to his label troubles as “rape,” but Stosuy’s path here is via a disingenuous question in which the victim is erased and Whitehead is the real victim of ghostly, transparent “charges.”

Whitehead, meanwhile, responds spasmodically, as if transmitted in sharp signals. He’s elliptical, vexed, indirect—his perspective on events seems wrung hotly from his theater of mind. Stosuy, in his introduction, classifies Whitehead’s new dangerous air among that of Varg Vikernes, who was convicted of murdering Mayhem guitarist Euronymous in 1994. This is a casual link; it breaks down with an even glance. Vikernes was born near Bergen, Norway, the country in which black metal developed; Whitehead originates from San Francisco. The Norwegian and US black metal scenes don’t share much beyond a mutual sonic goal: a simple, storming, compositionally inert metal, severe and wave-like.

They also share a kind of cult of the insane. This is not about the realities of mental illness as such, but the community’s fetishized and appropriated concept of mental illness; there is a certain violent concept of mania embraced here, a sort of rabid intrigue that will also inject the artist’s recorded objects with grim and meaningful shadows.  In 1991, Mayhem singer Dead committed suicide, and rumors circulated that Euronymous, after discovering the body, the exposed skull, incorporated Dead’s brain matter into a stew. There is evidence that Euronymous took calm, studied pictures of the event, one of which would decorate a Mayhem bootleg called Dawn of the Black Hearts, shotgun in view, Dead’s neck visibly askew from the force of impact. Black metal reinforces and rewards this narrative, in which a sufficiently, authentically “crazy” architect can casually fell social boundaries and access a kind of power in destruction. Violent patterns emerge. In an interview with Maelstrom in 2001, Whitehead describes black metal as “about everything you could think of that’s fucked up.”

American black metal band Nachtmystium defended Whitehead against the recent charges in an interview with metal blog No Clean Singing. “Total bullshit,” says guitarist and vocalist Blake Judd. “Before you even ask, he didn’t do that… I saw that woman beat her own head against the wall so that she would look beat up when the police showed up.” He later describes Whitehead as “a fucking maniac. But he is not a rapist. He is not a criminal.”

There are still other ways in which Whitehead accesses madness. Lurker of Chalice, Whitehead’s other project — black metal but compromised by ambience and real clarified tones — samples, at length, Sylvia Plath as played by Gwyneth Paltrow in the film Sylvia. This is a strange distortion in itself, a performance that achieves character, but in a peripheral way. The film is written to serve expectations of Plath; Paltrow caters to the writing. Moreover, Plath herself is seen as an archetype of mental illness and how it flexes itself in art. Her work is glimpsed through her suicide, and in this way she is necessarily interpreted as speaking from an authentic human subspace. This image has an attractive danger to it and is a source of much of Plath’s popularity, if not some of her canonical stature; she gave significant clarity to this teeming perspective. It is, regardless, a vague and incomplete notion of her—a picture of a person, out of focus, locked in entropy.

The song, “This Blood Falls as Mortal Part III,” drifts without clear direction as Paltrow monologues:

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m not solid. I’m hollow; there’s nothing behind my eyes. I’m a negative of a person. It is as if I never thought anything, never wrote anything, never felt anything. All I want is blackness. Blackness and silence.”

Whitehead caters to the writing. He is a “maniac” because he wants to seem twisted and mutant—his music, community and audience require it. Even in interviews, in the simple way he is questioned, women are soundless, are silent, elaborate architects of Whitehead’s continued disgrace. This transpires even as Whitehead uses the voices of women in his records, to articulate his own dislocation.

Black metal is meant to convey a resolute isolation, a solitude both reasoned and endured. In the cover of Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky, we only see the hand and face of guitarist Zephyrous, mid-transference. The rest is graded shadowing. It’s easier to feel your own shape, the depressions in bone, the division of muscles, if you place yourself in a narrative of deep, righteous struggle. Particularly one of dark or snow, or crystalline desert, the body so pronounced against the landscape it seems transposed there via green screen, making encountered objects and people both present and unreal. In this way, you can saw through the countryside unheeded.

Brad Nelson has written about music for The Village Voice and PopDust. He blogs at UnbornWhiskey.

10 Comments

  1. Travis wrote:

    When I think about the “fetishization of mental illness” as expressed (so, so excellently) here, I immediately think of business culture; mean, cruel, dismissive bosses who heap abuse and threats on their subordinates and get defended by people who call them “innovators” or “mavericks”, or say “they’re even harder on themselves”. And if the business takes off or the product hits, all those employees who were used up are completely forgotten as the “crazed genius” is celebrated.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  2. Sady wrote:

    I have to say, I really love the emphasis on the fact that Stosuy got an (exceptionally rare, apparently!) interview with Whitehead.

    So much of the apparent apologism you see in these things — including the “the time that lady said you raped her: did that hurt your feelings?” questions that are so aggravatingly common — has to do with protecting access to sources. It’s part of why “do not report” orders were issued to certain sports sites after Roethlisberger’s first rape accusation; it’s why every story directly pertaining to Isaac Brock’s rape allegation was pulled down and erased from the web archives of the alt-weekly of the town in which he lived. If you play nice with these guys, and seem to take their side, you can keep getting things like advance copies and exclusive interviews. And then your career benefits, and your publication benefits, as a result. It’s economics as a tool of rape culture.

    Speaking to musicians who aren’t accused of any crimes, but have been accused of sexism, I think you can see some of this same thing in The Coverage Of A Certain Group That May Or May Not Have A “Tyler” In It. Some of the people who defend that band the most fiercely are people whose names and careers were made by “discovering” that band, and promoting it. If your career is linked to a particular artist’s popularity, it’s not in your best interests to admit critique of them.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  3. Mac Pogue wrote:

    Taking off of what Sady wrote, it’s increasingly apparent that white rock artists get this get-out-of-jail-free pass from critics when it comes to these acts of violence (sexual and non). There is definitely a fetishization of violence in the metal community esp. regarding black metal, yet music critics only take their “critical” lens to examine artists of color (read: robert christgau’s coverage of slayer vs. his satanic-panic coverage of OFWGKTA). The racial divide in what we consider “deplorable” as far as musical artists’ themes and musical artists’ actual lifestyles is becoming more and more apparent.

    Also, what will Spin become a bastion of sane music criticism with chris weingarten at the helm? Will critics actually start calling bullshit on artists again (even those repped by *gasp* the Windish agency?)

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  4. Sady wrote:

    @Everybody: Let’s not go into the “sane = nice/smart/good,” “mentally ill = mean/stupid/bad” dichotomy here, yes? I think part of the point of the post is that embracing that dichotomy leads to all sorts of things, whether that’s fetishization or stigma, and it can be used to oppress people in all sorts of ways.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  5. Mac Pogue wrote:

    Ugh, I said that without even thinking. Here’s to working past deeply-ingrained ideologies.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  6. MikeV wrote:

    Yeah, while I don’t want to make blanket statements about all black/death metal artists and fans, I feel like many of them don’t actually understand what mental illness really is and how non-glorious it is. I can relate to Sylvia Plath’s desire for blackness and silence; these are almost comforting ideas to ponder. I can relate to the focus on suicidality; there can be deep philosophical meaning behind the act. This “cult of the insane,” however, seems comprised of a lot of people who aren’t or have never been mentally ill. It’s hard to believe that some of these actions (making brain stew) are the sincere actions of a person in need of help rather than revolting attempts at obtaining “death/black metal cred.”

    In my experience, these artists and fans try to stake a claim to a deeper truth in their music, but the rape apology just reveals the true frat-douche [i.e. both frat and douche, frat does not always imply douche] inside. It’d be nice to have a cultural medium to discuss issues of darkness and suicide openly, but this ain’t working so I’ll stick with Sylvia Plath.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 1:01 am | Permalink
  7. kurukurushoujo wrote:

    Euronymous didn’t only take photos, AFAIK, he also collected skull fragments and send them to Mayhem’s biggest followers. I’ve never heard about the stew, thank God.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink
  8. Jo wrote:

    Thanks for the reminder of what an utter shit Whitehead is – I’d deleted my Leviathan albums, but this reminded me to get rid of Lurker of Chalice, too (which I always found boring anyway). I’ll throw away the CDs when I next get round to sorting out my collection.

    The issue of black metal and mental illness is interesting, complicated, and full of nasty questions. I mean, there’s an entire subgenre called depressive suicidal black metal (DSBM), which allows artists to express their pain, but also fetishises suicide, self-harm, and mental pain. How much is legitimate artistic expression, how much is wallowing in “controversy” for the sake of it? I mean, Niklas Kvarforth of Shining hands out razor blades to the front row of fans at their concerts, and encourages them to cut themselves along with him; he’s famous in the scene, thanks to antics like that, so he’s definitely been rewarded; he’s also clearly a very, very fucked up person.

    BM is a difficult genre in many, many respects; I’ve written a post about being a feminist and a BM fan for the website Bad Reputation, which will be going up sometime soon. I mean, I love it, but I’m certainly not uncritical of it. But better to engage than to abandon the scene to people like Whitehead, right? Right? Sigh.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  9. Slaughtermatic Lover wrote:

    Slightly off-topic, I know, but nobody who really cares about music gives two shits about what Pitchfork say. They are the bastion of white male musical conservatism – there’s not that much difference between them and Rolling Stone. It’s a well known fact they have board meetings to determine what scores they’re going to assign to certain albums and who they’re going to promote depending on mainstream popularity.
    Collapse Board are a great alternative, and extremely progressive both politically and musically. They have great articles, and aren’t afraid to give criticism where it isn’t fashionable…their posts regarding OFWGKTA alone are a refreshing alternative to Bitchfork’s pandering. :-)

    Friday, October 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  10. Brad Nelson wrote:

    Slightly off-topic, I know, but nobody who really cares about music gives two shits about what Pitchfork say.

    Not true! Moreover, what is the evaluative system that determines someone’s adequate care for music and how it is diametrically related to Pitchfork? I respect many of their current stable of writers, and they speak from a variety of social positions. Individual writers aren’t as compressed into a masthead as, say, Rolling Stone. It could be better on both counts, of course, but I think erasing them from the conversation because they aren’t considered legitimate by your friends is tremendously limiting; they are read, they have influence. What matters is what we do with that.

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 2:05 am | Permalink