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Racism and sexism in heavy metal highlighted in new study
1 October 2015 - Carrie Braithwaite
A new study from Leeds Beckett University has revealed how the metal music
subgenre of folk metal is not only a fantasy space for young, white European men
but also an important example of how heavy metal can be seen to normalise
masculinity and whiteness and perpetuate sexism and racism.
Racism and sexism in heavy metal highlighted in new study
The study, published by Professor Karl Spracklen in a special issue of the journal
Metal Music Studies on gender, race and class, edited by Rosemary Lucy Hill
(University of Leeds), Caroline Lucas and Gabrielle Riches (Leeds Beckett,
pictured) argues that folk metal, through its lyrics and stage clothes centred on
myths of warriors, preserves an old-fashioned power structure where white, male
Europeans are superior.
Professor Spracklen explained: The important point about folk metal is that there
is a pretence that the bands are drawing on older folk music and pagan myths to
make music that is authentically local and national. The myths are generally of
masculine prowess and the warriors search for glory. However many fans see
some of the bands as inauthentic and not real pagans, sometimes using historical
inaccuracies and singing in English where this isnt their nations first language.
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
normalising this masculine predominance in our modern day world- men still have
enormous social, cultural and political power.
Folk metals obsession with warriors and cultural purity, displayed through tales of
Vikings and dressing up as Vikings on stage, reduces belonging and identity in a
muti-cultural, cosmopolitan society to a few exclusive myths. It is showing white
men how to be white men and showing women and ethnic minorities their place in
European society.
Professor Spracklen is interested in leisure forms and leisure spaces what we do
in our free time - and the way they can be used both to create a sense of identity
and belonging, and a structure of subjugation, in the period that we live in.

He said: Leisure is a human need that emerged with our awareness of self, which
expressed itself through the development of language, culture and art. Popular
music is a form of leisure. People make meaning in their lives through listening to
music and talking about music with their friends. They find identity and community
in scenes, through fashions, makeup and hairstyles.
Alternative popular music has shaped a counter-cultural leisure space since the
1960s, with all alternative subcultures eventually being co-opted by the
mainstream, which is currently happening to metal, and this creates a sense of
belonging and control.
Folk metal is a fusion genre of heavy metal music and traditional folk music that
developed in the 1990s in Europe. The first band of this genre was England group,
Skyclad, who formed part of a wider pagan Celtic turn in alternative culture in
England in the 80s.
Folk metal achieved some mainstream success in the 2000s which lead to it
becoming less authentic and those that used to champion it began to react against
it. It is still not mainstream according to music sales and numbers of fans on social
media for example, the mainstream, popular heavy metal band Guns n Roses
had 31,016,896 likes on facebook in December 2014 whereas the most popular
folk metal band was Eluveitie, with 748,507 likes at the same time.
Within Professor Spracklens study, he presents an analysis of five bands who are
well-established in the industry and generally known to fans of heavy metal. The
accounts include Turisas, a band who are best known for their 2007 concept
album, The Varangian Way, which tells the story of Vikings who travelled to
Byzantium to become mercenaries serving the Roman Emperor. Folk metal bands
see Turisas as inauthentic and not genuine pagans, whilst Professor Spracklen
points out the historical inaccuracies in their stories which also serve to remind
fans that the Byzantines are white Europeans, with the suggestion that it is better
to be a Christian than a Muslim.
Another band highlighted is Tyr, formed in Denmark but priding themselves on
being authentic and traditional, as metal from the Faroe Islands where their
original, but not current, band members are from. Dressing as Vikings on stage
and with a pagan name, their fans see them as authentic despite having a
conventional metal sound and singing mostly in English.
Professor Spracklen explained: The bands in the research are all trying to identify
with some reputed folk culture that existed before modern times a culture of pure
white people, mono-cultural and mono-racial. In some bands, there is an explicitly
racist purpose for their adoption of Thors hammers, Viking imagery and heroic

pagan myths. While I do not think that the folk metal bands focused on in this
research are explicitly racist, they are certainly romantic, conservative nationalists
who sell the idea and myth of racial purity. They reduce complex ideas of roots,
identity and belonging to simple, imagined and imaginary communities defined by
race and nation.
Heavy metal is seen as something unfashionable and relatively harmless in
society, with folk metal representing the worst excesses of the heavy metal
stereotype: the swords, fantasy, sexism, and histrionics.
Professor Spracklen added: In my research I argue that folk metal serves as a
comfortable leisure space for those that have lost power in recent decades: the
white European, working class men who have faced challenges to their assumed
privileges from women, globalisation, immigration and postmodernity. However, at
the same time it should not be easily dismissed in this way, and I believe it remains
central to the idea of heavy metal as a form of leisure that makes masculinity and
whiteness the norm.