Church burnings, Satanism, murder; You may not have heard Varg Vikernes’ story yet, but that could soon change with the release of Lords of Chaos, Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund’s depiction of a notoriously controversial book dealing with the rise of the Norwegian Black Metal scene in the early 1990’s
Without wanting to spoil the plot of a movie that promises to be a whole lot of fun for all the family over Easter, Vikernes was part of a small group of maladjusted Scandinavian teenagers who decided to take Geordie spoof-666ers Venom and their Dennis Wheatley schtick literally rather than metaphorically, with tragic consequences.
Now pay attention, there’s going to be a test later. After the lead singer of the Oslo group Mayhem Per Yngve Ohlin (AKA Dead) committed suicide by shotgun in 1991 his band mate Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth) photographed his corpse and used it on the cover of their next album. Vikernes subsequently joined Mayhem, whilst at the same time burning churches down as a side project. He then struck upon the idea of marketing the group’s new album via an anonymously penned confession to the arson attacks, before later stabbing Aarseth to death as a feud between them escalated into madness.
Lords of Chaos was a lurid book and given its target audience promises to be a lurid film. But a recent Guardian piece on it featuring Vikernes – released from prison in 2009 after serving a 15 year sentence – was surprisingly vague about his beliefs. There was mention of his virulent anti-Semitism but not of his former links with Neo-Nazi groups, nor did it discuss his questionable attitudes towards homosexuality (He’s claimed that Aarseth was gay).
So far, so alt-right. But there’s a much broader discussion here about entertainers and their art. Recording under the name Burzum whilst in prison, Vikernes made two synthesiser-based albums, 1997’s rudimentary Dauði Baldrs and then two years later Hliðskjálf, parts of which are quite beautiful. Their existence shows that even people many would describe as monsters can enrich culture, a dichotomy that some elements of society has been finding hard to process.
Can we still enjoy the music of men and women who’ve morally and ethically failed in their personal lives? The most obvious case to consider is that of Michael Jackson, although recently R.Kelly seems to be challenging for a runners up spot. Even in places where you’d expect better behaviour the accusations of impropriety have emerged: Grammy nominated singer Ryan Adams is said to have sent sexually explicit texts to an under age fan, former Crystal Castles singer Alice Glass went public on partner Ethan Kath’s systematic abuse, whilst down the food chain former Real Estate guitarist Matt Monandile issued a hollow sounding apology in the wake of similar claims, his ex Julia Holter revealing she’d feared for her life.
For people like Monandile this is effectively the end of career few will care about. The bigger the star however the more complicated the issue becomes. Following Surviving R.Kelly there have been calls for his music to be removed from content delivery platforms such as YouTube and Spotify, an act which seeks to unite rather than separate an individual’s alleged crimes with their ability to make money from a song. In fact, both Kelly and Jackson’s sales have reportedly increased since the tv programmes about them aired and you can still find them on the streaming service – a catalogue including R.Kelly numbers such as “Show Ya Pussy” and “Like A Real Freak”.
There is little such outcry about Varg Vikernes, still making music and now living in France despite a 2014 arrest on terrorism charges (Which were later dropped). Partially this is because Black Metal remains an impenetrable form of extreme expression, one in which those involved have an ambiguous attitude towards the straight world’s value systems.
And yet in his and every other performer’s defence, expecting people to acknowledge and develop their talents only if they meet some sort of personality or lifestyle criteria is the falsest of constructs, one begging for control by the supposed moral majorities at either end of the identity politics spectrum.
It’s also the most vicious of circles. Massive fan of the Beatles? John Lennon’s first wife will tell you he was a promiscuous adulterer and physically violent towards both her and their son Julian. How about the father of rock n’ roll, Chuck Berry? Jailed in 1957 for transporting a 14-year-old across a state line for sex and had a mammoth porn collection that included thousands of homemade videos, some allegedly featuring children. As for the Stones, there simply isn’t enough space.
The danger here is very real. His behaviour to one side – as it must be – Michael Jackson recorded two of the biggest selling albums of all time. In the beginning of his solo career at least he was a black man who on Off the Wall popularised disco, a movement which originated in seventies New York’s gay scene and which got pleasingly up the noses of many closed off Americans. That the corrosive effects of money, fame and isolation eventually left him unable to tell what was right or wrong is unforgiveable, but equally unsurprising. Do his mistakes mean we should deny ourselves the thrill ever again of listening to Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Billie Jean or Got to Be Starting Something? The world would be a dimmer place if that were true.
The essence of stardom is the suspension of belief, both in the performer and the fan. For those following there is a shorthand in place, be it a projection of the idol onto ourselves, or a faith that their perfection is absolute. The star needs to be loved, because devotion is the real currency of celebrity, not money, which is merely the by product. Occasionally we obsess with the anti-matter, the pre-Army Elvis, the romance period Morrissey, or motherable junkies such as Pete Doherty. But these relationships depend on concessions and ultimately their impurity is less fulfilling.
If draconian solutions are sought, introduce new rules to take over rights to an artist’s material and pay any profits to charity. But don’t take away the ability for us to make our own decisions about what we listen to. We should always hate bad people. But never good music.
Picture: Rory Culkin as Euronymous. Copyright ATH.