Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death by Christopher Partridge

A memorial plaque at the site where T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan was killed in an automobile accident

“[A]ffective space . . . refers to music’s prosthetic ability to manipulate emotion and, thereby, to create internal worlds within which meaning is constructed. . . . In other words, music often contextualizes and gives meaning to situations because of what might be thought of as its “intertexutal” relationship to compositional compositions.” – Christopher Partridge, Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death, p.65

In 2015, singer-songwriter Steven Wilson released his fourth studio album, Hand. Cannot. EraseA song-cycle revolving around issues of death and mourning, the album was inspired in part by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent.

Joyce Carol Vincent was only 38 years old when she apparently passed away, and 41 years old when her remains were finally found laying on her living room sofa.  Her body was so badly decomposed that the reason of death could not be determined. She was identified from dental records.

And yet no one checked on her for three whole years.

As the author of the above-linked article asks: “How does a person die without anybody noticing for three years?”

Wilson had already composed albums with his band Porcupine Tree that dealt with death – Deadwing and The Incident – and another dealing with teenage angst, Fear Of A Blank Planet, that concludes with a song about suicide, “Let’s Sleep Together”. This was familiar territory for Wilson, and Hand. Cannot. Erase. is powerful and emotionally moving, the issues central to the album’s concept treated with care and a depth of feeling that isn’t always present in popular music.*

While many might consider the idea of creating music around death, especially one such as Ms. Vincent’s, not just morbid but downright depressing, the truth is popular music has always dealt with matters of death and dying, with suicide and murder, even with decay and decompositiion. While the peculiar circumstances of our emerging post-modern sensibilities offer opportunities to understand such music in new and interesting ways, we should always be careful when we judge the often youthful creators of such music, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix performing the murder ballad, “Hey Joe” or Carcass’s “Exhume To Consume“. We aren’t living in some particularly odd time where (some) musicians find ruminations on death fascinating. ‘Twas ever thus.

If Christopher Partridge’s previous major work, The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, The Sacred, and The Profane, set forth a large theoretical framework within which popular music can be understood, as he says many times, as creating affective spaces within which meaning can be created. then Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death is the application of this theory to a particular set of musical and lyrical conventions in contemporary popular music concerning themselves with matters of the uncanny, the Gothic (generalized rather than specifically the Goth scene, although including those), suicide, decay and decomposition. I was glad I reread his previous work before reading this newly released volume, offering me the opportunity to revisit the major themes of liminal communities and communitas, the impure sacred, and other concepts that are at the heart of any study of the treatment of death in popular music.

Partridge uses a combination of a sociology of knowledge and cultural criticism to offer the reader opportunities to understand not just the music that inhabits this set of borderline themes but those who find within such music meaning, the book highlights the many layers of meaning within such disparate genres as early post-punk (Joy Division, PIL), folk (Nick Cave), Industrial, Death and Black Metal (Carcass, Cannibal Corpse), and hip-hop (Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent). Never shying away from the equivocal nature of even the best such musics, he nevertheless treats his subject and those involved with respect and understanding. In many ways, his treatment of the subject matter specifically regarding Death Metal is an improvement upon Michelle Phillipov’s Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits, which is far more an apologia for some of the lyrical excesses of bands like Cannibal Corpse and Carcass. Limiting understanding to such extremes to an aesthetic of playfulness not only offers more meaning to such excesses than they probably deserve, using Partridge’s theoretical framework situates such extremes within the reality of the intertextuality within which all culture should be understood (although I do wish Partridge had included the fact that some of Carcass’s early lyrical excessiveness was rooted in the band’s militant vegetarianism; their wading knee deep in gore did have a socio-political raison d’ete, although it was certainly aided and abetted by youthful willingness to revel in bad taste).

While the book is insightful and will leave the reader both a greater understanding of the “how” and “why” of such musics and the communities who find meaning and communitas within these extremes, there are two issues that I wish to address. First is an editorial matter. Partridge is a lover both of beginning sentences either with adverbs or long adverbial phrases as well as the passive voice. The repeated appearance of “as has been shown”, sentences beginning with “Hence” or “Indeed” (and yes, I’m guilty of this myself; I, however, only have myself as an editor) started to yank me out of the flow of reading. I suppose this is a minor quibble, in the end, as much a matter of a particular reader’s preferences as anything else.

Second, and far more distracting, was his treatment of hip-hop. Treating it solely within a subsection of the chapter, “Morbidity, Violence, and Suicide”, I found “Living on Death Row” to be surprisingly conventional in both its view of such topics within hip-hop and his agreement with many critics who see the political potential of the genre wasting away with the influx of money and increased commercialization. All musics, as Theodor Adorno reminds us, exist under the shadow of capitalist exploitation; even the most boundary-pushing musical style is available to the general public precisely because it makes money. To criticize hip-hop for being commercially successful makes little sense. While Partridge does speak somewhat of the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., he doesn’t spend overtime considering the mythologization of both within hip-hop (his last chapter deals with the deification of dead musical performers and only mentions Shakur’s name; in fact, Shakur is the subject of much mythologization, including, like Jim Morrison, the myth that Shakur faked his own death. Finally, his treatment of hip-hop is far too generalized, making generalizations and sweeping statements about the genre that seem not to recognize the varieties of subgenres and subcultures within hip-hop.

And while I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the fascist and anti-Semitic politics of some of Black Metal, both musicians and fans, should be discussed in any consideration of matters of death and popular music. While Partridge does talk about one of the murders, that of Euronymous by his friend and bandmate Varg Vikernes, and the epidemic of church-burnings in Norway when Black Metal first emerged in that country, he doesn’t speak at all of the murders committed by members of other bands (Emperor’s drummer murdered a man who was trying to solicit sex; one serial killer in Germany and the United States found his identity within both Black Metal and German neo-Nazism) as well as the anti-Semitism of Vikernes (who has spoken and written at length of Norway’s WWII-era occupation leader Vidkun Quisling), Gaahl of Gorgoroth, and others. If the misogyny expressed in hip-hop and some death metal is to be taken seriously as being socially and culturally problematic, then the overt associations with violent, reactionary political movements and the many corpses that lay at the feet of Black Metal should be treated with far more seriousness than I found them to be in this volume.

Having said all that, I still found this book an excellent treatment of a subject too often parodied or ignored or treated with a kind of superficial contempt it doesn’t warrant. Like it’s predecessor (which I would strongly advise reading before reading this volume), Mortality and Music is an important contribution to the exploding discussion of popular music and contemporary society and culture. It has much to say that needs to be said, and it says it well. Whether you’re interested in the religious, cultural, social, or even political meaning of the vast catalog of contemporary popular music’s songs of death, this book will speak to readers in a fresh and interesting light, and within a theoretical framework that demands the subject matter be treated with all the seriousness it deserves.

*I think that’s in part because at the time he wrote and recorded the album, Wilson was 48 years old. Age does offer the opportunity for thoughtfulness.


Confessions Of A Heretic: The Sacred And The Profane: Behemoth And Beyond

I remember a particular concert in Marseille. People ran amok there. I threw pages of the Bible at them and they ate them, burned them, or tore them apart. That was crazy. I felt that we had hit the spot. We had focused their anger. If people come to a show and explode with such madness, that happens for a reason. They saw religion and its influence on society as a form o repression, and you could say that our concert purified them. . . .

We have a very specific audience, remember. They like blasphemy. We once played  show at Stodola in Warsaw. After a few songs, the lights went out. When they came back on, I made a joke that apparently God was responsible for Warsaw’s electricity supply. All the people in the room started shouting ‘Fuck God! Fuck God!’ A few thousand throats were yelling. I just smiled. – Adam Nergal Darski, with Kryzysztof Azarewicz, Piotr Weltrowski, translated by Mark Eglinton, Confessions Of A Heretic: The Sacred And The Profane: Behemoth And Beyond, pp.43-44

Nergal In Concert With Behemoth

Nergal In Concert With Behemoth

In the early 1990’s, a small group of musicians living in Norway took elements of heavy metal, specifically the more progressive forms of death metal, stripped them bare of their glossy, often over-produced heaviness, stealing only the speed and underlying rage to provide the “heavy” in the metal. Bands like Slayer, Morbid Angel, Possessed, and Venom had already played around with Satanic lyrics, sometimes as symbol, sometimes with a modicum of seriousness, and sometimes without caring one whit about the lyrics themselves. These young Norwegian bands – Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor – were deadly earnest when writing lyrics that abounded with Satanic imagery. So earnest in fact that over the space of a few years, members of these bands and their fans burned about 50 churches, some close to a thousand years old, across the country. Two musicians were imprisoned for murder. Black metal, as the music called itself (after the title of a Venom album), was many things, but one thing it was not was “just music”.

To young Polish teen Adam Darski, Black Metal offered the final piece in the puzzle he was putting together, the puzzle that was both his identity and his desire to express the things he thought and believed as well as how to express them. Not only the power of the music – often missing on those early recordings from studio creations like Bathory, and Mayhem’s first album due to poor studio conditions – but the social and religious protest involved in adopting an overtly Satanic persona provided the vocabulary that Darski still uses to do more than just “play music”. On stage, Behemoth is an intimidating presence, still wearing corpse paint long after it’s gone out of style; the music is fast, complex, yet also raw. Listening to a piece like “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” feels like having thorns dragged over your skin. There’s also this horrid, dark beauty about this song; it’s anthemic with its sing-along “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory”. All the same, their stage presence is just a little overwhelming. I’m quite sure there’s always an air of danger at their shows, as if anything could happen. In this sense, Nergal is a true artist. He is provocative, a threat to the most basic, comforting notions we use to offer ourselves security. Far from a necessary evil, Darski and his band are a necessary social good, not just in their native Poland, but anywhere social and religious authorities tend to be just a bit too smug about their power.

Nergal interviewed

Nergal interviewed

This memoir, however – the result of a series of interviews conducted by Nergal’s friends, originally appearing in Poland in 2012 as Spowiedz Heretyka – shows that as seriously as everyone should take both Nergal and the band Behemoth as artists and musicians, he is no simple-minded stereotypical heavy metal musician. Coming away from the book, I feel a real desire to go to Gdansk, look him up, and offer to buy him some beers so we could sit and talk. Not about religion, obviously; about art, though, and what it is to become a national celebrity while never compromising one’s art. He’s intelligent, very well-read, thoughtful, surrounded by good friends – much needed during his battle with leukemia in 2010 and 2011 – and family, and has a wry sense of humor.

More interesting than his long relationship with Polish pop star Dorota was his stint on the Polish version of the TV show The Voice. Having just come out of hospital, he took the offer both for the money as well as, it seems, the thought it would be fun. He admits being intimidated because he isn’t a “singer” and can’t in fact “sing”. All the same, he did a season and it was quite popular despite the producers worries he would . . . who knows? eat a puppy? . . . do something provocative. He did wear a figure of Baphomet around his neck, but it seems few people noticed. Already a figure of national renown both because of repeated attacks from the Catholic Church as well as living with Dorota for a year, the public now saw Nergal as far more than a spouter of blasphemies and extreme artist.

This book does for English-speaking readers what his television appearances did for people in Poland. Nergal is many things, by his own admission. He is always a work in progress. Yet planet Nergal revolves around a sun called “Music” that looks an awful lot like four guys playing extreme music to fans around the world. I won’t pretend that Behemoth’s music, which I hear always balancing this sharp edge between Death Metal and Black Metal, is for everyone. On the contrary, if it were for everybody, it wouldn’t be as provocative or dangerous as it is. It wouldn’t be art. That it is, and that at its best  – “Lucifer”, “Furor Divinus”, and “Amen” along with the aforementioned “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer” – becomes something beautiful without losing its threat or danger or provocation, is deafening testimony to Nergal’s efforts to create something both unique and powerful.

Much like the man himself. I won’t pretend to agree with him. I also won’t pretend that this memoir doesn’t present a human being like all of us, yet unlike anyone you’d encounter. Which is what makes the book a more than worthy read. At the end of the day, for all the Satanic fury of his music, I feel like if Nergal and I met, we’d probably get along, as long as we didn’t talk about religion.

Theodor W. Adorno, “Why Is The New Art So Hard To Understand?”

The shock that accompanied the new artistic movements immediately before [The First World War] is the expression of the fact that the break between production and consumption became radical; that for this reason art no longer has the task of representing a reality that is preexisting for everyone in common, but rather of revealing, in its isolation, the very cracks that reality would like to cover over in order to exist in safety; and that, in so doing, it repels reality – Adorno, “Why Is The New Art So Hard To Understand?”, in Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.131

Last winter, after reading a history of 20th century classical music, I posted the above video for Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” on Facebook.  The result was confusion and the general opinion that I was nuts to like something like this.  Where for me the long slow sense of building toward something, without moving around a harmonic or rhythmic center, captures something about how we humans move through life, for others it was just formless, aimless noise.

Which, of course, it what makes it so beautiful.

In this essay, Adorno attempts to explain to a popular audience what is still perceived as the intrinsic difficulty of what Adorno still called “the new music” in 1931, when this address was given.  For Adorno, the answer is simple enough: the radical break between production and consumption, the collapse of this heart of late capitalism – soon to use Fascism to attempt to shore it back up, a use that failed both art and humanity brilliantly and horrifically – is precisely mirrored in the gulf between the art being produced and the audience for whom it is intended.

Adorno is extremely polite, never once stooping to any claims that the audience is stupid, puerile, or worst of all Philistine in its desire for an art that is grasped without the need for thought.  On the contrary, while insisting the problem lies not with the art or artists but with a society so radically estranged that it cannot or will not see or hear how that estrangement is mirrored in this “difficult” art, Adorno never once stoops to say, in essence, “The problem is yours.”  For Adorno, it is rather a structural matter of the society that is producing the art.

Noting that it is impossible to produce – or re-produce – so-called folk arts (he uses the failed attempts in early Stalinist Russia as an example) without reducing the art itself to meaninglessness and the audience to a kind of reactionary nostalgia for what can never be again, Adorno warns his listeners/readers that the “difficulty” is at heart sociological rather than aesthetic.  In an attempt to create art that both reflects and transcends (as much as it can) the contemporary age, the artists end up demonstrating the radical break between production and consumption.  This radical break is the heart of the “difficulty” of the art, rather than anything intrinsic to the art.

To use an example from a completely different time and genre, consider the radical break – musically, socially – presented by Norwegian Black Metal.  Below is a clip of Emperor performing a song from their first full-length release (I am using a live clip because the production values on that album are horrible):

Not just a radical break with rock music, or popular music, or even the sub-genre of heavy metal, black metal offers little in the way of traditional rhythms; its harmonic structure is odd even for a style of music use to strange modes and chords; its vocal style is unrelenting, difficult to grasp, and unapologetic.  These, however, are all deliberate artistic choices, not least because of the subject matter of the music as well as the “ideology” (for lack of a better word; not in the sense Adorno would have understood it, certainly) that lies behind it.  This music is not supposed to be easy to listen to; it represents as radical a break from bourgeois entertainment as did Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern a century ago.

Yet, it is also beautiful, haunting in its offer both of danger and its unapologetic demands upon the listener.  As one commentator notes, this is not easy music to play, taking both technical knowledge and a skill that is rooted in native talent.  All designed around an unrelenting sense of doom.  Offering up a radical break with the comforting, perhaps even smothering, state-sponsored comforts of Norway and Norwegian life, Black Metal at its best offers up a far easier to grasp demonstration of that “break” of which Adorno speaks.  Yet, if you have the ear to listen, you can appreciate Black Metal on its own terms as an art form born of resistance against a cloying mediocrity and nominal Christianity that had all but died.  Only when we are willing to allow ourselves to be confronted by what this art is telling us does the difficulty disappear.


Bert F. Polman, “Forward Steps And Side Steps In A Walk-Through Of Christian Hymnody”, in Kroeker, ed. Music In Christian Worship

As a Christian I believe in the resurrection of the dead accomplished in Christ, in new life processed by the holy Spirit, and then it becomes relatively easy for me to trust that God will correct our human foibles, our squabbles over church music, and our current obsession with sometimes ephemeral repertoire. – Bert F. Polman, “Forward Steps And Side Steps In A Walk-Through Of Christian Hymnody”, in Charlotte Kroeker, ed., Music In Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, p.72

No essay that purports to be a sketch of Christian hymnody can do much more than name some names, highlight those hymns most Christians, regardless of denomination, know by heart, and talk about the most important controversies, historical and contemporary, that music in Christian worship brings in its train.  This essay, for example, doesn’t mention the controversy that arose with Baroque polyphony, its temporary anathematization, and how it is now revered (including by this author, who has a hundreds-long playlist on Spotify dedicated to Palestrina, Tomas Luis de Victoria, William Byrd, and more).  Also left out is the controversy within the African-American community over the far-too-close relationship between the spirituals and the blues, and especially the sense of betrayal when a Spiritual or Gospel singer abandoned the style for mainstream music.  These are as much a part of the history of church music and the controversies it excites as Calvin’s insistence on singing only Psalms, or the move from Latin to vernacular in the Roman Mass.

As usual, it is important to note the musical background.  While I didn’t listen to anything while reading this short historical overview, while I write this I’m listening to the Norwegian Black Metal band Emperor’s Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire And Demise.  I find the juxtaposition between youthful blasphemy (as a substitute for political action) and a consideration of the history of church music to be edifying, to say the least.  As someone for whom the whole notion of blasphemy holds little power, it is as much the stylistic differences between the complex, polyphonic (in more than one sense), and technically exacting Black Metal and the far-too-often banal music presented for the church that push this particular reader to think more deeply about the matters before us.

Polman frames his discussion within the Biblical framework set forth not only by the Psalms (a subject to which he returns several times) but also the Pauline injunction that when the congregation gathers, it is to sings hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs.  From the beginning then, ours has been a singing church.  Polman then jumps ahead to his rather extended medieval period, from roughly AD 600- 1400, in which the element of a singing congregation is replaced over time by a performative, chant-based ritual.

It is with the Protestant Reformation that there bursts forth new hymns and songs and once again the congregation becomes a participant in the sung praise of God.  Of course, with Calvin, such singing is limited to the Psalms and Polman, a Calvinist, calls out the Genevan Reformer on this gross theological and pastoral error.

He skips over the next centuries, name dropping Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, Fanny Crosby, and others. He turns to the question of contemporary “praise” music, and his criticism of it as containing theological “milk”.  From here, he develops a series of criticisms of the practice of music in worship that segregates music based upon theological content as much as generational preferences.

His biggest criticism, and one I think hits something squarely on the head, is how even the Calvnists, with their insistence on sola Psalma tended to avoid the lament Psalms, which make up roughly a third of the Psalms.  Even those hymns we know well, such as “It Is Well With My Soul”, that are rooted in tragedy, nevertheless are not so much laments as they are the second half of most lament Pslams in which the author insists God will be praised even in the midst of the mystery of suffering.  Along with the common theme that choirs and “special music” create a performative aspect in our corporate worship, whereas music should serve the whole community, include inviting everyone to sing along, Polman insists there needs to be space for voicing our anger and sorrow over illness, suffering, and death.  The overemphasis on “praise” as the sole criteria for hymnody misses the point that even the Biblical authors saw fit to address complaints, demands, questions, and sorrow within the texts of their songs to God.

It is this lack of lament that brings me, in a curious (but not unintentional) way back around to Black Metal and the screeched blasphemies of Emperor and other bands in the genre.  We in the west, particularly since the end of the Second World War, have sought to extend material comforts as well as social and political freedoms as far as possible.  At the same time, the realities of the horrors of two world wars brought much of Europe to the conclusion that the churches just did not address the realities of human brutality, a situation much of 19th century Christianity insisted was overcome.  While the official churches limped on, the vast majority of Europeans (and increasingly Americans) set it all to one side.  Without a vocabulary, save perhaps political radicalisms of various sorts, with which to express their frustrations with the combination of a cloying mediocrity imposed for the beneficial sake of all as well as perennial complaints about death, illness, and suffering, there seemed little to which young people could turn to voice their rage at elders who continued to speak in a religious language that was no longer understandable.

Thus the rise of death metal and its far more blasphemous step-cousin, Black Metal.  We in the churches continue to fight over praise music versus traditional hymnody; Tridentine Mass versus Vernacular; contemporary hymnody versus Gospel music; all the while our children and youth seek out their own ways to express their frustrations, their pain, and their rage at a world that continues to make no sense.  Listening to the blaring blasphemies of Black Metal offers us the opportunity to hear lament in a vocabulary that some youth understand.