BY Titus Hjelm
For many an outside observer, metal music seems to be an integral part of Finnishness, representing and reflecting national identity. But how did metal become so prominent in the Finnish music scene? And will the prominence last?
I teach Finnish society and culture at a prestigious British university. Yes, you read that correctly − you can study for a degree in Finnish in the UK. Often, after I’ve finished explaining this to my friends, the next question is: why would someone want to study Finnish language and society at a British university?
The answer − surprising to most − is easy: Finnish metal music.
Granted, my student pool is small, but I have yet to come across a single student that did not somehow identify Finland with one metal band or another.
Nightwish, HIM, Apocalyptica, Children of Bodom, Amorphis, Lordi and a host of less well-known bands have become Finnish cultural ambassadors and inspired many people to find out more about the land of a thousand lakes. For an old metalhead-turned-sociologist this is obviously heart-warming. But how did metal become associated so strongly with Finland and ‘Finnishness’, and what does that mean?
Something in the water?
In my dual role as a university teacher and a metal musician, students and journalists alike ask me why there are so many successful metal bands in Finland. Many ask the question with a preconceived idea for an answer: long, dark winters, the melancholy Finnish ‘national psyche’ and even something in the water have all been offered as explanations.
I’m afraid the sociological explanation is much more mundane and boring. Legendary Hanoi Rocks notwithstanding, metal bands were simply the first in Finland to make an international breakthrough. The country lagged more than two decades behind Swedish popular music in international recognition, but when that recognition came, it was metal bands that ‘made it’, not a Finnish version of Abba or Ace of Base. In turn, the successful bands inspired the next generation of young metal musicians, creating new exportable names for the industry. The armies of Ville Valo and Alexi Laiho clones may have dwindled in number since the early 2000s, but the effects of the first wave of success can still be felt. For the outside observer, metal literally seems to have become the new Finnish ‘folk’ music.
Metal goes mainstream
Still, there is more to Finnish metal than international success. Sweden and Norway both have their internationally successful metal bands. However, nowhere in the Nordic countries, indeed nowhere in Europe, has metal achieved the kind of cultural prominence that it enjoys in Finland. Metal is ubiquitous: it can be found in the urban landscape of many Finnish cities, where bars and festivals abound; domestic and foreign metal bands grace the Top 40 charts every week and metal is regularly played on commercial radio. But this cultural prominence of metal also goes all the way up to the top of the political establishment. In an interview with former President Tarja Halonen, the makers of the Promised Land of Heavy Metal documentary asked: “Finland has always been known for its clean nature, technology and education. But do you mind personally that also Lordi is now part of that picture?”
Halonen’s reply is telling: “Do I mind? I love it!” In other words, there is little doubt that due to the international success of Finnish metal bands the genre has become accepted into the official canon of Finnish music − indeed, as an important cultural export, metal has become part of the idea of Finnishness in many ways. Metal bands do not just represent a musical style or subculture, they represent Finland itself.
An unholy alliance?
Enthusiasm about metal’s cultural prominence is not shared by all Finns, of course. On the one hand, focusing one-sidedly on metal bands draws attention away from world-class artists in other genres, which has already caused frustration in parts of the music press at least; one president’s views may not be shared by another; perhaps Angry Birds is seen as a more suitable ‘brand’ for a small nation obsessed with its international image; and so on.
On the other hand, by definition metal sits uneasily as an ‘ambassador’ of Finnishness. The genre might not be as rebellious as it used to be and many of the Finnish ‘big names’ − with some important exceptions − are from the more mainstream end of the metal spectrum. Nevertheless, there is a logic to being a metal musician and (especially) a metal fan, which resists appropriation of the music and culture for any official purposes. Success is OK, being too mainstream is not. And mingling with the establishment too much makes you a sell-out.
I think the cultural prominence of metal has already reached its apex in Finland. But for many who look at Finnish culture from the outside, metal retains a position that is unique in Europe, perhaps in the world.
Whatever the next ‘big thing’ in the Finnish music scene will be, the artists and bands will have to work hard to achieve what metal bands have achieved. Some will go on to international success. Fewer will be identified with Finnishness the way metal has been.
Titus Hjelm is Lecturer in Finnish Society and Culture at University College London, UK. His publications include Heavy Metal: Controversies and Countercultures (edited with Keith Kahn-Harris and Mark LeVine, 2013, https://www.equinoxpub.com/equinox/books/showbook.asp?bkid=476). He is also a member of the Finnish metal band Thunderstone.