Sadistic Violence as Ridiculous: Bloodbath, South Park and American Psycho

Bloodbath, are probably my favourite straight up Death Metal band. While I like them from a strictly a musical perspective, one other thing that draws me to them is their ability to present extreme violence and sadism in a mocking light that makes extreme violence something that can be laughed at as opposed to being feared. But, this raises the question of how the arts can present sadistic violence in this way, as it would seem that extreme violence and sadism are always horrifying and threatening. In considering Bloodbath three factors come to light that contribute to the ability of art able to present extreme violence and sadism in a mocking light. Firstly, when art takes violence and sadism to the furthest possible extremes it can make violence seem silly and thus ridiculous. Likewise, when the perpetrator of violence somehow seems very unthreatening this can also contribute to the ability of art to present extreme violence and sadism in a mocking light. Lastly, the fact that music is intended to evoke beauty makes the forthright statement of violent sadistic desires in song seem quite ridiculous. It should be noted that there may be other factors that I have not taken into consideration, and I do not claim that the list I have developed is exhaustive.

For example if we look at some of the lyrics of the song “Cry My Name” by Bloodbath we see that the lyrics present violent, disturbing grotesque imagery, but that this grotesqueness is more akin to a ridiculous horror movie than to a something that is genuinely worth fearing. For example the vocalist of Bloodbath on this album, Mikael Akerfeldt, sings, or rather growls:

You will see
My burning inferno
And there is no way
In your wildest dreams
That you can say no

I suffocate your soul
And drain you of your lifeblood
The breathing darkness here
Will make you disappear
There is no return

I steal your soul
And carve a hole right where your heart once used to be
I watch you die
I hear you cry
It fills my soul with such delight

There is something quite ridiculous about these lyrics. The idea of somebody being delighted watching somebody die and hearing someone cry is might seem horrifying, but when presented in an entirely deadpan, shameless way in the context of a piece of music it hardly seems threatening and just seems absurd. In many ways a song like this is analogous to much of the imagery presented in American Psycho. While I have not read the book, in the film, American Pyscho, we see a character in Patrick Bateman who genuinely delights in horrific violence and sadism, but we are not made to be frightened of him as we are of a character like Hannibal Lector. Instead, we are supposed to find him ridiculous.  Likewise in Bloodbath’s lyrics the deadpan presentation of sadistic, violent imagery allows us to see that these desires have a certain comedic element

The question that this raises is how do we present the truly horrific in a way that it renders it absurd? If I confronted a person as described in “Cry My Name” I would certainly be afraid of being with them alone. But when we are presented the image a person not as a person we have to deal with, but just as a fabrication it can render them ridiculous. The first factor that allows artists to present violent sadism as ridiculous is to take their violence and sadism to the most implausible of extremes such that it seems far less imaginable.

In South Park, the Christmas Critters are among the most violent and sadistic of beings, but they take their violence so far that we cannot help but laugh at it, rather than being afraid. Part of what makes the Christmas Critters ridiculous is that they are adorable woodland animals, but contrastingly part of this is driven by the fact that their violence and sadism has been taken to such an extreme. For example in the episode, “Imaginationland II” the Christmas Critters propose to make Strawberry Shortcake’s torture worse by forcing her to eat the eye that the other evil characters have gouged out and then having someone with AIDS urinate in her eye socket to give her the disease. This is possibly one of the most horrible and disturbing images of sadism, and yet we laugh at the Christmas Critters as they have taken the urge for violence to the most extreme limits, such that we cannot imagine somebody having these desires. Similarly, in the song “Mass Strangulation” Bloodbath take the frightening premise of strangulation to such an extreme that it becomes absurd and somewhat ridiculous. For example, the lyrics say

40 people or more – tied to hands and feet
Awaiting strangulation – darkening deceit
Rope around the neck – eyes falling out slow
Extreme asphyxiation – blackened murder flow
Your eyes start to spray, panic in dismay
Deathwish appearing fast
Insanity supreme, praying to be free
Guts explode in a blast

These lyrics present a horrifying spectacle, but at the same time the notion of “eyes starting to spray” and “guts exploding in a blast” is so extreme that it seems ridiculous. Consequently, one factor that contributes to the ability of some art to present violent sadism in a mocking light is by taking certain violent sadistic displays to the farthest possible extreme.

An additional factor that contributes to the ability of art to present violent sadism as something to be laughed at or mocked is our understanding of the character engaging in these acts. In the case of the Christmas Critters it is just funny to think of cute talking woodland critters doing the most horrific acts imaginable. In the case of Bloodbath for a good section of their career they have had a vocalist in Mikael Akerfeldt who comes across as very mild mannered, and hardly threatening and who has written beautiful ballads with Opeth like “Benighted,” “Face of Melinda,” and “Windowpane.” Knowledge of who Mikael Akerfeldt is probably further engrains the fact that the violent sadism is being presented in a mocking light as opposed to a genuine desire as he does not seem like a person with any sort of harsh violent sadistic tendencies. Thus, it seems that the presentation of a seemingly unthreatening agent as the perpetrator of violent sadism allows art to present violent sadism in a mocking light.

The last factor is the contrast between the purported aim of music to evoke beauty and lyrics that present the most horrific of desires. For example, if I were to write a song about how I much I enjoy eating babies when they are slow roasted over an open fire pit and stuffed with 40 cloves of garlic it is hard to not see my song as ridiculous. The musician typically bares his inner self, but this inner self has to be presented as humane and understandable in order to be taken as a serious presentation of beauty. Like my song about the epicurean delight of baby eating, Bloodbath’s music reveals horrific desires, but in the context of a form of art that is supposed to evoke beauty. This contrast allow us to see past the surface level horror presented in the lyrics to see that these violent urges are being mocked as opposed to being glorified. Thus, it seems that the factors noted in the preceding allow art to show violence as something to be mocked and laughed at rather than feared.

I would be interested to know what others think about this issue:

What other factors contribute to the ability of art to present the most horrific violence as ridiculous?

Do you think that any of the factors elucidated above is more important than the others?

Do you think that “Cry My Name” is a fantastic, clever song?

 

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The Appeal of Amon Amarth – Violence, Independence and Domination

As I was listening to Amon Amarth this past week I began to ponder why a significant portion of the population of post-industrial societies are fascinated by, and drawn to, the brutal way of life of the Vikings, the Huns, and other conquering peoples. The norms of these people are absolutely opposed to our own, in many regards, but yet people seem to be attracted to the way of life that they lead, and furthermore, it does not seem that we simply see it as a manifestation of evil. We might see their way of life as cruel and inhumane, but there is something that we esteem in their way of life.

For those who are unaware Amon Amarth is a melodic death metal band whose lyrics revolve around Norse mythology and the Viking age. In Amon Amarth’s song “Gods of War Arise” they offer a fictional chronicle of Viking raids. At one point in the song the lyrics say:

“Some seek shelter in the church
A refuge for those with faith
But we know how to smoke them out
A pyre will be raised

But those who choose to stand and fight
Will die with dignity
For the unfortunate few who survived
Waits a life in slavery”

This is a very stark statement of the notion that the pursuit of survival for its own sake lacks dignity and that the real “man” is someone who takes what he can get and will fight to the death rather than accept a servile existence.

To some degree it is difficult to take Amon Amarth seriously as their lyrics seem to espouse a “Viking” perspective with such candour, that it is hard to imagine any member of the band actually is endorsing this perspective. Nonetheless, there must be some reason why they chose this topic and why many find their lyrics fascinating. It seems to me that the appeal of their lyrics is a result of a couple of factors.

The first factor seems to be that despite the fact that we are all civilized, polite people we value elements of the brutal way of life that was manifested in the Viking age. One element of the Viking way of life we value might be colloquially known as the value of the “badass.” The badass takes whatever he or she wants and does not cow to anyone’s commands. They are truly self-directing, and because of this they need to have no regard for the claims of justice or public morality. Likewise the Vikings as a people took what they desired to have and did not bow down to anyone. The badass is very spirited and so are the Vikings. The point of this is not necessarily to gather riches or material goods, but rather to be a person or a people whose will does not bend to the will of others. We may not endorse the activities of the badass, but secretly part of us wishes we could be like them. Consequently, the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to at least partially lie in our appreciation of the value of the “badass” as it is manifested through the images of the Vikings that Amon Amarth presents.

However, our appreciation of the value of the “badass” is at odds with the very social norms of our own society. Most people will necessarily have to work within a hierarchical structure, and working in a hierarchical structure encourages compromise and servility. One can only be so authentic when working with superiors who control one’s ability to support oneself. To some degree, we must placate our superiors and censor ourselves to ensure that we have a stable income and a comfortable life. In a sense, the significant group who accept this compromise are like the person who chooses the life of slavery over fighting to the death. They choose survival and existence over independence. In this sense, the value of independence stands in stark contrast to much of life in postindustrial society. This is further supported by the fact that in postindustrial society we acquire goods through commerce and trade, rather than force.

However, while this factor explains part of the appeal of Amon Amarth’s lyrics it does not necessarily explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. For example, in “Gods of War Arise” the vocalist roars

“The day draws to an end
The night comes dark and cold
We return to our ships
With silver, slaves and gold
We gave them agony, as they fell and die
The gods have granted victory
For our sacrifice”

Spiritedness and independence need not take on the violent form that they do in Amon Amarth lyrics. So, we are still are left to explain the appeal of the violent elements of their lyrics. These lyrics not only seem to see violence as an important means of the acquisition of property for the Vikings, rather they suggest a kind of glorification of violent conquest as something that is to be valued for its own sake.

While I am not entirely sure why people find the the violent elements of Amon Amarth’s lyrics fascinating it seems to me that the best explanation is provided by the fact that we have an unrecognized desire to dominate over others. This desire is not the dominant desire of humanity, but to deny its existence in the face of human history seems to be questionable. The desire to master others and be a little tyrant whose every wish is obeyed seems to be a natural desire for all human beings. This is evident when we witness the tantrum of a two year old. The two year old who has a tantrum does so because their parents are not obeying them as good subjects should obey a tyrant. In a sense we can overcome the desire to dominate others by discouraging them and encouraging the desire to be seen as an equal rather than a master, but I do not think we can completely escape our desire to dominate over others. Consequently, there is a part of us that will always be attracted to violent domination. There is a reason that video games, films and literature that portray violent domination are often more popular than those that portray ordinary civilized human relationships. Thus, the appeal of the violence of Amon Amarth’s lyrics seems to lie in this deep seated desire to dominate others. Once again we do not endorse the Vikings brutal domination of others, but on some level we cannot help but being impressed by their ability to dominate their enemies.

The preceding analysis points to a problem for post-industrial societies. That problem is how to deal with our desire for a fierce form of independence and our desire to dominate over others. To some degree we sometimes pretend that these desires don’t exist, but our art and our entertainment seem to suggest that they are very real. Consequently, we cannot simply ignore these desires. Some may wish to try to rid society of these desires, others may want to try to direct them towards something useful, but we must recognize that we have these desires and cautiously consider the dangers these desires pose and how they are best dealt with. It is unclear to me what the best course of action is, but we must begin to think and talk about this side of our nature.