Finland is a fertile ground for metal music.
The popularity of heavy metal is undeniable here. In Europe, the country reigns supreme in this genre. You can listen to metal music on commercial radio in Finland. Metal also dominates the Finnish charts.
But why is this extreme form of music embraced so cordially by a nation often described as silent and socially reserved?
Here are two possible explanations.
Processor of pent-up emotions
Emotional restraint is an identifiable behaviour pattern of Finnish people.
Finns are very straightforward and precise when they talk, but they do not easily express their emotions.
Their emotions tend to make an inward journey. Whatever emotions –soft or hard– they feel, they keep those inside. Any overt and grand manifestation of emotion is viewed as culturally inappropriate.
Ida-Katharina Kiljander, one of the lead vocalists of the Oulu-based metal band Mournful Lines, thinks emotional introversion is a form of learned behaviour in Finland and the roots go back quite far in history.
“I feel that the introversion also has to do with the fact that we often want to keep things private. It has not been socially acceptable to show great emotions, for example anger or sorrow. One has to appear ‘strong’ at all costs”, she told me in an email interview.
This repression of emotion is connected to the broad enthusiasm for the metal genre in this Nordic country. Apart from the sophistication and complexity of the musical styles, metal songs openly talk about a diverse range of emotions.
This strikes a chord with Finns.
Metal music almost works as an avenue for these Nordic folks to process and deal with emotions that they feel but do not openly express.
“The reason why heavy metal might reflect the Finnish mentality is probably because we are so private that it is difficult to discuss our feelings, but still we need an outlet to deal with these negative emotions", explained Ida, who also works as a music teacher.
She added that metal music should not be associated with negative emotions only.
“The emotions linked with metal often seem to be of negative nature, for example, sorrow, aggression and anxiety. Yet, I might also listen to melodic death metal or classical heavy metal in order to get an energy boost”.
Ida Katharina Kiljander, playing piano. Photo: Erno Karjalainen.
Lauri Porra, the great-grandson of the legendary Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, thinks there is a connection between heavy metal and the classical Sibelius compositions that were highly inspired by the Finnish nature.
"The sun goes down very early, and the winters are bleak. Then in the summer we fall in love and the sun never sets. And I guess everybody knows a little bit about this Nordic melancholy, and sort of the way Finnish people express emotions", he told CNN.
A strong sense of belonging
When it comes to metal music, the boundary between fans and non-fans is quite evident. There is a dividing line between the two groups. One is obviously thrilled about headbanging while the other disapproves it.
This dividing line is what sets the stage for exclusivity. It creates a feeling of being ‘insider’ vs ‘outsider’ in the arena of metal music.
Metal fans feel a ‘not-our-type’ vibe about non-fans. They feel ‘special’ and ‘exclusive’ in the sense that the type of music they are fond of is not everyone’s cup of tea. When they think of this in a collective manner, this creates a sense of belonging in them. To belong means to be part of something.
“A sense of belonging is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter. Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in coping with intensely painful emotions”, writes Karyn Hall, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, Mindfulness Exercises, and SAVVY.
The more exclusive is that ‘something’ people are part of, the stronger is the feeling of belonging. Metal fans strongly feel that they belong to a close-knit group.
Former US president Barack Obama, while welcoming Nordic leaders to the White House in 2016 for a Nordic-US summit, lauded the Finnish heavy metal culture
Professor Bill Thompson from Australia, who has long been doing research on the emotional effects of violent and aggressive music, argues that the exclusivity death metal fans feel enhances a sense of identity and belonging within the community.
This sense of identity explains the high level of popularity of metal music in Finland to a great extent.
A huge number of festivals
The Finnish metal scene is huge. With 70 metal bands per 100,000 people, Finland is the most metal nation in Europe. The country hosts a number of metal festivals every year, especially during summer. A record 43,000 metalheads attended the popular Tuska festival in 2019 where a total of 46 bands performed.
The Finnish love for metal has also crossed the country’s borders to reach far-flung destinations. Former US president Barack Obama, while welcoming Nordic leaders to the White House in 2016 for a Nordic-US summit, lauded the Finnish heavy metal culture.
Ida also believes the sense of belonging is key when it comes to explaining how metal music represents Finnishness.
“Apart from adjusting feelings through music, there might also be the sensation of kinship which comes from non-musical factors,” she said.
“The heavy metal community is quite tight, and it feels good to know that I am not the only one going through negative emotions. When I was an adolescent, I took great comfort in heavy metal lyrics. It felt like there was someone else that also feels like I do,” explained Ida.
Although not every Finn is a hardcore metal fan, the prominence of this form of music in this North European country is indisputable. The widespread acceptance of metal in the Finnish society has helped it emerge as a key component of Finnishness over the years.