Borealism is essentially a form of exoticism, building on Edward Saïd’s “orientalism,” a concept detailing how European artistic depictions of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures tended to emphasize violence, “primitiveness,” and sensuality. It is one way we define ourselves collectively by defining who we *aren’t*, often with a hefty dose of condescension. Borealism adapts orientalism to the Nordic and Arctic regions, exploring how it has long been imagined as wild, mysterious, and magical in the global imagination. These conceptions might seem benign or even complimentary, but the tone is often rather patronizing toward the people who actually live in the region, portraying them as provincial and superstitious. Yet the same ideals that form borealism also form important cornerstones of these countries’ cultural symbols and national mythologies, and were crucial in establishing nascent national identities for former colonial outposts like Norway and Iceland. In this way, the region’s aura of magic, danger, and wildness becomes a symbolic asset for musicians and artists living far from the urban cultural centers of continental Europe and the USA.
The concept of borealism becomes relevant to metal studies largely because of the importance of the Nordic regions as hotbeds for metal activity over the past generation. The notorious Norwegian scene of the early 1990s in particular revelled in the landscapes of the region, and threads of wildness, isolation, and remoteness were deliberately woven through their lyrics, cover art, and discourse by musicians and fans. For fans in other parts of the world, the remote “Nordic-ness” is undoubtedly part of the appeal, whether simply as an immersive fantasy sparked by the music, or as part of a self-applied cultural or political identity. Although borealism is specific to the Nordic and polar regions, it is also reflected in the ways that musicians in other parts of the world sometimes exoticize themselves in order to meet the expectations of international audiences.
Songs to keep in your ear