Jamming with Jenna, Round #1: Jake Paul, Gaahl, and the Shortcomings of Neurosis-Hungry Documentaries
In this column, IO Staff Writer Jenna DePasquale connects heavy metal with the world at large.
Earlier this October, career YouTuber Shane Dawson did what he does best: leaving viewers utterly shaken as he deep-dives into the life of another prominent member of the social media platform. “Inside the Mind of Jake Paul,” an eight-part docuseries, explores the life of the controversial YouTuber known for performing dangerous stunts, allegedly fibbing about an assault on his assistant, and shilling branded merchandise to children. In Short, Paul is an Ohio boy who has been riding high on a toxic mix of privilege and fame. You may remember his brother, Logan, who is accredited with arguably the largest moral blunder in YouTube history: filming a dead body in the Japanese suicide forest. While there is enough human interest in Paul’s story that simply allowing him and his loved ones to tell it would say a mouthful in and of itself, Dawson took a distinct journalistic approach: examining Paul through the possibility of him being a sociopath.
While Dawson’s documentaries -- subjects include Grav3yardgirl, Tana Mongeau, and Jeffree Star -- have generally received high praise, his unique approach to Paul allowed plenty of space for backlash. First and foremost, he employed the help of a licensed family and marriage therapist instead of a specialized psychologist or psychiatrist. The marriage therapist’s lack of expertise in personality disorders becomes apparent as she provides background information by awkwardly reading verbatim from the DSM. Secondly, perhaps the largest source of discontent among commenters stemmed from the fear of stigmatizing mental illness. The marriage therapist describes sociopathic behaviors as “icky” while ominous music rumbles in the background. Perhaps the most glaring flaw with this approach is that it overlooks the extent to which Paul’s behaviors are facilitated by his environment and the steadfast power it provides.
I contend that this unhealthy focus on “spooky” mental illnesses is not a problem unique to Dawson’s documentaries, but rather, a troubling pattern throughout media reporting. The problem with the sociopathy narrative is its paradox. On one hand, it keeps us from truly understanding the crux of mental health in relation to our environment. Those who are struggling are considered to be monsters, impeding on their ability to receive the appropriate assistance. On the other hand, it allows people who are swept up in hate organizations to hide behind the “lone wolf” veil. It keeps us from understanding why radicalism emerges and, ultimately, why it causes us to act in ways that are considered inhuman. In order to get a better understanding of what these shortcomings look like, we can examine some of Dawson’s mishaps in relation to other forms of media with which we are familiar.
A fixation on sociopathy is prevalent in journalism that addresses outsider art, particularly black metal. Take, for instance, True Norwegian Black Metal, a film made infamous through its viral SATAN meme. An immersionist interview of former Gorgoroth vocalist Kristian “Gaahl” Espedal in his small-town Norwegian home, the roughly 30-minute spectacle is shrouded in black metal myth and mystery. Those artistic choices -- the ominous music, the prolonged shots of Gaahl’s gaze -- can be extremely illustrative, highlighting that journalism is a creative craft as much as it is a truth-seeking methodology. Yet, these details become vapid when they stand in place of any substantive analysis of Gaahl’s words.
The atmospheric implication that Gaahl was about to stab the interview crew at any time not only does a disservice to Gaahl, but to all artists who may suffer from past trauma and possible mental illnesses. Fixation on Gaahl’s past acts of violence amid menacing undertones causes the viewer to await their return at any time. Treating a living, breathing person like a character in a horror movie does not make for a documentary with integrity; it just makes for yet another horror movie.
Not one to critique without offering a suggestion for improvement, I believe that we can actually take a page from one of Shane Dawson’s earlier docuseries “The Secret World of Jeffree Star.” In it, Dawson addresses the musician-turned-makeup mogul’s past controversies in which he yelled hateful language back at slur-shouting passersby and wielded knives in prolifically viral MySpace videos. Star states that he, regrettably, oftentimes turned to violence and ugly language to protect himself as a gay, makeup-wearing man. Indeed, the harassment of femme men and trans women is an epidemic, making retaliation not necessarily excusable, but certainly emotionally sensical. The same could be argued for Gaahl, a gay man who, as True Norwegian Black Metal emphasizes, once detained someone against their will and drained their blood into a cup in an act of torture. Gaahl speaks of a vague “border” that he does not like to have crossed, which could have been further probed to determine if it can be defined as a sense of being victimized for his identity.
It appears that journalists who are fortunate enough to be welcomed into the interviewee’s home environment are in too great a state of shock and awe to truly look around. Whether a trip is being made to a neighboring street in Los Angeles or all the way to Norway, the opportunity should be used to bask in the significance of surroundings. To True Norwegian Black Metal’s credit, the importance of Gaahl growing up and going to school with only one other classmate in his tiny town is recognized. However, if larger spatial patterns like these would have been analyzed during the crew’s trek into snowcapped isolation, the implication that Gaahl is supposedly a spooky enigma would be lessened by offering concrete explanations for why he seeks comfort in stark individualism and isolation. And speaking of individualism, lest we forget that Scandinavia – while being effectively made up of welfare states – possesses a culture that prize introspection and, simply put, minding your own damn business. A case could be made that Gaahl’s extreme brand of orthodox black metal could only exist in such a setting.
A welcomed extreme metal film that does consider these environmental factors is comprehensive second-wave black metal documentary Until the Light Takes Us. In this film, we receive a more critical look at popular scene characters who possess inner troubles and even outright hatred, yet there is no subtext of sociopathy. Candid shots of McDonald’s and Subway offset by fog-swept mountains highlight how globalization has a perceived chokehold on Scandinavia, thus prompting unhealthy obsessions with white supremacy and/or traditional mythological narratives as a form of rebellion. Presumably by being probed behind-the-scenes, Varg Vikernes (Mayhem, Burzum) cements this idea as he describes how his friends and he once started firing at a McDonald’s with the hopes of spreading destruction. While within the United States McDonald’s tends to be a symbol of late capitalist decay, Vikernes interprets the golden arches as an encroachment on the traditional way of Norwegian life. Whether it be a business or an immigrant, any penetration of Vikernes’ idyllic bubble is a welcomed chance for rebellion – rebellion being the core principle on which black metal was founded.
Interestingly, despite their different choices of hair and wardrobe, the performances of Jake Paul and choice men of second wave black metal intersect in that their violent antics are met with minimal consequences. Paul, too, is in many ways hellbent on destruction, yearning for some sort of excitement long since lost in his sleepy Ohio hometown. A fellow pyromaniac, Paul has not been known to burn churches, but nearly anything else that can be soaked in acetone and torched generally is, regardless of the proximity of neighbors’ homes. Certain black metal icons, have too committed various property crimes, scorching holy sites and breaking business’ windows, which yielded minimal jail time under forgiving Scandinavian penal codes (relative to the United States, at least). While spreading damage is all in a day’s work for these men, it is important to keep in mind that these activities are not always dismissed as dark thrills for many other individuals who commit them. Without falling too far down the political rabbit hole, instances of property destruction at protests, particularly in the U.S., have generated extreme police responses.
Even abuse against other people seems to be met with sensationalized mystery when it is allegedly perpetrated by men wielding the sword of unlimited autonomy. Paul has been the target of abuse allegations by his ex-girlfriend Alissa Violet, which have been treated as tabloid-level drama, much in the same fashion that the Norwegian church burnings came to be. Dawson fumbles when addressing this topic, even going as far to ask Violet if she had messed with Paul’s head in any way to trigger his allegedly abusive tendencies. Despite having been so adept at recognizing that Star’s anger is rooted in the daily structural violence he faces, Dawson was so hellbent on assessing Paul in psychological terms that he failed to see how existing privileges were facilitating his abuses of power.
When it comes to the well-documented violence and love of homogeneity perpetrated by Vikernes, Until the Light Takes Us, while nuanced in its exploration of causation, doesn’t extend a free pass. The framing of Vikernes’ candid interview scenes are not one of mystery, but rather, the stark realities of seeking rebellious passions by welcoming hate into his heart. The question that is begged by Dawson’s framing of Paul and Vice’s framing of Gaahl then becomes who gets to be a sociopath? While personality disorders are highly stigmatized, they can also act as a protectorate. The lone-wolf narrative stands in place of “terrorist” depending on the perpetrator of the socially-facilitated violence in question. It is no doubt troubling when alleged mental disorders are colored with spookiness and ascribed willy-nilly. It is even worse when some people get to take the insanity plea while others are charged with the first degree, and for no other reason besides the cards they happened to be dealt.
In an effort to not come across as a contrarian of YouTube trends or a Vice-hating edgelord, I would like to once more stress that there is a larger journalistic tendency to yield understanding of extreme artwork solely in terms of psychological neuroses. While every journalist may not have the resources to implement Until the Light Takes Us-level productions, some of its nuances can be applied on a smaller scale. Paul, Gaahl, or anyone may be suffering from forms of mental distress, but reporters who are not medical professionals cannot baselessly speculate about someone’s brain chemistry. What we can do is be patient; to watch, to listen, and connect the dots with the tools we are provided, one of them being a critical, spatially-aware lens. Understanding is not a veil for hate to hide behind, however. Now more than ever, it is pivotal to challenge ourselves to see past the facade of the lone wolf in order to crack the code of what causes individuals to become radically charged. It is when insight is cultivated, not orchestrated, that these difficult questions can be addressed productively.