[Guest Post] On Being A Feminist Metalhead
A while ago we asked you all what you enjoy doing with your time, and whether you had any thoughts on your hobbies from a gender perspective. A fair few of you got in touch, and we kicked off with crafting a couple of weeks ago – but prepare yourselves now for a complete subject change. (The range of interests we’re hearing about from you lot is frankly awesome.)
Hi, I’m Jo. I’ve been calling myself a feminist for as long as I can remember. And I listen to black metal. As in, while I appreciate other forms of music, the overwhelming majority of my time, attention and love is lavished on black metal. I can’t help it – I just love black metal, and the filthier it is, the better.
Black metal is purposefully alienating. Its logos are unreadable; its practitioners often wear corpse paint; its lyrics revel in references to hatred, violence, nihilism, death, Satan. The music itself is typified by screeched vocals, blastbeats, fuzzy guitars; songs stop suddenly.
The genre is also overwhelmingly white and male. Of the 46 black metal bands on my iPod, only one of the bands has a female member (LSK, bassist/backing vocalist for Secrets of the Moon from Germany), and as far as I know, none of the members of any of the bands identify as a race other than white.
As I said up top, I’ve identified with feminist ideas from an early age. Unequal representation of women in places like government, the boards of businesses, the upper echelons of journalism and the law and churches and so on make me angry and upset. So how can I justify investing so much in a type of music produced, in the main, by men? A type of music which is often linked to vile white nationalist ideologies, such that NSBM is a thriving sub-genre?
Er. It’s tricky.
Black Metal and Me
I operate from a position of relative privilege, being white, cis, currently able-bodied, in a relationship with a white cis man, UK-born, and so on. My various forms of privilege allow me to ignore some of the more problematic areas of black metal, and have surely insulated me from encountering prejudice at black metal gigs. For the record – as a cis woman attending many dozens of metal gigs in London, I have very rarely encountered sexist treatment from fellow gig-goers. From anecdotal experience, black metal bands also attract more women to their live performances than, say, death metal bands. Which is not to say that black metal audiences are gender-balanced, because they’re really, really not, but they’re relatively better than those observed at concerts of bands from other metal subgenres.
I sometimes wish I did like more ‘acceptably feminist’ types of music – or, at the very least, types of music where women performers aren’t a vanishingly small minority. The problem is, if it ain’t black metal, I’m (probably) not interested. The intensity of black metal gives me an emotional ‘hit’ I don’t get from many other types of music (live classical music can produce the same effect – but not as reliably as black metal, whether live or recorded). I fully acknowledge that black metal isn’t for everyone, and I fully understand why most people do not enjoy it; I don’t want to come across as ‘judging’ people for musical taste, which, OK, I did when I was 13, but that was a long time ago.
Which leads on to another of the problems with black metal, from a feminist/progressive point of view. It is, as I said above, unapologetically impenetrable to outsiders; more than that, the scene contains a strong current of elitism.
Kvlter Than Thou
One of the stereotypes of black metal fans is of the elitist “kvlter than thou” forum-poster who spends obscene amounts on deleted demos by long-defunct bands, limited to three tape copies. No, three reel-to-reel recordings, two of which were burned as part of an occult ceremony by the band before they went and attempted to torch a church. Black metal enthusiasts often proclaim themselves proud Nietzscheans, which, in their (often rather simplistic) worldview, boils down to I proclaim myself to be better than everyone else. As a feminist, I have a problem with any philosophy which deems some to be superior to others. Black metal is imbued with it. The elitist fans take their cues from the bands themselves, from Varg Vikernes onwards. Black metal is fiercely individualistic; feminism is rooted in solidarity with others, a concept that is incompatible with the proclamations of the most influential black metal bands.
Incidentally, the concept of “black metal as expression of individualism” has led some in the scene, notably He Who Crushes Teeth of the band Bone Awl, to describe NSBM as oxymoronic (warning: long article – ctrl+f “nsbm” for the relevant section); black metal based on a philosophy which is inherently ‘optimistic’ is paradoxical, he says, and Nazism counts as ‘optimistic’ because it aspires to be all about building a ‘better’ future – ‘better’ if you deny the humanity of groups you don’t like, of course. Black metal should be nihilistic, in his view, and nihilism as a philosophy is as antithetical to Nazism as it is to socialism. But I digress.
As part of my sometimes uneasy ongoing attempts to reconcile my feminist/lefty political beliefs with my love of black metal, I do not listen to any bands which are classified as NSBM on Metal Archives. It’s nothing more than a gesture, really, but it’s an important one to me. I’m cutting myself off from many bands whose music I am sure I would love; but I just can’t bring myself to give them any playlist space. For many metalheads, my shunning of black metal is treated as illogical (I’ll listen to songs about the destruction of all life or the murder of Christians but I won’t listen to songs glorifying the ‘Aryan’ race) and ‘wimpish’. I think, for, me, the difference is that persecution of Christians is not something that happens in the West, despite what the Daily Hate-Mail would have you think, whereas we still live with the repercussions of what happened when a lot of Europeans got rather too worked up about racial ‘purity’. And a song attacking Christianity written by people from Europe or the US is a very different proposition to the same group of people attacking Muslims, who are an often-vilified minority in Europe. (Bands from Islamic countries attacking the theocracies under which they live, such as Janaza – that’s very different, and something I can get behind, mostly.)
Theatricality and corpse paint
Another reason I feel able mostly to disregard the lyrical content of non-NSBM bands is the theatricality of black metal. There is a definite tension at the heart of how many black metal bands present themselves. The spikes, the shining black leather, the corpse paint, the OTT references to Satan – they can’t be serious, can they? Well, the best reply to this I can formulate is yes… and no. It’s pretty impossible to parody black metal bands, because however hard you try to come up with something ridiculous, an actual band somewhere will have beaten you to it. (Watain store their stage outfits with dead animals so that they pick up “the stench of death”, FFS.) Fans – the non-über-kvlt ones, anyway – tend to treat bands with a mixture of affectionate humour and deadly seriousness. We go and watch monochromatically-painted and -clothed bands who follow the style rule that there is not a single type of apparel that can’t be improved by the addition of spikes, lots of spikes, singing songs about being the devil’s executioners or whatever; it’s all a bit silly. Yet at the same time, it’s taken quite seriously. Singers exhort audiences to hail Satan. And they/we do. Not because we’re all practising Satanists – most metal fans I’ve met tend to be of the cheerful atheist variety – but because it’s part of the act.
Black metal’s theatricality can be seen on one hand as being about escapism. Of course I don’t believe in demons, I’m far from being a nihilist, and I can’t even watch horror films because the sight of blood makes me feel all wibbly, but I’ll happily listen to bands singing about all these things because, on one level, it’s so outrageous, I can’t possibly be expected to take it seriously. Yet I do, truly, deeply love the music, and spend large amounts of energy seeking out new bands, going to gigs, talking about metal to friends with similar tastes, and generally being a huge fan. So I take it seriously – and not seriously. This allows me to worry less about the violence inherent in the genre’s lyrics and its underlying philosophy; it’s all part of a big joke, and everything is on a continuum of unseriousness, so I can ignore the less-than-savoury aspects of black metal fairly easily. (Again, I am sure that my relative privilege plays a large part in this luxury to ignore what I don’t like about the genre.) And hey, that church-burning and murder unpleasantness was years and years ago – we’re past all that, aren’t we? Unlike the stark black and white of corpse paint, I’m in something of a grey area; I can blur boundaries enough to quieten my social justice instincts. Is this an ethical position to hold? I’m not really sure.
“Not for girls”
The overall metal scene is seen by outsiders as bloke-dominated; there’s a lot of truth in that, but I am constantly annoyed by mainstream publications’ disappearing of women in metal, be they performers or fans. Just because we’re a minority doesn’t mean you can ignore us, dear music journalists taking sideswipes at “that boy from school who had a bumfluff moustache, constant body odour and an unwashed Megadeth T-shirt that he always wore on non-uniform days”. And please, as the mighty Grim Kim says, don’t dismiss us by trying to fob us off with “girlfriend metal”.
Having said that, though, I have a horrible snobbish tendency when it comes to outward signifiers of musical taste – which, in the metal scene, means t-shirts and patches. Moreover, it’s a pretty gendered snobbishness, which makes me feel even guiltier. Whenever I see a woman wearing a Nightwish t-shirt, I feel absurdly, un-feminist-ly disappointed; we female fans of metal are already characterised as liking ‘girly shit’ like Nightwish (symphonic, melodic, female-fronted, no Cookie Monster vocals), so why, I find myself thinking, do you have to go reinforcing stereotypes? This is a really bad habit of mine and one I am trying to break. It spills over into my own wardrobe choices: I’ll borrow my boyfriend’s Absu t-shirt to wear to a metal gathering, but not his Sólstafir one, despite the fact that I love the band – because Sólstafir is on our playlist of “stuff that’s safe to play for non-metalheads”, whereas Absu certainly is not. I don’t want to be thought of as one of “those” female fans of metal, you know, the ones who like metal with actual clean vocals and stuff. Ugh. As a relatively unstereotypical fan of black metal, it’s all too easy to think of myself as a special snowflake as a consequence – a tendency I have to be on my guard against.
If I were in a relationship with black metal, our Facebook status would definitely be ‘it’s complicated’. With depressing frequency, something happens to make me roll my eyes in feminist outrage (the “girly” t-shirt for the band Shining [Swe] which says “I have a boyfriend at home but I think of Niklas Kvarforth when he fucks me”, a blog post like this…), but I don’t want to give up on the scene. In fact, the recent internet flap over Sady Doyle’s article on Game of Thrones (spoiler alert!) reminded me why I want to stick with black metal. I’m a huge fan of GoT, and yet I agree with most of Sady’s points about its problematic nature. As with GoT, I don’t deny that there are many problematic aspects within the black metal scene. But I am and will remain a fan nonetheless, because a) if I leave, I’m not working within the scene to make a difference, and b) I love it and am not prepared to give it up.
- Jo lives in London, and goes to far too many metal gigs. She got into metal at a relatively late age, thanks to last.fm. She’s toying with the idea of writing the dissertation for her MA on black metal, if the university will let her. Say hi to her on Twitter, or at the Underworld next time Taake comes to London (19th October, as it happens).
category → Music Box