Musical Chairs: “Exterminating Angel” by the Creatures
We recently, as a team, signed “BadrepUK” up to This Is My Jam. This got me thinking about the songs I might submit to the Grand Communal
Cacophony Mixtape. Given our name, we kicked off with Joan Jett (of course), but I think the next thing I’m going to send our Rhian (who is curating the Jams at the moment) is actually this.
It’s a Creatures single from ’99. It’s an acquired taste. But I like it, for a few reasons.
Exterminating Angel was released on a late Creatures album, Anima Animus, in 1999, and was still a dancefloor mainstay in the early-to-mid-’00s in the kind of sticky-floored goth clubs I liked to frequent in my late teens and early 20s.
It’s a weird track in the context of the rest of the album, nearly all of which is gentler, and none of which has the same relentless, malicious, jagged electro edge. It’s the track you remember the most, with its Biblical, apocalyptic theme and pounding percussion. The rest of the album’s tracks kind of have to be coaxed out from a musical cupboard-under-the-stairs where they’ve hidden from its sweeping bite. After picking up the CD – the day after it and I collided on one of the aforementioned sticky goth dancefloors – I spent some months hitting the repeat button on Exterminating Angel, disappointed that it wasn’t all like this.
Why I’m submitting it to BadRep’s Jam in particular, though, is this: it is entirely from the point of view of the Old Testament’s Angel of Death, on a mission to kill the sons of Egypt, as per the Bible story. But it’s not just about that. Maybe it’s just Siouxsie’s delivery, or the fact that the lyrics are both about a story where only the sons of privilege count, and disdainful to the back teeth of that fact (“poor little rich thing”) – but I think the angel is very much coded as a vengeful female voice, enacting all the grisly, monstrous, destructive urges that are enshrined as natural in so many men and rarely if at all in women. “For the hell of it,” in fact. (VH1 asked Siouxsie not to perform it because it contains references to menstrual blood. Oh, and piss.)
It’s one of the Unwritten Rules of Siouxsie Sioux that on lyrical face value, one is often only ever half sure what she’s actually on about1, but I think Exterminating Angel is a uniquely beautiful and ugly track. It resonates with me on a deeper level than the Banshees’ single Cities In Dust, which is about the destruction of Pompeii and is similarly Big, Ancient and World-Ending in scope.
I Googled “angel of death female” to compare gendered representations of the angel in the story. Wikipedia popped up first, and helpfully listed several countries where folklore representations of Death more generally are female (death is a “she”, for example, in the folklore of some Slavic communities). But most of the results on my first page weren’t about the Bible story, or the angel figure, at all.
Instead, they were mainly about other things we apply the phrase “angel of death” to in a female-gendered way. Female serial killers abounded, along with headlines about women in the nursing profession (so often referred to in things like Marie Curie Cancer Care literature as “angels”) who ill-treated their charges. A few “sexy nurse – evil angel of death version with black dress!” fancy dress costumes completed the picture.
There was nothing particularly mythic or powerful about the way any of these women were framed by the “angel of death” phrase, though some were dangerous. And although the gender of mythic death personifications does vary worldwide, the overall tone of my research online about female iterations of this particular mythic and Biblical figure, taken as a whole, was often merely patronising. To get to anything useful, one needed a pair of Sexism Waders.
I think that says it all, really, about why this song mattered to me when I heard it. Female violence is so often either downplayed or fetishised – witness how long it took women to get to box at Olympic level – where in men it is normalised (at least as a cultural idea if not a legal reality). And Siouxsie’s angel is a sort of horrible challenge to that idea. There’s precisely nothing nice about her whatsoever. Hers is a grand cry of “Piss on it, I’m sick of it” – and although I’m generally a friendly sort who’s about as murderous as a bag of Haribo Starmix, I have a great many days when, re: the patriarchy at least, I can certainly get behind that sentiment.
- For example, Christine. “Now she’s in purple, now she’s the turtle”, anyone? Yeah. This is coherent by comparison. [↩]