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[Guest Post] On Being A Feminist Metalhead

2011 October 17

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.

Photo by Robert Bejil, shared under creative commons licensing. A white woman with long dark hair in full 'corpse paint' rests her chin on her hand and stares consideringly. One arm is encased in an elbow length leather spiked vambrace. 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

Photo of a live Moonsorrow gig. Lead singer Ville is silhouetted against a backdrop of dry ice. You can make out the shape of his guitar and long hair.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

Photo of studded bracelets and bullet belt on a wooden surface glinting in the sunlight. Photo by Robert Bejil, shared under Creative Commons licenceAnother 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”

photo showing a young white woman with long light brown hair crowdsurfing at a metal gigThe 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 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).
16 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenni permalink
    October 17, 2011

    I -am- ‘one of “those” female fans of metal, you know, the ones who like metal with actual clean vocals and stuff’, and I really like this article. :-)

    My boyfriend this weekend gave me a Doctor Who themed metal mixtape (in a long line of mixtapes we give each other!) with quotes from the show and character-appropriate songs. It fucking rocked. I just wanted to share that with someone. (Saying ‘this song is John Simm’s The Master is TOTALLY how to get me into metal.)

    <3 your description of 'Cookie Monster vocals'. So true. I always think they sound like Orcs having a party! ;-)

  2. Miranda permalink*
    October 17, 2011

    Relatedly, I just read this article from several years ago on Bitch, and I think it’s a great read:

    Sister Outsider Headbanger: On Being a Black Feminist Metalhead

  3. October 20, 2011

    Great Post! Way to raise the flag for black metal! As a feminist conscientious person I too also have an interest in black metal. Of course, as you state, black metal is ideologically confusing. NSBM is the extreme kind of black metal, you also get ‘White’ metal or Christian black metal, which again seems to be an odd concoction of black metal.

    I think considering the individuality of black metal, there is not much else one can say that is wholly generic about the genre. There are tribes, and themes, granted, but there is such a wide spectrum in black metal that it defies being nailed to a mast, I also think, that is the point of black metal, and the success of its as an underground movement. Until the time you find Burzum or Totalselfhatred T-Shirts in HMV, the integrity of Black Metal is preserved in its very obscurity (obscurity as a concrete ideology, not obscurity as ‘not-well-known’).

    For the record, I’m not white, and I love black metal. I am a guy though, don’t hate me for that!

    • Miranda permalink*
      October 20, 2011

      No hate here – guys are very welcome (the site team’s not uniformly female for a start!) :).

    • November 2, 2011

      Just a short note – Christian black metal is called »Unblack metal« (Name coming from the tape »hellig usvart«, norwegian for »holy unblack«). White metal is far more traditional, albeit as well christian-themed, metal.

  4. David permalink
    January 27, 2012

    I will never understand people who look down on clean vocals. “DURRR YOU’RE NOT METAL IF YOU LIKE A BAND WHO SINGS.”

    Although I’m sure you think I’m a total poseur because I like The Black Dahlia Murder and Fit For An Autopsy.

  5. Adriana Delgado permalink
    February 28, 2012

    When I started out as a black metal fan, I too in the first years experienced disappointment whenever I saw women wearing Nightsh T-shirts, or alike. In my case, however, contrarily to you, feminism came after my black metal initiation. So it was about the time I became a feminist that I started to realize that my disapproval of those girls came from an uncounscious disaproval of all things feminine. In other words, I felt trapped by society’s idea of what a woman should be and I believed to have found, in metal, a way to get away from the stereotype, and yet, there they were, the metal version of girly-girls. I came to realize that, uncounsciously, I was somehow buying this ideas that feminine things are inferior. So I hated those girls for being stereotypically soft, romantic, well, “lame”…
    “Lame” is really a word we use to denigrate all things thought of as tipically feminine, isn’t it?… This whole thing made me realize that I wasn’t tackling the gender normativity issue very well. I was rejecting things considered feminine instead of supporting the idea that they’re just as worthy as things considered feminine. Challenging gender roles stoped being about hating one of the roles but simply understanding that none should be gender specific and that you can have whatever behaviour you want, free of shame and without classifying them as “feminine” or “masculine”.
    So now rather than be disturbed by the vision of those girls, I’m disturbed by the idea that there is somehow more unworthy metal based simply on that fact that it seems to be more apealing to women. As if somehow our place whithin the genre was arguable and to belong we have to sort of become a man.
    I’m not sure you can relate to what I wrote, but I thought it might help if I shared my experience.

    Also, as a disclamer, English is not my first language, so I might not have been very clear and for that I apologize. So I’d just like to point out that what I wrote referst to my situation and I’m by no means saying that’s also your case.

  6. Julia permalink
    August 24, 2012

    I’m defently certain of that I might to belong to these “girly metalheads” you’re talking about. Since I’m into old school heavy metal, NWOBHM (and I’m not just talking about Priest and Maiden), Swedish death metal, melodeath, progressive metal, symphonic metal, power metal… You name it. I’m “girly fucking poser” enough to classify Burzum as “girlfriend’s metal, just by the fact that I like the music.

    Just forgot to mention, I’m a Nightwish fan, as well.

  7. Slimer permalink
    November 27, 2012

    Check out Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult.

  8. linda permalink
    November 14, 2013

    I appreciate you calling out your own/others snobbery against “those metal girls” (listening to nightwish as we speak!). I always thought I was a bit of a loser because I didn’t listen to macho, extreme metal, especially because a lot of people on the metal scene turned their noses up at me, but I’ve learned to accept myself as a girly metal lovin’, non-black wearing fan that I am.

  9. Jeremiah permalink
    September 20, 2014

    Thanks for sharing with us your thoughts in this article, Jo. And to others who shared in the comments section as well. I have two thoughts after reading this article. One is direct, the other is mostly a reflection on my own contradictory experience with black metal.

    1) I studied Comparative Religion in college, and so I loved browsing scholarly books on religion. I found an interesting article on black metal in an anthology on modern Satanism, that attempts to understand a facet of this aggressively male demeanor of black metal that you so aptly characterized. It’s not completely relevant, since it is more interested in black metal’s connection to satanism, but it definitely talks about it. The article is called “‘With my art I am the fist in the face of God’: On Old-school black metal,” and the anthology is called “Contemporary Religious Satanism: A Critical Anthology.” If anyone is interested, I’ll link it below:

    2) Your article, as I said above, caused me to reflect on my own experience with black metal. Long story short, my love story with black metal began with me as a fundamentalist evangelical christian, and ended with me as an atheist. I listened to all the monoliths of the second wave while still intensely religious. It was an interesting struggle, trying to validate my christianity simaltaneously with my black-metaller-ness (just made a word, sweet). I remember early in my black metal past coming across the song “Tormentor of Christian Souls” by Dimmu Borgir and being both appalled and enchanted at the same time. Retrospectively, I chuckle thinking of my reaction, knowing the facets of black metal that I would later find. As my black metal tastes evolved and my religiosity vanished (by the way, these aren’t causally linked, just for clarity.) I began to also identify as a feminist and LGBTQ ally. Just when I thought my relationship with black metal had become uncomplicated, the contradictions returned! And they remain today. Why do I share this? One, because I sympathize with your experience of the misogyny (and homophobia) in the genre, but, two, because I also think there is hope for positive change, despite my experiences.

    I think black metal is intrinsically contradictory, both ideologically and aesthetically. But I won’t go into detail about this, because it digresses from the point. I think that it is within this inherent contradiction that the answer lies. The very entropic nature of black metal implies its potential for change. I think the genre is too malleable in it’s vast range of aesthetic and ideological possibilities (and already existing unique manifestations!) to not have room for a more gender-inclusive future.

    Thank you for listening, and keep on listening to black metal! :)

  10. BrandonWilley permalink
    March 4, 2016

    Melodic bands are the best, especially soft/clean vocals. Ive been listening to all types of metal all my life, and when I discovered Eths my life changed for ever. I went on to discover kells, epica, above the earth, and The Project Hate MCMXCX in search of other female vocalists that suit my style.

    Honestly I would love to meet a girly t adorned girl, that way she might be into my girly metal bands instead of being like “You like kittie nightwish and evanescence? Thats not very masculine”. The girl in the slayer shirt will look like a badass, but I wouldnt consider her any more a fan or real than the girl with the brittany spears t-shirt who happened to get interested metal by her not so pop interested boyfriend recently.

    I’m a different breed of metalhead though, so It might be rare to find people who share my opinions.

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