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Performances Matter

June 4, 2010

People who like metal are often sensitive when you talk about how it’s performed. When you bring it up – the aesthetics, the affectations and the imagery chosen by a band on a stage (or in a garage, or in a basement, or in a video) – certain quadrants of the metal community get up in arms. “It’s about the music, man,” they say. “Why do you care about that?” they ask. Or, my personal favorite, “When you talk about the performance, man, you’re missing the point.”

People say performance – call it stage presence, theatrics, whatever a band does to create a show of their music for others – doesn’t “matter.” That if you start talking about performance as a component of metal, or of music in general, you’re off the mark. These people are wrong.

Performance – as in, how one performs the music, from what musicians are wearing, how they act and what they expect from a crowd in return – is an enormous part of how metal is perceived by both its fans and culture at large. It informs fans’ (and outsiders) ongoing perception of the music; of the types of people who are “right” to be in a metal band, what they ought to look like and how they should act – in essence, it informs perceptions of what a “real” metal band is (along a spectrum, of course – we all know Immortal [a.k.a. black metal Kiss] isn’t the same as Slayer). It does matter. From the quiet of Paul Masvidal to the neverending energy of Bruce Dickinson, seeing a band perform the music you’ve downloaded and adored or spun and loved for years is universally meaningful. Yes, it’s about the music, really, but it’s also about seeing it played by the people who made it and what they do to convey whatever it is they want to convey. It’s about buying t-shirts, and seeing others wearing t-shirts from a show you went to five years ago. It’s about seeing what choices (from iconography to the beer they drink) band members make while they play the music you love. It’s about seeing who these band members are: what they look like, what they wear. Performances matter because they help fill out the package; they help you connect the dots between the sounds you hear and the people who make them.

So, when people downplay the meaning behind how metal music is performed, I get annoyed. Especially if they’re working hard to say that seeing a woman on stage, in whatever band she’s in, doing whatever she’s doing, doesn’t matter. It matters a lot. Sure, she has to be good. We all know metal is a meritocracy; sucka MCs need not apply. But seeing women musicians, of whatever genre they’re playing, means more than just reading a name in liner notes. Human beings like to watch other human beings doing things they can’t do, don’t know how to do, used to do, or don’t want to do. Seeing women perform music that makes our fingers numb or our throats ache (all by proxy) is a powerful, meaningful thing. What does it mean? It means that women can. And, sadly, a lot of people in the world still need to know that. Feigning enlightenment doesn’t mean we live in a post-feminist world. It just means you’re not listening.

– Morla, the ancient one

5 Comments leave one →
  1. bex permalink
    June 5, 2010 12:39 am

    I would find it especially amusing if it were black metal fans that were espousing this view, since the genre is all about creating atmosphere and is therefore the most likely to have over-the-top stage shows. And speaking of women who can play, I just met Rachel of Satriach, a symphonic black metal band that doesn’t really seem to go in for the fancy costumes or anything, at Maryland Deathfest. It turns out I actually saw her band play a few months back in LA, but there were so many bands playing that I sort of spaced it. I checked out a few of their tracks after the fact, and while I think they could stand to lose the keyboards and focus on their guitars, they’re pretty good. I just tend to be prejudiced against keyboards, though. So if f you’re looking for another woman that just shows up and shreds, no-nonsense:

  2. June 5, 2010 2:44 am

    It would be helpful if you were specific about what criticism you are addressing. “People say,” “often” and “certain quadrants” are vague and overbroad terms. In my experience, such comments are a way to evade the perception that a favorite band either sucks or acts in an embarrassing way onstage. That, of course, is subjective; but in any case, you seem to be speaking of serious rather than evasive comments. It seems your point may be that women should be good performers for credit to be truly due, yet you say metal is a “meritocracy” anyway, so that point is also unclear. (A look at the sales figures for, say, “Reload,” would cast doubt on the meritocracy claim.) Your larger point that music and performance are inextricably linked is fair enough. It is an interesting artifact of our current (last 100 years) age that music can be separated from performance by the act of (usually commercial) recordings.

    • June 5, 2010 8:03 am

      I don’t think it’s necessary to address the criticisms, as they are there in a general way (in snarky metal blogs, in idiotic forums, etc.). Addressing specifics gives those folks credence where none is due, so I won’t do it. I understand your ideas if this were an academic paper, but it isn’t. It’s about discussion and considering perceptions. The point is that people who say performance doesn’t matter don’t understand that metal, since its inception, is about performance (or lack thereof in the case of bands that want to seem working class and all about the guitar noodling — but still, that’s performance). My point is not that women should be good performers for credit to be due. My point is that, regardless of the quality of a woman’s performance (you’re confusing performance, as a delineation of quality [prowess], with performance as an act, show or spectacle), a woman performing in front of a biased crowd is a radical act. Of course, in metal this usually means they have some musical prowess.

      • June 6, 2010 4:28 pm

        Not to get all Judith Butler here, but it isn’t just metal that’s all performance. Belle and Sebastian are no less interested in putting forward a particular image than Gorgoroth are.

        This should be obvious, but for some reason (I’m guessing because most people don’t really put a lot of thought into what culture they consume) it isn’t.

      • June 6, 2010 5:51 pm

        Getting all Judith Butler isn’t an issue. 🙂 What you’re saying is completely the case; choosing to be twee versus choosing to act “extreme” or Satanic or anything else is just as much a deliberate performance decision. Presentation is fascinating, isn’t it?

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