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Forced To Rock! (And Make A Blog Post)

January 21, 2011

I like Arsis. I’ve listened to “Celebration of Guilt” way too many times. When I saw them around this time last year, I had a great time.

Their Forced To Rock video wasn’t really notable except for the fact that the song is kind of silly and there’s a pink guitar. However, there were some things I did note: The gender breakdown seemed a little retrograde.

I do acknowledge that this video is meant as a promotional vehicle for the band Arsis, which has no female members. Thus, it’s somewhat logical to have the menfolk playing instruments. They’re in a band. They’re playing instruments (or at least miming the act). That’s par for the course as far as metal videos go.

The woman in the video is not a member of the band, and thus she’s not playing an instrument. I get it. However, I feel like they ripped the ideas straight from a catalog hawking tired cultural scripts.

While the boys are playing their instruments, whipping their hair around and scowling for the camera, the lone girl is doing the following:

-Observing the band members play with interest

-Writing trite sayings on a chalkboard in the background

-Clutching onto the lead singer in some sort of sexually charged hug, rubbing her hands over his body

-Brandishing a yardstick in a non-threatening manner

-“Headbanging” in front of Jame’s Malones crotch

I can jump to the conclusion that her role is mainly decorative.

The stills tell it the way our culture is comfortable seeing it. What fun would a tale be without the pictures?

"Whoa, who farted? I'll keep playing, but I'll show my displeasure through the poopy face!"

 

She’s SO very interested in his playing. Or maybe trying to check out his general nipple area? Any ideas? What’s she doing?

 

"You do the sexy pout, I'll give my best metal face! RAAAH!!!"

"That's not how you keep a beat! Pay attention to my yardstick!"

She looks less interested now, and just kind of irritated. Maybe she doesn’t like the face he’s making. It still feels like she’s just sort of there, and I can’t tell why.

 

"Ok, fine. Play your guitars and stuff. I'll just go back to my writing in the background! Hmmf!"

Does this seem familiar at all? I’m not talking about the specifics here, just the general tone and implications. Men/boys are doing interesting, engaging, creative, and exploratory stuff. The girls/women are just sort of there. They are there so you can gawk at them in the act of being on display. It’s the whole subject/object dichotomy in a cultural text. (I’m calling this video a cultural text. Believe it.)

It reminds me very much of toy catalogs. You don’t really notice the differences in what boys and girls are shown doing unless it’s made explicit through a critique such as this one over at Sociological Images. Here’s another example of gendered body language in advertising (which is another form of cultural text).

Yes, I know. It’s just an Arsis video. It’s fun, frivolous, and entertaining. Yet it’s another example of an accepted paradigm. Guys do stuff. Girls pose for the camera and try to be as enticing as possible. Do what your culture tells you to do as a man or a woman and you’ll get some warm, fuzzy validation. People will “ooooh!” and “aaaah!” and pay attention to you and listen to your music.

Go against the norms and you’ll be ignored (most of the time). Not only does the accepted script appeal to what people have been taught, but it reinforces their beliefs about The Way the World Is.

Women do lots of cool stuff in metal and other kinds of music. They don’t just pose for pictures and provide sexual favors (real or implied). It would be nice to see that reality reflected a little more often. Sex appeal might sell, but (for me at least), it’s a really boring story. Let’s write our own.

\m/

-Ms. Anthropia

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Steven Wilson: A Gender Transcender*?!

November 18, 2010

While reading an interview with Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield) about his project Insurgentes I found something peculiar:

[T]he way I’ve chosen to make music is what you might call quite unconventional or unusual — it’s certainly not the way that you (sic) supposed to conduct your career as a musician if you want to be successful. So, in that respect, I have been quite rebellious in my own natural way – even the fact of moving from style to style, from GENDER TO GENDER you know, it’s quite unusual for musicians to do. It’s not something that people understand very easily — that one many it wants to do (sic, sic, sic?) a death metal album and the next many (sic) it want to do a pop album or the next many he wants (sic!) to do an R ‘n’ B record. (emphasis mine)

The words “gender to gender” practically punched me in the face! Where did that come from!? I read the entire interview over and over to see if there was anything else mentioned about Wilson’s gender, or any supposed gender transcending. Nothing. Just that phrase. Could it have been a mistake? The sentence enveloping this ominous statement seems to be talking about musical styles. And the rest of his response talks about switching musical genres. The interviewer/transcriber doesn’t wield English all so well. Perhaps Wilson wasn’t coming out on the sly, and the interviewer/transcriber clumsily got the two words gender and genre mixed up.

Oh, darn. I got excited for a second there. I thought I found a new connection with one of my favorites artists, and a new understanding of his lyrical themes about troubled youth. How could I be teased so?! Gender and genre are OBVIOUSLY very different words. How can someone mix them up? Look:

GENRE: category of art – music, literature, etc. – based on a loose set of criteria – style, structure, era, etc. – which can be subject to change as the “avant garde” borrows, recreates, and pushes the boundaries of a previous categorization.**

GENDER: category of identity based on a loose set of criteria – biological sex, social role, mannerisms, etc. – which can be subject to change; category of nouns – feminine, masculine – based on a loose set of criteria which can be subject to change.**

See? Genre is art and gender is identity. While identity is about things like style, art is about its social role. Wait, no. Identity is about social role and art is about style. Wait. It makes sense both ways. I have a gender but I don’t have a genre, right? That’s ridiculous! I can’t be categorized into a form of art! Right? But I’m not my gender; it’s just a way I express myself. I guess my performance of gender could be considered a genre in a way. After all, it is an art.

Looking back at the history of both words, it appears genre is a French word meaning type, kind, and “genre sexual.” It comes from a Middle English word “gendre”, which is also the root of the word gender. Coincidentally, gender and genre are the same word in French (and Italian). And, our interviewer/transcriber is French. Unless we get the original recording, I’m not sure we will ever know if Wilson actually said “gender” himself, or if the transcriber subconsciously imposed a French understanding of the conversation. Sigh.

Perhaps Steven Wilson doesn’t express the insurgente inside him by changing genders. Perhaps he does – I can still dream! I think it’s safe to say that from the quote above, Wilson meant that he likes to switch musical styles. However, the history and similarity of both words offers us a delicious idea for dissection and further examination about our obsession with classification in the metal community.

Gender and genre share roots because of their emphasis on organizing difference, particularly in performance – of art and identity. How the two words divorced when they quested toward the English language is uncertain. Perhaps the English were a bit more meticulous in their categorization. However, our attempts to maintain borders seem futile. For example, while we apply genres to music we also apply genders. Like goth metal. It’s pretty much fact that the presence of a woman vocalist is a characteristic of a goth metal band. Gender reinforces genre. In this musical style, women sing beautifully and delicately, expressing what we often call “femininity.” They sing about relationships and love – subjects also categorized as “feminine.” The vocal instrument – which encompasses lyrics and notes – is the focus of the music, which reiterates my point: Femininity is the main musical style of goth metal. If a man vocalist is present, like in Lacuna Coil, he screams or sings with some level of distortion. His masculinity is made apparent in his distorted vocal technique, which is associated with power, anger, and fear.

While the way I just analyzed goth metal seems cut and dry, the way gender and genre express themselves isn’t always. To an outsider, men donning long hair and makeup can be perceived feminine or queer. However, to metalheads, how well a man can wear his long hair and makeup is associated with his power, even his sexual prowess. Being a metalhead can affect one’s performance of gender. Gender and genre may be divorced in the English language as words, but their performances and definitions still overlap significantly, almost defiantly…

All this said though, my questions about the obsession with categorization remain unsolved: What does it mean to distinguish men from women, brutal technical death metal from plain old death metal, or goth metal from power metal? Why do we even have genres or genders? What purpose does their classification serve?

And most importantly, when is Steven Wilson going to show us his ultimate femme drag collection?!

*Inspired by the term “Gender Transcender”  from Kate Bornstein’s book, Gender Outlaw.

**While I took inspiration, and factual information, from the Wikipedia page, I wrote the definitions myself with the intention of emphasizing the similarities between the two. The fact that I can do this also proves a point: language is easily malleable, just like gender and genre.

AngeliKlaw

Just Don’t Call Them Banshees

November 2, 2010

As a fledgling adult, metal let me feel the kind of rage I’d been conditioned not to express since I first started having emotions. Sit up straight. Cross your legs. Don’t sass. Part of this likely comes from my own upbringing, yes, but many cultures also have a deep-seated revulsion for – and fear of – women’s anger. Men are allowed to get angry, and express that anger, in far-reaching ways all the time. They can bomb things and break stuff (and the old standbys of rape and pillage), but if we do that, we’re cold-hearted bitches. They can rant on cable TV, but if we do that, we’re irrational. Women aren’t supposed to get mad – we’re supposed to not take things so seriously. We’re not supposed to express frustration or rage. And when we do, it’s probably because we’re on the rag, so no one is supposed to take us seriously. There, there honey. Don’t overreact. Do you need a Valium?

So, maybe metal is therapy for all those former good girls out there who just need to sit comfortably for a change. Whether as fans or musicians, through metal women are permitted to express anger (rage, hate, vengeance, agony, lust and other “extreme” emotions, too), and join others in chorus. And this anger isn’t tied to culturally prescribed norms – women in metal bands aren’t limited to yelling about their periods or screaming at exes. The genre frees female performers to express anger and aggression for things beyond our bodies and our experiences, but also doesn’t limit us from doing that, too, if we want.

But the next time I hear a female metal vocalist described as a banshee I’m probably going to lose it. Women expressing anger does not herald that you’re about to die. You’ll be okay if we’re mad, I promise. We promise we won’t attack or lead you to your doom. Unless truly provoked. Maybe that “hell hath no fury” adage holds some truth, and that’s why everyone’s so afraid.

Morla, the ancient one

On Halloween

October 27, 2010

Ah yes, Halloween. The one time of the year you can be something you’re not. Or, in this day and age, if you’re a woman, you can unleash the inner sluttiness. That is, of course, as long as you conform to mainstream beauty standards and buy your unoriginal, premade costume.

4 years ago, the Greek chorus started to bemoan the “skanky” costumes with their platitudes. It was fodder for a new moral panic, and cash in the pockets of all those pop-up Halloween shops that appear mid-September. There’s so much sturm und drang about showing some skin. Seriously, people claim those female mountains of flesh move mountains! (The boobquake, anyone?)

“BUT WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH METAL!?!” I bet you’re asking. Well, here’s a start: Take a page from this girl’s book!

You can be a Hawt Metal Chick for Halloween! I mean, c’mon! This girl shows you how to make a very convincing costume. When you strip a few things out about the band shirt, all she’s really teaching is “How To Look Hot”. (For a more general take-down, check here and here.)

As most women know, Looking Hot takes a lot of time, effort, and money. You have to buy the right clothes (and diet/exercise/surgery to fit into those clothes) and buy the right makeup (and get schooled on how to apply it). You also have to buy those accessories (leather cuff) and the hair extensions for that teen rebellion look. This is how you can tell it’s a costume. Hair extensions at a metal show? Do those negate the ability to headbang without sending the colorful adornments flying? (I don’t know, I’ve never worn them. Maybe Willow Smith would know. She WHIPS HER HAIR BACK AND FORTH and colors appear places!)

Mind you, Looking Hot also involves painful eyebrow treatments, use of tweezers, hot wax, razors… maybe some self tanner (if you’re into that). And all this work must be absolutely invisible. (Check out BeautySchooled for more discussion on this.)

In all seriousness, Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity is useful to understanding this phenomenon.

Quoth the wikipedia:

Gender Performativity is a term created by post-structuralist feminist philosopher Judith Butler in her 1990 book Gender Trouble. In it, Butler characterizes gender as the effect of reiterated acting, one that produces the effect of a static or normal gender while obscuring the contradiction and instability of any single person’s gender act. This effect produces what we can consider to be ‘true gender’, a narrative that is sustained by “the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them.”

Confusing? I don’t blame you. In layman’s terms, the theory is critiquing social constructions in which the views of the dominant class are cast as “common sense”. Women are just naturally drawn to makeup, ya know? (If that were true, the cosmetics industry wouldn’t spend those millions on advertising.)

Just know that if a guy took this video’s advice, he’d be placed in the category of “Pathetic Tranny”, and would most likely be the victim of a hate crime.

When women are attacked for daring to walk down the streets minding their own business, one of the first questions the media mob asks is: “Well, what was she wearing?!”  (Though they only care if she’s young, white, pretty, and thin.) Donning certain feminine forms of identity expression is a call to war. It’s an incitement to violence, to inhuman practices (according to those who would aid and abet the criminals). Bring on the boobquakes, because dressing a certain way also “causes” rape (remember, men can’t control their peepees! It’s not their fault.)

It’s like my favorite professor once said after his father objected to him visiting his aunt while wearing his usual drag: “You have no idea what it takes to walk out the door wearing this.” (Similar to the “guts to be Glam” quote from Headbanger’s Journey.)

Many cis-gendered, heterosexual men can only see it one way, and only in terms that cater to their life experiences, wants, and desires. However, people wear the costume for all kinds of reasons. Either way, it takes some serious chutzpah.

Courage. Strength. All that jazz. It’s all pretty fucking metal.

\m/

Ms. Anthropia

Oh God Damnit Not Again!

July 4, 2010

Expected? Yes. Annoying? Indeed. To what am I referring? An “all-female deathcore band”? Not on your life. I really couldn’t care how many bad deathcore bands spring up, just as long as their fans don’t come to my favorite shows and act like assholes. (However, they’re welcome to show up and be respectful.)

Today I’m critiquing the critics, because they’re annoying me more than any deathcore band ever could.

A Lovely Day For Bloodshed is a generic band (some would say deathcore). Whatever. BUT THEY’RE WOMENZ!!! Oh wow! They… play instruments! Gasp!

That’s what we’ve all been conditioned to think. Yadda yadda, musicians with vaginas don’t get taken as seriously, they get ignored by most media outlets, they’re discouraged almost every step of the way (though I’m sure they’re encouraged to take off their clothes by publicists, photographers, and others in the industry). It’s an uphill battle.

And then… this.

The Number of the Blog gave this band a scathing review.

ALDFB is an all-girl deathcore band, which makes them unique in that most of the time, the members of these deathcore bands only look like girls. This also means that they can shop for girls’ jeans and not look like utter retards in doing so. And I’ll say this for them… they’re a deathcore band. Which means that, although they suck, it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they’re girls and everything to do with the fact that they’re playing shitty music that is exactly like every other deathcore band out there. They have the tight pants, the snakebite piercings, and the scene hair, making them just like the other deathcore bands, except that they have boobs.

And sadly, I have a sneaky suspicion that this might get them farther than they might get normally in the massively overcrowded basement that is the deathcore scene.

(Emphasis mine). So… because they’re women, they’ll automatically get more attention and success? Whose version of reality is this? It doesn’t stop there. The review continues:

The worst part of all of this is not so much the band’s under-developed talent… with work, they could be halfway decent. It’s that they’re relying on their gender to stand out from a bunch of clones… and it’s not working.

I have some followup questions:

  1. How do you know they’re “relying on their gender” to stand out? What would that look like?
  2. Simply by being female, does one “rely on her gender” to obtain benefits unavailable to male musicians? (If so, what benefits are these?)
  3. Does gender performance promote the perception that a band is focusing on priorities other than making good music?

Plus, they end the post with a non-joke about how they refrained from joking about a link to menstruation. Because it’s always A Lovely Day for swimming when your uterine Blood decides to Shed. (I’m starved for time in the water to cool off in this 95 degree humid weather! My period ruining that would be pretty metal…)

So, in summation, the review implies that by virtue of being women who formed a band, they’ve got some other motives besides being in a band and making music. Something about employing those feminine wiles to get ahead in the music world…

This band was read as using their looks for some purpose or other, and thus they were judged accordingly. If you’re On Stage While Female, you will be put on a scale of fuckability. These women were found wanting in the looks department, so the comments turned to assessments of A Lovely Day for Bloodshed’s attractiveness rating. Some went as far as to claim they were “really men”. (Does that make the argument that they’re using their looks moot?)

However, Julia at Reign in Blonde had a better perspective on this mishigoss.

But here’s the real skinny though on why this all kinda sucks. The only good thing about this band is that they clearly are trying to just be a deathcore band, and NOT an all-female deathcore band. There’s this double-edged sword in this little genre of ours, where whether you’re amazing or amazingly sucktastic, being a female will overshadow everything else. Even us. I genuinely think that a lot of us aren’t thinking of this fact when we are trying to be our most brutal, knowledgable, respectable selves, but it kind of overrides everything. Like a giant boil on Lemmy’s neck, the only thing you can do is try your best to just ignore it. Just a fact of life I suppose… Carry on ladies, and practice practice practice.

(Emphasis mine).
If women were not unfairly judged on looks, if we were not socialized to view women as things to look at, if girls were encouraged to become musicians and had better role models… this crap might be mitigated. Until then, we’re stuck with the existing structures and must navigate them.
-Ms. Anthropia

A Conversation With Leila Abdul-Rauf

June 17, 2010

Leila Abdul-Rauf is guitarist/vocalist for San Francisco’s Vastum, Amber Asylum (plus piano and occasionally trumpet), Hammers of Misfortune, and the currently inactive Saros. She also had a brief stint as a vocalist in Bastard Noise in 2007 and 2008, though right now the first three bands are keeping her more than busy enough.

1) How has feminism informed your experiences as a musician?

It has informed everything I experience in life, as a musician, as a friend, family member, or in whatever role I find myself. I also don’t feel sexism is any worse than racism, classism, homophobia, or any other -ism. To me, it’s all human injustice and it’s all equally fucked up. So I guess you can say it’s informed me about how fucked up our world is, and who has power over whom. It definitely gives me a different perspective from most people in the metal scene. I grew up on punk rock, so it was all about challenging these injustices, even if on the most superficial level. But then somewhere down the line feminism stopped being cool, and now there’s this big backlash against it; like if you identify with it, you’re the “uptight PC police” and totally not metal.

2) What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing women musicians today? What about challenges for other groups that fall outside the whitedudemetalgod stereotype? What can we do to break down barriers when and where they exist?

One challenge is not being taken seriously for whatever reason, and being tokenized or fetishized. There’s also the assumption that you don’t know jack about bands or gear. Let’s face it: the metal genre is fueled by testosterone, and unfortunately in many cases, misogyny. As long as you can handle these things surrounding you, and not absorb it internally, that’s half of the battle. For me, breaking down barriers means you have to develop enough inner strength where you really don’t give a shit about what people think of you, even if it means you won’t be popular. That can be hard to do, because people for the most part want to feel accepted.  I see women all the time sacrificing their self worth just to fit into the boy’s club.  I couldn’t care less about the boy’s club, but then again I couldn’t care less about being metal enough either. But then again, I’m not playing music to make money or be famous or anything.  If those things matter to you, then there will be a lot of sucking up involved.

3) Who are some artists/bands/musicians that inspire you and why?

My friends that I play music with or have played shows with inspire me; I’m lucky to have bandmates and friends that have a really unique perspective on life as well as being incredible musicians.  Two of the friends that inspire me the most from a feminist perspective would have to be Dan, the lead vocalist from Vastum and Acephalix, and Ayla, guitarist of Portland’s late Anon Remora and Disemballerina. Both are extremely talented, queer-identified, feminist and 100 percent metal, without sacrificing their identity or values. They are the future of metal. Also, this blog inspires me. I love the dialogue and friction it creates among people with extremely different opinions.

4) Why do you think many musicians (whether in metal or not, female or not) are reluctant to claim the term feminist for themselves? Is it the same sort of thing that happens in greater culture (a la the culture wars)? Or is there something else going on?

Social ethics and values have become fashion in this age of consumer culture. Feminism in the ’90s was cool; you could wear the slogan on a T-shirt, a button, etc. It’s simply not cool anymore; it’s passe’.  And in the music scene, being passe’ is even less cool, because you want people to like your band.  Women, already at a social disadvantage in the metal scene, don’t want to appear any less cool, so there is this reluctance to claim the feminism term if they wanna fit in with the boys. And for men in the metal scene, it’s not only uncool to talk about feminism in a positive way, but it’s “wussy.” I personally find this mentality to be incredibly weak, but then again I don’t care about being metal enough or popular; I’m not trying to impress anybody, get “signed,” or compete with anyone.  I am satisfied with what I already have.

5) What else should we talk about when we talk about women in metal? What’s not being said/tackled/discussed?

So much is not being discussed, too much to go into in this interview. Like the fact that more women are participating in metal bands these days doesn’t necessarily mean that barriers are being broken. And why female musicians are always referred to as “female musicians” and not simply just “musicians.” It would be more interesting to discuss the actual hierarchies that are in place, and how those hierarchies (patriarchies) are holding back actual creativity for everybody.  And the homophobia, which I feel is at the root of a lot of social problems. What people don’t realize is that the basic ignorance around not discussing these issues are actually preventing new art from being created — art that’s unique, fresh and interesting, the way punk and metal took the world by storm in the 1970s. We’ll never be able to experience anything like that again unless we get past these social barriers, or shackles, which is exactly what it did the first time around.

6) Can you share a story where you were really enthused about a scene’s response? Maybe there’s a place out there that’s doing things right.

I think the Eagle Tavern in San Francisco is doing things right.  It is one of the first – or maybe even THE first – gay leather-daddy bars to exist on the West Coast. (I believe the “bear” term was even invented there.) They have weekly metal nights there, and they always seem to draw the most diverse crowds women, men, straight, queer, transgender, etc. – and for some reason, differences never matter there. It’s a real melting pot on those Thursday metal nights. And the queerness is totally in your face Tom of Finland homoerotic artwork all over the venue, etc. yet straight people – straight metalheads still seem to feel welcome and comfortable going there. And it’s still this dive-y, down-and-dirty kinda place, and 100 percent metal, so it’s the best of everything.

Morla, the ancient one

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