Gender Politics and Heavy Metal

For many of us, it’s time to catch up with the times and wake up to certain facts about gender fluidity, the gender you are assigned at birth is not necessarily the one you identify as. This is nothing new for those of you who have engaged in recent history, and as the debate gains momentum and prominence in the dialogue of our age it is important to maintain a level head in the face of the hysteria this subject tends to generate. When it comes to the gender identity of others people take it personally, over and above any other criteria it is possible to identify a person as. So with no apology and no more delay I will simply state that I will sidestep addressing this complex issue head on, and dive straight into the implications this has for heavy metal culture. And there are implications; given the long history of white male dominance heavy metal bears on its shoulders, its boisterous flaunting of muscle, strength, aggression and pride, sometimes crass, sometimes poetic, very often homoerotic.

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Manowar

However, rather than list a proposed set of masculine qualities, and a list of proposed common features amongst the myriad metal styles and their subsets, and then explain why the twain will always go hand in hand, I will simply state it as fact that metal has been unapologetically a genre for the masculine, one – often simplified, often caricatured – version of the idea at least. One simply has to look at the fan base it has attracted over the years, and in turn the musicians that have risen to prominence in the subculture to illustrate this point. With close ties to other subcultures outside of music, such as high fantasy, video gaming, horror and gore films, a love of military history, and ancient myths and legends, it is the ideals that metal espouses, rather than the real lives of fans and musicians themselves, which embody the general ideals found therein. There is a whole plethora of culture old and new that tends to display a certain brand of adulation for these foggy notions of the butch. And within clearly defined parameters of acceptability I’d argue that there is still a lot of space in the modern world for this.

So far, so one dimensional. For people already well versed in the myriad and varied selection of metal bands boasting female members, women have been a part of metal culture so natural over the years that their individual presence is deemed not worth noting, Bolt Thrower, Nuclear Death, Plasmatics, Funeras, Acid King, Darkspace, Dekerta, and Mythic to name but a few. Before you level the accusation of name dropping at me, I have selected this particular group of bands because they do not use female clientele as a marketing tool in any discernable way unlike bands such as Nightwish, Arch Enemy, Lacuna Coil, Huntress, and so many more. Such reasoning however, will always and ultimately come up against the unavoidable brute fact that the vast majority of metal bands, old and new, are made up of men, as are the vast majority of fans, and the styles reflect this back, displaying the echo chamber effect in full force.

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Mythic

So now that we no longer live in the horrendous old days of rampant sexism and homophobia (modern takes on old prejudices granted), we have more fluid and enlightened notions of gender identity and how this relates to sexuality, and this means that people will inevitably start turning to subcultures like metal as an example of something that is now behind the times, backward looking and simplistic in its portrayal of what a man should be, and what a woman should be. As with dress codes within subcultures, as with the correct toxins to consume, as with ways of moving the body to styles of music, as with certain ways of carrying a conversation, the word exclusion will arrive at the discussion table eventually. Subcultures, in expressing a preference for one thing do so at the exclusion of another. In deviating from the mainstream, they offer a different form of conformity and belonging. In celebrating and promoting certain traits, they implicitly imply that these are preferable to other traits.

Whilst all this may be true, it doesn’t have to cause the outrage that it does. Because men have dominated history at the expense and persecution of women, because heterosexual men have had a monopoly on male identity at the expense and persecution of all others, any celebration of a traditional notion of male identity is seen as poor taste at best, offensive and harmful to all at worst.

But to return to the point, and to contradict an earlier statement, take a generic list of traits that encompass all of metal, each and every subgenre, and a generic list of traits associated with the idea of masculinity, and they will marry up too often to be thought coincidental. The two are inextricably linked. Does this mean you should be somehow excluded from metal circles if you don’t have a penis? Of course not. Masculinity is not synonymous with being born with a penis. The same goes for homosexuality, which all too many will all too often equate with the camp, the effeminate, and the flamboyant. Again, these words are not synonymous with male homosexuality. This notion of masculinity and this notion of metal are not the domain of the heterosexual man alone. Something many homophobic metalheads were rightly reminded of in the 1990s when Rob Halford, icon and founder of many of the dress codes associated with heavy metal, came out as gay.

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Rob Halford

Now all this may be tediously obvious to some, but it serves to prepare the ground for the next stage of this meditation. Both in and outside the subject of gender identity in metal, there have been attempts to subvert the very core of this philosophy in the hope that it would bring metal up to speed with other subcultures, for which progressive ideals may come more naturally. There are examples of people self-styled as bringing heavy metal kicking and screaming into the 21st century, as if the very notion of masculinity, even one non-abusive to other ways being, has no place in this day and age. The Soft Pink Truth has used the medium of electro music to subvert the often unconscious homoeroticism of black metal, in an attempt to bring perceived inherent queer elements in the genre kicking and screaming to the fore. Whether this works as electro music or not I am not qualified to say. What I can say is that it equates electro music with the term ‘queer friendly’, which in the context I take to mean the non-traditionally masculine ways of being associated but not synonymous with gay culture; in the same way that I am currently equating metal with masculinity. Whether it is right to do so with electronic music, again I am not qualified to say. What I can say is other than the appropriation of lyrics and corpse paint, this music doesn’t bare any relation to black metal, whether they wish these tracks to be called covers or not. The predictable hysteria and trolling that black metal fans are prone to online has had its effect however, and allowed The Soft Pink Truth the high ground to claim a level of subversion of black metal sacred cows undeserving to the actual statement the music is making. It may well succeed on its own terms as electronic music, and if it does so while using lyrics from a diverse range of black metal tracks then so be it. But call it what it is, a set of electronic tracks with lyrics from black metal tracks. The result, the novelty becomes the focal point, and thus drowns out any discussion of genuine artistic merit the music may have. Much like the Ned Flanders metal band OKILLY DOKILLY, who play hardcore songs with much loved quotes from the man himself, any discussion of artistic merit is forced to step aside in favour of the novelty, this is something that has never been done before…how fun and interesting. (As a point of order it should be noted that the likes of Beherit and Thorns have explored the avenue of electronic music in black metal twenty years ago).

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The Soft Pink Truth

Now at this point it is important to make a maybe subtle but sharp distinction. You may think that I am trying to say that there is a certain way for people at metal gigs, bars, festivals, for metal bands and record shop patrons, to carry themselves. If you don’t do so you will somehow be seen as ‘other’than those around, and will thus be excluded. This is contrary to my current line of reasoning. There is no line of reasoning that could lead to a dictatorship on the kind of person that could develop a love for metal, a passion for metal gigs, and a desire to immerse oneself in all it has to offer. My comments relate to attempts to change the spirit of metal at its very core. All cultures progress, change, develop, and none exist in a vacuum, but they all have a trait or traits that identify them, and I would argue that an exploration of a carefully crafted definition of masculinity is one of metal’s defining traits. You can pick any number of bands from any number of metal subgenres and claim they are not particularly masculine, but I am unapologetically making a broad sweep of metal as a whole.

Attempts to feminize metal because you find that it excludes on that basis is essentially an attempt to make it something which it is not. It is comparable to saying that you wish to change the amount of ball kicking there is in football because you find the current amount disagreeable. You could reinterpret the sport, introduce more carrying of the ball rather than kicking, but eventually you would end up with a sport resembling Gaelic football, a similar but essentially distinct sport.

For better or worse, a key element of metal has always been and will always be a celebration of the masculine, sometimes diminished, sometimes in full view. Again, I feel the need to reiterate that this is not related to a code of conduct at gigs, clubs, bars and festivals, although they do all reflect this to a greater or lesser degree, it is more about the idea of metal, the philosophy, the essence, what essence can be extracted from such a broad church in any case. Again, I also feel the need to reiterate that by masculinity I do not mean heterosexual men, I mean a certain way of being; open to all if they can find a home there.

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Bolt Thrower

 

I say these things in the full knowledge that this is far from a water tight defense of a subculture that has often and rightly been accused of sexism and homophobia. I do maintain that as time moves on however, such instances are becoming the exception not the rule, and one should not confuse a celebration of one thing as a declaration of its superiority. I would also like to anticipate one other potential plot hole at this point. Such traits as courage, strength, independence, aggression, conviction, anger, and confidence can all be just as much a part of femininity traditionally defined as they can of masculinity. In fact, to make distinctions between masculinity and femininity on the grounds of qualities rather than gender at birth is to simply move the issue of gender identity over to a different field, and any attempt to define these two ways of being is doomed to failure from the start, and in addition, is just another contribution to an already overflowing bin of arbitrary identities used to divide us, and ultimately divide us against each other.

All this is conceded. But if you take the previous arguments as an address to people that complain of feeling excluded from metal on the grounds of its unapologetic masculinity, leaving little to no room for the effeminate, I would simply say…they started it. They have looked at metal, identified it as masculine, and said ‘if only we could pick and choose the aspects of metal we like, without these traits we have defined as masculine, then I would feel more comfortable in its company’. If you like I can reframe the debate, and not use the word masculinity at all, and attempt to sum up the spirit of metal in a list of eight to ten qualities that broadly but imperfectly encompass metal as a whole, and simply say any attempt to reinterpret metal without one or all of these qualities is to change the definition of metal itself, to remove its essence. I will make yet another reiteration here, and say that I welcome outsiders drawing influence from the aesthetics, techniques and forms of metal music and culture, but call it what it is, indie music, post rock, electronica, ambient, or punk with metal influences. It is not some grand new direction for metal in a modern age. I could name ten bands off the bat as examples of how metal constantly redefines and develops from within, without betraying its core essence.

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Derketa

Another preemption I wish to make is regarding that of acceptance. If you embody the effeminate, but also feel pulled to metal music in one form or another, then surely by the current definitions I have been taking liberties with, they are excluded, they can never be part of the ‘brotherhood of metal’ as it were, because to do so would mean they were part of a subculture whose essence is contrary to their gender identity. Something has to give if we are to avoid a floored and troubling elitism, I either concede that the essence of metal is other than what I assert it to be, or I concede that this is not the essence of metal after all, and we really do need to introduce more fluid notions of gender into metal. This point is an interesting one, maybe so interesting as to deserve further discussion in another meditation. All I will say here is that gender is one set among many different identities one assumes at different times. One person may wish to explore different gender identities on different days. But before I start meditating on gender politics proper, a field I don’t feel qualified to treat in detail, I would simply pose the question, which aspects of your identity, assumed or imposed, are fundamental, which are negotiable, and when do they trade off against the need to belong? My identity as not a racist man is often tested when in the company of a group of people who make casually racist jokes without thought, do I forego this in order to fit in, or do I ‘out’ myself because the anti racist principle is too strong? Of course it’s the latter…but there are countless times when I will happily or unhappily forego part of my identity to fit in, depending on the strength of my connection with it, or the motivation behind it.

Whether the following softens or harden you to my current line of reasoning is up to you, but I do wish to make clear that I have something of a personal reason for sketching out this brief framework. Being a person of analysis coupled with being nervous around others, I struggle to approach anything with conviction. Everything is questioned, nothing is sacred, and this nurtures envy for those who can approach anything they do in life with complete commitment. Metal is special to me for this reason. It’s a place where I can give myself over to the experience without analyzing the dimensions of right or wrong, success or failure, ridicule or profundity. For anyone, outsider or not, to redefine what this experience might mean for me and others requires an answer. It is tempting say that I have done just that myself, taken the phenomenon, defined it on my own terms at the expense of any other interpretation of what this phenomenon could mean for anyone else. But I would simply reiterate that the reason I have been provoked into articulating these thoughts that have hitherto been unconscious is simply because others tried to question them. Don’t get the wrong impression, the question is welcome. But at the end of the day, attempts to redefine what metal could, or should mean, through an artistic statement, often fail on their own terms simply because they lack artistic merit. They rely on the novelty of the idea more than the composition, arrangement, form and structure. As with the Soft Pink Truth, as with that Ned Flanders metal band, as with Ghost, as with countless others. Spitting forth outrage about these acts only adds to the problem, it gives them the high ground, and any attempt to question in a more reasoned way is cut off at the pass. Rather a calm thoughtful breath, and a reanalysis of what it means to be a fan of metal. From this angle such adversary is always welcome, for the betterment of metal and what it means in this most complex of modern ages, for the betterment, but not for the redefinition of metal.

So to bring together the loose ends of this discussion by way of blunt assertion, metal exhibits certain traits that make up its essence, these manifest themselves to a greater or lesser degree in each and every subgenre. Outsiders have identified a large number of these as being masculine traits, call them what you will, they are part of the essence of metal culture, attempts to change them are attempts to make metal something which it is not. It is part of the ‘us and them’ nature of metal as a subculture. One final preemption of another reaction I would expect. If you think this is splitting hairs to the point of tedium that is because I am splitting hairs to the point of tedium, but splitting hairs to the point of tedium is a fundamental part of the spirit of metal.

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