Given the recent meditations I have been posting on race and gender I feel the need to redress the balance in the wake of unashamedly apologist pieces for the culturally backward elements in heavy metal. For all my suggestions that extreme metal is just one of those things that exists in a different context to more mainstream universes when it comes to racism, it does not change the unshakable fact that racism is pretty naughty. More than this however, despite the myriad examples listed in Racism and Metal, I firmly believe that in the battle for cultural diversity and understanding, metal is a force for good in the world. Equally, metal’s almost quaint take on male identity exposes sexualised femininity to cynical market forces, where it can be exploited as a novelty to sell records and attract lonely adolescent males to shows, facilitating their exploration of some unachievable sexual fantasy. However, with this meditation I intend to provide a counter balance to this, to illustrate how metal is and can be a leader of diversity in some areas, and to point to areas where it needs to catch up with other less troubling subcultures without compromising its adversarial philosophy. Day after day I hear stories of people trying to overcome gender inequalities, institutionalised or hidden but still as real today as they always have been, and battles over racial identity will still spark the familiar old fire of public outrage on all sides, burning hotter than ever in recent years. As an affluent, heterosexual, white, young male, it really brings me down. Especially when such outrage turns its attention to metal as an example of a backward culture. In such cases I will often find myself switching sides, defending the more conservative values of tradition and heritage, and attempting to justify them from my perspective as a tediously politically correct modern liberal. So let’s see if we can provide a counterweight to this through the notion of positive discrimination, or as they say in the States with a typically positive American spin, ‘affirmative action’, thus removing the word discrimination with all its unsavoury connotations. Like breeds like, and one reason for metal’s history of monoculture is its lack of idols outside of the white male mould.
But let’s start with cultural diversity. Despite the many and varied examples one can find of racism within metal, it is arguably the most diverse and global cultural phenomena within alternative music. In fact so pervasive has metal become across the world that it even caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which described metal as the fungus that grows in the compost of dawning prosperity, and due to the money, resources, and leisure time required to make heavy metal, it is a good indicator of a country or region’s improving economic and social prospects. One of the pleasures of being a fan of metal is the knowledge that one facet of your identity is shared with people from around the globe, regardless of any other cultural difference or conflict; much like an interest in the making and smelling of farts. Japan has long proved to be fertile touring grounds for heavy metal artists, as has South America, providing counter weights to anyone wishing to argue that it is largely a North American and European affair. In turn many internationally renowned artists have grown out of this soil, such as Church of Misery and Sigh of Japan, and Sepultura and Sarcofago of Brazil. The discerning observer will also jump on any artist that springs out of the Middle East beyond Israel, where the breaking of religious taboos is still treated as a criminal offence, sometimes punishable by death. Recently people have also been turning to Africa as the setting for the next big scene in heavy metal circles. Where once it was The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, where once it was Bay Area Thrash, where once it was Hellenic Black Metal, or Teutonic Thrash, now it is Botswanan Heavy Metal.
And this leads us on to the crux of the matter really, in a world where obscurity in and of itself is often unconsciously considered a virtue by many; following an artist from a country not often associated with loud guitar based music is in many ways the ultimate source of obscure points. And so the question ‘on what grounds are you really judging the quality of the music?’ will inevitably join the feast of discussion. Are we giving artists from Botswana, for example, a longer leash when it comes to judgements of quality because we see them in the light of being from a poorer country, and for this reason we believe that we should offer them our support in the endeavour to bring metal to a yet wider circle of backgrounds and cultures? Beyond addressing the question of the quality of the output of bands such as Skinflint, Overthrust, and Wrust directly, are we as privileged white people shamelessly patronising them if we allow them a handicap when compared to their North American and European counterparts for example? Is this just a pathetic attempt to alleviate some imagined white guilt on our part? Or are we encouraging diversity, which in the long term will contribute to the quality of metal as a whole, as an even broader church, with new regional influences to call upon and new subject matter to explore lyrically?
A closely related aside is the issue of cultural appropriation. When an artist incorporates regional influences into their music, such as folk instruments, vocal techniques, playing styles, imagery, lyrical themes based around folk tales and myth, who judges how tastefully these have to be handled so as to avoid coming over as tacky or insensitive? Is this a purely subjective and aesthetic judgement based on the value we confer on the art, with no relation to the rights and wrongs of the issue? Because of the intensely context based nature of the answers you may wish to put forth to some of these questions, I am going to shelve this point for now.
A whole bunch of new issues come to light if you talk about positive discrimination in terms of encouraging women into metal. I don’t care how many examples and exceptions you wish to list, the numbers make the case, so just shut the fuck up for a bit. One might wish to say that it is the lack of female role models in metal that contributes to this, so it is important to encourage any up and coming female artists in order to thrust them into the limelight for all young women to see and aspire to. To counter this however, you might argue that this is treating femininity as a disability, much like attempts to expand the ethnic diversity of heavy metal. However noble the intentions we may start out with, we are simply perpetuating the idea that many are trying so hard to overcome, that there is an inherent disadvantage in being a woman, in being not heterosexual and white in a straight white world like metal, in even singling these features out at all you are contributing to the problem. These people do not need our charity, the very notion of charity precludes inequality, and even when we talk of the real inequality experienced by people across the world, it will never be overcome until we start treating difference as the illusion that it is; best to ignore it completely, judge artists on their merits alone, because any payoff in increased diversity is simply not worth the cost of this accusation being levelled.
There’s something to this. But there’s also something to the fact that metal is still so vastly white male dominated, it’s bound to be a target for liberals looking for culprits of a backwards culture, throwbacks to a simpler, more prejudice age. Any method to overcome this should be explored. We cannot just wish inequality away by acting as if it does not exist; positive action is required, for the simple and obvious reason that not everyone is on our side in the fight.
If you’ll allow me to sound like a self-satisfied fart smeller for but a moment (if that’s not what you have already been doing up to this point), there have been many occasions where I have come across an artist and only after giving an album a good few spins have I realised that one or all of their members are female. Being a fart smeller is not my intention in mentioning this, although I realise it is an inevitable by-product. My intention is more to point out that it is when the fact is so natural as to not be worth special mention that it hits home hardest, rather than being used as a callous marketing tool. As an antidote to this callousness, bands like Castrator, an international all female death metal band, have adopted the music, imagery, and lyrical themes typical to death metal on their EP ‘No Victim’, but have completely removed the notion of even pandering to a world where men set the agenda. The point being that this is music written and played by women, which appeals to women over men, because it speaks through the mouthpiece of feminism. It’s important to mention this, because you may be tempted to list all manner of female fronted bands from operatic metal to grindcore as an illustration of the changing times. But (at the risk of incurring your wrath), when they are not placed there for crude sex appeal, they are rarely the chief song writer, at most they sing, they may write the lyrics, play the violin or flute passages, and portray a distinctive image in photo shoots and at gigs. When was the last time you saw a female guitar virtuoso leading an upcoming act on the level of a Trey Azazgoth? When was the last time you saw a female drummer on a par with a Mike Smith, a female bassist with the class of a Steve Harris? These musicians are out there, waiting for the exposure other fortunates already receive, and this is where arguments for positive discrimination are at their most powerful, like breeds like. And until we live in the perfect world of diversity and equality that so many are striving for we cannot live in an ‘as if’ reality, where we simply imagine the lived experiences of inequality away. In an ideal world none of this would matter, no one would notice the identity of the idolised musician, whatever the identity of the fan looking up to them, it really doesn’t matter if the passion, talent, and music is real, if the inspiration is real.
Only the hopelessly naïve would say that artists are awarded with popularity and acclaim based on talent alone, it takes hard work, networking, knowledge of the scene and where your fan base lies, fortuitous timing, and good luck. It’s this last point that reaffirms the argument. If there is evidence to suggest that if women felt more at home within a metal scene because they had more female role models to look up to and encourage their involvement, in actual positions of leadership, then surely for now we should make every effort to increase the odds that female artists are sought out and given exposure at the very least. Rather than giving them acclaim on gender alone, something that harms all parties involved, I do not see the harm in seeking out female artists as a conscious activity, and only if one of quality is discovered, following them and promoting them. If you think this will lower our standards as critics by encouraging mediocrity, there is a real sense in which we already do this with male artists.
Arguments around positive discrimination in employment often point to the effect this will have on an individual’s self-esteem, if they know that the only reason they are in their current position is because they were fast tracked up the employment ladder. Although we as followers of metal don’t interview bands before giving them a job so to speak, there is a sense in which artists that are on the receiving end of positive discrimination and aware of it would always know that their success was never due to talent alone. I’m sure they would have our sympathies if that were the case. Presumably the end game of a positive discrimination agenda is a cross section of society whereby everyone is represented in proportion to the population at large, meaning the policy renders itself obsolete, and so will be phased out as the diversity of the applicants occurs naturally. Metal is not a public service however, it is an art form, and for that reason participation is optional, unlike the use of public services. So the same arguments simply do not apply. There are many reasons why over the decades it has predominantly attracted white men, and there are many reasons why this is slowly changing. But the main question should really be reframed, what do you as a metalhead, want heavy metal to achieve as a cultural phenomenon? Can it be all the things we claim it to be as an art form as well as a catalyst and bastion for social change?
The backlash to this question is so potent I can smell it. ‘Metal is not a PC parade, it is not subject to the same standards we would set for a public service or university applications, you cannot risk lowering the quality of music by engaging in an informal version of an employment policy that is currently illegal in the UK, it is a spontaneous and creative reflection of a certain subsection of society so is not accountable to such pseudo progressive nonsense as diversity quotas’. Well sure, maybe…but short of making a policy proposal on what is supposed to be an intuitive and spontaneous cultural expression, I would still assert that there is no harm in casting your net of musical exploration wide, as wide as you can, if you find a quality artist in some far flung corner of the world then all the better. If metal is to be your creed and cultural home, then surely re-evaluating it in the light of your other loyalties, such as a loyalty to a fair, progressive, and equal society and weighing up the importance of the principles at work behind the two and how they play off each other is not just an option, it’s a requirement. Of course if you don’t have any loyalty to a fair, progressive, and equal society you probably should have stopped reading after the title for this entry.