Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Women in Metal

A Man's Musings on the Status and Contributions of Women in Music's Most Extreme Genre

Women have been marginalized in metal for a long time. Much of the reason for that begins with society's ideas of femininity, and metal's decidedly masculine ideals. It was exacerbated in the 80's, with the sleaze rock that passed for metal at the time, which objectified women--and which has forever colored the mainstream conception of what metal is. Even today, metal bands without any talent will recruit a woman, dress her up like a slut, and use her as a cheap trick to get them undeserved attention. And it almost always works. Hell, I even went through a short phase of listening to a lot of Nightwish and Lacuna Coil myself.

Revolver and its annual "Hottest Chicks in Metal" is the flashpoint around which this issue is discussed, a fact recently lamented by The Black Girl into Heavy Metal. The very idea of it is offensive, and it sells a lot of magazines. So no one can really blame them for catering to the lowest common denominator.

But things aren't all bad. Even in the 80's Lita Ford got respect. Yes, she dressed sexy, but she also came off as strong. In the 90's, it seemed like White Zombie's Sean Yseult was the only metal chick who was taken seriously, and she dressed like a regular person. But things really turned around for the first time with Angela Gossow. Whatever you think about Arch Enemy's music (and in my opinion it's pretty mediocre), you have to admit two things. First, she dresses like a human being, and not an object. And second, she's gotten all her respect by being a talented vocalist, and a frontwoman whose made their live shows the subject of almost universal praise.

All of this is true, and yes, the more mainstream varieties of metal do objectify women. But here's what I think: It's not about women and metal at all. It's about women and music that caters to the mainstream.

At first blush, that may sound ridiculous. Metal isn't supposed to cater to the mainstream. But take a look through the pages of Decibel or Terrorizer, and you won't find women in lingerie or thigh-high boots, or with cleavage jumping out of their shirts. Look through Revolver and you will. Probably Metal Hammer, too. But Revolver and Metal Hammer are all about catering to the lowest common denominator. That's what mainstream music is all about. And all of mainstream music treats women this way, as Rolling Stone will prove quickly enough. Decibel and Terrorizer are decidedly not about catering to a mainstream audience, and that's the difference.The only notable exception to this rule is Sigh, but hey, it's Japan, so what are you going to do?

And the fact is that once you leave the mainstream side of metal, women are making nearly as much (if not just as much or more) great, innovative music as men are, and getting credit for it based on their musical prowess. That was recently noticed by even the lowest common denominator for real metal. The kind of women who want to make extreme music are different, and they bring a different perspective and different skill set (at least vocally) to the endeavor. A quick look at Profound Lore's roster confirms my theory: Salome, SubRosa, Ludicra, Grayceon, and Saros are all great bands fronted by women, and they're all making wonderfully unique metal while wearing street clothes. The reason they're on Profound Lore is because that label seeks out great bands that are unique, so I don't think it's any coincidence they have a lot of female-fronted bands.

I want to pick out Ludicra in particular for making (as I noted in my review) black metal that's decidedly feminine, but in a pure way that has nothing to do with society's ideas or with sex, but femininity in its Platonic ideal pure form. We could do with even more of this approach.

So yes, now I seek out metal made by women. And it has nothing to do with the way they look. It's because they do it differently. Keep up the good work, ladies.


  1. Ha, I'm sorry to say I still listen to Nightwish occasionally.

    On Lita Ford, I believe that her talents were extremely back-seat to her sex appeal. She even said herself most people (mostly men) would ask her who the guitarist is in her live performance and she would always have to reinforce that SHE was the one playing guitar. Granted, her music wasn't great, but I think that there are a good bit of women in the scene that are multi faceted but are subjected to be promoted this way. Be it through their own aspirations or someone else's. (Yeah, I'm not going to sit here and say that women are completly helpless in this. As I said in the blog, we ALLOW it)

    Also, can't agree more with Arch Enemy. However, I find it funny that I enjoyed their first two albums with Johan Liiva more than the stuff with Angela in it. But, that is the angle they needed to propel the band, I suppose.

    And thank you for pointing out that women in specifically black metal take their music very seriously. (I love Ludicra, btw).

    There really has to be a definitive line between being sexy and being taken seriously. I don't think its been explored enough. Great post.

    (Also, Diablo Swing Orchestra is an avant-garde prog metal band that is female fronted and is really fantastic. (The Butchers Ballroom album specifically) However, the female is over-weight which I find interesting because I think they would be better known if not for her obesity. Double standard?)

  2. Btw, what city in Neraska are you from? I'm originally from there is why I ask.

  3. I'm glad you liked the post. I'm a big fan of Diablo Swing Orchestra myself, and I also prefer The Butcher's Ballroom. Off the top of my head, I would also recommend Unleash the Archers, a power/thrash band from Canada (BC, I believe).

    Originally I'm from the Pierce/Norfolk area, now in the Lincoln area.

  4. Interesting article. I also listen to some of the groups like Nightwish and Lacuna Coil on occasion and quite like Arch Enemy.

    I have found several impressive death and thrash metal bands with female lead singers such as Znowhite, Holy Moses, Dreaming Dead (with two female guitarists), Landmine Marathon, Voetsek, and Estuary.

    I have noticed that the mainstream press does present females in music as sexual objects. It is good to see women in bands out there who are confronting this issue as seen in particular with Arch Enemy.:

    I like to see half-naked girls as much as the next red-blooded American male (I even have some posts on my own blog, which I am somewhat ashamed of now), but I have grown past the fascination with it in my music and have begun to look more for substance other than style.

  5. Incidentally, I wanted to comment on something that you said in your post. You stated that you would are seeking out bands with female members. To me, this is treating bands with women differently on account of them having women in the band. This is part of the issue that you are criticizing. Bands are treated differently if they have a woman in the group, whether it is because of sex appeal, or novelty, or something else. By you generalizing that metal bands with women in them are more interesting because of how they do things, you fall into the same trap.

    I am not criticizing you. I think the whole world does things this way. I am just pointing out that it is a problem and one that until women are treated every bit as equally as men, is not going away.

  6. That's an interesting thought that hadn't occurred to me. I'm not quite sure how to respond, actually. But my first thought is that it isn't about treating them the "same", but as equals, i.e., equally good (and equally deserving of being treated as humans rather than objects). But women are, in fact, different (no matter what anyone says). Their difference, plus their rarity in metal, tends to lead to them having music that stands out as different, and I like that.

  7. i ranted about this myself a couple years ago, predictably the only comment like six months later was the totally expected "ur a fag who likes ghey buttsecks." i think the thing i hate most about metal half the time is metal people.

    i guess it's my punk/grind upbringing, but those styles at least seem to give the ladies an equal platform without constantly telling them to show us your tits.
    it doesn't matter that suffering mind, lycanthropy, FID, cloud rat and disrupt had women in the ranks. all that mattered was they raged.

  8. You know, it is a bit offensive to have a group of men attempting to decide how women should be treated. A bit patronizing, even. I am fairly certain women can determine for themselves how they want to be treated. The ones who choose to use sex appeal for attention have that right just as much men who use machismo for attention. Besides, lets all be honest, women objectify men too. :)

  9. Well, anonymous, that's why I prefaced it just to make sure everyone knows it's a man thinking out loud here.

    What's funny to me about your comment is that many (but not all) women would agree with my thoughts more than your idea that women can use sex appeal for attention if they want. Some women see that as holding the rest of them back, or so I've heard.

    When you're talking about what's right and wrong in the world, you're always going to get disagreement.

  10. I think the metal world is crying out for a more feminine influence. I love what Laura Pleasants brings to Kylesa for example. The added textures of both her sing and screamed vocals for example, not to mention her guitar and songwriting chops for example. Pleasants' contribution to that band is a major factor in elevating them above their peers in my opinion. All while dressed like everyone else in the band.

  11. I actually hesitated to post the comment, because it sounded as though I was angry or personally offended, and truthfully I wasn't. Unfortunately, the written word does not always convey feelings as appropriately as speaking in person.

    "When you're talking about what's right and wrong in the world, you're always going to get disagreement."

    I can agree 100% with this comment.

    "What's funny to me about your comment is that many (but not all) women would agree with my thoughts more than your idea that women can use sex appeal for attention if they want. Some women see that as holding the rest of them back, or so I've heard."

    The fact of the matter is, women need to take responsibility for themselves. One can never control how someone else behaves, they can only control how they themselves behave. Even by your own comment you admit that women are making this choice for themselves. Whether the behavior of these women affect other women is immaterial. People of any 'group' will do things that others of that group do not approve of and reflect somewhat badly on the group as a whole. It is our responsibility to view actions as an individual thing, as opposed to seeing them as how a 'group' behaves, and to behave as an individual how you would like others to view you as an individual.

  12. I agree with that in part. But I think there is more than one issue here. Part of it is how women can behave, which is something I can't speak to. The other part is how men (and other women) treat women, and that is affected by how all women act, whether an individual woman likes it or not.

  13. This whole discussion provides some interesting food for thought, but at this point it seems to have pretty much abandoned the original post on women in metal and has instead become about women in society in general. And when it gets to that point, all that can honestly be said is that we're in a curious state of social transition right now, where double standards strike at both sexes, and nobody is 100% sure of what the standards are.

    For example, if a woman chooses to use her sex appeal to get ahead, that is her choice. Then if men sit around staring at her, other women will call those men sexist pigs, despite the fact that they're doing exactly what the woman in question wants them to do. If, on the other hand, men DON'T sit around ogling, then the woman wants to know what's wrong with them. Why don't they respond like men are "supposed" to? For every woman who wants to be treated equal to men, there is another who wants to be able to use sexuality to get what she wants. And for every man who wants to treat women equally, there are droves who are ready to take the sexual path as well. No matter how you approach the subject, somebody will tell you you're wrong.

  14. I don't think objectification is ever going to go away. The biggest step toward equality, then, is more in the form of things like Twilight. As much as I hate those books and movies, what they represent is actually pretty interesting on a social level. Rather than stopping women who allow themselves to be sexually objectified, instead a new platform has been raised for men to become sexual objects for the pleasure of women. Now anybody can jump into the world of sexual objectification, either as an observer or as a participant. Or they can choose to abstain from such activities and perspectives, purely at their own discretion. In a weird way, this is probably the greatest combination of equality and freedom we're ever going to achieve on this particular front.

  15. Another interesting article, provoking some interesting comments.
    Personally, Izegrim are one of my favorite death/thrash bands with a female vocalist - not that it should matter what sex the vocalist is. Like you have said, I think we mention it because it is slightly rarer, but it shouldn't matter. Thanks for mentioning Subrosa and Grayceon - I love both these bands, and have just done interviews with Jackie from Grayceon and Rebecca from Subrosa for Femme Metal Webzine, the interviews will hopefully be out in the April edition. I will also be adding tracks by both bands to the first free Metalcast slot I can.

    Many of the interviews with female vocalists I get to do for the webzine are with metalcore-style bands, or deathcore bands. Not necessarily my style preference, but I suppose there are quite a lot of female vocalists there just as there are male. Some notable growlers I have recently interviewed are Otep Shamayah and BEcky from My Inner Burning.

    If you're into all girl bands, Frantic Amber are a good bet.

    At the moment I am listening to a Russian female fronted band Witchcraft, sounds gA bit folky with the violins at the moment...

    Anyway, thanks for the article Kelly.
    FOr those seeking more female fronted music there are two free compiltions out there: