Abstracts of the work to be presented at the Metal & Marginalisation Symposium

Postfeminism and heavy metal: sexy or sexist?

Heather Savigny

Heavy metal has long had a reputation for being sexist; but how realistic is this discourse? The term ‘postfeminism’ has been used to signify an era where feminism is seen as both no longer necessary (the earlier goals of feminism [cf. McRobbie, 2004] ) and as urgent as ever (as women’s empowerment becomes more and more narrowly constructed around their sexualisation cf. Banyard, 2010): is it possible for these two seemingly mutually exclusive theoretical positions to co-exist? And if they do, what tensions and issues do they raise?

This paper explores these theoretical questions through reference to the genre and culture of heavy metal. While gender has been a focus in the study of heavy metal previously, there is an underlying acceptance that the masculinist discourses, situated in a patriarchal context, are almost inevitably sexist (cf. Walser, 1993; 109-12) where women ‘do’ gender, but on men’s terms (Krenske &McKay, 2000). Heavy meal in this respect is like other forms of mainstream music culture (Whitely, 2000). However, what heavy metal also provides is a cultural site where women can be empowered, not in the narrow neoliberal sexualised sense as described by authors such as Waters (2010) and Douglas (2010) or as exemplified in acts such as Rihanna. But women’s empowerment can flow from their experiences as fans (the source of this paper’s empirical data). Metal provides a site where gender norms are so subverted to the extent that current socially constructed gender norms can be negotiated, challenged and reconstituted. While Weinstein (2009) used sociology to inform public discussion of heavy metal; the originality of this paper lies in the use postfeminist theorising to inform discussion, as a mechanism to unpack the ways in which heavy metal can be both empowering (sexy) and problematic for women (sexist). Understanding the tensions between and duality of these positions also enables us to understand masculine cultures (cf. Enloe, 2013) ultimately providing a site where traditionally gendered power structures may be rendered more subtle and nuanced than monolithic discourses may suggest.


Femme-Liminale: corporeal performativity in Death Metal

Jasmine Shadrack

Given the research undertaken into notions of Dark Leisure (Spracklen, 2013), space becomes an engendered negotiated terrain not only in terms of performing masculine inscribed music such as Death Metal but occupying space within the scene itself.

Claiming identity through mapping one’s relationship to societal constructs of self and notions of belonging within peripheric and marginalised music forms such as Death Metal means that gender becomes foregrounded. Death Metal in its musical constructs is male; the virtuosity and dexterity required to compose and perform it has its legacy in patriarchal cultural practices such as lead guitar solos and traditional band formations being occupied in the majority by men. There are of course exceptions to the rule but they do not occupy leading positions in the genre. There exists a preconceived notion that girls can’t play guitar, let alone death metal because its difficulty levels exceed a traditional three chord structure. Their involvement is restricted to either bass under the assumption that it is easier than guitar (White Zombie, Bolt Thrower) or in some instances vocals however, this is dealt with as a novelty, Arch Enemy providing a viable example.

Whilst an anti-hegemonic, anti-establishment ideological position is maintained, for women who transgress the boundary between audience member or “girlfriend” of a band member, to performing death metal, the liminality of experience means occupying a patriarchal space at the same time as transgressing sexist gender tropes. Whilst it can be noted that men within the death metal scene do not necessarily knowingly ascribe to societal gender constructs as an overt operational paradigm of behaviour, seeing as no single person can divorce themselves in totality away from contemporary cultural texts and practices, fundamental gender codes underpin interaction on and off stage.

For women who perform death metal, the choice to either accept or deny constructs of femininity and ‘sexiness’ exists as polemics; to acknowledge the male gaze or to reject it can act as primary signification of manoeuvrability within the scene.

This paper seeks to deconstruct notions of gender performativity, subversion and extreme metal in order to present a narrative on liminality, sexualisation and corporeality.


Queering Metal: Gender Performances within a Sludge Metal Context

Laura Wright

Research around sludge metal has been noticeably scarce within metal studies literature. This paper investigates gender performances and perceptions of masculinity and femininity within this particular sub-genre. It is important to consider sludge metal when researching gendered processes within metal music due to the less apparent nature of the masculine/feminine binary which arguably facilitates an emancipatory space for gender enactments. As such, this paper seeks to work as a corrective to previous studies which have highlighted how patriarchal values underpin all metal music. Instead, this paper argues that gender performances are a product of complex power relations which results in gender contestation and transformation.

Methods undertaken include an unstructured interview with an audience member and a semi-structured electronic interview conducted with a musician who affiliates closely with the sub-genre. Moreover, I present a poststructuralist discourse analysis of two music magazines and covert participant observation was undertaken at live performances. As such, I propose that metal music as a whole is not solely organised around hegemonic masculinity at the exclusion (or reluctance) of female participation but that gender performances within metal music are context, thus sub-genre, specific.

Using Queer Theory, and more explicitly a Foucauldian and Butlerite framework, I endeavour to highlight the fluidity of gender performances and how bodies do not neatly fit into the gender binary, especially within a sludge metal context. This paper proposes that normative and fluid gender performances are simultaneously embodied and challenged within sludge metal. However, such conformity and challenges towards normative gender performances tend to occur unconsciously and further depends on the position individuals undertake within the sub-genre.

Thus, overarching notions suggesting metal music is patriarchal and women can only enter the culture if they adhere to hegemonic masculine ideals is overly crude and ignores the specificity  and power relations within each particular sub-genre. Ultimately, then, in this paper I wish to highlight the importance of context-specific analyses and, subsequently, argue that normalised values attributed to gender performances are simultaneously destabilised and unconsciously conformed to within some sub-genres of metal music.


Researching Chinese heavy metal: some initial findings on marginalization

Yuan Wang

This paper introduces some initial findings relevant to “marginalization” from my current PhD which aims to add to metal studies by outlining a comprehensive understanding of metal in China, a scene which has been comparatively marginalized within metal studies thus far.

The paper falls in to four parts. The first provides an outline of the history of metal in China between 1990 and 2013 via a series of statistics, defining two periods as pop-metal during 1990-1999 and underground-metal during 2000-2013. The second draws out the main characteristics of the latter by focusing on three types of marginalization in terms to industry, aesthetics, and globalization. Ironically, the rise of Chinese metal can be seen as a synchronized process along with the marginalization of the subgenre. Thirdly, a brief case study of Chinese metal band Suffocated shows how a balance could be possibly maintained under the tension between mainstreaming and marginalization. Finally, I will highlight some thoughts about the methodological problems the research may encounter before the paper concludes with some suggestions about how the particular case of China might inform broader metal studies.

Overall the paper aims to facilitate an preliminary discussion on the particular characteristics of metal in China around the issue of marginalization as a part of my whole research, and to provide some initial thoughts on how broader discussions will be developed in future years.

The Music or the Message? A contemporary analysis of racism, anti-semitism and misogyny within the extreme metal scenes

Laina Dawes

Thanks to the advent of music video stations and the relative ease of online technology, within the past three decades a cultural and ethnically diverse populace has had unlimited access to a myriad of musical genres and cultures. While there are more fans from various ethno-cultural groups than ever before within the extreme music genres, racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny still serve as a deterrent in active participation. While many have continued to actively participate in underground metal culture, certain questions still remain:  Should minority fans consume and purchase music in which the musicians have publically made racist, or misogynist statements, or music that contains racist, anti-semitic and misogynist lyrics? And, what happens when marginalized people enter the live event space and what expectations of the venue owners, the behaviour of the dominant group and the minority? This paper will refer to the research conducted in preparation for the writing of my book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, which focuses on Black women who are involved in the metal, hardcore and punk scenes. The interview respondents are involved in the extreme musical cultures and well versed in their own racial authenticity, and have used extreme music to cultivate and assert their individuality. However, the challenge remains: why love music and culture that sometimes, does not love you back?

Representing and Negotiating ‘the Other’ in Iraq War-Themed Heavy Metal Music Videos

Wiebke Kartheus

War can be regarded as an archetypical theme for heavy metal music on numerous levels because it is continuously—and to varying degrees critically—negotiated in numerous songs and by numerous bands and artists. Generic tropes and themes in music videos by heavy metal artists, as described by Robert Walser in his article “Forging Masculinity: Heavy-Metal Sounds and Images of Gender,” have developed to include “male […] bonding,” “‘exscription’ of the feminine,” and “masculine virtuosity and control” (153-155). Thus, by signifying and speaking to notions important to a dominantly white, male, heterosexual metal-audience, the war theme lends itself to potentially being capable of aesthetically and ideologically unifying.

In this paper, considering genre conventions as well as audience’s expectations, I will analyze the visual, musical, and narrative structure of selected heavy metal videos in order to comment on the portrayal of ‘the other’ and otherness that thematize US military engagement in Iraq in 1990 as well as 2003. Reading the music videos for Megadeth’s “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” (1990), Lamb of God’s “11th Hour” (2003), and Metallica’s “The Day That Never Comes” (2008), I will examine how ‘the other’ is constructed and contextualized on a spectrum that reaches from enemy to victim. Special attention shall be paid to Metallica’s video as it visually and thematically defies established genre conventions, thereby making it impossible to easily categorize the video’s representation of ‘the other.’ Thus, the video for “The Day That Never Comes” could be seen as challenging or destabilizing the totality of an established binary trope. Ultimately, I hope to offer an aesthetically informed perspective to discuss metal’s reliance on concepts of otherness in relation to a theme as closely connected to heavy metal as war.

Metal ‘Outsider Art’: Listening to Metal’s Forgotten Penumbra

Keith Kahn-Harris

Of the forms of marginalisation that occurs within metal scenes, one of the harshest is the marginalisation of musicians who fail to achieve acceptable standards of musical production. Metal music that is perceived as poorly produced and played and the musicians that make it, are pushed to the metal margins. This form of marginalisation may occur in tandem with other forms of marginalisation (gender, class, race etc) or separately from them. While there are now – erratic but developing – processes through which gender, class and race marginalisation can be eased, such accommodations are rarely made to those who are marginalised through their apparent incompetence. This is in part because part of the ‘price’ for admission into the metal mainstream is subcultural capital, which can potentially be ‘earned’ by those marginalised by race, class and gender but is unavailable to those who cannot manage the musical standards that have currency in metal scenes.

In my presentation I will reassess the value of  metal recordings and musicians that do not meet the standards set in metal scenes. They constitute the ‘penumbra’ of metal vitality, the necessary base on which metal’s musical innovation rests. Moreover, at least some of the forgotten, marginalised and obscure recordings and musicians  that constitute this penumbra should be understood as ‘outsider art’, whose apparent naivity can reveal something important about what metal is and should be.

The presentation will consist of an introduction, followed by a listening session in which 3 examples of metal outsider art will be played.

So You Think You Can Grunt: Gender and Musical Careers in Online and Offline Metal Scenes

Pauwke Berkers and Julian Schaap

Popular music plays an essential role in the mediated lives of adolescents (Christenson & Roberts, 1998). Pop music is regularly used for identity work, oftentimes situated in local and trans-local music scenes. Music scenes in general – and metal scenes in particular – are highly stratified along gender lines (Krenske & McKay, 2000; Vasan, 2011). This paper therefore addresses to what extent female and male musicians navigate online metal scenes differently, and how this relates to the gender dynamics in offline metal scenes. We hereby effectively scrutinize the understudied relationship between online and offline music scenes. Metal music is often defined as a form of male rebellion vis-à-vis female bedroom culture (Frith and McRobbie, 1990). Furthermore, learning to play in a band is largely a peer-based – rather than individual – experience, shaped by existing sex-segregated friendship networks (Clawson, 1999). The emergence of the Internet and online social media have led to virtual scenes (Bennett, 2004), creating new modes of social conduct which might affect gender inequality. Due to several reasons, social media might facilitate or empower women to actively engage in metal scenes. In order to answer our research question, we examine vocalists (‘grunting’) and instrumentalists performing extreme metal on video-sharing website YouTube. First, we conducted a quantitative and qualitative content analysis of YouTube user-comments (utterances) of males and females performing extreme metal covers (Schaap & Berkers, 2012). Second, the analysis of online scene-interaction is followed by twenty life-history interviews (Atkinson, 1998), mapping the biographical trajectories of ten male and ten female cover performers.

Metal in Botswana

Bill McGrath

In the last ten years, metal has expanded from its traditional strongholds of the USA, UK, and Scandinavia to become a truly global phenomenon (Tom Dare, Terrorizer #242, Halloween 2013). Metal scenes are thriving in countries all over the world, and sub-Saharan Africa is no exception. The metal scene in Botswana in particular is a huge success story – Botswana boasts more active metal bands than any other country in the region bar South Africa, in a variety of genres and covering a range of lyrical topics. Yet metal fans still have an “outsider” status that is largely lost in many other countries where the scene has become normalised. Furthermore, the majority of these fans and musicians are black, rather than white, as is the case in most other countries. This paper will examine the music, the lyrics and the surrounding scene and their relation to the scenes in other countries, as well as responses to bands from Botswana in both the media and in international scenes.

‘To Holmgard… and Beyond’: Folk Metal Fantasies and Hegemonic White Masculinities

Karl Spracklen

On first inspection, the metal music sub-genre of folk metal might be arguably residual white, masculine spaces. The sub-genres are not fashionable within the metal music scene. Folk metal bands are ridiculed by fans of black metal for being too mainstream and crowd-pleasing, constructing fantasies of drinking and fighting that have no authentic connection to Vikings, Saxons or other (supposed) nationalist patriarchs. But folk metal bands are not part of the mainstream of modern heavy metal, judged by sales of records and numbers of fans on social media. This paper draws on new research on folk metal and its reputation within heavy metal, using a range of internet sources and semiotic analysis of folk metal bands’ songs and images. The bands at the focus of the case study research are bands that have been deliberately selected because they are well-established in the industry, and generally known to fans of heavy metal: Turisas (Finland), Tyr (Faroe Islands), Eluveite (Switzerland), In Extremo (Germany) and Cruachan (Ireland). In this paper, I will argue that folk metal is not easily dismissed as a fantasy space for young, white European men left behind by postmodernity, post-colonialism and a rearrangement of the gender order. Rather, folk metal remains central to the on-going construction of heavy metal as a form of commodified leisure that makes the power of Western, instrumental whiteness and hegemonic masculinity invisible, while ironically being in plain sight.

No Direction Home: the Home of Metal and un reconstructed and unaccommodated man

Ben Andrews and Pete Bennett

At the very centre of Shakespeare’s King Lear, both literally and figuratively, stands ‘the Heath’ and in the centre of that a hovel which Lear enters in an act of debasement/humility and cleansing.  He has shortly before encountered its ‘proprietor’, a wretched soul, the self-styled ‘Poor Tom o’ Bedlam and seen through this example something of what we might be, an image of “un-accommodated man”.  When he emerges he is changed utterly, yet, as Poor Tom (actually the nobleman Edgar in a paper-thin disguise) declares “there is method in his madness”.  There is much of this ‘method’ (and feigned madness) in both the theory and practice of the attempts Birmingham (and the wider post-industrial Midlands) have made and continue to make to offer itself as ‘The Home of Metal’: reason in madness.

This paper explores these ideas in some detail as it considers the various attempts that have been made to appropriate and accommodate this essentially anti-genre: even its name is an affront visited on it by its critics.  Like Barthes’ Negro soldier saluting the tricolour on the cover of Paris Match, the Home of Metal seems to embody the ‘mythic’, par excellence.  In fact in an almost classically Barthesian way, “myth” was, after all, for Barthes a “double system”, it performs a double bluff failing even to deliver its ideological punch; failing ultimately to “transform History into Nature”.  Rather History, in its own way, reasserts itself.  And where this is ironically most identifiable is in the reality and metaphorical capability of the very notion of a space in which Metal might be contained and celebrated and not even a hovel but a ‘home’.

Nice & Rough: Black Women IN Rock

Sheila Jackson H.

The image of a black woman screaming rock lyrics or thumping a bass guitar is unexpected and rare. Nice & Rough is a ground-breaking documentary that celebrates the complexity and courage of the daring, outrageous, sexy, soulful women who despite what anyone thinks – choose to rock.

I believe music resonates from the soul, crosses racial, cultural and socio-economic barriers. Rock is a genre inspired by the music and soulful, blues vocals of African American women, like Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith; the rockin’ gospel guitar of Rosetta Tharpe; and the powerful vocals of Big Mama Thornton whose original, “Hound Dog,” was later recorded by Elvis. In their wake were Nona Hendryx, Joyce Kennedy, Betty Davis, and Tina Turner. Turner was the only one who has achieved grammy gold in rock, a genre dominated by white males, to the almost complete exclusion of the women who helped to lay its foundation.

The music world is still at a loss on how to promote these women in a society where the categorization of music is still largely impacted by race. Black women in rock discuss their journey to cultivate their fan base, tour and market their music as artists in a genre where their presence is least expected, and at times resented. It’s an honest, provocative dialogue that honors the true spirit of freedom – to pursue our goals and not be limited by race or gender.

Nice & Rough is currently in production. I would love to share video excerpts from my interviews and discuss my findings, to date, which directly address the mission of your conference on “Metal and Marginalisation.”



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