Thursday, September 30, 2010

Metal and Masculinity: Pt. 1

Here is a clip from Sam Dunn's documentary "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey" that explores gender and sexuality in heavy metal culture. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend watching this documentary in full, but for the purposes of class, I'm just going to share the gender/sexuality parts with you.

I would like to examine a couple points in this documentary and expand on them a bit.

"Heavy metal has always traditionally been male-dominated. Fact. It was a boy's club, in the way that the music was very aggressive and wasn't particularly sympathetic towards getting a female audience. It wasn't excluding them deliberately, but it's the way it went."
Here, note that he is speaking of the unintentional isolation of women from the metal culture in the past tense. While women aren't anywhere near equally represented in the culture today, it's much better than it once was. In the '80s, perhaps 10% (Dee Snyder's estimation) of the audience was female (and many of them stood on the sidelines, "holding their boyfriends' jackets"), you now have closer to (in my estimation) 30% of the fanbase female. Even in some of the more abrasive genres, you're starting to see a lot more women at these shows fully participating. The last time I went to see Amon Amarth (death metal, gutteral vocals, viking warrior-themed), 1/3 of the audience, easily, was female, which I found very surprising. Many female-lead bands, such as Arch Enemy and Nightwish, have fan bases that are more predominantly female.

In the last 20-30 years, the shift in gender roles in our culture has made the masculine themes of heavy metal much more accessible to women. With more and more families composed of two working parents, and women playing a bigger role in the workplace as they fulfill their career aspirations, the strong music and "working-class ethos" of the metal culture are not as foreign to the female audience as they once were. Male fans are generally very welcoming of this shift, and, though they respond with surprise when they see a woman in a mosh pit or spewing growling vocals, they praise and encourage the participation, rather than shoving them out of the action or booing them off stage.

Whereas, it could be argued, emo music has feminized men and created a "crisis of masculinity", metal is starting to do the complete opposite, masculinizing women. But no one is calling this a "crisis of feminity" because if women are giving up their femininity and starting to act more like men, nothing of value is lost. I would also argue that metal isn't what's changing women in our culture; the changing fanbase is just a reflection of paradigm shifts in our culture. Similarly, with emo, I would argue that men in our culture are becoming more feminized for other reasons, and then gravitate toward emo, not the other way around.

"So strength is one of the elements [of metal], but also using tools very effectively is another part of that working-class, masculine ethos."

This was particularly interesting to me, and I had never thought of it this way before. Despite its rough outer appearance, heavy metal is extremely sophisticated musically. Performers should be able to play riffs, solos, improvise, etc. Back stage, they have a very tender, affectionate relationship with their instruments, and treat them almost as if they were their babies. If you are NOT able to achieve the high level of skill expected of a metal musician, you are ridiculed and feminized. Bands that call themselves metal, but aren't very good, are rejected by purist fans and sequestered to "lesser" genres such as hardcore, punk, and so-called nü metal. These genres are often ridiculed, assumed to be compensating, called gay, their fans called fags, and generally seen as outside of the masculine metal box. This isn't because the bands are considered "girly" or anything, however. It is because they lack skill, and are therefore seen as weaker, inferior. If they try to call themselves metal (or if anyone else tries to call them metal), they are put in their place quickly.

Note, that metalheads don't feminize/ridicule all musicians and fans of these genres necessarily. It is only when the fans and musicians attempt to catagorize these lesser musics as metal that the hostility shows. For example, no one at Metal Club would ridicule me for having Sum 41 or Linkin Park in my music library. They would, however, berate me if I tried to play their music at a club meeting as a means of claiming it as part of the genre.

"If you want to call it sexist, you could, but you'd be missing something. Masculine in Western culture means freedom. And women are always trying to tie them down and domesticate them, so that's part of the masculinity element"

Given this statement, it's easy to understand how metal became so obsessed with Satanism. Satan is not seen as an evil force (except perhaps in the roots of some of the earliest bands like Black Sabbath and Rainbow) so much as a great symbol of rebellion against an oppressive (in this context, feminine) God. In Viking metal, the phrase "The White Christ" doesn't imply purity; it implies cowardice and weakness. Satan is glorified as a rebel; case in point, Symphony X's "Paradise Lost" and the Norwegian black metal scene.

"Metal is probably the last bastion of real rebellion, real masculinity, real men getting together and basically beating their chests."

Notice that this member of Slipknot is saying this over clips of hardcore dancers "moshing" in a pit. The irony of this is that Slipknot is one of those nü metal bands that any metalhead worth his salt will tell you is pussy music, and that the kind of so-called "moshing" shown is a hardcore style of moshing (2-stepping, windmills, "hardcore dancing") that is not generally acceptable in purist metalhead circles. The dance style is more aimed at inflicting harm on others and deflecting self-injury, rather than real moshing which simulates diving into combat head-on, a style of dance that almost encourages you to get so rough that you hurt yourself. Indeed, I have seen people get injured and bloodied during mosh pits, only to later show off their wounds and receive high-fives and horn salutes for their brutality. The message here is that to really be masculine, you can't be afraid of pain. Interestingly, the message also seems to be that masculinity doesn't mean going out of your way to hurt others (unless of course your willing to sustain injury yourself).

And while I'm on the note of bashing Slipknot: he also says here, "Yeah, I love women and I'm totally respectful to them, but at the same time I'm a guy. I like hanging out with guys and doing dumb shit." I'm not really sure what he means when he says he respects women, since this statement is coming from a guy who dehumanizes his entire fanbase by calling them "maggots". He also equates masculinity with "doing dumb shit" which, honestly, isn't all that respectful of men either. If anything, it seems to me he confuses boyishness with masculinity. These are arguably not the same thing.

"I don't know how to explain it. I never questioned my sexuality at any point, and I was up there in lingerie! And my wife, then girlfriend, she was the one dressing me up half the time. I was going 'Okay, great, whatever. Stockings? Let's do it. It's gonna get more attention, it's gonna get me in trouble, let's do it. Gonna freak people out? Fuck yeah!'"

"What are you going to do if you want to rebel, as a man? You gonna get an even more severe suit than your dad? You know? You can't go that direction, but you can genderbend... so that being feminine is the most masculine thing that you can do in this world."

Tales of rebellion are part of the warrior stories that are central to the expression of masculinity. We live in a period of relative peace, in a world where we don't have to fight and kill on a regular basis to defend our home or feed our family. Themes of rebellion in metal are not always about fighting a righteous battle, such as in Iced Earth's "The Glorious Burden". In metal, musicians that dress in women's clothing and sing about Satan probably don't see themselves as oppressed, so much as they see themselves as having fun by picking a fight with cultural expectations. This can be seen in the attitudes expressed by glam metal and shock rock artists like Dee Snyder here.

When I talk about metal being a "celebration of masculinity", opponents often cite either token female artists, or glam metal. In a sort of reverse-psychology sort of way, being feminine is an expression of masculinity, in that it is an act of rebellion against gender norms, and also that a man must be very secure with his masculinity in order to emulate feminine characteristics.

"Heavy metal/rock 'n' roll is very masculine, very hetero. When a guy's up there in his skin-tight pair of leather pants and he's humping the air, they're not looking at it as, 'Awe man, he's shaking his dick at me!' They look at it as, 'Yeah man, yeah, fuck that chick. Whoa, man, I wish I was him; he must be getting laid!'"

Metal (today, at least) isn't overtly hostile toward homosexuality. When Rob Halford reunited with Judas Priest, he was welcomed with open arms. The gay guitarist in Dragonforce is sometimes teased for his sexuality, even on stage by other band members in front of a live audience, but the tone isn't any worse than any other homosocial interactions.

The phenomenon of males viewing other strutting males is another form of homosociality just like any other; there's nothing homosexual about it, as Dee Snyder confusedly seems to think ("Some doctors need to look into this. [laughs]"). I think, when compared to hip-hop, it's a much more healthy expression of masculinity, in that it never uses the commodification of women in order to achieve masculinity. If it does, it's very rare, and it's not in the same tone as hip-hop where men see women as "bitches and hoes". Listen to the lyrics of Mötley Crüe's "Girls, Girls, Girls" and you'll notice it's more about men taking pleasure in the female form, and even romance: "Girls, Girls, Girls / Long legs and burgundy lips... Dancin' down on Sunset Strip... Have you read the news / In the Soho Tribune / Ya know she did me / Well then she broke my heart."

1 comment:

Corey Goettsch said...

I applaud your idea of looking at masculinity and metal music, but you're looking in all the wrong places. You really should be looking at death metal and black metal, not Dee Snider or Slipknot. Those genres are the "true" metal these days. Death Metal is full of nauseatingly graphic lyrics, including rape, murder, mutilation, and necrophilia. If you're looking for the outlet of masculine aggression, there it is. Read the lyrics of, oh, Cannibal Corpse or Impaled. Black metal evokes a pre-Christian [read pre-modern] past. It idealizes the Viking Warrior of the world past, and the genre has a bizarre romanticist ring to it. Violence was widespread in the genre in its infancy. Bard "Faust" Eithun, drummer of the black metal band Emperor of Norway, stabbed a gay man to death in 1994 for simply hitting on him. More recently, Gaahl of the Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth recently came out, though he's effectively left the black metal scene. The black metal scene was full of masculine acting out: there were multiple murders, and dozens of ancient churches in Norway were burned by black metal fans. Don't doubt the popularity of black metal: it's Norway's most profitable cultural export. Black metal lacks the blatant misogyny of death metal but certainly has its own set of issues surrounding masculinity, like the perceived threat of modernity to masculinity.