Listening


NzW with Paul Ablaze from the band Blackguard. Photo credit: Adam Wills

This Saturday, I interviewed Toronto metal band Sylvus. The interview itself is currently under construction, and will shortly appear on Hellbound.ca. I sat directly across from guitarist Anastasia Ikonnikova. Sylvus play a wonderfully peculiar kind of black metal, with folk and spacey-ambient influences. The other band members credit Ana’s guitar-playing for creating their sound’s strange, ethereal quality.

“So,” she says cheerfully, baring violently white teeth. “Are you gonna ask me what it’s like to be a girl in a band?”

We laugh; the question seems preposterous. Over-asked.

Later in the conversation, after we’ve talked about their demo and lyrics and obscure black metal and sex, I asked her, somewhat tentatively: “Do you ever feel odd being a woman at a metal show?”

She leaned forward. This interested her. Her ice-blue eyes grew brighter. “Odd. Like, watched.”

“Yes. You know you are being observed by everyone in the room.”

“Yes, and they’re wondering…”

“Why you’re there.”

“Yes.”

And it hit me, in the middle of this interview, that I had finally found the heart of something that I have been writing around, frustrated, for almost a year and a half.

*                       *                    *

In March of 2010, I started writing about heavy metal. I was spending more in concert tickets than groceries each month. I had invested in a good set of earplugs and was learning the names of the people who patted me down and took my coat and ripped my tickets. I had to start writing; I had to do something with all the music that was pouring in my ears and saturating my brain, vibrating my body most nights of my life. A visceral, alchemical transformation was taking place, and the only thing I knew how to do was write it out.

I started by writing postcard-length CD reviews. They were weird, granular, poetic little things that I loved doing and that people seemed to enjoy reading. But it was live music that always did it for me, that offered the most transcendent listening experiences and drew the best writing out of me, so I wrote as many live reviews as was humanly possible. I’d sometimes see four concerts in a single week. I’d write in the mornings before work, old eyeliner still smudged across my face. I walked around perpetually vibrating with a sort of full-body tinnitus that no earplugs could prevent. I loved what I was doing with every fiber of my being.

*                  *                   *

“It happens a lot,” Ana says. She is startlingly beautiful, a wood nymph in a black hoodie. “I’ll be back stage or on a bus, chatting with the guys in a band I admire. And eventually one of them asks me ‘Why are you here?’ or ‘You play guitar? Crazy!’ If a guy hangs out back stage, it’s assumed it’s because they’re fans and want to meet the band. I’m a girl, so I have to prove that. I have to explain why I’m there. Make it clear.”

*                  *                   *

Metal fans are some of the most respectful, welcoming people I have ever met. The first time I walked into a show, I felt completely out of place. I was a recovering academic and teaching in a high school. I didn’t know how to dress or even how to walk into the room.

My nerves were unfounded. There were no scene politics, no tests I had to pass. People were simply friendly. If I wanted to be alone and talk to no one, I could; if I wanted to make five new friends, I could do that too. It wasn’t long before even my ridiculous awkwardness could not stand up to the positive force of such welcoming energy. The rest of the audience wanted me to belong and so, very soon, I did.

But there was something else. Something that my roommate and fellow concert addict started calling “eyes” or “the gaze.” The sense that, however benignly, we were being watched.

I’d meet someone, ask: “Hey, did I see you at X Show last week?”

“Yeah! You were at X Show, and Y Show, and Z Show…and A & B Show too,” they’d say.

“Um. Yes. I was.” And the feeling of “the gaze” would return to the back of my neck.

*                     *                *

My roommate and I started keeping tabs on how many women were in the audience of the shows we attended. The most we ever saw was about 25%, and that was a rarity. At the lowest, she and I once counted 10 women, including two bartenders, in a venue filled with hundreds of fans.

By scarcity alone women are more visible at metal shows. When there are only a few of us, we tend to stand out.

But it was not just the fact of the gaze that was always tickling at the back of my mind, asking me to write about it, to suss it out. It was the question behind it.

“Why are you here?”

*                *             *

Assumption #1: You are just here for the scene.

Are you here because you like the clothes, the hair, the makeup, the style? Do you like the music or the accessories, the trappings, the look? Does the feeling of belonging, being a part of a community hold a higher place in your esteem than what it is that community stands for?

Assumption #2: You are here because your boyfriend dragged you along.

There is a phenomenon that my friends and I have referred to as the Girlfriend Parking Lot: right at the back of a venue, to the side of the bar and very close to the doors, you can usually find a collection of surly-looking girls. They stand with their arms crossed. Sometimes they sit on the floor. They are determined not to enjoy themselves, and are only their because their significant others made them attend. They are calculating exactly what this indignity will cost their boyfriends in the future.

Note: Sometimes there are boys in the parking lot too. They can be identified by similar unhappy expressions and the fact that they’re probably holding their girlfriend’s purse while she in jumping around in the pit. They are, however, much, much rarer.

Assumption #3: You are there because you want to sleep with a member of the band.

*                *              *

“Pssst. Hey. Hey!”

“Uh, me?”

“Yeah! Want to come back stage, lovely?”

“Uh, oh! Oh. Um, I’m okay. I need to see the next band.”

“Need?”

“Press. I’m reviewing the show.”

“You? Huh! Well, um, enjoy the rest of the show, Miss.”

“Thanks.”

*              *            *

I have met people at shows. Hell, I met my current boyfriend at a show that featured his band on the bill. Metal shows are intense, physically and emotionally charged experiences; people tend to me more raw and wrung out, far less guarded. It makes sense that you might just strike yourself against someone else and make some sparks.

This has become one more question that hangs over my head as a female metal fan: are you looking for someone? Are you here to seduce an artist or snare a metalhead? Or, are you here to listen?

*              *            *

I want this column to contain actual journalism, I really do. But I’ve had this itch I can’t shake, this need to position and contextualize my experience writing about music over the last year. It has been wonderful, and it has been a little bit weird. And that little bit of weirdness is firmly anchored to the fact that I am a woman.

“I think I had to prove I am here to listen,” I tell Ana. She nodded. She understands. She’s had to prove, and has to prove over and over again, that she in here to listen, to play, to participate.

I started going to metal shows because I was head over heels in love with the music. Over time, that affection has blossomed into an admiration for the people, respect for the scene, and a deeper understanding of the sheer collective force of will that goes into keeping this never-mainstream genre afloat. Few fans in the world are more dedicated that metal fans. I am consistently humbled by the energy, emotion, and strength of this music.

It was important for me, fourteen months or so in to this, to try and synthesize these feelings of strangeness, to navigate the very male waters I have found myself swimming in. I am not supposing that I am only female metalhead. I am certainly not the only female metal journalist. I am lucky enough to write in a genre that is overwhelmingly welcoming to everyone who wants to be a part of it, a kind of music that wants everyone’s voice to participate. Every review that highlights the work of a great underground band is deeply needed and appreciated.

It is also a genre that asks me, daily, sometimes subtly and sometimes directly, why I am here. On this platform, and from every other platform I am privileged enough to write from, I plan to continue to answer that question, a little more eloquently every day. I also hope for, and work towards, a time when participation in the metal scene and in music writing in general does not require women to prove, over and over again, that they are listening too.


0 thoughts on “Listening

  • Sarah

    As a female metal fan I want to respond to your question saying I’m here to listen. The assumptions you mention never really crossed my mind but I can get how some people may think that. However, I’m pretty sure within a few minutes of talking to a girl at a metal concert you’ll know whether she’s there for the music or not. Whenever I meet other metalheads it’s the music that we connect on – not so much the look, for me, wearing band t-shirts is a way I express my love for the music and it also encourages other metalheads to come and talk to me about the music … which I love!
    I’m always trying to get my girlfriends into metal, but I guess you either love it or aren’t interested. Nice to know there’s some female metalheads out there m/

  • Jenn Farrell

    Fantastic post, Natalie! I think you’ve articulated something even the “casual” female metal fan encounters at gigs. Well, that and the fact that the disproportionately male attendance means that you usually smell more farts…

  • Beau

    Cool article. I’ve seen Sylvus a few times and they’re awesome. Ana is a monster of a guitar player. When do we get to see the whole interview?

    I think you might be overthinking things a bit with the assumptions, but that might be because I’m a guy and I’ve never had to explain myself. When it comes down to it, we’re all there for the same reason, and that’s because we love metal.

  • LTP

    I think the assumptions seem over-thought because of course they are. Answering an absurd question can cause some over-thinking if the answer seems obvious to you, but seemingly not to others.

    Like you say, we’re all there for the same reason, so why do we feel “looked at”? What are people looking for? What could POSSIBLY be the reason? D:

  • jd

    Great article! Although in my experience as a female metal fan attending shows regularly for the past several years, it’s been less “why are you here?” and more “You shouldn’t be here.” Not particularly welcoming, by any means. :/ Either I’m completely invisible, or I’m just an obstacle who needs to get out of the way of the “real” fans. Sigh. I’m glad you’ve at least been able to fit in and make a place for yourself a little more than I have. :)