I became acquainted with Jonathan Smith’s excellent writing on Hellbound.ca, a Canadian website devoted to heavy metal to which we both contribute. I am always impressed by the high quality of his work, the detailed analysis and accessible but sophisticated critique that characterizes his metal writing. The more I’ve gotten to know him and his writing, the more it’s became clear that he is an intelligent and valuable ally, as a metalhead and an academic who identifies as a male feminist. I am thrilled to have his voice and his support as part of Girls Don’t Like Metal.
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Tell us about your work in the heavy metal community, in particular your music writing.
I’ve been writing for the Canadian metal website Hellbound.ca since it started up in June of 2009, reviewing albums and concerts and doing the occasional interview. Sean Palmerston, the editor, has always been very open to his contributors’ suggestions and has given us the freedom to decide what we’d like to review. Rather than being assigned random albums that we have to talk about, I’ve been able to situate my writing for Hellbound into my broader interest in metal and its many styles, sub-genres, and connections to other genres of music and social politics. Through Hellbound I’ve talked to artists, seen shows, and discovered music that I never would have otherwise. It helps feed a very demanding music habit.
I’ve also gotten in touch with various people in the scene over time and tried to use my limited voice to support projects in the metal community, musical or otherwise, that I personally think are great and are doing interesting work.
You are also an academic, and currently working towards completing a PhD. What is your area of specialization, and how does this dovetail with your interested in heavy music?
My area of specialization concerns examining science fiction literature and film and arguing that it’s an increasingly global form which writers and filmmakers from around the world use to wrestle with how we presently talk about ourselves as human beings, our different relationships with technology, and where we think the world is headed. I especially pay attention to how gender, sexuality and emotions are presented. I love feminist science fiction from the 1970s onward, works that have tried to (re)imagine different ways of thinking about oneself as a human being, as a member of a community, and as a body in the environment. Currently I’m focusing on comparing Japanese and Western science fiction titles and the similarities and differences between how they address what are supposedly universal questions and assumptions about what makes us human.
My studies and teaching and my interests in dark and/or heavy music dovetail because like science fiction, we’ve seen people from around the world take up metal and make it a global genre. We see people using it as a form of expression of their own values, musical aesthetics, experiences, and personal and cultural identities, but often also to present their ideas about or metaphors for the present zeitgeist and the future. It’s very exciting to see, and I think it makes the genre stronger.
What led you to include a focus on gender and sexuality in your work?
Throughout my life I’ve had many wonderful and valuable friendships with women, some of them the best I’ve ever had. I’ve really never had positive enforcement from them for trying to be a stoic, tough, arrogant or sexually assertive. I think my relationships with women in particular have, in retrospect, succeeded when I’ve been more communicative, sensitive and not afraid of emotions in others. That personal history has also caused me to become obsessed with the ways in which Western culture values certain emotional traits and discourages others in both men and women (and often rejects anyone who doesn’t fit into either category or prefers to love or to be the “wrong” gender).
After finishing most of a degree in literature and philosophy and talking feminist politics with anyone who would listen, some my colleagues and professors began to encourage me to take Women’s Studies classes, and I ended up doing a entire degree in Women’s Studies. While earning my degree I learned that feminism is not and never has been one thing, and that there is as much disagreement and potential for exclusion within different feminist circles as there is in any other politics. Far from making me a “feminazi,” Women’s Studies actually confirmed for me my suspicion of broad political or social platforms, and to be wary of anyone who thrives on social power or claims to speak for and about entire groups or identities. To me that’s compatible with a lot of the views people express in extreme music.
How did you first fall in love with heavy music?
There never really has been a definitive “first” moment. It’s been a steady process of falling in love over and over again.
I was exposed to hard rock by my family at an early age, and as a young teenager I loved bands like KISS, Alice Cooper, and Def Leppard. I didn’t know people in my schools who listened to that stuff. My father had seen Iron Maiden once, and he thought I would like them. He not only encouraged me to check them out but more than once he also ensured that my brother and I could take trips to larger cities to see them live. Though Iron Maiden, I discovered acts like Judas Priest/Halford and Queensryche. I especially loved the latter because of their often politicized lyrics and very operatic approaches to metal.
I became entranced with “extreme” metal when I saw Arch Enemy open for Iron Maiden. Angela Gossow’s performance in particular left a big impression on me; at that point I’d never seen or heard anything like it coming from a woman. After that I discovered a lot of the Swedish melodic death metal bands like In Flames and Dark Tranquility. A professor in my department also introduced me to bands like Moonspell and Death Angel and encouraged me to buy magazines like Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles to gain exposure to new bands. Killswitch Engage’s Alive. . . Or Just Breathing was a very important album for me. I loved its sound but also its humane lyrics.
When I finally figured out that the internet was a treasure trove of metal information, I quickly discovered Agalloch and through them, black metal in general. I loved the eerily beautiful dark sounds of the second wave Norwegian black metal bands, and I could also relate in a way to growing up feeling ostracized and without a strong identity to grasp in a supposedly liberal and inclusive democratic state. That said, by the time I started listening to them I already considered sex-positive and queer-positive feminism foundational to my politics and world view, so I was bothered by a lot of the more misogynistic, homophobic, and racist comments made by people within black metal. I obviously don’t limit myself to bands whose worldviews and values reflect mine, but since discovering acts such as Wolves in the Throne Room, Embers, Panopticon, and Ludicra (just to name a few from the U.S. as examples), I’ve felt an even stronger connection to black metal. Part of my obsession with it in particular stems from constantly discovering the actual variety of different political and social values and backgrounds among people who play music in and are fans of that sub-genre.
You identify as someone who has strong feminist ideals and as an active ally to women. What does this mean to you? What are the challenges you face as a feminist male?
This is a big question. I’ll start by saying that I identify as someone who has strong feminist “values” rather than “ideals.” I have no clear or definitive vision of what I would like the world to be like. As in every activist or political orientation, there’s been a lot of debate among feminists, and different variations of feminism have cropped up over the years as people come to terms with who has been included and excluded by defining themselves and their values in particular ways. While people may identity as women, men, or neither, they may also deeply identify with other aspects of their lives, family, or communities that makes their identities anything but simple. Do any research into the histories and varieties of feminisms, queer movements, etc., and this becomes very clear.
My feminism is as much informed by queer, anti-racist, and body politics as it is by my being an ally to women, and for me all of these things are inseparable from questions of political and economic models and theories. The biggest challenge I’ve faced calling myself a feminist is actually being one. It’s easy to call yourself a feminist or even just an ally, but it has taken a lot of self-reflection over the years for me to realize that being a feminist means coming to terms with some things:
(a) my privilege from being recognized as a white man. Even though I think I may be being perfectly friendly, transparent, and unthreatening, many women have a lot of reasons to be wary of men, especially when they try to enter into safer spaces. Initially I’m no exception to that rule regardless of how I see myself.
(b) the same forces that often devalue femininity and make life harder for women and others in Western society also provide limited choices for men, and they ensure that men are encouraged to embrace certain ways of thinking and relating to others that are hard to shake regardless of personal politics
(c) the fact that calling myself a feminist does not mean that women will therefore automatically believe me and accept me without reservation (and that’s ok)
(d) accepting that regardless of how I see myself I will never know what it feels like to be objectified as a woman and therefore should never downplay or reject women’s concerns just because I’ve never experienced them, and
(e) never using my feminist values to gain women’s confidence and trust while elsewhere making misogynistic, homophobic, or racist comments, telling sexist jokes, hitting on female friends despite established boundaries, or not listening to or communicating clearly with the people I’m having sex with.
I don’t mean this as a manifesto or anything; rather, these are all things I’ve had to personally deal with or things I’ve been guilty of doing at some point or another. I’ve had to accept that and understand why they’re a problem. As far as I can tell, I’m far from alone in making such mistakes. I just try not to repeat them.
Who are some of the women in the heavy metal scene whose work or writing has inspired you?
There are many. I really like Angela Gossow and Laurie Sue Shanaman (of Ludicra) as performers, as well as how they talk about their music in interviews. Charlotte Wessels (Delain, ex-To Elysium) has recently talked about her own experiences in gender studies and what that means to her and her lyrics, which is pretty awesome. I’ve also slowly been archiving any metal writing I find that explicitly talks about identity politics and the metal scene. I’ve admired pieces written by Keidra Chaney and Laina Dawes (who was interviewed for GDLM), and in the past year I was sent an online piece called “On Being a Feminist Metalhead,” written by “Jo,” that was explicitly about being a feminist black metal fan. That was an awesome find, as her article articulated many of the contradictory feelings I’ve felt with regard to obsessively consuming and thinking about blackened metal the way that I do.
Of course I think this column is a fantastic project. It was through it and the blog Feminist Headbanger that I was re-introduced to the projects of Leila Abdul-Rauf, whose insights into feminism and female musicians are very insightful. Through her interviews I discovered the blog Queer Kvlt, written by Ayla Holland from Disemballerina and other bands. All of these projects and people have been a great reminder for me in one way or another that the metal community is really that varied when it comes to identities and politics, and they’ve contributed to enforcing my own feeling that my personal politics and love of metal can co-exist in the same space. I can’t imagine a scene without women as active participants in every part of it. I hope the presence of more women and their insights forces a shift in habits of language and thought until they no longer stand out by default.
How important is it when a member of the metal community identifies as feminist and/or queer in some way?
I don’t think it’s essential that people label themselves as feminist and/or queer. Just because someone doesn’t use those labels doesn’t mean they don’t share similar sorts of values. For example, I have no idea how Barney Greenway from Napalm Death self-identifies, but he’s talked about how Western society’s relationships with gender and sex are very messed up. I like how he openly expresses his views about such things in what comes off as a relatively modest fashion, skipping grand revolutionary statements and instead asking metal heads to reflect upon their own prejudices and assumptions.
That said, I’m still pleased when a musician or some other figure in the metal scene chooses to identify themselves as either a feminist, as queer, or both. They’re two terms that at this point in time often mean different things to different people, so you can’t necessarily make assumptions about the people who use them. This is part of the reason why I like them and identity with both, and I assume it’s the same for others too. Still, when people do use one or both of those labels to describe themselves I see it as a good sign of an investment in and commitment to certain ways of thinking about things and relating to people. It makes me more interested in learning more about those people as individuals, if only to find out how they self-identify with those terms and how their opinions may be similar to or differ from mine.
Do you ever find it difficult or challenging to identify as a metal head, especially in terms of the rigidly prescribed version of masculinity that tends to be represented?
I’m not sure whether you are talking about my interactions with non-metal heads outside of the metal scene or with other metal heads within it. In both cases people have expressed some skepticism about how compatible metal is with being a queer feminist. Non-metal feminists in my life tend to just say that they don’t know enough about the music to say much about it, and if I’ve met anyone has rejected me for my choice of musical tastes, they didn’t make me aware of it.
Within the metal scene itself the vast majority of metal heads I’ve met at shows have been friendly. I assume that’s because at a metal show I pretty much fit in with the majority of the people there. I’m white. I have the music knowledge, keep up with the scene and major websites, have long hair, and I mostly wear a cliched combination of band shirts, black and/or denim. It’s outside the metal scene that it’s been much more likely for me to be seen as, say, a woman. When out walking with my partner (who is a woman) we’ve been confused for lesbians. I’ve even been standing at urinals and have had men enter the washroom, look startled, and then ask “oh. . . uh. . . this is the men’s room, right?” I assume this is familiar to other metal people with long hair and other physical markers of femininity. At metal shows or online nobody has ever questioned why I am a metal fan, my knowledge of the music or whether I belong in metal circles.
Metal is often considered an example of outside art, but despite that very strong “other” identity, the structure of the community remains extremely straight and conservative, especially when it comes to sexuality. Why do you think this is?
At this point I don’t think I would say that the majority of the community actively works to make metal an extremely straight and conservative space. The metal scene seems to me to offer a proportional sample of the variety of views found among the general population, if not actually a higher concentration of open-minded people. There are those who would vehemently object to being seen as “tolerant,” but there are also those who are very open about their more radically progressive views. It of course varies depending the particular scene or location.
In a way that is very similar to other communities, including many queer and feminist ones, metal scenes do sometimes seem guilty of rallying around a particular status or identity, and in doing so, recreating a boundary where some people or topics are deemed not metal enough. We’re seeing this play out again in relation to the debate around Huntress and Jill Janus, and whether she or her band are real metal or not, and the same goes for when we’re talking about whether 3 Inches of Blood’s “Metal Woman” is sexist or empowering (note: check out Beth Winegarner’s great discussion of this music video ~NZ). Are these folks sincere in their metal love or are they just using sexy marketing ploys to attract gullible men? Both? Does it even matter? These are questions we’re all asking from our own vantage points as musicians and fans, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem if as a community metal fans can talk openly about it and accept that there’s going to be a broad range of informed opinions on stuff like that. It’s good for the genre.
Other topics do sometimes seem too uncomfortable even for a lot of metal fans. A major example for me of something that pushed the “ewww” buttons of many otherwise open-minded metal fans was when Embers vocalist/bassist Kelly Nelson was interviewed by Invisible Oranges about her day job as a dominatrix. She went into detail about the kinds of services she offers, and the kinds of desires her male clients express. She was also explicit about the fact that it is a line of work where she could choose to do things her way (unlike those forced into sex work in other contexts). The comments were pretty mixed, but I was actually surprised at how many people either expressed open disgust at her choices, the details she offered, and the proclivities of her adult, consenting clients, or just tried to write the piece off as simple titillation and not relevant. It was very strange, seeing that metal is a genre that has often implicitly or explicitly played with sexual power dynamics, to see people get freaked out about and/or try and pathologize overt BDSM play between consenting adults in a professional context (note: I wrote an article about this ~NZ). I liked the article, but then again I’m a geek who likes to know a lot about the people playing the music I love.
How can the metal community become more feminist? What obstacles do you think prevent everyone from being welcomed equally?
This is a difficult question. I don’t know what that kind of community would look like given that there are two broad umbrellas, one labelled “feminism” and the labelled “metal,” under which many different concerns, ideas, and attitudes are placed. I don’t have some sort of grand vision for metal scenes. There are too many of them and they exist in many different cultural contexts and are filled with people who have very different opinions and outlooks. I believe that’s part of metal’s strength and probably part of its appeal.
I do think the relationship between open communication and scene privilege needs to be highlighted more often. For what it’s worth I personally prefer that artists and other people in metal communities have strong, distinct personalities and be willing, at some point or another, to be transparent about and interested in sharing their views of things outside the music. A lot of bands are already really good at this. I love bands like Enslaved, Endstille, and Summoning not just because their music is consistently good, but because when the subject of their worldviews has come up they’ve given clear answers and encouraged people to ask the questions. Wolves in the Throne Room is a band I have much respect for these days because they’ve increasingly become much more forthcoming when asked about their values, what kind of life they want to live, and what their band means to them. And despite his troublesome views, no one has to guess at what Varg Vikernes thinks about the world and certain groups of people either, as he’s been more than willing to talk at length about his views.
Privilege comes into it because there are those of us who don’t necessarily have to care or think about the views or actions of those whose music we support. When I’m at a metal show, or surfing the internet, I always come across self-identified metal heads who make racist, homophobic or misogynistic remarks or jokes, and then others who make excuses for those who do since because they themselves are not x, y or z, it isn’t their problem. I don’t always know how these people identify themselves, and they may be sincere when that they say are “just kidding” or that they only care about the music, not the politics. However, some metal heads do come off as indifferent to their own privilege in being able to move from space to space without having to fear being patronized, touched, verbally abused, raped, beaten or even murdered just for being who they are.
Metal fans sometimes like to talk about the scene as though it’s a space where differences are subsumed in favour of a mutual appreciation for the music and art. However, columns like this one exist because of the fact that metal scenes aren’t always a space where everyone’s experiences are welcomed as different but equal, and it can be because of their not appearing or seeming “metal enough,” or their gender, or even because of their skin colour. I think those of us with scene privilege who give a damn need to come to terms with having that privilege without talking about how we’re being “forced to be p.c.” I’ve no interest in making a list of “things that can’t be said,” but the reality is that we can’t claim that we support or tolerate other people’s identities that aren’t our own but then get upset when people actually ask us to reconsider the way we view our music or adjust the way we interact with others in the scene.
What advice would you give anyone just becoming initiated into heavy metal?
I’ve been listening to this genre of music for years and I still feel like I’m being initiated at times.
I think people should network, either in person or online, and use people’s generosity to help themselves see how much variety there is to be found within the metal scene so that they can find the music that really moves or excites them. I think people need to recognize the fact that the metal scene is a community like any other, and that there are certain conventions and traditions that people want to hold on to for a variety of reasons, but at the same time there is actually more diversity of identities and opinions than there might initially seem. I don’t see metal music as a single static thing; to me it looks like a giant confederacy of different but interlocking organisms that are constantly shifting and mutating based on who is involved and what is going on inside and outside the scenes. The more people open up, the more we see that diversity.
I also think that people should be generous with shout-outs to those who’ve inspired or helped them develop as metal heads, and pay that back whenever possible. It’s been an honour to be a part of this project and included among all the amazing and interesting people who have taken part and presumably will take part in it. Thank you.
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Jon Smith is a metal writer and scholar currently currently pursuing a PhD in English and Film Studies. Follow him in Twitter @JonScribe.