I met journalist, poet, music writer and metalhead Beth Winegarner the same way I have encountered so many fantastic people in the heavy metal scene: via Twitter. I was impressed by the passion in her writing and the difficult subjects that she regularly tackled, such as types of media (aggressive music, violent video games) that are regularly demonized in the mainstream. Beth is outspoken and hysterically funny. Her opinions are always well-informed and interesting, even when I disagree with her (she and I have argued productively on more than one occasion, most recently about the new Baroness album), and I always found her to be a respectful and knowledgeable debate partner. I’m thrilled to now also count her as a part of Girls Don’t Like Metal.
* * *
How did you fall in love with heavy metal? What was your introduction to the genre?
I grew up in a rural part of Northern California. Cable – and MTV – came to my neck of the woods relatively late, around the time I started high school. It was also the mid-1980s, when metal was starting to get a lot of mainstream airplay. When I first heard metal, even from the bands that were commercial enough for MTV, it sounded like noise.
One day, I was on the kitchen floor working on a project, and I had MTV playing in the next room. I clearly remember “Welcome to the Jungle” coming on. Suddenly, I couldn’t focus. I had to stop what I was doing, stand up, walk to the television and listen. It was like a switch flipped in my head.
From then on, I was pretty obsessed. Admittedly, I was obsessed with mainstream metal. I loved Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row, White Lion, Queensrÿche –- bands that skirted glam but had clear musical chops and something to say. I have whole VHS tapes full of stuff I taped from MTV: the special about the Moscow Music Peace Festival, in-depth interviews with Axl Rose, hours of videos. There was just something about that big, fuzzy, aching guitar sound that put my mind and emotions at ease.
It wasn’t all glam. I also quickly developed a taste for Metallica, and my high school boyfriend was a huge thrash fan, Anthrax in particular, so I was exposed to a lot of it. We were about 60 miles from San Francisco, the epicenter of the thrash movement; unfortunately, I had an overprotective mom who wouldn’t let me go to the city to see shows. But bands occasionally came up north, and I have fond memories of seeing Death Angel, Testament and others in tiny clubs.
Although metal isn’t all I listen to, I’ve never stopped listening to it. My tastes are pretty different now, and they keep changing. Fortunately, new bands and new genres emerge all the time, and I still haven’t completely mined what classic metal has to offer.
When and how did you make the move from being an active listener to deciding you wanted to write actively about heavy metal?
I discovered in high school that I wanted to be a journalist. I was working for my school newspaper, writing news articles, opinion pieces and music reviews. I covered Joe Satriani live and reviewed Living Colour‘s “Time’s Up!” and Queensrÿche‘s “Empire,” along with nonmetal acts. When I went to college, I started writing regularly for Addicted to Noise, the San Francisco Chronicle, and ROCKRGRL, where metal was part of my repertoire. It was never my exclusive focus, but I love music and I love writing, so the two fit together very naturally.
I took a long break from professional music writing for the first decade of the 2000s. I was burned out. Writing about music, particularly live, was detracting from my ability to enjoy it. But I kept writing essays for my own enjoyment, which I later turned into a collection called Read the Music. Recently, because of awesome sites like Invisible Oranges and PopMatters, I’ve been dipping my toe into it again. It helps that there’s such a strong, supportive, interesting community of metal writers online today. I didn’t have that when I was starting out. If I had, I might have stuck with it.
What parts of heavy metal culture do you find particularly fascinating?
I have a degree in sociology, which may help contextualize some of my answers to this question.
Growing up, I had very few friends who were metal fans, and I never felt like I had been embraced by a community. It wasn’t until I read Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s book Metalheads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation that I realized that it really was a kind of tribe, and moreover, that I wasn’t the only one who felt soothed by these harsh sounds. In fact, the majority of fans Arnett talked to said they felt calmer when they listened to metal. That made me realize that I had a lot more in common with other fans.
There is so much in metal culture that is interesting to unpack: gender roles, representations and dynamics; the way in which bands use religious or anti-religious symbols to communicate; the way certain chords, signatures and vocal tones light up the primitive parts of our brains; the dynamics of in-group and out-group behaviour; the practices and politics of the mosh pit; the widespread use of folklore, mythology and classic literature in metal lyrics; the use of death imagery and corpse paint; the way this music has been perceived by both mainstream society and by those who operate in the conservative/evangelical fringes; the way metal has gone through periods of being hugely political, and then shying away from politics; the fact that it embraces nonconformity and then demands conformity of its members. Metal presents a mini-society with its own rules. There’s no end to the questions it raises.
On your blog, Backward Messages, you specifically work with subjects and activities that are often demonized in the popular media, such as violent video games and aggressive music. What is it about these topics that are so vulnerable to being attacked in the media?
Every decade or so, a new art form comes along that pushes the boundaries and appeals to the misfits marginalized by mainstream society. Controversial books were banned from libraries. The senate held hearings on comic books and juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, echoed in the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) hearings on music (and predominantly heavy metal) in the 1980s. There was rock and roll, psychedelic hippie music, heavy metal, hip hop. Then came goth culture and violent video games, especially after the shootings at Columbine High School. Occult and pagan practices are also pervasively misrepresented.
Because so many of these art forms appeal to those in the fringes, they aren’t well understood by the mainstream at first. The vast majority of the press, their sources and politicians, exist in the mainstream. You can say almost anything about a genre that few people understand, and they’ll believe it – particularly if you have credible sources backing you up.
It takes time for the mainstream to understand and embrace challenging ideas. But it does happen. We don’t, for the most part, see media attacks on literature or comic books anymore. We rarely see people blaming role-playing games for violence and suicide, because we now understand their appeal, purpose and benefit.
What led you to start the Backward Messages blog?
I spent three years researching and writing a guidebook for parents that would help them understand how controversial interests, from violent games to heavy metal and paganism, could be healthy for their teens. The media, and particularly the Internet, are full of such lousy information that I wanted to put a resource into parents’ hands that would help them communicate better when their kids discovered and embraced something that frightened them. I didn’t want parents kicking their kids out of the house for practicing Wicca or listening to Cannibal Corpse.
After I finished the book (I’m still looking for a publisher) I wanted to keep writing, and show that the press still gets it wrong, every day, on these subjects. As a journalist, I feel responsible for calling my own profession to task for taking lazy and sensationalistic approaches to these subjects, which can have real-life consequences for people (particularly kids) who enjoy them. I get so frustrated reading the news. My blog is one way I deal with those frustrations in what I hope is a constructive way.
You have written a book of essays on listening to music, Read The Music. Do you think that heavy metal provides a unique or more immersive listening experience than other genres?
A song or album has to be immersive for me to enjoy listening to it more than once or twice. I also think other people are wired differently, so what’s immersive for me might not be what’s immersive for you. But I strongly crave music that makes me feel like I’ve walked into a world completely constructed by sounds and lyrics.
I’ve found immersive experiences in a variety of music. When I look at some of my favourite musicians over the years – Tori Amos, Fields of the Nephilim, Dead Can Dance, Metallica, 16 Horsepower, Baroness – each one is doing the equivalent of world-building in fantasy literature. Every essay in Read the Music is about an album or artist whose work took me over in that way.
That said, I think that metal has the potential to be more immersive than other genres, for a couple of reasons. One is the strong use of rhythm, which helps humans orient and focus their minds, and also puts us in a kind of altered state. Another is the use of riffs, which are a hybrid of rhythm and melodic hook. And another is the sheer intensity of layering of sounds. Once you’re focused on those elements, it’s hard to focus on much else. The outside world seems to fade out.
What is it about music that makes it such an all-encompassing and transformative art form?
I think it works so well because, aside from lyrics, it’s a form of nonverbal communication, which gets at the deeper layers of our consciousness and affects our minds in ways that rational discourse doesn’t. Humans are wired to respond to certain sounds – drums, for example, echo the sound of our mother’s heartbeat when we were in utero. The right rhythm can lull us into that same safe space, even though we can’t consciously remember the experience. We are wired emotionally to react to certain vocalizations that, to our primitive brains, signal danger, excitement, love and so on. Music, particularly if we’re singing along, releases happy brain chemicals, including endorphins.
When we are in that secure, receptive place in our minds, we are less inhibited by the parts of our minds that convey society’s expectations, or self-control, all those things that frequently keep us stuck. We’re free to feel, and reflect, and grow.
Do you ever feel troubled being someone who believes in and actively writes about equality, and who adores heavy metal? Does one love ever pinch into the other?
Yes, I do sometimes feel troubled. When I started out as a metal fan, I was confronted with a lot of pretty sexist imagery. Using women as decoration was the bread and butter of glam. I was a teenager, and I wasn’t ready to think those concepts through, so I dealt with it mostly by ignoring it. But when I look back on it, not only does it bother me, but I wonder how it warped my sense of self and gender.
Fortunately, glam is not representational of all metal, and there are plenty of spaces – and were, even then – that are welcoming to women, or at least neutral. Over time, women have become more numerous and more prominent in the culture, as musicians, as fans, as writers and on the business side. That has helped a great deal.
But metal is still a pretty masculine space, women are still used extraneously in videos, and women musicians are still sexualized, especially compared to how men are presented. To some extent, that’s the women’s decision, but in many cases it’s the way they are marketed by labels, magazines and managers. Many women feel they have the power and choice to flaunt their sexuality, but if you’re doing it because it attracts attention, or an audience, or record sales, it means someone else has the power.
To this day, when I tell people that I love heavy metal and I write about it, they’re surprised. To some extent that’s because I don’t “dress metal.” But people have an idea of what a metal fan is like, and it’s usually someone male and “tough.” I’d love to see those boundaries expand.
In addition to being a metalhead, you are a mom. From this perspective: why do you think there is such a push to protect young listeners from “dangerous” music? What is it about aggressive music that makes authorities view it as infectious or inappropriate for the young?
As a culture, we have this idea that kids and teenagers are inexperienced, impressionable and that they soak up everything unquestioningly. We don’t trust them to possess their own judgment or their own agency. We think they believe everything they hear and do everything they’re told, even when that’s obviously untrue. Or, we think they’re more likely to heed music and messages if they come from an alluring source, and that music is capable of making kids do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.
It’s true that some kids and teens are listening to loud, aggressive music that make parents uncomfortable. But if you ask them about it, they will tell you not only what they like about it, but what nourishment it provides. They will also tell you what music that they don’t like, including music that is too intense, too aggressive, too whatever for them. They know their limits. My daughter is 3 and she’ll tell you straight up if something’s too loud or too angry-sounding for her.
What advice would you give to a young writer who wishes to follow a similar cultural/critical path?
First, I’d suggest practice. Start a blog and write about every piece of music you either strongly like or strongly dislike. Nobody has to read it; this is just to help you develop your own way of describing music.
Then, seek out other music writers. Get to know them on social networks. Read what they’re writing. If you write something you particularly like, share it with them. Read a lot of music writing by others. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the famous critics, but reading a few of them is a good idea, just to see how music journalism has changed (and hasn’t) over the years. Find a few contemporary favourites and read them regularly. When you’re ready, ask other writers to recommend outlets – online or in print – that are looking for new voices.
Develop a list of things you’d like to write about before you approach editors. Check to make sure they haven’t already covered those things. If they have, but you have something extremely different to propose, then go with it.
If you’re experienced in another discipline, look for places where music and that discipline – whether it’s literature, politics, social science, music theory, etc. – can overlap. That’s one way in which you can make your voice as a writer stand out.
Don’t get discouraged. The music journalism world is a crowded place. Many, many people want to write about music, and the Internet affords them plenty of places to do that. In general, this isn’t a line of work that pays well. But if you love writing about music, and you develop your own voice and niche, you can carve out a space for yourself.
* * *
Beth Winegarner is a journalist, author, blogger and poet based in San Francisco, California. She has reported for the San Francisco Examiner, Wired.com, the SF Weekly, USAToday.com, the San Mateo Daily News and others. Her books include Read the Music: Essays on Sound, Sacred Sonoma, and a novel, Beloved. Her poems have appeared in Terrain, New Verse News, Bardsong and “What’s Nature Got to Do With Me?” She blogs at http://backwardmessages.wordpress.com. For more, visit www.bethwinegarner.com.