Tagged: Violator

What Is Metal?

My knowledge of women in metal doesn't get much further than Kittie; image courtesy of everyjoe.com

Readers of this blog may notice a metal deficit. At present, Kristen at Act Your Age and I don’t have a metal section in our Girls Rock Camp music history workshop presentation. In all candor, I don’t know much about the genre, much less female contributors. It was never my thing. Having gotten to guitar late, I didn’t spend my adolescence poring over Guitar World and learning face-melting riffs. Old-school Metallica was never my shit, though I giggled mirthfully at their self-indulgent therapy sessions in Some Kind of Monster. New-school Mastadon isn’t either, though I do like their song for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Movie.

Of course, I also got the sense that metal was teeming with queer tension well before I found out Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford was gay or Patton Oswalt turned hair metal’s homoeroticism into a bit.

I’m not even really sure what metal is, as vanguard bands believed to influence the genre consider themselves hard rock. Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin don’t identify with the term, so I’m not sure what to make of it either. While I think the emergence of all-female cover bands like AC/DShe and Lez Zeppelin are interesting, I’m not sure if we can call them metal.

Now, I’ve been around metal in some capacity for quite some time. My older stepbrother was pretty into Guns N’ Roses growing up in the 80s. As they didn’t embrace the label, I wonder if Paradise Titty do. He later came around to Anthrax, who I will always associate with their appearance on Married With Children. The image of lead guitarist Dan Spitz’s Violator t-shirt is forever in my mind, along with other Depeche Mode fans who formed metal bands.

The band Rob Sheffield proclaims to be the snyth pop equivalent to Ozzy Osbourne; image courtesy of amoeba.com

From other male friends, I’ve developed an appreciation for bands like Slayer, who South Park taught me are especially useful in breaking up a hippie jam festival. Contemporary slowcore acts like Boris have been brought to my attention for their work in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. I’ve also read Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City and Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt. One left me with a sense of amused detachment. The other gave me nausea. I’ll let you guess which title did what.

I know there’s a lot of subgenres, but I can only really tell them apart by RPM. I can’t tell you much about them beyond speed metal and thrash are fast and doom and stoner metal are slow.

So, you could say that my biggest problem with metal is that I don’t know what it is. Thus, how am I supposed to reclaim the marginalized contributions of women and girls if I’m pretty sure Marnie Stern isn’t metal so much as hard rock for indie fans? Therein lies the rub. But I know that there are female metal fans like Laina Dawes, who wrote about the controversy surrounding Burzum frontman and staunch anti-Semite Varg Vikernes’s recent cover for Decibel Magazine on her blog Writing is Fighting. I’ll continue to follow blogs like Feminist Headbanger and The Black Girl Into Heavy Metal and see if I can come to any further conclusions. For now, I’ll briefly outline in videos who I know.

As a child in the late 1980s, I saw these videos from Vixen and former Runaways guitarist Lita Ford.

During my teen years, Kittie developed a following. This was their big hit, and I really liked the vocals on it.

I’m familiar with Jada Pinkett-Smith’s band Wicked Wisdom, who sound like a metal band to me. However, some folks discredit the band’s efforts because of the front woman’s celebrity status and that the group didn’t “pay their dues” on the touring circuit. Seems like racist sniveling to me.

Who are you listening to? Who should I be listening to?

Dammit, Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, America's sweetheart; image courtesy of villagevoice.com

At the risk of sounding aloof, I’ve been ignoring Taylor Swift for some time. Readers might notice that I haven’t said a peep about her beyond an observation about how she might be a continuation of the girl group tradition after she hosted SNL. When the VMA debacle happened, I didn’t care. I thought Beyoncé was classy about it, and I thought Kanye was right in his opinion, if wrong in execution (seriously, “Single Ladies” is one of the best videos of all time, and perhaps the most iconic of its decade). I thought Swift seemed a little unnecessarily entitled when she was gave her acceptance speech later in the broadcast, but other than that I thought very little about it. 

For a while, I actually didn’t know who this Taylor Swift person was. First I thought she was on The Hills. I work under the assumption that any famous white person on MTV is a Hill. 

Just so we're clear, none of the girls in this heterocentric male gaze imagining of a slumber party are Taylor Swift; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

Then I saw her take some Southern kid to the prom on MTV. Then I found out she was a country singer from Pennsylvania who loved Def Leppard and covered Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which didn’t help her cause. Then I heard the pop version of “You Belong With Me,” promptly motivating me to listen to the slightly twangier original. From here, I reduced her to “country Avril” and went about my business. 

Cover to the "You Belong With Me" single (Big Machine/Universal Music Group, 2008); image courtesy of buzzworthy.mtv.com

Swift, not unlike Depeche Mode in their own way, may be a good gateway artist into more interesting and challenging music. Being a pre-teen Depeche Mode devotee led me to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Nick Cave’s various incarnations (admit it, DM fans: your band is at best a singles act; only Violator and maybe Black Celebration are essential in an otherwise mediocre catalog). Likewise, Swift might lead fans to The Dixie Chicks, Neko Case, Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson. But my opinion of Swift is, “fine, she’s young and plays a guitar and writes her own songs (with Liz Rose) . . . but I’m totally bored by her.” 

Kristen at Act Your Age and my friend Asha forwarded this Autostraddle article to me. Asha asked me what I thought about it, and an outpouring of opinions bubbled up. Apparently I can get my screed on over a musician I have no personal investment in. But as I watched her wide, ordinary Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks (who sounded ridiculous singing “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” BTW) and yelled at my television when she gave her folksy “we’ll tell our grandchildren about this” Album of the Year speech, I discovered that I do have a personal investment in her fame. So here we go. 

I’m pretty much in line with the writer and have brought up Swift’s privileged upbringing, pedantic songwriting, normative femininity, her handling of the VMA debacle, and inauthentic authenticity when talking to other people about her. 

I agree with the writer about how there wasn’t really anything to hate about Taylor Swift until she started racking up important awards. I get her appeal, but I have no personal investment in her career. She writes inoffensive love songs you’d hear on the CW or romantic comedies women are supposed to love (like Valentine’s Day, which stars Swift and features her music). 

Above all, Swift’s music is inoffensive to the point of offense when you factor in its success. When I think about Swift’s age alongside the teenage output of acts like Schmillion, Roxanne Shanté, ESG, Mika Miko, Björk’s work in KUKL, and some girl in her bedroom whose music I have yet to hear, I’m far more interested in that music. It’s weird and flawed and brave and inspiring. It’s really easy to forget about Swift when this music is also available. I wish more people would take the time to find it.

I’d like to point out that the Album of the Year Grammy isn’t as important as the writer suggests, nor should it be to you. In the grand tradition of award ceremonies and canons, the Grammys have long esteemed mediocrity and blandness. Sure, some cool people have won. But lots of boring and past-their-prime people have also won. And some great artists haven’t won Album of the Year but continue to make enduring music, as a Jezebel writer pointed out at the end of a recent article. 

I can also counter the writer’s closing paragraphs, which are pretty hyperbolic. I’m not sure how much of a punk Lady Gaga is, or what, for that matter, the value of the word “punk” means when you can apply it to Vivian Westwood couture, coffee table books, and Hot Topic. That said, I too am inspired by mainstream female pop stars who explore and own the complex dimensions of their sexuality, particularly P!nk, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera. I only wish there were more of them, or that Gossip’s Beth Ditto or M.I.A. sold enough records to qualify. 

Beth Ditto: my kind of pop star; image courtesy of brooklynvegan.com

I don’t really take issue with Swift being a weak singer, in that I don’t think evaluating singers in terms of their technical abilities is always a fruitful exercise. I’d be happier with her being a weak singer if she did something interesting with her voice, but I basically feel like she’s doing karaoke when she sings. This could have a charm to it if her phrasing and sense of dynamics weren’t also really obvious. And she often acts out lyrics in a way that I find insulting to the audience. Sure it’s a continuation of the girl group tradition. But do you really need to mime picking up a phone to let listeners know that you’re talking on the phone with some boy? Is it your way of helping out your international fan base? Or is just so you can remember the exact words that comprise the trite rhetoric you’re selling? 

Thus, if we have to make problematic either/or value judgments, I think it’s better to evaluate singing not as good or bad, but as present or absent. Lots of artists lack technically proficient or “pretty” voices, but get you with their commitment to creating sound and the feelings behind it. Likewise, lots of singers have pleasant voices, but sound like they’re thinking about checking their e-mail or getting on a plane. So, I actually take issue with how removed Swift sounds from her music. And then I really take issue with how she sings about romance with a disingenuous approximation of sustained wonder. For me, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard does something similar and it drives me up a tree. Add some faux-authentic lyrics about ripped jeans, pick-up trucks, sneakers, and faded t-shirts and I don’t think you’re emoting so much as lying

That said, I think this quote is a little insulting: “Swift simply hasn’t had the life experience and doesn’t inherently possess the emotional maturity to create great art.” It smacks a bit of “she’s just a girl; she hasn’t experienced life yet.” As women who work with girls, Kristen and I include Swift in our music history workshops. We don’t do this as fans, but because we know she means a lot to many girls, some of whom are just learning how to play music or are picking up instruments for the first time. Some of you might be reading this now, and I totally respect your preferences and value your opinions. You may be die-hard fans, or you may grow out of her music and find something else. You may believe in the kinds of fairy tales Swift trades in, though hopefully you’ll come to them with a revisionist bent like Lady Gaga, Bat for Lashes, or St. Vincent

Whatever you choose, all I hope for as an older, cranky lady who doesn’t like Swift’s music is that you never stop discovering new sounds as you develop your own. And I promise never to bore you with stories about how awesome and progressive my pop idols were in comparison to your music, because no text is ever above inquiry. Swift is problematic, but so is Björk. As I have faith in your awesomeness, I have no doubt that you’ll come up with something that’ll blow me away. And if you wanna bitch about Swift and turn that rage into something completely new and original, I’ll be here to listen.