Death’s Metal Maiden: The Portrayal of the Grotesque Female Body on Extreme Metal Album Covers

I’m taking a much-needed break from writing my actual thesis and instead looking at the art produced for extreme metal music albums. In this way, I feel like I’m paying homage to my first love in academia: art history.

I recently came upon an interesting CFP on my blog feed from the University of Winchester. This upcoming summer, they are holding a conference on Death, Art, and Anatomy and put out a call for papers on any research having to do with the following topics:

  • Death and art
  • Anatomy and death
  • Anatomy and art
  • History of anatomy
  • History of death
  • Religion and anatomy
  • Religion and death
  • Medieval and early modern death beliefs and practices

It got me thinking, and I started to explore the idea of how some extreme metal album art could be an extension of the medieval concept of grotesque realism.

So I began reading and discovered previous research making this claim by author and Professor Karen Bettez Halnon. In her paper, Heavy Metal Carnival and Dis-alienation, she examines the use of grotesque realism in performance, lyrical construction, and the appearance of bands like Gwar, Slipknot, and Cradle of Filth. Although these bands are not all categorically extreme metal, it made me think about controversial extreme metal cover art that has been produced in the past few decades.

Referencing philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Halnon defines grotesque realism in relation to her study as a form of “heavy metal carnival,” whereby the noise of commercialism is dismantled and transgressed by heavy metal’s ability to challenge societal norms of conduct, dress, taste, morality and civility (Halnon, 2006). What this encompasses is a fandom and culture that encourages the obscene and bizarre, disassociating it from general musical audiences that would favor more socially-accepted styles of popular music, visual art and fashion.

As an example, she cites the band Gwar, who spray their “slaves” (the audience) with red-colored water (symbolic of blood) and other bodily fluids, effectively enacting a spectacle of grotesque through fantastic and fictional displays of human dismemberment, torture and beheadings. On its most base level, this spectacle transgresses the limitations of real and fantasy for participating fans. Like Halnon believes, “the display signifies the creative life-death-rebirth-cycle”. (Halnon, 2006)

GwarWithin the paper, Halnon echos Bahktin’s own definition of grotesque realism as:

“Eating, drinking, defecation, and other elimination (sweating, blowing of the nose, sneezing), as well as copulation, pregnancy, dismemberment, swallowing up by another body—all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body. . . . The grotesque image displays not only the outward but also the inner features of the body: blood, bowels, heart and other organs. Its outward and inward features are often emerged into one.” ([1936] 1984: 317–18)

Does this not sound like extreme metal to you? Hanlon goes on in her paper to talk about inversion within the heavy metal carnival. What really caught my attention was the following:

“The carnival-grotesque is not only exposing the deep (hidden, vile, disgusting), interior aspects of anatomy but also what is spurned, spoiled, stained and hidden in the body politic. Inverting the ordinary devaluation, invisibility, or “symbolic annihilation” of those positioned at the bottom of (social) hierarchies (Larry Gross quoted in Gamson 1998:22)”

These two statements mark further evidence of the grotesque for lyrics constructed by extreme metal bands like Carcass, Cannibal Corpse, or Deicide. However controversial the works of these bands and bands like them can be construed, it made me curious to explore the imagery depicted on albums of this nature.

Furthermore, I wondered if the often violent and horrific covers of extreme metal albums were indeed an extension of both the medieval grotesque and heavy metal carnival, then what research, if any, was being conducted specific to the treatment of women, so often depicted in controversial images flagging the albums.

If I decide to write a paper for this conference, I think it will broadly speak to the use of grotesque imagery on extreme metal albums as a form of intentional aesthetic and then move more specifically to the depiction of women, particularly the thematic imagery of Death and Women on covers.

\m/ –Hail Metal– \m/

Heavy Metal Studies and Gender

MeralandGenderLast week, an article was published over at No Clean Singing that caught my eye. The article,A Metal Gender Study is a follow-up post by cultural anthropologist David Mollica who put a call out through No Clean Singing last March to recruit participants for his study about gender and metal.

Since Mollica’s research is very much aligned with my own work with regard to gender, I thought I’d share my thoughts on his article in hopes of opening a discourse about how gender has been examined in the past as well as how the perspective of women conducting the research themselves can offer different insights than previous studies done by men.

We_Can_Do_It!First off, though Mollica’s writing is aimed at the general audience in the blog post, I wondered about several aspects of his study. For one, he writes:

“…I ended up interviewing 6 women and 5 men, making this the first study of its kind that I know of to have equal gender representation.”

Since I’ve had to research a lot of literature on this topic, I found this statement to be  misleading and, with no sources cited, I also question the depth of his actual research. In the last decade or so, though statistics may have not shown an exact and equal ratio of men and women on studies like Mollica’s; the fact is there has been research done with women and men regarding the subject of gender and metal.

One example is the research done by scholars Leigh Krenske and Jim McKay entitled,Hard and Heavy: Gender and Power in a Heavy Metal Music Subculture“, in which gendered structures of power in a specific music club within the heavy metal subculture in Brisbane, Australia were studied. In this study a total of 10 participants were interviewed, 6 women and 4 men.

Additionally, in my own research, I have referenced academics such as Sonia Vasan from the University of Texas, whose dissertation,Women’s Participation in Death Metal Music was extremely influential on much of my ethnographic approach. Likewise, Sarah Kitteringham from University of Calgary has written and interviewed a variety of women from the Canadian Extreme Metal Music Scene, authoring her findings in her thesis, Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses.  There are other scholars from around the globe – Rosemary Hill, Gabrielle Riches, Jasmine Shadrack, Laina Dawes, Pauwke Berkers, Julian Schaap, and Keith Kahn-Harris – who have written about women in and around metal music. This also assumes one has referenced older and staple academic works written by Arnett, Walser, Wallach, Hickam, Purcell, Pillipov and Weinstein which mention and address different aspects of gender in metal. I’m sure I’m forgetting more.

KarynCrisisOn top of the lack of reference and context (which in Mollica’s defense, was probably due to not wanting to sound too academic on a commercial website), I thought the sample size of 6 and 5 to be small. In my own research, I interviewed – either in-person or electronically – around 80 participants from the NY area alone. If not for the cut-off period instituted by the IRB, there would have been many more – something I will probably use for a follow-up paper.

In addition, I’m left wondering about other aspects such as the demographics of his interviewees–Where was this study conducted? How old were his interviewees? What were their ethnicities? What were their educational backgrounds/careers?

Mollica points to conducting inductive research, assessing patterns as they arise. While this is a valid form of research, asking and answering such demographic questions is integral to finding out the patterns among his participants.

For example, in my study, I found that many of my online participants (which were women only) identified with Caucasian or Hispanic backgrounds. Asians, Native Americans, and African Americans had the lowest representative numbers. This becomes an important part of understanding identity construction, especially within an area like the NY tri-state region which is considered to be quite diverse.

Moreover, the women in my study (of which 72 were surveyed online) identified with the following stats: 18% between 18-24 years of age, 56% between 25-34 years in age, 18% between 35-44 years in age, 5% between 45-54 years in age and finally and most surprisingly 3% between 65-74 years in age. Considering age demographics is one way to reveal listening reasons. One can infer the musical styles that would have been around during the participants’ birth years for each age group and what may have been influential as well as what they were moving both away from and towards.

Also interesting – and not surprising – were the differences in our observations of women participating and producing within the scene. Mollica writes,

“Another thing that was mentioned was the stereotypically feminine tendency to herd up, move in groups, and sometimes stand on the periphery of the action.”

Though his interviewees mention this as fact, I and many of my participants witnessed otherwise – at least as the NY-area goes. Interestingly, many of the local extreme metal shows I attended had women attending by themselves. Perhaps this was due to the age of the women I noticed attending; they were often older and more mature, in their late 20’s and on, whereas younger adult women attended in groups, both mixed and unmixed. But, there are reasons outside of metal for this, and men are shown to move with their friends as well.

He also talks about authenticity within the metal scene, mentioning the similarities with geek culture and the acceptance of women within that subculture. I agree with his point and would add that this “burden of proof” placed on women to show their true fandom and authenticity elicits a form of tokenism, whereby they become objects which are judged and criticized. Schaap and Berkers work, “Grunting Alone? Online Gender Inequality in Extreme Metal Music”, explains this tokenism within extreme metal scenes, further supporting how sexism is widespread and cultivated throughout the subculture.

Finally, on Mollica’s last section, “What’s the Point?”, he writes:

Overall, most metalheads are probably not sexists who don’t want women in their “club”, as some other research has concluded. The reality is probably more that we bring our ideas about the world to heavy metal when we make ourselves part of the group.

I think I’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. For starters, this might be the case for the particular region of Mollica’s study. Since I’m not sure where that was, all I can offer are my own insights and experiences as a woman from the NY tri-state area. Most of the women I met with and interviewed felt that the extreme metal scene in NY was an arena that could be both restrictive and open in its acceptance of women as consumers and producers. Though many women felt established and included with the community, they also cited the difficulties in getting there.

My interviewees cited that their acceptance within the subculture did not eradicate the constant “testing” of their authenticity once there, whether it was being tested as a musician, fan, music journalist, or critic. Many women felt that this openness and acceptance also changed regionally, often telling me that once they were outside of urban and diverse areas like NY, they were more likely to experience sexism, racism and violence at shows.

castrator1In addition, the construction of the lyrical content does not offer many avenues for the dismantling of misogynist and sexist content. I can only think of NY’s Castrator as an example of a band that has turned traditional death metal lyrical content on its head.

With that, I leave you with a quote from one of my anonymous participants:

“Heavy and Extreme Metal still have a long way to go”

Women and Death

gustav-klimt-death-and-life

One of my favorite bloggers has done it again! Curator Carla Valentine, over at The Chick and the Dead blog has published another excellent post–this time about Women in the Death Industry–nope, my metal-head friends, not the Death Metal Industry, though I’d have to say the following quote below made me think it apropos for my own observations–

“If death is most often anthropomorphised into a foreboding, grinning male does it not make sense that his companion is female? The current ‘trend’ for women in the death industry is not a trend, then, but merely an influx of women taking their rightful place back at death’s side and, once again, becoming the guardians of the dead.”

Check out her very informative and enlightening post:

http://thechickandthedead.com/2015/07/28/the-corpse-brides-women-in-the-death-industries/

Jucifer

jucifer2Over at NPR, I saw an interesting article titled, Gazelle Amber Valentine: ‘Gender Is Not A Genre’. It’s an interview with Ms. Valentine from the band Jucifer; a band made up of married couple Gazelle Amber Valentine on vocals and Edgar Livingood on  drums. They’re considered a sludge metal band though from what I keep hearing about their live performances, they are anything but sludgy, and in fact, have been known to have intensely emotional performances.

I bring up this NPR interview because the author Kim Kelly (an awesome metal writer by the way) asks some important questions regarding gender. I found Gazelle’s answers to them to be quite interesting especially if we look at them through a Third Wave Feminist lens. Since my thesis aims to examine how both female fans and female musicians look at gender, I was curious to see what Gazelle had to say. Below are some interesting excerpts from the interview:

Q: To detour for a moment and revisit your own roots: How did you first become interested in and aware of feminism, and womankind’s fight for equality? How has living your life as a musician and metalhead affected your identity as a woman?

My identity as a woman was always secondary to my identity as ME, if that makes sense. Being a musician and metalhead might not have even happened if not for that. I’ve had to reject a lot of socialized bullshit to openly be what I am: a woman who is, and is at ease with, simultaneously embracing traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine things. I don’t find they conflict, but society says they do. People have told me both literally and figuratively that “girls can’t” do just about everything. Fortunately I never believed them and will do it anyway. The truth, of course, is that gender doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s capabilities. If anything, my life in metal has cemented everything I already guessed about the world. You know; the highest compliment I can get after a show is, “I thought you were a dude until I got close.”

And:

Q: Metal’s “woman problem” that has been mentioned all over the media and in barroom conversations from here to Timbuktu. It’s a question we’ve been asking for years, but: why? Why is it still an issue that a woman is interested in metal, especially extreme metal? What are men – and some other women – afraid of?

Society trains us from a very early age to be male or female, so as long as people believe metal is “dude stuff,” women who enter the metal world will create some discomfort. It’s really sad, because there are lots of guys who’d probably be stoked to hang with a woman who appreciates their music … except that somehow it threatens their sense of self. Everybody’s trained into this adversarial relationship that benefits absolutely nobody — we’re set up to argue and complain about each other, and in too many cases have lifelong relationships with someone we resent.

Obviously that’s a generalized, cisheteronormative analysis. But that’s the axis of metal’s tradition of women problems. Metal is considered a male toy, women are considered toys for males. When your toy steals your toy it’s a mindfuck. As far as intragender hating, the main thing I notice about women within metal is actually something men do to one another too: judging others on style choices or which bands they like. It’s fuckin’ dumb, y’all. What’s the point of seeking outlaw, non-mainstream stuff just to turn around and police it?!

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Converge

And the worlds collide! The last two weeks I’ve been busier than usual, both with my thesis work and my work-work. Right now in my job we are trying to fulfill a vacant position in my unit, so there’s been a lot of resume reading, vetting, and interviewing. To top it off, I attended a Leadership Symposium for Librarians last week which was extremely interesting to me as it never seems that Leadership comes up as a topic of conversation in my daily library life, but it’s obviously a topic of interest to many other librarians.

The topic of gender was briefly mentioned and it made me happy to see that others felt the way I did in terms of how gender plays a role in negotiating our perception as women in the library field. One example that was brought up was that it seems that in some situations when you are trying to forge through with an innovative idea, that it can be taken in different ways if the idea originates from a man, woman, black woman, gay person, etc. This issue, which didn’t have an easy answer, was at least brought up for discussion in light of all the positive talk that was going on during the symposium.

Interestingly, in the last couple of weeks certain aspects of my life have been complimenting each other. Perhaps its because I’ve managed to write about a thesis topic that really interests me or maybe I really did find a calling as a Librarian, or gender just permeates everything, I don’t know.

With my most recent research, I’ve been discovering a plethora of female musicians in the Extreme metal music category that are impressive in both their creativity and production. It’s been a combination of fascinating and enlightening to me. I think when you hear the line “there’s just not a lot of women in and or producing heavy music“, you almost believe it. And it’s nice to see that what’s happening is what I’m considering sort of  “Third Wave Feminism of Extreme Metal Music.”

Another discovery (wonderful at that!) was finding this Youtube page dedicated to the Women in Extreme Metal Music:
I think the clip below is pt. 45 but they’re up to pt.54 or something now. Each video showcases a variety of female fronted extreme metal bands in the genres of Death, Black, Grind etc. It’s pretty concise and goes to show just how varied in ethnicity some of these bands are.

Another great discovery for me was learning about Thorr’s Hammer. A band from the mid 90’s that was fronted by female vocalist, Runhild Gummelsaeter (say that ten times fast). When the band started she was only 17 and was an exchange student from Norway. I love her story because not only did she sing both clean and death vocals for Thorr’s Hammer, she was a Fullbright student who went on to get her PHD in Cell Physiology at the University of Oslo. She didn’t forget her interests in Metal though and released her own solo album in 2008 and went on as a session musician for Sunn O)). Check her out in the video below singing my favorite song “Norge”:

 

Reblog from Pearrls.Com – Fine Art Degree – Will-I-Ever-Practice?

Over at Pearrls.com, there’s a great post on gender inequality and the practice of fitting in Art Making after one’s graduated.
http://pearrls.com/2014/02/26/a-fine-art-degree-will-i-ever-practice/

It’s a great read. I especially liked the part below as it’s definitely been a struggle for me in the past:

The experiences of the panel highlight that motherhood and maternity remain as complex an issue in the art world as in any other sector. Despite a perceived flexibility in working hours reducing one problematic element for artists with children, women continue to battle age-old ideological obstacles. If women artists are feeling the need to hide (as in one case related by Boyce) and downplay motherhood, or, as Sarah Maple admitted, muse about how best to fit childbirth into an exhibition schedule, it is clearly a tangible concern.

And the part:

Evidently, the extraordinary experience of having a child is unlikely to negatively impact the quality of an artist’s work. Therefore it is more likely that gallerists – as are huge swathes of other managerial professionals (of both genders) – feel some sort of socially-generated nervousness about investing their time and money into those who they fear will either fall victim to some sort of child-induced creative lobotomy, or prove incapable of juggling their careers and families.

Heavy Metal – Women and Perception

All-Female Blackened Doom Metal Band (Japan)

I’m constantly scouring the internet in hopes of finding new articles, books, and comments regarding women in extreme metal, let alone heavy metal, for my research. So it was nice to see this post over at The Metal Advisor blog. http://www.themetaladvisor.com/2013/07/a-maze-of-thoughts-women-and-heavy-metal.html

The author rightly points out some of the most interesting female musicians who often go under the radar. What’s nice to see is that the author (whom I can only guess is male) validates some of the typical misconceptions and stereotypes female musicians receive, almost always having to do with their not being judged on musical ability, but rather on their appearance. Vocal quality and it’s likeness to how male metal vocals are produced is mentioned, though if you ask me, it interesting to note how women have to negotiate both vocal and bodily acceptance in the hyper-masculine environment; meaning recognition is given when a woman can sound undecipherable from male vocals/growls/shrieking or if she embodies the male musician look/style.

In some of the research I’ve come across, this issue of negotiating the female body and it’s place in the heavy/extreme metal scene seems to be very black and white. Women are judged not only by the males in the scene (both musicians and fans) but by other women as well. What results is a very simplistic perception of female participation as either “hyper-serialized feminine personas” or “masculine ones” (Walser 1993).

Sonia Vasan’s analysis of this very issues applies a social exchange theory in order to make sense of what is sacrificed by the female fan in being included in the Death Metal scene. In her paper, “The Price of Rebellion: Gender Boundaries in the Death Metal Scene“, Vasan argues that in order for female death metal fans to be perceived as authentic, they must be willing to conform to a hegemonic masculinity.

It’s this questioning of negotiation and sacrifice that is extremely fascinating to me. With my own research, I hope to answer what these characteristics might be, not just for female fans who are accepted into the scene, but for the female producers/creators. I wonder how this negotiation impacts female musicians and their artistic vision within the scene. Are they able to re-appropriate commonly masculine themes within the genre and make it their own or do they submit the to hegemony? Can they approach themes of death, rape, brutality, and violence through a gendered lens of feminist theory? And how would/has that changed the common themes written about in heavy metal?