Musings on metal and its evolving demography

2016 EMP Pop Conference

I have so much stuff to post about, but I’ve been really negligent in updating my blogs for months. Apologies!

Anyway, here’s one item. Three weeks ago, wifey & I flew to Seattle so she could speak at a panel at the EMP Pop Conference. This year’s title was From a Whisper to a Scream: The Voice in Music. She sat on a panel called Noise Breeding Silence – Heavy Metal Voices.


Panel participants, moderated by Steve Waksman

Here’s the description from their website:

The EMP Pop Conference returns with its biggest roster of presentations yet, looking at the ways music lets us hear voices: singers, to be sure, whether virtuosos or idiosyncratic originals, but also other types of vocalizing. How do instrumentalists insert their selves into their music? When the dominant voices in our songs change, what changes with that, from personal identity to collective messages? A switch in voice—from croon to rasp to rap to Auto-Tune—alters everything it reaches. 

In dozens of panels, all free to the public (though we strongly recommend advance registration), we’ll explore musical voices across genre and time period: soul singers and rock singers, singers of exotica and Mexi-Cajun blues. Panels on goth-punk wailer Siouxsie Sioux, warbling rapper Future, and pop-rock duo Hall & Oates. Synthetic “vocaloids” and challenges to female decorum. Singing across lines of color. Good bad singing and bad good singing. Vocal coaching. Southern accents.

And here’s the description for the panel wifey was on:

Metal remains fixed as a quintessentially white male hetero form in its most visible artists and presumed demographic. The emergent field of “metal studies” has begun to document metal’s appeal to women, non-white, and LGBTQ audiences, and to millions in the developing world. This panel considers to and for whom metal seems most to be speaking. Do metal’s various subgenres (death, black, doom, grindcore, etc.) all draw on the same underlying voice? Are different strains more or less inclusive? How do questions concerning metal’s inclusivity look different from a global vantage? What can we learn from participants who occupy non-dominant positions relative to core constituencies?

Wifey shared a table with 4 other panelists and the moderator. Those of you who read books or journals on metal studies are probably familiar with some of them:


Esther, Jeremy, Kat, Joan, Steve & Laina

We all spontaneously stayed at the same hotel, Hyatt House, right across the street from the EMP Museum, where the conference was held. There were actually some spillover events from the conference at the hotel, which was cool. On the first day, we had breakfast with Steve & Laina. It was our first time meeting him. I found his company really enjoyable and it was fun catching up with Laina.

The night before, while wifey was prepping for the panel, we were talking about a bunch of things that intersected with what she’s looking at in metal – especially race and gender. There’s a widespread notion that metal is primarily a white male art form, and although that notion is being challenged, we have found that overall, its not untrue. Women and people with skin tones darker than white tend to be marginalized in places where white is the norm. I don’t know if the opposite is true in metal scenes where whites aren’t the majority, but so far, I haven’t heard anything to indicate that reverse racism occurs.

Some of the things we were talking about and researching online came up during breakfast with Laina & Steve. Laina, especially, corroborated much of what we’d learned through wifey’s online survey of women in the NY extreme metal scene and her interviews with women there. There’s a lot of misogyny and racism in the world, and metal is something of a microcosm of larger swathes of humanity, so it brings proportionate doses of that with it.

After breakfast, we parted ways and everyone went about their day. We went to the EMP Museum and sat for a panel on soul singers, which turned out to be pretty interesting and full of funny anecdotal information from the speakers. There were a large number of speakers at the conference, altogether, presenting on a lot of different topics related to the voice in music. When it concluded, there was a 15-minute break during which the speakers set up for the metal panel.

Noise Breeding Silence

During setup Jeremy pointed out that metal has never been represented at the conference, which is a failing that Steve sought to remedy. Jeremy is of the mind that the EMP crowd isn’t receptive to metal, but I’m more cautiously optimistic. I think people need to be made aware of many things in the arts, sciences, history and world-at-large, and that they’ll surprise us with what sticks. Even if reactions are negative, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate them. It all adds insight, even if only by virtue of statistical inference. But, operating from the outskirts is inherently metal as well, so maybe this panel’s rareness is true to form. By-and-large, metal is outsider music.

Once it started, Steve introduced himself and explained that the panel was his idea. He’s been attending the EMP conference for the past 7 years and was on the program committee this time around. He explained that metal and academia have recently commingled and given birth to the field of metal studies, a discipline which many of the panelists have contributed to. So, he looked at this as a coming-out party to the general public, which is largely unaware of the field.

I’ve been reading various works by metal scholars, on-and-off, for a few years now – ever since wifey made me aware of the fact that it was even a thing, and I found it interesting to note that its not just music theory or stylistic analysis (both of which I do enjoy); there’s a lot of social investigation going on as well, which really fascinates me. I like learning about how people from different parts of the world embrace metal, but I’m also aware of the opposite. Its interesting that common sound elements evoke feelings that unify people regardless of color, gender, sexual preference or whether or not they eat bacon. However, its also crazy to learn about how its suppressed, along with other individual liberties and expression, in different parts of the world. I find it absolutely insane to know that people can actually face physical harm or even death by simply listening to metal, or for transgressing and making music.

Since the conference theme was “the voice in music” Steve said that he could have been very direct and constructed a panel about heavy metal voices and singers, but he decided that it was too literal for his tastes. Instead, he opted to use “voice” more metaphorically – not just about singing, or about instrumental voicing, but instead speaking about who has a voice in metal, who gets heard and is represented. The presentations were meant to be brief so that ample time was left for discussion, which proved to be a wise decision.

metals problem with women

Metal’s Problem With Women Is Not Going Away Anytime Soon

I liked that he brought up an online article titled “Metal’s Problem With Women Is Not Going Away Anytime Soon,” and pointed out that 4 out of the 5 panelists were women, and that this marginalization of woman was one of the topics being addressed at the panel. He also pointed out that – regarding race in America and Europe – the whiteness of metal is overbearing and that racism in metal colors the public perception of what the music encompasses.

What’s important about this is that people in the scene are actually talking about it and creating a discourse, which I’d like to believe will change the playing field as time progresses. I think that what we’re seeing is a growing inclusivity that threatens segments of the old boy’s club (even younger members). It brings out the worst in some people, who seem to react in a territorial, reptile-brain-driven manner, lashing out at what I perceive as people driven by more limbic-oriented efforts. This is the arena in which epithets such as “social justice warrior” are hurled in disdain, as if having rights and representation are to be viewed as negative peculiarities, and where censorship is conflated with inclusivity.

Finally, Steve brought up sexuality in metal – particularly how many scenes which center on the music, as a whole, have not been historically welcoming of the LGBT community, yet LGBT musicians have existed in metal for many years. He briefly name-dropped Amber Clifford Napolean‘s book, Queerness in Heavy Metal Music: Metal Bent, which we’re trying to get at home. We met Amber at the MACI conference as well. She’s easily among the upper echelons of academics that I’ve rubbed shoulders with, but she’s more of a rivet-head than a metal head. I’m very curious about the content of her work.

Panel Points

Its been 3 weeks, so some of what was discussed at the panel is a blur in my mind now. Steve said that EMP will release recordings of the panels, but I don’t know when, or via what platform. I’ll update once that information or the tracks themselves have been released.

I attempted to record the session with my phone, but its had latency problems for months, and naturally it exploded during the panel, so I wasn’t able to get a good recording. It actually crapped out completely about 30 mins in (which makes Hulk want to smash). Here are some highlights that still tickle my brain:

1 – Wifey spoke about women in extreme metal, particularly in the NY scene, since that’s what she’s been studying. She gave a brief overview of her work, which includes 3rd wave feminism, and introduced the idea of vigilante feminism to the crowd – something that the other panelists really took a shine to.

Vigilante feminism is a concept that she learned about only a few weeks prior to the panel when she and another librarian friend went to a pop culture conference to present about librarians in the media since the 2000’s. She became acquainted with the idea when Professor Laura D’Amore (Roger Williams College), who coined it, discussed it at her own presentation. Its basically the act of women violently taking agency from men and saving themselves from peril. D’Amore spoke about it in relation to modern retellings of fairy tales (your princess is in another castle), but we saw how its easily applied to comic books, video games, tv shows, movies and other media – like metal.

The concept factored into her talk through one of the bands she interviewed for her thesis: Castrator. They’re a multi-cultural, all-woman death metal group from NY. The band’s lyrics are very female-empowering. Its something like an inverted Cannibal Corpse, in which the women in their songs take control and free themselves from patriarchy – brutally. Where typical misogynist, gorey death or grind bands write about women being raped and mutilated (which is somehow celebrated – another interesting trope of the genre), Castrator has the female victim wrest control of the situation and brutalize their assailants. Naturally, they’ve been met with antagonism from the metal patriarchy online, but they also have male supporters (like me!). I think its a good reaction, because it means they’re getting their point heard and ruffling feathers that need to be tarred.

Wifey also discussed some of the experiences from her interviewees, who are all women involved in extreme metal in the NYC area. It does reveal, perhaps unsurprisingly, that women face a lot of adversity in the scene. Some of it is from men and some of it is even from other women. The idea of the “only one” was also introduced, in which some women try to keep others out of the scene or attack them, because they’ve established their own “territory” with a group and don’t welcome other women into it. There were accounts brought up, like a metal photographer having her work used without permission or payment by a widely-distributed magazine – something she didn’t think would have happened as readily if she were male; and discussion about verbal and online attacks against female music journalists who write about metal (Laina shared some insights about things that happened to her) and musicians, like Amelie from Myrkur and even Kat Katz, who was present at the panel.

2 – Kat Katz gave an account about her experiences in Salome and Agoraphobic Nosebleed and the hardships she faced as a woman vocalist in a grindcore band at shows. She’s received death threats and rape threats from men online, something very much in-line with the experiences of other women in metal bands that I follow. Based on what’s been reported, this seems to stem more heavily from American men than those from other parts of the world. What I remember most from her were thoughts and experiences she shared both before and after the panel, however. A lot of that are things I won’t write about though, because they were personal to her.

3 – Jeremy Wallach surprised me with his part. He basically said that metal is not racist, and supported it with the point that many metal bands include members who aren’t white. Kirk Hammet is half-Filipino, Tom Araya is Chilean, Dave Lombardo is Cuban, Chuck Billy is Native American, and the Indonesian metal scene is supposedly the largest metal scene in the world. Their prime minister is a metalhead (I remember seeing him wearing Metallica and Napalm Death shirts and proclaiming his love for death metal when he was running for office).

I’m not entirely sure why Jeremy chose that position. I think it could be because he’s looking at the overall musical culture from a global perspective and seeing that it includes people from all over the world, which I applaud, or maybe he’s approaching it from the sense that music, as a concept, is not racist, as its merely a particular arrangement of sound, but I don’t agree with his perspective. I think it flies in the face of what people like Laina experience and I’ve read comments on metal forums and YouTube videos that are fantastically racist and/or misogynist as well as responses to it from other metal fans who don’t espouse those small-minded values.

Esther continued on from Jeremy’s talk and showed a video of a more rock-oriented metal act with a woman vocalist who sang in a more hard-rock fashion than what had been shown of Castrator before it. That resulted in some dialogue between her, Laina, Kat and the crowd about women’s appearance and its effect on how they’re perceived and valued in metal. Kat said that what she wears most definitely has a role in how she’s viewed by the audience, and she tends to not wear very “girly” clothes onstage. It sounded to me like she mostly stuck to the typical metal “uniform” of jeans and a band shirt, but the aesthetics of the horde of metal subgenres was also brought up. Fans of death metal don’t typically dress like black metal fans, and both are distinct from other subgenre fans, etc.

4 – Laina was the last to talk before the panel opened to questions from the audience and from Steve. Her points were divided between race, gender and gender identity. She was the first person to delve more heavily into LGBTQ aspects of the metal experience, which got some interesting conversation going with the audience – especially concerning gender identity. One of the audience members spoke about Black Veil Brides, a band I only have a passing familiarity with because my niece listens to them. Apparently, their performance is what’s termed “gender-fluid” which means that it changes over time. That’s something that’s more welcoming to trans people and apparently to a growing segment of younger people who are experiencing their sexuality and defining their gender in ways that are sometimes at odds with older or more rigid models.

Laina also spoke about threats of violence she’s received after writing articles for online and print publications, online stalking and harassment and basically experiences that she’s had which run very counter to what Jeremy posits by saying metal is not racist. Some of her negative experiences were threats against her being black, and some of them were threats against her being a women. But, her experiences are not isolated, and weren’t all propagated by strangers either. Its chilling, what some people will do to protect their positions within the status quo. Its also disappointing, because in my opinion, a big theme of metal is individuality and rebelling against established constriction. But, some people use it to espouse hatred instead, under the guise of personal freedom. My stance on this is that inclusivity is more individualistic than perpetuating stagnant and repressive mores that keep people out of metal. Instead of ridiculing people for not knowing our music, especially people who listen to other strains of heavy or experimental music, we need to share it with them. Fusion, cross-pollination and simply the inclusion of new voices in music lead to innovation.

Cactus & Afterward

After the panel, wifey & I went to some of the EMP Museum exhibits. We saw the Jimi Hendrix one, which includes a bunch of his personal effects, the Nirvana one, which also included items that belonged to Cobain and other band members, and the guitar exhibit – of which I’ll write about on my bass blog. By night, we’d returned to the hotel and readied to meet the panel crew for dinner. Steve made reservations at a Mexican restaurant called Cactus. The hotel shuttle took us there and brought us back once we were loaded with food and drinks. Esther stayed at the hotel because she had been fighting off a cold or maybe even the flu. The rest of this will be a jumble because I wrote too much 2,000 words ago, and I also don’t remember everything that I’d have liked to write about (especially band names).

At first, dinner was a bit noisy, because the crowd was really thick and loud. We took a while eating though, so it eventually thinned out enough that I could actually hear people, and there was a lot of interesting conversation being had. Both Laina & Steve said that Slayer got them into extreme metal. She doesn’t like “beauty & the beast” vocals with a clean female vocalist and growled/shrieked male vocals. Everyone at the table listened to a surprising bit of rap from the 80s and 90s. Kat is a big fan of Weedeater. Kat & Laina have crazy stories with friends they have in common who they’ve attended Maryland Deathfest with. Steve has played guitar in front of crowds of 2,000 people at Smith College, because he’s the designated rock-n-roll guy. Kat has taken classes with him as a professor at Smith College. Jeremy recognized the “hand organ” that I described from Indian/Trinidadian music as a harmonium. Steve & Jeremy know a lot of folks in academia, along with the political maneuverings at a bunch of facilities, which they shared some of with Laina and my wife. Laina reads some crazy stuff, like My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard.


After leaving the panel, and before going to the hotel to freshen up, Kat helped a homeless man who needed medical as well as mental health aid. If I remember right, she found him with dried blood on himself, called his social worker and offered to get him to a doctor or the hospital. He ended up getting food, but I don’t know if he went for medical attention. It stands out in my mind because she’s studying to be a psychiatrist and has also been in the presence of people with mental illness for much of her life. I actually don’t come across people very often who go out of their way to help others, especially complete strangers who demonstrably have no recourse of means of compensation. So, kudos!

Oh, the food at Cactus is pretty good. I also liked the drinks – they’re very healthy portions, and we had complimentary flan, which tasted great and had good texture, but I was afraid to go after because… lactose.


One response

  1. Pingback: Updates since April | Ugly Bass Face

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