A Lecturer in Popular Music at a British Higher Education institution, Denigrata Herself is undertaking her PhD in women in extreme metal. She is also the front woman/guitarist in Denigrata, an experimental black metal collective. Denigrata have coined the term noir concrête for their music, meaning the avant-garde dark noise initiated by Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen finds a different rhizomatic existence within their contemporary black metal performance space.

Denigrata Herself is a gender theorist whose research and publications to date focus on body performativity, reclamation of female space, tattooing, graphic novels, death metal and black metal. She is part of the International Society for the Study of Metal Music (ISMMS) and sits on various academic and equal rights boards in the UK.

For over a decade she was a lead guitarist in British death metal bands, she was signed to and worked for various independent record labels and now devotes her time to lecturing, researching and performing. She is choir master for her departmental chamber choir and presents annual post-modern renderings of canonical classical pieces with her choir, a string quartet, a contemporary band and Ableton performers.

4 0ctober 2014

Mastodon and the Meat Market: how the mighty have fallen

Metal has always defined itself in antagonism to the mainstream, and consequently does not speak from inside it. It has sat on the margins, the periphery, and created itself a space to critique the symbolic order. It has used philosophy, bigotry, consumerism, politics and other concerns in its art, its lyrical form and video. As such, metal has always strived to embody a different way of doing things, not always successfully but it is widely acknowledged that it is different from the mainstream. As a result, its acolytes also embody a different ideological perspective and these issues together, manifest a space that is freer to create, to be, to exist.

This has often meant that the rebellious human spirit has found a welcome home in metal, allowing like minds to forge a path that is not prescribed by the hegemony, that is more open and free thinking. This is certainly one of the reasons I love metal. It is the musical form, the ideological position and that space for self-expression that has supported my evolution as a person, as a woman and as a musician.

As with any music genre, as it has grown, certain specifics that were once archetypes become embedded as ‘the way to do things’ in metal. Sometimes these are not particularly helpful, such as the patriarchal, white demography of the music but existing inside this, is arguably a less constructed space than we find in mainstream hegemonic society. As I was growing up, I found this mainstream a too prescriptive place to exist. I was not prepared to be a palimpsest, to have my own narrative rewritten by society because I was expected, through socialisation, to be one kind of woman only. My ontology was more expansive. So, metal became my home, as a fan and eventually as an extreme metal performer.

We become astute in gauging what constitutes metal, musically and aesthetically. Precisely because we position ourselves in antagonism to the mainstream, we have defined ourselves accordingly. When a signifier presents as ‘un-metal’ we are pretty quick in identifying it and analysing it. This can be a riff or a vocal style or it can be how a band looks and their how their artwork somehow fails to embody metal principles. Perhaps I am being too generous but I hope not.

Through my own developing feminist ontology, I have always worked very hard at being an extreme metal guitarist and vocalist. You have to if you’re going to be good, gain respect for your art and carve out a space for your own performance. I am still doing this, ten years later. Whilst there is sexism in metal, that I tackle as much as I am able, it is a sexism that is more readily identifiable than the complexities of the mainstream and therefore, for me, it is a more tangible realm to navigate. However…sometimes metal fucks up, gets misdirected for any number of reasons and sets us back.

It is also important for me to say this: my feminism, my ontology and my way of being a woman is no more or less important than anyone else’s. Women should be free to do anything they want and to engage with their bodies, with society and music however they wish. That is my feminism. So to see women twerking in Mastodon’s video is actually not my problem. My problem is women being objectified for the purpose of selling a song. My problem, to break it down even further, is ethnic women dancing within a white male context for white male pleasure. That to me is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable because metal knows better than to be so lazy, stereotypical and trite.

So it comes as a surprise to no-one except perhaps Mastodon, that their new video for ‘The Motherload’ has poked a bear. That is, a fucking angry feminist bear that would rather take a shit in the woods than have to endure watching that video again. It has also riled the metal community because we have a history of trying to be different from the mainstream, rather than riding on any trending coat tails that happen to be fashionable at any given moment. But before we all get riled up in a swarthy social media hot mess, let us examine the evidence…

The video begins in a typically Mastodon artistic style, where one can easily read the symbology of the white man bent double under the weight of a huge bell, chiming the death knells for our existence. Are we being primed for an existential engagement within a musical context? Well, this is certainly where it seems to be going. There is an obvious Western religious engagement here, with an apple and a man reaching for the forbidden fruit which is nothing new for metal but interesting nonetheless. Metal has never been the shy or retiring genre unwilling to engage with grand theory, religious dogma and philosophy. The band is playing and something is scratching at the corners of my mind although I’m unsure just what it is yet…

Then boom, at 45 seconds in, as the man carrying the bell, who we encouraged through the positioning of the camera, to identify with, walks behind a line of ethnic women twerking. Wait, what?! I rewind the video just to double check what I’m seeing and low I am greeted by lyrca-clad female bodies thrusting. As the video progresses, the song meanders along and the twerking bottoms dominate not only the screen but the space for the song itself. I am unsure what exactly I’m being encouraged to give my attention to. I thought it was supposed to be the music…

There appears to be some kind of competitive twerk-off, the band obviously debated whether or not the psychedelic fractals should disappear crevice-wise and decided against it (because that would have been too much right?!), everyone hugs and then presumably goes home for a nice cup of tea. So what is it exactly that is troubling me? Well, a number of things as it goes. Let us focus on the music first. Now I’m not sure at what point over the last couple of years I began to realise that Mastodon, that mighty, hungry and well-respected band who released some game changing albums and reinvigorated metal by infusing it with energy, seriously good fucking riffs and THOSE DRUMS faded to what I now see before me. I have seen them live, bought their albums, learnt the whole of Remission and Leviathan on the guitar because I was fucking entranced by their song writing and not that it is possible to always write the same music for a entire career but there is one vital thing I have to question with this song – intent. Did they feel that compulsion to write this? Did they wake up at 3 in the morning with that burning inspiration? What is the drive behind this because quite frankly the song sounds like a young, newly formed band who really really want to sound like Mastodon but aren’t good enough at their stagecraft yet. I’m not criticising the playing, I am however criticising the composition. Why is intent so important I hear you ask? Well I’ll tell you. You cannot force the creative process. You cannot paint, for example, if you do not want to and whilst the pressures of being in a band with labels requesting you stick to a release schedule, you cannot compromise your art, particularly if you have such an impressive back catalogue like Mastodon. There are a great many bands who have managed to strike a balance between song writing and label concerns. However, what I see with ‘The Motherload’ is a band grown bloated on their success, so much so that the hunger seems to have been sated. The riff, whilst it has echoes of their previous contrapuntal style, seems like it is missing the passion and whilst there is nothing wrong with common time 4/4 drumming, it seems like the lazy option for such an accomplished performer. If you can write like Bach for example, why would you choose to write like One Direction…

Consequently the song comes across as bland, it is boring and even the band look bored playing it. So one begins to wonder, is this why there are twerkers? To detract from the banality of the song? To refocus the audience to not pay that much attention to a half-arsed bit of writing?

And so to consider the function of power differentials in the video. To tackle the twerking first seems to make the most sense. Let me be perfectly clear – I have no problem with twerking. It is not for me to have a problem with twerking because women can do what they like. I don’t know a lot about the cultural intricacies of twerking but I do know about metal and there is a race dichotomy to apply here – twerking is black and metal is white. Now what is the most incongruous part of this video is precisely its inclusion in a predominantly white male popular music video. It is not an intrinsic part of metal culture and women do not, generally speaking perform like this in metal videos. Instead, we are usually relegated to poles, strippers and other simply fabulously objectifying practices so race and diaspora aside, women are no better off in terms of our representation. However, why Mastodon have agreed to cultural misappropriation in this video is what we should be questioning. The video looks like two separate genres squashed together and whilst there is nothing inherently bad about this, in fact I rather relish the collision, this is a really bad example of how to do it. Like when Fear Factory tried to ‘do techno’. Nope. It’s shit. Stop it.

It is important to acknowledge some glaringly obvious and tired gender binaries that this video enshrines and perpetuates. We have a typically white male band, invested with their own agency, performing at the apex of masculinity, with autonomy and independence. Nothing new there right? Male – subject. We then have ethnic female dancers (yes, classically trained according to http://sexpoleandmma.tumblr.com/post/98998006844/mastodonopinion and how wonderful that is! Better that than a bunch of women just falling over their own, er, arses). The women in this video are performing for men – for the band and for the fans. And the assumption is that the fans are all male. Oh right, but I am a fan, what about me? How is this video hailing me? How is it interpellating me? The simple fact is that it isn’t. It isn’t acknowledging me as a female fan at all, unless I am to look at the wobbling bottoms, at Mastodon’s suggestion, as a paragon of female agency? I think not. So, annoyingly, we have female – object. How very boring. How reductive, irritating and boring.

Now also according to this blog, all the women were treated really nicely, were respected and made to feel welcome. Well, good, I’m glad about this but what were they expecting exactly? What preconceptions of metal did they harbour for them to be pleasantly surprised by their good treatment?! News flash – this is how human beings are supposed to be treated. Don’t be surprised by it, expect it! Why shouldn’t you be treated well?! Were you expecting to be treated like meat? Like objects? I wonder…Another issue that comes up in the blog is the acknowledgement of the women’s good education, as if this fact is meant to counter the use of their reified bodies in the video. Oh you’re all really well educated and doing PhDs?! How phenomenally useful that is because that really comes across in the video. That arse in my face and I’m thinking, oh I bet her Cultural Theory will be applicable here so she can deconstruct just how many fucking layers of subjugation this functions on…Barthes would be proud. If the twerking in this video were meant as some kind of rebuttal (boom!) at white women doing it (ahem, Miley!) then I really think Rihanna nailed it in her video for ‘Pour It Up’. That surely was the end of that particular ownership argument.

But I hear the clatter of keyboard warriors caps lock shouting ‘but they were paid to do it!’ and yes indeed, they were and they did a fine job. It is not with the twerkers that I find the problem. It is with Mastodon and the patriarchal structure of metal. Dearest boys, you have been lazy in assuming this video would pass as something nearing even ok metal standards, particularly given your previous excellence. Resorting to cultural misappropriation, sexism, racism and the promotion of tired power differentials to carry a shadow of your former glory is not going to wash. Dom Lawson’s piece in The Guardian this week identified some of this rather well.

And no, ethnic women twerking for white men is just not ok because white men are the rule makers and controllers. They are the hegemony. They are the ones in power. For those who do not fit this remit, we are the marginalised, the other, the culturally disenfranchised. So simply by having the big three, race, gender and class in one video, Mastodon have managed to fuck up everything they may have wished their video to convey. That is of course, unless what they wanted to say was ‘white male musicians are the best, black women are there to be objectified and exocitised and their arses are more important than their right to agency and we’re better than everyone else because we’re men with guitars’ then yeah. Great. Well done. I’m impressed.

Mastodon, you could have done something great here but instead you have opted for this. Girls, I’m jolly glad you all had a smashing time and were treated like human beings coz ya know, we all belong, but just spare a moment for the women in metal who work fucking hard based on our musical abilities, not the cultural and sexual currency of our naked arses. Given the patriarchal structure of not only metal, but the music industry in general, it is important that women occupy space for themselves, not to be used in the means of production to sell white male music to other white males.

Comments are welcome. Denigrata Herself can be contacted at denigrataherself@horizonvumusic.com