Header_DenigrataA 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.

Hyperreality or Documenting the Debut Gig

After six months of preparation, writing and practice, Denigrata had their debut show last Thursday at the Student’s Union of my institution. Having been there for most of the day, setting up the sound desk, PA and backline, this gave me an opportunity that you don’t get at most gigs and that is to paw over every minute detail until it’s set up in a manner most appropriate for you. I took a certain amount of enjoyment during the process as most gigs are not like this…

You can only do so much to prepare for these things and when it’s time, it’s time. We took to the stage and struck the first chords of the set, knowing that all we had to support us was the practice we had done and the trust of one another. This can be a risky business, not only because I am the performance module leader of our undergraduate programme (and my students were in the audience) but also because the local great and good of the metal scene were in attendance. If the performance had been shit, my professional reputation would have affected. Fortunately this was not the case! It was a blast and I have not enjoyed performing like this for a long time. Yet something struck me as very odd, that previously I had only been vaguely aware of, and that is Hyperreality.

Let me explain. Hyperreality is a theoretical concept first identified by French Post-Structuralist Jean Baudrillard. Essentially what happens during this process is when the Real (Lacanian or otherwise) collapses into something more real than real, a Hyperreal where you enter a space that dissolves the borders of consciousness. I felt unable to distinguish from the real of the ‘pre-gig abstract business’ to the Hyperreal of performing on stage. This was compounded by the fact that we alter our appearance for the performance – wigs, antlers, corpse paint and other paraphernalia all provide othering signifiers to manifest the Hyperreality of the performance.

Denigrata_gig_11022105Simply put, I was myself but not myself whilst performing; I was an altered subject, signifying a different set of encoded meanings whilst we played. I still felt like me, I still represented all of my existing ideological positions and occupied the same intersubject space with the relationships with my partner, friends, students and acquaintances but whilst I was screaming and playing my guitar, I was more other than the other I usually perform.

It is important to establish what I mean by the term ‘other’. The hegemony is patriarchal therefore by the simple act of being female, I am other. Consequently men are considered subjects, women are objects to be looked at and according to Julia Kristeva, the uncomfortable weirdness of people sits in between the subject and object, and that is the abject. Not only am I other to the hegemony because of my gender but I am othered even further because I am alternative. My appearance, my ideological position (Feminist-Marxist at its most simple incarnation at any rate!) and my desire to be loud and take up space, means that I exist even more marginally because I perform my femininity in the way I want to, not the way patriarchal hegemony prescribes. So for me to experience an even deeper level of othering within the Hyperreal space of my stage performance was exciting and utterly bizarre!

It struck me, about half way through our set that I can use this space to be anything I want and rather than it being a pre-constructed arena, it could be anything I want it to be. So, rather than the weight of musical or gendered expectations meeting me like a brick wall, I experienced an emancipatory performance space that was mine to do with what I wanted. I cannot state just how significant a realisation this is.

For the previous decade, I had navigated the death metal scene, performed death metal guitar and been excruciatingly aware of how extensions of the dominant discourse pervaded death metal, musically and socially. Girls don’t play guitar and nor do they have the cheek to get up on stage and do it well! I am currently in the process of writing a paper on this subject but long story short, sexist modes of address and engagement were plentiful during this time.

Denigrata is different and this difference is manifest on a number of levels. Firstly, the music is black metal, not death. Seemingly this might not present any real difference but to those who know these genres inside out, know there are significant differences. Black metal is a different paradigm entirely, focusing more on existential engagements rather than how complex the music is. Riff complexity and virtuoso playing translates to a form of performed masculinity or hypermasculinity because through virtuosity, there is something to prove. It becomes less about the music, and more about showing off. In black metal, there is space in the guitar lines, there is a different timbre at work and this is not to say that black metal is totally free of sexist engagement but when compared to death metal, there is certainly more room to manoeuvre.

Consequently, the sense of liberation, of autonomy and of agency I experience playing guitar and screaming in Denigrata is astonishing. I feel free to navigate the Hyperreal of the on-stage performance but returning to ‘me’ afterwards, feels like somewhat of an anti-climax. If I employ the Lacanian mirror stage to this concept, the mirror or copy of me on stage, is an altered ego-ideal or alter-ego; it is perhaps what I wish were true in the everydayness of my subjective experience of the Real. The problematic gendered constructs imposed during the process of passing from the ‘imaginary’ through the ‘symbolic’ to existing in the Real demonstrates a rent or gap in the fabric of that reality. How can I know what is real when my most significant moments of subject-self totality occur when I am in the realm of the Hyperreal?! Does this process in fact point to the impossibility of wholeness for the subject, for me? In the face of this experience, I am faced with, not the void of an absent reality, but with whatever abject replaces that void.

Through recognising the controlling binaries of the symbolic (Man/active/ positive/ agent/autonomous vs Woman/passive/negative/bound), what we encounter in the Real is in fact nothing but the void or more accurately, the absence of the void, the un-space. Are our subject-selves so fragmented that we cannot truly know what we are to each other or to ourselves that ultimately we all experience the Lacanian psychosis, the total breakdown of identity?!

I can scream ‘WHO AM I!’ down the microphone with all the fires of Hades for all the good it does and it be assimilated perfectly into Denigrata’s musical soundscape without raising an eyebrow but what this represents to me, subjectively, is deeply significant. I know who I am when I am on stage, and when I am not, the void, the un-space, swallows identity irrevocably.