Monday, May 19, 2008

My Life as a Metalhead

My friend Angela Boatwright scouted me to participate in an article that's being put together about female metal fans. I emailed the woman writing the story in lieu of an interview and I basically blogged all over her inbox:

Full name: Beverly Hames
Age: 26
Currently reside in Brooklyn, New York
Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska

My earliest memories of metal are probably similar to most my age. There were two bands that were completely accessible during the early 90s, even to elementary school girls growing up in Nebraska, Guns N Roses and the mighty Metallica. I remember the rat-tailed camo-sweatpants wearing boys at my elementary school all had the same Master of Puppets tshirt. I used to sit behind one of them in health class and remember reading that list of song titles on the back to the tshirt so many times I eventually had them memorized: Battery, Master of Puppets, The Thing That Should Not Be, etc. Metallica's black album came out in 1991 when I was 9 years old, just around the time I started sneaking behind my mother's back to watch MTV and that video is hammered into my memory. The timing was perfect and metal became something that wasn't unreasonable for me to get excited about. From there I took the typical junior high mid-90s grunge path, educated by Beavis and Butthead we'd run through the halls of my junior high yelling "GWAR!!!" and flashing the horns for no reason and sing "Mother" in the park after school while smoking cigarettes and perfecting our burnout personas. Truthfully I never was a burnout and as my schooling progressed I morphed into a straight-edge overachiever. I am probably the only Student Council District President in the history of the state of Nebraska to spend her time in between classes jamming out to Motorhead in her car.

Regardless, it never seemed contradictory to be a nerd and listen to extreme music. Where a lot of my friends who grew up on either coast got into hardcore, everyone in my hometown listened to grindcore and death metal. That's the thing about the Midwest, metal never left. I went from being 11 and having a crush on Slash to being 17 and working a double at my job as a rollerskating waitress so I could have the next night off to see Neurosis play at a venue that doubled as an amateur strip club on the outskirts of town. No matter what other subcultural paths I went down in my youth (that unfortunately rockabilly phase or being susceptible to the dubious charms of generic Epitaph records punk and the cute skater boys that went with it) metal was always a constant and it never felt unnatural for a girl to like it. Maybe I was lucky. From a pretty young age I was pretty established as "one of the guys." The only girl who listened to records with the boys because she liked the records more than the boys. If anything, metal strained my relationship with other girls. I was always suspicious of them, worried they only wanted to be my friend because they had crushes on my male friends and unfortunately those suspicions were proven corred time and time again.

Despite being an eternal bro, women in metal were always precious to me. I never got into the riot grrl game. My first punk show was supposed to have been Bikini Kill but my friend's older cool punk rock big sister decided last minute not to take us (I don't blame her, what 17 year old wants to drag two 12 year olds with her to see Kathleen Hanna?) I wonder how my path would have been different had I seen that show. Instead I was turned off to riot grrls because the ones in my hometown were bizarrely mean to everyone, even the younger punk and metal girls. So instead of listening to Bratmobile and Bikini Kill and the more politicized all girl punk bands, I idolized Seah Yseult, the dread-locked bassist from White Zombie and put grunge bands like Babes in Toyland, 7 Year Bitch, and L7 on just about every mixtape I made.

As I grew older my knowlege of the history of metal increased. The 90s were a bleak period for metal and unfortunately that's where I got my start as a music fan. After I moved to New York I started getting more into thrash metal and was turned on to bands like Sacrilege and Sentinel Beast who had female vocalists. I was asked by a friend to join a band he was started and became the lead singer of what was initially intended to be a hardcore band but it became much more of a thrash/grind band once we started practicing. Once I started singing in a band my hunger for female-fronted metal increased and I started searching for other bands. I love the late 80's band photos, three or four hairy dudes surrounding a woman usually dressed in all black, her leather jacket adorned in spikes and studs, her fringe bangs, and her fuck you look. These were definitely not the girls in Vixen. Dirty, tough, and almost sexless, these were the metal women that I identified with. From there I discovered bands like Rock Goddess, Warlock, Chastain, and Black Lace.

As a female vocalist in a band I didn't experience too much open hostility, it was more an awkward sort of antagonism. More than anything I felt fetishized by the male portion of our fanbase a lot of the time. A dude came up to me and said, "Whoa, most women in metal don't look like you. You know, you look good!" I laughed at that one, because, let's see, long dark hair? Check. Tattoos? Check. Skin tight black jeans? Check. Sleeveless Metallica shirt? Studded jacket? Check. Yeah, sure dude, most girls in metal bands don't look like me. Most of it was pretty harmless stuff, guys hitting on me because I was in the band and whatnot, but I think that happens to everyone in a band, male or female. Occassionally someone would say something that really hurt. Like the guy who told me he'd talked to my bandmate about me when I'd first been asked to join in the band and that my bandmate had told him about this "hot chick" who was really gonna "get the guys going" and increase the potential fanbase. It's a terrible feeling to second guess the motives of your own bandmates and thankfully that guy's loose lips didn't cause a rift in the band. Still, it was annoying having to always be "Beverly Battletorn" and constantly market myself as the metal chick. I'm not the type of person to latch onto any singular identity and while I am proud to be a metalhead and my musical affinities are a huge part of my life, it's not my everything.

I definitely get more flack when I DJ than I ever got as a band member. When you are a woman behind the turntables you become a target to a lot of people who walk in the doors. I can't count the times men have come up to me and started quizzing me, trying to test my metal knowlege. My male friends don't have to deal with guys coming up to them and questioning whether or not they deserve the Judas Priest shirt they are wearing. None of them were cornered at the Venom show by aggressive 40-something year old men accusing them of spending $80 on their Raven t-shirt on ebay. That anyone would tell me I don't deserve a metal shirt or original pressing record is downright laughable, but it happens regularly. I refuse to allow these men to engage me in conversation as it seems they have two instincts when it comes to interacting with women, hitting on them or bullying them. More than anything it's the antagonism that bums me out. It's so unnecessary. The other thing I've noticed while DJing out over the years is that men get so much more excited when it's a woman playing Metal Church than if it's a guy. I don't like getting credit for playing a record just because I'm female. It's the DJ equivalent of "that was good...for a girl" and is frankly demeaning. Is it really more awesome that I played Celtic Frost versus my male DJ partner playing it? Really?

Still, it's better to feel supported than attacked. I've made quite a few female friends DJing over the years. There is nothing like playing "See You in Hell" and seeing just as many girls banging their heads and singing along with the chorus as guys.

ALSO, she totally identified with my experiences in high school so I responded thusly:

Thanks! A few of my friends rocked the same boat in their high school experiences. Brainiac and metalhead are not mutually exclusive identities, but in high school heavy metal was synonymous with burnout. I was president of a million clubs and on the debate team and in theater. I spent my weekends in basements watching bands like Assuck, Combatwoundedveteran, and Dead and Gone. Then again my high school was a little quirky. The captain of our football team was in a punk band and later took over my role as the president of Amnesty International at our school and our prom king was a theater kid who now works as a puppeteer. Not exactly your typical Midwest Johnny Football Hero fantasy land.

It makes sense when you think about it, nerds being drawn to metal. Topically metal lyrics can be on the ultra obscure side. I mean it's not exactly cool to read up on Viking mythology or be really into dragons when you are younger. Then again, most of the boys in my elementary/junior high experience were more focused on bands like Pantera and Megadeth than Iron Maiden. Their relationship with metal was about pure testosterone. It took me a long time to be able to listen to Pantera because of my associations of the super macho homophobic long-hairs who smoked cigarettes in the park with me. I have photos of a few of them, the Pantera "Cowboys from Hell" shirt was ever-present. All the popular kids where I grew up listened to Phish and The Doors and were fake hippies (and now are that weird breed of Birkenstock wearing post-sorority/frat types who are majored in business and are really into jam bands.)