aryn Crisis darted around a low-rise platform with her signature look: a dress, combat boots, fishnets, and boxer shorts, her multi-colored dreadlocks hanging over her delicate, elfin face. As Karyn threw squeals, screams, and growls in front of her band Crisis, she noticed one plump male audience member in a baseball cap shadowing her every move. The height of the stage in that cramped Connecticut venue put the man at eye level with Karyn’s genitals, which he took as his cue to reach out. Karyn spurned his advances by ignoring him. In retaliation, the man threw some beer at her, and when it landed on Karyn’s upper thigh, she decided to take action. Arching her shoulder back and tightening her fist, she swung her mic chord around like a whip to hit the crotch-grabber dead in the face with her microphone. After the show Karyn found out that she had broken his nose.
When Karyn smashed that man’s face at the El ’n’ Gee it was 1996 and she was the “only female on any tour, any show, anywhere,” in the metal world. This has changed over the last decade. One year ago this month, Karyn appeared in Revolver magazine as part of the cover story titled “The 13 Sexiest Chicks in Metal.” Karyn and the others completed a series of “totally naughty interviews,” answering questions such as “Who’s the sexiest man in metal?” and “Is playing live a sexual turn-on?” The responses ran next to pictures of these “molten maidens,” which varied in degree of sexual appeal. Implicit sensuality came from Karyn, her lengthy red, blond, and black dreads lying limply against the round of her hips and emphasizing her slender 5'1" frame. Wearing a sleeveless shirt with a shield-shaped print, she raised her bloody arms overhead to wield a large knife.
More overt sexuality came from Marta, keyboardist for the metalcore band Bleeding Through, in a nipple-baring white tank top viewed through a pane of frosted glass. “My mouth is open and my eyes are closed. It looks like an FHM shot. But I wasn’t posing for FHM,” said Marta later in a phone interview. “I liked the rest of the shots, I really did. I liked the whole idea. They just chose the one that I wouldn’t have chosen, probably because it was the most sexual.” Some of the other pictures Marta liked included a full-page display of her candy red lips, sterling-silver jewelry, and long, nut-brown hair accessorizing the silhouette she cast behind a sheer black parasol.
Marta’s attitude towards the layout marks a shift in the way women metalheads feel about their public personas. Many women in metal now accentuate their femininity by wearing makeup and skirts onstage, growing out their hair, and posing for men’s magazines such as Stuff. No one typifies this change more than Revolver’s cover girl, Cristina Scabbia, singer for the goth-metal group Lacuna Coil. She has become one of the most recognizable faces and bodies in the metal world by capitalizing on her European appeal, petite figure, and glossy black mane. On Revolver’s March issue, Scabbia appears in a see-through black top baring her bra, while tightly gripping a bloodstained microphone and glaring into the eyes of passerby. Scabbia believes that her sex icon status serves as a good example for impressionable girls and women. “The most important thing is to give a different angle, a different point of view of sexiness, just for the fact that there are so many beautiful girls around that don’t believe in themselves and think that to be beautiful you need to be a Playmate with fake boobs or something like that, which you don’t,” says Scabbia. “Sexiness is something completely different than the classic cliché of beauty.”
When Revolver’s editor-in-chief, Tom Beaujour, mapped out last March’s issue he was more interested in publishing encouraging images for men. Revolver’s demographic is composed of 80 percent male readers, so Beaujour assumed the trusted paradigm that magazines such as Blender have been using for years would work for Revolver as well. He turned out to be right: the “Sexiest Chicks” edition was the second-highest seller in a year period after March’s “Dimebag Darrell” tribute issue. “They didn’t decide to generally put women on the cover because they’re trying to promote women in music,” says Beaujour. “It’s because it sells better… I didn’t want to pussyfoot around what we had done and then not sell as many magazines as I could have, especially since all the subjects were fully aware of what we were doing.”
Apart from the “hot chicks” feature, the issue contains pictures of bands like Behemoth: men with outstretched devil horns or hands clasped over their packages, dressed in leather accessories covered with metal spikes. Other common sights include the guys from Nevermore with their excessively long hair, black band t-shirts and creatively pruned goatees. The more modern-looking men of metal also found a home in Revolver, with the members of bands such as Through the Eyes of the Dead donning hooded sweatshirts pressed with band logos, jeans, and steel-stripped belts accented by stretched-out earlobes and facial piercings. Beaujour says, “Every issue of Revolver is basically a ‘Sexiest Men in Metal’ issue because, like, you’ve got 125 pages of dudes,” albeit fully dressed dudes in standard postures.
Therein lies the conundrum for the “13 Sexiest Women” and the larger legion of women who play metal music. They must ask themselves the same question all women who’ve matured during the rise of a new era of American feminism have dealt with: In a world created for men, by men, does self-exploitation lead to empowerment or does it bolster long-standing stereotypes about women in our society? Many women metalheads in the current scene openly employ their sensuality, an unconscious embrace of third-wave feminism and perhaps a result of the highly publicized Riot Grrrl movement of the ’90s, whose leaders, such as Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, helped change the image of women in rock by embracing femininity and feminism. The modern metal woman applies mascara and slides on stockings before the show, identifying with womanly characteristics on the outside as well as on the inside. Her persona signifies a departure from how the founding mothers of metal, like Karyn Crisis, handled the situation and mirror a transition from second- to third-wave ideals that has taken place over the past 30 years.
“Now I can look back and see what an oddball I was or a test I was to the boys club of metal, but back then I was just me…and I was a strong, independent woman who was really tough too,” says Karyn. As one of the first women to challenge gender roles in metal, Karyn subjected herself to insults from her male counterparts who were used to sharing their rage with other men. When Karyn moved from the suburbs of Chicago to New York City in 1993, she was an experimental musician. Her musical heroines included Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bjork, so when she was propositioned by guitarist Afzaal Nasirudden to form a metal band, she wasn’t clued into the fact that she’d be an anomaly.
When Karyn agreed to be part of the band that would later become Crisis, the original bassist, Greg Mohr, quit because he refused to play with a woman. Nasirudden says that Mohr’s actions typified the dominate feeling of male metalheads at that time. “He was just a male chauvinist pig. He was a typical guy. He wanted to be in a rock ’n’ roll band with, you know, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll,” says Nasirudden. And even though Nasirudden worked at CBGB and had made many friends in the NYC music scene through his previous industrial outfit Stalwart, he could not find a gig for his current band. The idea of having a woman in a metal group was so radical that club owners and bookers refused to put them on any bill. Their first show came as a last-minute request from Virgil Moorefield, drummer for the Swans, who asked them to play with some avant-jazz groups he had booked at CBGB.
Their inclusion in an experimental program made sense considering women were so rare in the metal world that a female voice equaled instant novelty. Metal music emerged as an outlet for masculine aggression in the ’70s with Led Zeppelin’s hopped-up and heavily distorted blues and Black Sabbath’s down-tuned, doomy aesthetic, leaving little room for women players. Few challenged male exclusivity in metal’s early days except Joan Jett and Lita Ford, girls performing like men, first in The Runaways and then in solo careers. However, the polished pop aspects of their sound and the sexualized portrayal of them in the media alienated these women from the heavier side of the scene, which was gaining ground with the turn of the decade. In the ’80s metal diversified into more extreme genres like thrash metal (Slayer, Metallica), death metal (Possessed, Death), black metal (Mayhem, Darkthrone), and grindcore (Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror), who all had a few things in common: a nihilistic world view, an emphasis on dark and dreary imagery, a forceful guitar-and-drum-centered sound, a favoritism for primal-sounding vocals, and an almost entirely male lineup and fan base.
Women like Karyn didn’t join the metal world until the ’90s. As an anomaly in their field, they used tactics born of the 1960s and 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement, acting out in an aggressive manner onstage or taking on an androgynous persona, in order to assimilate with the men in their genre. They had to in order to prove themselves equal. “That’s how it was in those days. You took care of your own problems,” says Karyn.
It was a violent scene. Metal bands often played tightly packed clubs or large open-air festivals where fans were encouraged to form mosh pits, throwing elbows, shoulders, and overall body weight at each other during the show. Standing too near to the near-boiling pool of sweaty flesh and hard bone was a dangerous decision for a woman proportionally smaller than her male counterpart. Not to mention that the idea of throwing yourself into a testosterone-induced pit of rage may have seemed unattractive to women not used to expressing their anger in a public venue. Women, such as Karyn, who would rather break someone’s face than avoid the scene, used the juxtaposition of feminine docility and masculine aggression to subvert stereotypes. “Guys would be like, “Wow, you’re so angry. You’re, like, my dream woman,” says Karyn. “They had never seen women express themselves that way. Once they did they were like, “Yeah, I get it. You’re like me. You have fears and angers and things—like me.”
While Karyn used aggression to challenge men in the metal scene, other women metalheads often chose a more low-key approach. Sean Yseult, former bassist for the ’90s alternative metal group White Zombie, avoided attention and hassle by obscuring her sexuality. Yseult admits she’s always considered herself a “tomboy,” something that translated well into the genre. People would often mistake her frizzy, blond locks, androgynous name, and long, lanky limbs for a man’s. “I just looked like another member of the band, just like a guy, and I played hard. I definitely didn’t exude any feminine wiles or anything like that,” says Yseult. “I’m not saying girls shouldn’t do that. I mean, some girls, you know, are born very feminine and they should be able to look however they want. But I’m just saying I think that probably helped guys relate to me a little more, just like another guy.”
Extreme metal’s blatantly misogynistic lyrics didn’t do much to welcome women, either. In 1991 Cannibal Corpse song, “Fucked with a Knife,” singer Chris Barnes detailed the stalk, rape and murder of a woman, and encapsulates the early Cannibal Corpse experience: “Stick it in / Rip the skin /Carve and twist / Torn flesh / From behind / I cut her crotch / In her ass / I stuck my cock / Killing as I cum.”
In response to the misogynistic metal culture, Karyn not only acted on her rage during performances, but also penned songs such as “Sweething,” from Crisis’ 1994 release 8 Convulsions. Karyn used lines from a male harasser to emphasize the degrading and fear-inducing elements of catcalling: “Yo baby I like that / I’d fuck that…Look at me / I’m talking to you / Hey cunt / I’ll kill you bitch / Don’t walk away from me, pussy.” She contrasts these lyrics with her own voice screaming, “Don’t violate me / Don’t violate me / I don't give a fuck what you have to say...So you think you’ve got me fingered? / I think you’re looking like a fool, a fucking fool.” Although it’s unusual for lyrics as explicitly genderized as Barnes’ and Karyn’s to appear on any metal album, these rare examples served as hyperbole for a very real sentiment that existed in the scene.
Misogynistic attitudes still infiltrate the metal world, but changes in the overall makeup of the scene have lowered the amount of violence expressed towards women. At Crisis shows performed throughout ’05 and ’06, Karyn says she saw a 50/50 split between male and female fans, a phenomenon she partly attributes to metal’s “Hot Topic friendly” image. Karyn’s words allude to the way metal has changed from an extremely vicious scene into a marketable, soft-edged version of itself through bands with more mainstream sensibilities such as Disturbed and Evanescence. Many radio stations changed their formats towards the turn of the millennium to accommodate this hybrid of pop, rock, and metal, taking on nü-metal or modern-rock tags and making heavy music more accessible. The rise of Evanescence in 2001 aided this transition, but more significantly it remolded the concept of women in the metal scene by thrusting lead singer Amy Lee into the spotlight. Although their music is more alternative rock than metal, Lee’s ethereal voice, long, dark locks, and pale skin aligned her with the goth-metal movement, prominent in Europe. Supported by a major-label deal with Windup Records, her appearance in highly circulated rock magazines such as Blender and Rolling Stone, Top 40 radio, and MTV influenced the way people thought about metal as men’s music. It also signaled a new market based on the sex appeal of women in the metal genre.
The open door for exploitation makes some women in the scene wary because of past experiences. The singer Otep, who fronts an alternative metal band by the same name, thinks that this kind of marketing sets the clock back for women as a whole. “When I see women just allowing themselves to get by on aesthetics and limiting themselves to certain roles…I think that limits the choices for the rest of us, when you have people who are willing to accept second-class citizenship,” says Otep. She was the first woman to hold a spot on the highly publicized, metal-based Ozzfest tour in 2001. During one date when Otep was playing outdoors in front of 15,000 people, she heard a man’s voice shout, “Show us your tits.” After ignoring the distraction a few times, Otep stopped the show and called on the audience to point out the culprit. When a portly man in a red baseball hat admitted to his misstep, Otep challenged him to show his nethers to her. The man declined, but Otep got her revenge when she restarted the concert: As soon as the music chimed in, the crowd jumped on the offender and “wiped him out.”
Almost every woman in metal has a “show us your tits” story, including Marta from Bleeding Through. “I really do get pissed when people yell that. I’ve definitely heard some other obscene things. I just think it’s disrespectful. You’re going to see someone perform. It’s not like I’m a stripper; it’s not like I’m anything having to do with anything about taking my clothes off. There’s just no reason for it. If you’re there because you like our band, just show some respect.” Marta’s most embarrassing experience, however, involved another part of her anatomy. During Bleeding Through’s 2005 tour she realized that although she can reconcile her femininity with aggressive music, male fans have a harder time reaching that conclusion. Marta was wearing a skirt above knee level when she noticed a young guy snapping shots of her. After the concert, sources nearby told her that the guy had been taking pictures up her skirt. Since then, she’s lengthened her bottoms. However, like many women in the scene, she still has to deal with demeaning experiences while on the road—notably, discrimination from bouncers and show promoters who hassle the performers because they assume the women are girlfriends or groupies.
The girlfriend or groupie stereotype has been present since the dawn of rock music and it’s no different in the metal genre. Many women in the metal audience did start out as girlfriends and either became independent supporters of metal music or examples for future generations of women metal fans. Amy Sciarretto, director of radio promotions at Roadrunner records and contributor to Revolver, began attending metal and hardcore shows when she was in college in the mid-to-late ’90s. And while genuine enthusiasts like her prove that the “girlfriend” label is just another caricature of women in the scene, this additional typecast has worked against women metalheads by reducing them to sexual conquests. As Sciarretto explains when asked about her early experiences as a fan of metal: “I never felt like I didn’t belong, but I definitely have noticed that it’s a sausage party. A lot of girls are there holding their boyfriend’s jacket. They might not be into the music or they might think somebody in the band is cute.”
The people who do see these women as more than objects are trying to even the playing field by giving exposure to women and concentrating on the music they play. Numerous fanzines circulate in print and on the Web with sites such as Metal Maidens, while other niche magazines give a preset amount of space to discussion about women in metal. The same week that Revolver came out with its questionable “Sexiest Women” issue, its competitor Metal Edge published their version, “Women Who Rock.” The issue featured women ranging from Lita Ford to Sean Yseult to Cristina Scabbia who either contributed pictures or talked about their lives and the music they make. Instead of having one of these women strike a pose for the cover, the editors at Metal Edge chose to feature a male group, P.O.D., on the cover. One reason Metal Edge took a more traditional approach to their issue was because the editor-in-chief, Renée Daigle, and the assistant editor, Katherine Santiago, are women. But, as Santiago explains, there is more behind the issue than the gender of its editorial staff. “It’s hard to remove women from their sexuality, but I think we saw them and appreciated them as more than just sex symbols. We didn’t just see them as a face and a body—we saw them as musicians.”
By: Julie Pinsonneault
Published on: 2007-03-19
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