Love the Music Hate the Politics?
By Rosemary Lucy Hill
One of the questions I am often asked is, why would women like metal when the male-dominated genre presents women with the imagery of our own degradation? Usually this question comes from people who only know the genre through its reputation. My answer is that heavy metal is not a heterogeneous genre and songs that are about raping and murdering women are probably in a minority. There is plenty of metal to listen to that is not about violence against women.
But a second question comes from people who are fans of the genre, but who are perturbed by their own fandom. They ask, how can I like this band when their songs are so antithetical to my own politics? I think this is very troubling question – troubling for me personally, but it is also a much bigger question. Is it morally wrong to listen to music by people whose politics we find offensive and dangerous? Should we buy their recordings? Can we ‘switch off’ our discomfort and enjoy the experience in the moment?
When we listen to songs, the singer is communicating something to us. They are asking us to identify with them, to share their experience in some way. Listening to heavy metal as woman very often means identifying with the male singer. This is fine, until the song presents us with something that causes us to rethink that identification. ‘Switching off’ from politics to enjoy the communication with the singer straightforwardly, then, cannot be an option for everyone. For example, if one has suffered sexual violence one may well find listening to songs about committing rape to be much more difficult to listen to than someone who has never had that experience. Being a metal fan and a feminist means therefore to be asked to two things at once: identify with the male singer and identify with other women (political sisterhood). This is where the tension arises: do we identify with the singer or with the song’s victim? Do we feel her pain and anger, the injustice, even though it is unsung (a resistant listening, like Judith Fetterley’s notion of the resistant reader1)? Or do we choose not to feel ourselves a victim and instead to experience the singer’s power and violence?
Songs are part of our world and any violence within them matters. Songs are not just artistic representations; they are our culture. Thinking carefully about the content of the music we listen to therefore matters deeply. So the answer to the second question, how can I like this band when their songs are so antithetical to my own politics? is not as straightforward as the answer to the first question. It requires us to think carefully about how musical experiences are shaped by gender, that is, by the power and oppression of male-dominance in the making of music, its culture and in its listening. In Gender, Metal and the Media, I examine the impact on women fans of this imbalance and of gender as a structure of social division and think through the consequences for understanding what loving music means: gender does not only impact on women, but on men as fans too. The book thereby provides a new framework for investigating how our social positionings affect our musical engagement.
So what do you do when you hate the politics of your favourite song? I would say that bringing a querying mind to the music and the musicians is vital. Think about whether your money is making a platform for cruel politics. Call out dangerous music. Does that mean we stop listening to it? In the end that is for the individual listener to decide, but they should do so with a vigilant mind.
Rosemary Lucy Hill, September 2017
1Fetterley, J. 1978. The resisting reader: a feminist approach to American fiction (Indiana University Press, London).
Rosemary Lucy Hill is Lecturer in Sociology at University of Leeds, UK. She researches gender, popular music and big data. She has published on the metal media, the moral panic around emo, subcultural theory and semiotics. She appeared on BBC Radio 4’s 'Thinking Allowed' on the subject of women fans, metal and subcultures. Her book Gender, Metal and the Media is available now.