Released: 2012, Bazillion Points
There have been a number of books that have appeared in the past decade that are written by Metal fans about their experiences as Metal fans. In the past couple of years alone we have seen publication of HAMMERED (Blows), NO SLEEP TIL SUDBURY (Jensen), METAL GENERATION (Keck), POWERCHORD (McKenzie), and ONCE UPON A ROCK STAR (Roxx) all autobiographical books about people growing up listening to Metal.
Laina Dawes new book, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE falls nicely into that category. It’s neither a true autobiography, nor strictly academic but more of a broad examination of one women’s experiences being a Metal fan and journalist. This book has a higher degree of interest to me because Dawes, as a black female will likely have something more unique or interesting to say than the 10th book by 40-year old white guy who wrote about growing up being a Metal fan in the 80’s in Cornhusk, Nebraska. I’m look at you Klosterman!
The elite Metal publisher, Bazillion Points, publishes Dawes book and accordingly the quality is high. This nice, 205 page paperback has a good glossy cover, lots of black and white photos of black and white people, sources, mini biographies of the people being interviewed, a great intro by Skin of the band Skunk Ananise, and a copy of the survey (and results) that Dawes used during her research. Sub-titled: A BLACK WOMAN’S LIFE AND LIBERATION IN HEAVY METAL, the book is a quick easy read, written with intelligence and passion.
The main thrust of the book is Dawes experiences as a black woman Metal fan and asking others of their experiences are similar. The text consists of interviews with black artists, fans and industry people comments and ideas pulled from a survey she circulated. Dawes is a brave writer who wears her heart on her sleeve and I was pleased she didn’t really come across as militant or having an agenda. Dawes conclusions come as no surprise. There are virtually no black women in the Metal world, the ones that do exist have experienced discrimination (or outright racism) and they all have different mechanisms for dealing with it. She touches on many facets, the portrayal of black female artists in the media and the industry. She talks at length about racism in the fascinating Chapter Seven; ‘The Lingering Stench of Racism in Metal’. Dawes covers all areas with articulate enthusiasm.
Dawes and I have some differing perspectives about Metal in general. Early on she asserts that Metal is inclusionary. I totally disagree. Metal has always been exclusive and exclusionary. It’s an elite (mostly) club of white males that people have to work hard to get into. They have to develop credibility for forever be labeled a poser. This concept as ‘Metal cred’ has been around for decades but this phenomena (cultural habit) was recently identified and codified by Keith Kahn-Harris as ‘cultural capital’ in his excellent book, EXTREME METAL. Metal Cred is why Metal fans regularly judge new entrants into the scene even to the point of relentless quizzing about trivia or listening preferences. Anyone can wear a Metal shirt and attend a show, they are obviously free to do so and in my opinion welcome too, but to be recognized by a peer group takes a bit more, time, money and experience. As Dawes says it is twice as hard for a woman to be a Metal fan and four times as hard for a black women to be a Metal fan! I would have to agree.
One feature I found disappointing is that there is a distinct lack of Metal in the book. It’s an interesting topic but very little information available because the number of black women (fans, journalists, artists) in the scene are so few and scattered, it’s almost negligible. Many of the examples cited were from non-Metal sources. Dawes herself said she had to expand the scope to include Hard Rock and Punk because there is just not enough material to do an entire book about black women in Metal. I found myself reading with a bit of detachment at times because I don’t care about rap, punk bands or alternative bands like Skunk Ananise because they are not Metal and I don’t enjoy their music. It would have been nice if Dawes expanded her horizons and interview other black artists (regardless of gender) in actual real Metal bands like Steel Prophet, Threshold, Hirax etc or genre pioneers like Sound Barrier or Stone Vengeance…maybe she tried and they didn’t respond or weren’t interested.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE was eye-opening for me in a way because it brought to light something’s that I had never thought of. I was very surprised that Dawes experienced racism from black people because she listened to Metal. On one hand it’s no shock because Metal people are discriminated against every single day because of their musical taste. I also understand there are white racists in Metal who do not want different types of people (ie. black people in Metal). However, it would had never occurred to me in a million years that a black person would discriminate or make negative comments to or about another black person for listening to Metal! That just blew my mind! The fact that Dawes actually lost friends while working on this project stunned me. They obviously weren’t very good friends to begin with if they abandon a friend writing a book! I had just assumed that a non-Metal black people who looked at black Metal fans would be proud, (or at a bare minimum jealous) because Metal is the elite form of music on the planet.
When I meet another Metal fan (of any description) I’m pleased because they ‘get it’. There is an automatic kinship even if it is as subtle as a nod as you pass the stranger on the street with a Metal T-Shirt. They are one of the few and the proud. They are not one of the sheep. Metal fans are the vanguard of the elite and I just assumed everyone felt that way because, despite the fact Metal is not cool, (never has been, never will be) Metal people are ‘cool’. They are the black sheep of the musical family, the people who are the rebels against the generic pabulum masquerading as entertainment (ie. rap, country, techno etc) that is forced down the throat of the public. I found that part of her book explaining that some black people don't want other black people to listen to metal to be most revealing.
I thought long and hard about including these next two paragraphs in case readers might find it offensive but decided to because, well, I believe in honesty and secondly, it’s my review! This section is more of an Op/Ed piece rather than a direct part of the book review, so feel free to skip to the last paragraph.
I felt a sense of disconnection with the book central theme of Black women in Metal. To be blunt, I just didn’t care. I’m not supportive or adversarial; it’s just not my issue. As an older, white guy in the Metal scene it’s something that I do not worry about (or even think about) in music. I’ve always tried to avoid bringing gender, race, social, political and religious issues into music. I don’t like political bands. They are missing the entire point about Metal. Like Alice Cooper said, (paraphrased) ‘Metal is about sex and violence. Leave politics to the punk bands’. To me, social issues like gender and race are irrelevant to the creation of art. Obviously some people don’t agree but for me, I go buy albums I want, I go to the shows I want and all that other stuff is a non-issue. When I have experienced discrimination against me in the past for being a Metal fan, I just ignored it, it never bothered me; I just ignored the fool or fools and adopted a ‘me against the world’ stance, just like the Lizzy Borden song.
More often than not, to be brutally honest, I’m probably the guy standing at show wondering to myself, ‘What are you doing here?’ Not just wondering about black people at a show, but everyone who doesn’t meet the standard; women, seniors, children, suits, people wearing the ‘wrong’ shirt, the normal’s, preps and jocks, etc. I don’t ask that loaded question in a sense that these people are unwelcome (of course they are, the Metal army needs soldiers of all types) but I’m more curious, and at times judgmental, if they really truly are a fan of the band on stage. You can instantly tell who the non-fans are at a Metal show…the bored girlfriend standing texting in the back, the drug dealer looking for business, the straight-laced grand-parent who came to watch his (or her) grandkids band, the wide-eyed kid at his first Metal show who is trying too hard, the middle-class guy who liked Iron Maiden in the 80’s but doesn’t realize they put out another eight albums since then, the promoter standing with the handheld the clicker counting the crowd, the bum who stumbled into his regular watering hole to find that his home has been over-run by weirdoes, the drunk jock with the Pantera shirt going mental in the pit at a Nightwish show…you see it at every single concert. If those non-Metal people want to spend their money to buy a ticket to support the band I like so the band can make more money and the promoter can make more money and bring more bands I want to see to that establishment…great! Come one, come all! But I’m still going to wonder, what are you doing here? Having said all that, I’m not surprised the books core issue did not really resonate with me as being important or relevant to my experiences.
Dawes is obviously far more open-minded, engaged, aware and passionate about issues in Metal than I am and accordingly that is why WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE was so interesting to read. I would recommend this book to any Metal fan, despite my own mildly admittedly negative attitude. It’s groundbreaking and well done and will likely stand as an important book in the future as the field of Metal studies continues to grow.