From Dicks To Chicks: The Strange Case Of "Affirmative Action Metal"
When a very attractive, scantily clad young woman claims she loves metal, get a second opinion.
Yeah, I said that.
And I’m not claiming you’re all fakes, female metal fans. I know you’re out there. Most of us can personally attest to that. I’m talking about the posturing selfie types.
You know the ones. They lurk online, Facebooking, Tweeting, posing in metal-looking gear with an Impaled Nazarene logo prominently displayed, skin showing, pouty siren’s call etched across the face.
Sometimes they actually go to the lengths of posting music videos, and when they go there, they go big. “ROOOOTS, BLOODY ROOOOTS <3 METALCHICK FOR LIFE <3 DEATH TO ALL BUT METAL” and so on. Methinks the ladies doth protest too much.
With a few exceptions, these girls do this for one primary reason: they know how to attract men via the path of least resistance. Make that ZERO resistance. Metal is an overwhelmingly male-dominated genre, fostering a “homoerotic relationship between bands and their fans,” as former Sepultura merchbabe Marta Svetek puts it.
So when such a photo goes up, the hungry dogs swarm for their scraps, as it were. You don’t even need to read the Tolstoy-length comment thread to guess its simple pig-swooning gist. How could some girls resist?
A female musician I spoke with, who wishes to remain anonymous (more on that later), recalled of playing with her former metal band:
“Crowds of girls would come into the club between sets and prey on all the guys, then go outside for nearly the band’s entire set, probably blasting Miley or One Direction in their earbuds. I actually remember talking to some girl about a band whose T-shirt she was wearing. She said, ‘Oh, this band? I just thought the shirt was cute.’”
This tactic has suckered many a metalhead, and many enterprising folks have seized on it. Why else would countless popular metal sites and blogs hire “spokesmodels” to push their merchandise? Why else would niche custom fashion lines like Toxic Vision gain such a mammoth following? Why else would 70,000 Tons Of Metal hire “pool girls?”
Why, in other words, does metal culture virtually have to IMPORT hot women like Julius Caesar providing for the appetites of his legions?
Simple: because metalheads (i.e., dudes) like to stare at girls’ tits and asses, and some girls, spurred on by the “hot groupie fantasy,” (in Svetek’s words) like to provide such sights. Capitalism, baby.
I’m not saying I’m above all this, and I’m not exactly judging the arrangement. I believe in the free market. However, I don’t have to embrace everything the market produces, and one very dubious aspect of this Budweiser-ad approach in metal is when it manifests in the music itself.
Frontwomen Don’t Always Count
The most obvious example is, of course, the contentious “female-fronted” metal category, which transformed within a decade from a charming novelty to a monopolistic marketing beast. Without doubt, countless bands have formed with the explicit intention of fitting that mold – a far cry from 1997, when Nightwish’s lineup finalized almost by accident.
However, that would be unfair. Calculated and grating as the trend may get, many of these female-fronted acts, especially in the symphonic metal subgenre, follow well-established operatic vocal techniques. These techniques are traditionally segregated by gender, and use of the female ranges is a legitimate musical practice. Nobody wants to hear a sweaty dude sing “Ever Dream” any more than he wants to hear “Carmen” performed by a male singer.
Affirmative Action Metal
No, what most irritates me is the unnamed, unspoken, and yet painfully obvious tendency to keep a girl in the band even when specifically female talents aren’t called for. For the reasons I outlined above regarding female scarcity, I call this “Affirmative Action Metal.”
A band must fulfill one simple criterion to qualify for this designation: replace a female in a unisex lineup slot with another female.
Finland’s war-painted folk metal heroes are among the less egregious offenders, but their international prominence earns them a close look.
Debut album “Ensiferum”  featured guest keyboards by Henri Sorvali (Finntroll, Moonsorrow), after which the band hired a full-time keyboardist: Meiju Enho. She happened to be a girl (sidebar: Enho has also filled in for Sorvali on tour with Finntroll).
So far, so good… so what? Equal opportunity for equal talent, and all that. No problem. But after “Victory Songs,”  Enho quit, citing personal reasons. For the following album “From Afar,”  the band replaced her with Emmi Silvennoinen. Say that name five times quickly.
Silvennoinen, too, is female. She’s also sometimes hard to tell apart from Enho.
Both ladies were and are talented, no doubt. And to the band’s credit, Silvennoinen also contributes her female backing vocals to Ensiferum’s signature full-gang singalong choruses. Nonetheless, I can’t help but detect a shred of calculated branding in that lineup change.
However, Ensiferum’s is relatively innocuous compared to the following case, which borders on the downright cynical.
Winds Of Plague
Ah, deathcore. That ugly inbred lovechild of single mom death metal and deadbeat dad metalcore. With so much tough-guy bravado and mosh-friendly noise, how could a band resist juxtaposing a petite female presence with their image?
Southern California “wiggercore” practitioners Winds Of Plague debuted with an all-male lineup on “Decimate The Weak.”  Shortly after the album’s release, keyboardist Matt Fineman bid adieu, and into his slot stepped the sultry and heavily tattooed model Kristen Randall.
Again, so far, no problem. Katrin Ball, keyboardist for German melodic death metal band Adjust The Sun, rightly told me, “Sometimes the girl is just there for musical reasons, as it is with my band, or at least I hope so! She joined the band simply because she was able to play the required instrument. She adds her part to the music and if she’s ‘eye candy’ too, then all the better!”
But when Randall appeared in the 2009 “Girls Of Century Media” calendar – which included Maria Brink of In This Moment, a fair indicator of the content – I knew there was no going back. A role had been established.
After recording “The Great Stone War,”  Randall quit. Before discovering Alana Potocnik as her permanent replacement, Winds Of Plague toured Australia and New Zealand with… multi-instrumentalist Lisa Marx! (ex-Kittie) That’s TWO chicks filling Randall’s shoes!
Winds Of Plague’s distinction as one of a rare few “symphonic deathcore” bands comes with an even narrower qualifier: they have an interchangeable female mascot.
So does Coal Chamber, also of Southern California. Once the oddball darling of the early Ozzfest generation, the band’s relevance has resurged recently, thanks to a live reunion (plus a potential upcoming album) and, of course, to the prominence of frontman Dez Fafara, who made his undisputable mark with DevilDriver following Coal Chamber’s initial 2002 breakup.
A true product of the ‘90s, Coal Chamber in their heyday were innocent of any sexist trend-mongering, for quite simply, those trends barely existed in metal back then. Original bassist Rayna Foss played on all three studio albums: “Coal Chamber,”  “Chamber Music,”  and “Dark Days.”  At the height of the nu-metal craze, Foss became a curious novelty in the scene, being one of a tiny minority of American female metal instrumentalists.
Predictably, however, it was this very novelty that compelled the band to replace Foss with the fiery-haired Nadja Peulen after the former recorded her “Dark Days” bass parts and called it quits. On a purely superficial level, some fans (all right, all right, that included me) might’ve called this an upgrade. To my inner critic, it was the calculated christening of yet another mascot.
Peulen’s initial tenure didn’t last long, because neither did the band. But after nearly a decade, popular demand brought Coal Chamber back to life, and to Soundwave 2011.
Why is Australia always stuck with the fill-ins? The bassist recruited for Soundwave was one Chela Rhea Harper of Ontario, Canada.
Like Winds Of Plague, that’s three – count ‘em, THREE – consecutive female musicians in a unisex role (and that’s before Peulen returned permanently), but Coal Chamber takes the cake due to the time lapse before the reunion featuring Harper. When that occurred, the agreement was unspoken and intrinsically understood – “Yeah, we’re that band of dudes with a chick bassist. Any chick bassists want to play with us?”
The Ladies Speak
Are the above-mentioned women posers, like the attention-whoring selfie types? Of course not. They wouldn’t be playing and persevering in metal bands if they didn’t love the music.
But their presence is undoubtedly exploited for the same reasons: guys want to look at them. Through no direct fault of their own, they become a musical extension of the fabled Internet “spokesmodel.”
Adjust The Sun’s Katrin Ball offers an additional explanation for the trend: “It shows that the male musicians are not ‘that bad,’ that they’re not just disgusting metal guys… This might bring them more fans that would otherwise be scared of them.”
Both cases blur the line between genuine talent and window dressing, which can be a constant source of frustration, both for dedicated female metal musicians and diehard female metal fans – an issue the charitable Ball admits.
“I consider myself a musician,” says the admittedly lovely keyboardist, “Not a model that’s only there because the other guys are hairy monsters who feel they need to add something beautiful that looks good in a corset to their promotion pictures.
“But I am aware that the metal scene is a very visual one. It deals a lot with iconography and symbols and therefore needs to stick to a certain visual code in order to be accepted.”
That visual code has, for better or worse, expanded to include women more than ever before. Marta Svetek notes: “On some level, the perception of women being used as eye candy can also be a kneejerk reaction to the fact that many dynamics are changing and women are becoming a much more common sight onstage, rather than just the girlfriend of the metalhead.”
Like Ball, Svetek strives for a balanced, realistic view. “If the talent is there, the gender of the member filling a specific role is of no consequence to me. But when the member is purely there as eye candy, usually the dynamic is off. I have a specific peeve with angsty or simpering girly-girls onstage. If they can deliver and look hot, great, but if they’re just there to look pretty and not do shit, then it’s a petty practice that both the guys and the girl should be ashamed to participate in.”
Are Ensiferum, Winds Of Plague, and Coal Chamber – to name but a few prominent examples – truly guilty of such practices? Talent of their respective female members notwithstanding, what weighs more heavily on the scale? Chops or hots? Have I been too harsh?
After all, Ball reminds us, “Some instruments are more often played by girls, like the piano and synths in my case.” This applies to two-thirds of the bands I’ve examined. “As a result, the ‘front row’ onstage is usually filled by male musicians, whereas women stay in the background… Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sexism.”
On the other hand, my anonymous female source, a cellist, speaks out: “Of the two bands I’ve been in, I left both for one reason or another. Both times I was replaced with another female. I’d love to give my cohorts the benefit of the doubt and say that cellists are typically going to be women or that they had slim pickings, but I know this to be untrue.
“After I left, I was personally contacted by a male cellist looking for a recommendation for an audition. I honestly don’t think they even entertained the idea and eventually filled the spot with a female cellist… [The trend] hadn’t occurred to me until you brought it up, and now, of course, I kind of want all those guys to go jump off a bridge.
“I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy the favor being the ‘chick’ in the band afforded. I got my fair share of free drinks, and used my womanly prowess to get gigs and make great contacts. And to be totally truthful, I do think it helped us sell merchandise, and brought other residual benefits.
“All in all, I think every band out there is going to do whatever works well for them to become noticed. I truly believe the music industry is the toughest industry in the world, and I cannot shame a band for doing whatever they think it takes to make it.
“However, I also feel the sting of maybe not being respected as a musician and being used as a marketing tool. I can see both sides of the issue. It can be an annoying thing to watch people do, but I can also empathize with why they do it.”
Amid the swirl of opinions, three things are for certain:
1. Metal will continue to be, by and large, a sausage fest for the forseeable future.
2. Female posers will continue to take advantage of the sausage bounty – emotionally, sexually, or financially.
3. Female musicians will continue to battle their way uphill.
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