Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Death Metal: Grotesquery, fetish and misogyny

This is likely the most difficult article on metal I have written. Let me declare from the start that my position is definitely not impartial. I love the full spectrum of death metal aesthetics, musical, visual and thematic. From a young age, possibly due to the influence of intimate experience with the terror of mental illness in my family and in the broader community, I felt an affinity for the macabre. Horror stories, movies, album artwork had me in their thrall. I still cannot claim to fully understand this resonance although I do know that it helps me conceptualise and live with death as an integral part of living. On the other hand, there are certain trends within death metal, particularly a lingering misogyny which disturb me. To be completely rational, misogyny is certainly not confined to extreme metal, yet amid the violent, horrifying imagery, when it occurs, its effects are amplified.

What I mean by “amplification” is that misogynist violence occurring in death metal is both hyperreal and too real.

The former to me is where the thematic content exceeds itself, where it is so obviously extreme that the consciousness/reflexivity of its creation cannot be denied. In other words, it is a conceptual lexicon specifically designed to shock and disturb popular morals and raise ethical questions. In this way it becomes possible to argue that misogyny in death metal functions as a full realisation of misogyny as it is embedded, latent and executed in “normal” social and cultural communities. It says what cannot be said in polite company, it goes to the cognitive and emotional conclusions that can only be found in the darkest, unkempt depths of the mind and libido (as if the two are separate anyway).

When misogyny in death metal is evaluated out of context it can be considered too real. To victims of sexual violence and sexual abuse, there can be no doubt that implicit/explicit misogynist themes are traumatic and terrorise the viewer/listener in unintended and unpleasant ways. It functions as an echo of their experience, a repetition of trauma freely available as a result of freedom of artistic expression.

What I want to do in this article (indeed, it may well become a series, oh, is that my hibernating PhD being reconfigured as it hibernates?) is touch on the ways in which the disturbing sex(uality) practices of death metal can be unpacked as a visceral yet constructive force in confronting the intimate shitstorm that is sex, sexuality, power and violence. Before doing so, some clarification regarding death metal.

What is death metal about?

I have in the past discussed musicological elements and genre conventions of death metal. Now, however, I want to turn my attention to theme and concept.

There is no counter-argument, death metal is about the body. This statement, on reflection, is potentially redundant. After all, what music is not about the body? Music must be played and it must be heard for it to exist as such. Thus without bodies and without cognitive precedent there is no music. Meanwhile, death metal, arising as it does out of rock is a deliberate extension of the corporeal viscera initiated by the blues and later jazz. Though it has diverged somewhat from this lineage musicologically, thematically, it is as concerned with the body, pleasure and pain as its forebears ever were.

Take the lyrics of Skip James’ 1931 recording, “22-20” (later made famous as “32-20” by Robert Johnson):

If I send for my baby and she don't come
If I send for my baby and she don't come
All the doctors in Wisconsin, they won't help her none

And if she gets unruly and gets so she don't wanna do
My baby gets unruly and she don't wanna do
I'll take my .32-20, I'll cut her half in two

You're talkin' about your .44-40, buddy, it'll do very well
Talkin' about your .44-40, it'll do very well
But my .22-20, Lord, it's a burnin' hell

I had a .38 Special, buddy, it's most too light
Aw, that .38 Special, buddy, it's most too light
But my .22-20 make the caps alright

Entwined within these traditional blues refrains is a narrative of power, potency and sex. Disobedience is to be punished and death be that punishment. You got something to say? You think you’re a man? Then I’ll shoot you down too.

Although a world away from the extremely graphic lyrics that can be found on Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb of the Mutilated (and for that matter, most of their albums) such as in “Entrails ripped from a virgin’s cunt” the similarities are clear:

A relapse of my body
Sends my mind into multiple seizures
Psychologically a new human being
One that has never been

Cursed by the shamen
his voodoo spell has my soul
My limbs
go numb
I can't control my own thought
Are his now
his evil consuming me
ever telling me
begin the clit carving

Slowly turning me, into a flesh eating zombie
Knowing this spell can only be broken
by the vaginal skins of young women
I proceed to find the meat
their bleeding cunts will set me free
I can't control my own thought
I can't control my own thoughts
Warmth seeping from this
After I sucked the blood from her ass

I feel more alive
more alive than I've ever been
Even though now I'm dead within

My mouth drools
As I slice your perinium
My body smeared
With the guts I've extracted
through her hole, came swollen organs
cunnilingus with the mutilated

My spirit returned from the dead
Released by the priest
but I felt more real
when I was dead

The curse is broken
I have a dependence on vaginal skin
It's become my sexual addiction
I must slit, the twitching clit
Rotted cavity hold the juice

Between the legs, I love to carve
My cock is dripping with her blood

The knowingness of two sexually potent male protagonists revelling in damnation and taking pleasure in sexually deconstructing bodies even while separated by more than half a decade and a culture of sensationalised serial killers is the same. The vocabulary may differ according to era but the root is the same: sex and violence (or love and blood if your disposition is mild). In saying this, I am not attempting to normalise the extreme violence of the kind of sexual imaginary found in death metal. Rather, I am explicitly connecting it with a consistent and enduring theme throughout popular music of the late twentieth and early twentieth century popular musics.

It is important to remember, however, that death metal, in spite of any primitiveness attributed to it by those outside of the metal context, is not static. Certainly, there are a large number of bands who have taken the misogynist imagery of early Autopsy and Cannibal Corpse and continue to repeat it, almost verbatim. What is most interesting about this phenomenon is that many of these bands are made up of teenagers still coming to terms with the physicality of sexualities and the intertwined and inescapable power relations tied to gender and identity as they transition to adulthood. Cannibal Corpse, as genre leaders meanwhile, have largely moved on from overt misogyny. Indeed, their compositions (From Vile, through to this year’s Torture) after the departure of original vocalist Chris Barnes, feature lyrics in which explicitly female identified victims are almost completely absent. When female characters do appear in these later narratives they are as frequently protagonists capable of sexual and violent depravity as they are of being victims. This suggests that in spite of repeated assertions otherwise, death metal is not simply knuckle-dragging throwback music for bullies, and criminal psychopaths. Thematic evolution is far from universal, however, and questionable conceptual choices ranging from the misogyny identified above to homophobia still occur. What I wonder though is there a different way of viewing these conceptual events that goes beyond opposition through a politics of revulsion/disgust and moves instead toward creating a fuller more nuanced appreciation of the whole spectrum of human sexuality, power and death.

So, avenues for future exploration and discussion?

*Politics of disgust, perversion and revulsion

*Masculinity and non-hetero sexual representation

*Quantitative and qualitative review of female representation

*Extremity and excess

*Sex, power, violence(s)

Any readers out there with more ideas? Let me know in the comments.


The One True Street-Jammer said...

Alright, so first lemme just say, I think you should write for Invisible Oranges. This is Richard Street-Jammer, by the way, in case the name didn't make it obvious. I'm sometimes irreverent, but I do enjoy serious discussions about heavy metal that push outside of the music's confines.

Second, I've never been able to reconcile the amount of misogyny in death metal lyrics with the apparent reality that the lyric writers are well-adjusted human beings. We all fantasize, but the depth, the detail, and creativity to which the lyrics fantasize about such uncomfortable topics is unsettling to me. I'm caught between the rock and the hard place. I can see gore lyrics as mindless entertainment, but I demand more from heavy metal. If it's not mindless entertainment though, what does it say about those who write the lyrics and partake of them?

I'm with you in that I'd like to see the lens of gore lyrics be refocused on examining human behavior rather than mindlessly spinning out tired fantasies. Carcass and Exhumed are perhaps the best examples to me of smart gore lyrics. As an alternative to their approach, I think it would be interesting for someone to write an album that focuses on, say, the thoughts, challenges, terrors, violence, and shame that a pregnant rape victim is subject to.

An ex-girlfriend of mine lived with a family whose eldest daughter was transitioning to being their eldest son. Back in high school, I can think of a homosexual student who was terrorized by other male students whose violent behavior was sexually oriented. It's bizarre witnessing a 17 year old wrestler attempt to prove his heterosexuality by grabbing and squeezing a gay man's genitals. The irony was quite lost on the wrestler.

At any rate, please excuse my rambling. I enjoyed this article, and I think you should keep writing about this topic, but that you should do it for IO so that you receive more coverage. Even if you don't want us to post the whole thing, on at least one occasion, Cosmo did a partial post, and to finish the article, the reader had to click the link back to the author's blog. That would be a good compromise, I think.

I've had an article of a similar nature to what I've said above percolating on my hard drive. I expect that commenteriat will want to subject me to strappado, the pillory and the tripalium, but I feel it has to be said.

televiper said...

Death metal's tendency towards lyrical misogyny has always been a big issue for me. As much as I like Autopsy's music, their lyrics make me cringe and question why I even listen to them. Ditto early Cannibal Corpse. Like you, I find later CC to be less of an issue once they generalized their lyrical brutality but that early stuff is vicious in the wrong way.

I like death metal lyrics that interrogate body horror, the supernatural, and religious hypocrisy without stumbling into the abyss of childish gore or offensive misogyny. The more intellectual and capable the lyrics, the better but the music often trumps all for me: it's the blunt rhythmic meter that really draws me in and makes lyrics secondary (especially since they are difficult to decipher in the first place).