Why It’s Important to Stop Using “Female-Fronted” as a Metal Genre Right Now
When Vince first approached me to do this editorial, I felt such a swell of pride. Here I am, three years into my tenure at the MS Mansion, and these dweebs are finally learning that if you want an opinion on a women’s issue, ask a fucking woman. Jokes aside, it’s been really nice to watch people learn and grow from the omnipresence discussion surrounding equality and progress happening right now across the board and, for me and my colleagues, in the music industry. With that in mind, it’s time to retire the phrase “female-fronted” when discussing bands.
I’ve waffled back and forth on whether this was a big enough issue to warrant an entire piece when so many women have aptly addressed it in Twitter threads and brief Facebook updates, but sometimes different perspectives are valuable and repetition is key. I am a woman in a band myself, so when I’ve found my bands categorized as “girl bands” it’s irritated me in the past because it’s lazy, reductive, and has absolutely nothing to do with the music I make, which is as valid as the music men make and should be treated as such. The biggest difference I’ve found between my playing and men who plays drums is the men doing so haven’t been kicked out of multiple bands for refusing to fuck another member, saying “no” to Craigslist requests from potential bandmates for headshots, or giving a big “fuck you” to men who say things like, “Oh, so you’re like a *hot* drummer, huh?” I’ve played music since I was nine years old, so 22 years of hearing my gender come before my ability has worn me down a bit on this topic.
So why is “female-fronted” so irritating? For starters, it’s tone deaf. When communicating anything, the number one rule is to know your audience. The excuse I sometimes hear from publicists — “I get more opens on my PR emails when I mention the singer’s a woman” — is… not great. If this is the truth — and I truly do not think it is — why not be an agent of change? Why not shoot for quality coverage over quantity? By using this excuse to appeal to the lowest and least progressive denominator, you are using your position to reinforce a culture of stagnation. I assure you if the writers you’re pitching are worth a damn, they will want to actually listen to the music, not slap together a scripted review based on their notions of what a woman singing heavy music should sound like. This doesn’t only work when addressing politically progressive situations either; even conservative writers should know better than to shit out something lackluster based on generalizations and formulaic analysis.
This is an oft-repeated adage that bears endless reminding: female-fronted is not a genre. We all have preferred genres, so if you’re selling me on a death metal band because you know I like death metal, tell me “this is a cool death metal album and it sounds like…” and I’ll be ten more times likely to care if I can recognize the thing you’re pitching to me is going to be in line with my tastes rather than my gender.
Symphonic power metal bands like Nightwish and Epica seem to bear the brunt of this type of casual sexism in metal. While it’s in no way my area of expertise, I’m often perplexed at the folks who praise bands like Sabaton, Kamelot, or Stratovarius but call bands in vaguely similar veins corny. It’s all theatrical and over-the-top, so the thinly veiled sexism that divides fans by calling that type of metal “female-fronted” seems preposterous.
Floor Jansen of Nightwish elaborated on this subject back in 2015 in an interview with Metal Nation Radio [via Blabbermouth]:
“There seems to sometimes be an entire genre called ‘female-fronted metal.’ ‘Oh, so you’re in a female-fronted metal band?’ ‘Oh, yeah? Am I?’ What on earth does that say? Because then Revamp [Floor’s side project] is a female-fronted metal band, and so is Nightwish. But those bands don’t sound alike at all. Arch Enemy is a female-fronted metal band, but so is Delain. They don’t sound alike at all. The only thing they both are are metal bands, but the style within metal is so massively different that it doesn’t really say much whether there’s a girl singing or not. So it’s really not so important. Plus, to emphasize the difference in sex between men and women, I think we’ve had that time by now.”
Do you ever refer to bands as “male-fronted” or are those Just Bands to you? I’ve talked about the concept of centering in other editorials, and it’s important here as well; it’s downright disrespectful to keep using language that dismisses women as latecomers to the scene. We’re not just trying on the “musician” label for fun: we created your fucking music. Women and non-binary people have been making music since music’s been made. Who invented rock ’n’ roll and by extension heavy metal? None other than Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a black woman from Arkansas who moved to New York City in 1938 and turned music on its head with her Carnegie Hall performance, blending gospel with swing to form the foundation of what we now know as rock. Her 1944 hit “Strange Things Happening” is credited as the first rock ’n’ roll song, and she once pulled Little Richard on stage to give what would be his first performance outside of a church.
Skip ahead a generation and whole lot of whitewashing and machismo, and you get Jinx Dawson singing about witchcraft and Satan over progenitive heavy metal with her band Coven. People tend to credit Black Sabbath’s debut as the first metal album, but I’ve often wondered why it’s less frequently mentioned that it came out a full year after the release of Coven’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, which sounds pretty fucking metal to me and has a lead track titled “Black Sabbath.”
Move down the line when popular rock became the bloated corpse of its heyday, and who was right there alongside The Ramones and The Sex Pistols at the birth of punk rock? Women: ideologically, musically, and yes, aesthetically, women were central to the punk movement. I give a lot of credit to almost all the punks I know even today for recognizing and celebrating this fact. Mainstream rock and metalheads could really learn to take some cues from our three-chord comrades when it comes to coughing up praise for the likes of Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Lydia Lunch, Chrissie Hynde, and countless others. In one of her most famous quotes, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth sums up a very punk attitude about women’s role in antiestablishment music:
“Women make natural anarchists and revolutionaries because they’ve always been second-class citizens, kinda having had to claw their way up. I mean, who made up all the rules in the culture? Men—white male corporate society. So why wouldn’t a woman want to rebel against that?”
No discussion of metal over the last few decades can exclude the inherent ties to the industrial scene, which you guessed it, owes a lot to the work of a non-binary person person: Genesis P-Orridge. Formed in 1976, P-Orridge’s band Throbbing Gristle is widely considered to be one of the first industrial bands (alongside contemporaries Cabaret Voltaire) who created the term itself with the birth of their label Industrial Records.
Women’s contributions to metal need no history lesson here; many writers on this site and others have screamed those names for years because representation matters, and the list of women in bands is longer than I care to type out. Would you look Doro Pesch in the face and tell her Warlock are a girl band? I doubt it. Do you think Lita Ford’s innate shredding abilities should be categorized by her pronoun? Nah. It’s tired and boring to keep perpetuating this archaic classification of bands simply by who fronts them or otherwise creates music within.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal to most men because they don’t experience the same otherness the rest of us do; they’ve always assumed their place at the head of the table and chuckled when others protested that as some God-given right. I’ve found myself screaming to be heard by the most kind, understanding, and empathetic men in my life about this, a seemingly small issue in a world where larger aggressions happen with stunningly regularity. It’s important, though, and each time we are quietly reminded of our place in the food chain as secondary, it’s a grain of salt in the wounds inflicted by a society stacked against us. Eventually the little stings become a heap of pain, so understanding and adjusting your behavior as men is the only way to undo the decades of dismissal we’ve experienced.
So, for the love of everything fucking holy, erase “female-fronted” from your vocabulary.