There are 26 bands, 114 dudes and one woman performing at this year's Ozzfest, the annual headbangers' bacchanalia where the queasy mix of Coors and Coppertone often feels like one prolonged Maalox moment. Amid all the tanning lotion and testosterone, Otep is the lone woman.
"It's like being a diaper attached to the very active ass of a very gluttonous baby," says Otep, who fronts a band of the same name, of the machismo-mad Ozzfest experience.
"At the last Connecticut show, we were having this great response. We were having some of the most violent pits of the day, but at the same time, in between our songs, some asshole screams for me to show my tits," Otep recalls. "I said, That's not what I'm up here for. Show me some goddamn respect.' Then I see the entire pit has moved towards this guy."
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But even without the occasional buffoon acting up, the struggle for respect amid the sun and suds of Ozzfest is never-ending.
"Here I am, defending myself as a woman and an artist, and I look out at the crowd as soon as our set's over, and there's some girl on top of someone's shoulders, and she's flashing the guys," Otep sighs. "Sometimes, it's almost like I'm fighting a losing battle."
On a variety of levels. As one of the acts on the Ozzfest second stage, where bands rotate on a daily basis, Otep can find herself performing as early as 9 a.m., right about the time when mainstage drunkard Zakk Wylde is belching himself to sleep. This, combined with abbreviated set lengths, constantly fluctuating performance times and a costly pay-to-play price system that runs a reported $75,000, can make playing the second stage kind of like rock 'n' roll boot camp.
"It's definitely a fuckin' stress situation," says Tomas Haake, drummer for progressive Swedish thrashers Meshuggah, a headliner on the second stage. "They took away the third stage, and what they did was take the more known bands from there and move them up to the second stage. They start playing at nine o'clock in the morning, and they have five-minute set changes. With the three last bands -- us, Hatebreed, and Down -- we have a whole 10-minute set change. Every band sounds like shit the first song, because there's no sound checks or anything in between; you just get up and play. Sound engineers rip their hair out."
So what's the payoff? Well, for up-and-coming metal bands, few outlets have broken acts as reliably as Ozzfest, which seems to introduce at least one band per year to stardom. During Ozzfest's first nationwide run in 1997, that band was Coal Chamber, whose stint on the tour paved the way for a gold-selling debut. The following year, both Slipknot and System of a Down used the second stage to jump-start their careers and become two of the biggest acts in metal. This past summer, it was rowdy Texans Drowning Pool that most benefited from the Ozzfest side stage, as the band's unhinged, show-stealing performances helped score a platinum record and garnered the group a slot on the main stage this year. That opportunity was cut short earlier this month, when front man Dave Williams was found dead in the band's tour bus on the way to an Ozzfest stop in Bristow, Virginia. Tommy Lee has stepped in to fill Drowning Pool's main-stage slot.
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This year, Otep and Meshuggah are two of the strongest contenders to join Ozzfest's magna cum laude graduates. And both are following a similarly unorthodox route to get there. For Meshuggah, this means marrying head-spinning, arrhythmic time signatures and clawing, eight-string guitars with a staggering technical prowess that's apt to leave longhairs scratching their heads as much as banging them. The band's latest, the recently released Nothing, grounds Meshuggah's dizzying virtuosity in more digestible song structures, making the music slightly easier to grasp.
Otep is comparably heady. Her name is an anagram for "poet," and the title of her band's debut, Sevas Tra, is "art saves" spelled backward. As might be expected, Otep infuses her music with both literary and visual flair, incorporating the pitch-black prose of Baudelaire and Rimbaud into her lyrics, and dressing it all up in eye-popping packaging as carefully thought-out as the music itself. With Otep's guttural growl -- which sounds like a mama grizzly defending an imperiled cub -- and abstruse themes colliding with buzz-saw guitars and a meat-eating rhythm section, the result comes off sounding something like Sylvia Plath fronting a death-metal band.
"People aren't stupid," Otep says. "They want to learn, and they want to feel. They're hungry, especially to defy what the mainstream is telling them is art or who they're supposed to be. People want to go beyond that; they just don't know how to do it. I think art, or being creative, can do that. If you go to our Web site, you'll see kids who are listening to Cannibal Corpse are writing poetry."
Be on the lookout, then, for the guy trying to think of words that rhyme with "entrails" during Otep's set -- we suggest "severed puppy tails." Indeed, this year's Ozzfest throngs have the potential to be more colorful than ever, what with the crossover success of MTV's The Osbournes, which has introduced Ozzy to a whole new audience, including queens, presidents and soccer moms. Still, you're more likely to see black jeans, black shirts and heavy makeup than families with picnic baskets. We can still thank God, or Ozzy, for that one.