Fifty years ago, women's role in heavy metal was mostly a lyrical focal point — a heartbreaking vixen, fantasy figure, groupie. Now, it's commonplace that women not only frequent the stage, but work as tour managers, sound and light techs, promoters, publicists, booking agents, managers, and more — all in the name of heavy metal.
Metal is a male-dominated genre. But women are more visible than ever, and it's no longer uncommon to see women playing in metal bands. We've come a long way. So shouldn't strong females making waves in metal and changing the genre's path with their writing, talent, and diverse backgrounds be celebrated?
Yes and no. I'm a female journalist, and I frequently ask women about what it's like to be a woman in the music industry. But where's the line between having a conversation about a controversial topic, and realizing that you, yourself, may be making the problem worse by approaching these women as female musicians instead of just plain ol' musicians? When should gender ever be the focal point of the story?
What's something that is worth celebrating? New music, and bands that make metal stronger as a whole.
I recently interviewed three metal mavens, who made these points to me and more. I'm referring to Cristina Scabbia, who has been making waves on the scene for 20 years with Lacuna Coil, and Butcher Babies' Carla Harvey and Heidi Shepherd.
We sat down with Scabbia, Harvey, and Shepherd to talk about new music and songwriting styles from both of the bands in 2016 — and how journalists (like myself) might be the ones perpetuating the focus on gender in metal.
New Times: Cristina, how have you seen women's role in music evolve since the early '90s?
Cristina Scabbia: See, in Europe when we started [more than 20 years ago], it was common to have women in the lineup. So when we started to tour the U.S., it was very weird for me to see that it was a new thing. I always found it weird because I never looked at myself as a woman in a male-dominated scene. I just looked at myself as a singer in a band; I was one of the guys. So I never felt this pressure; I mean, I've always been asked, "Have you ever met any prejudice because you were a woman?" And if I did, I probably didn't care. But I do see a lot more women at the shows as well as in bands now. Music has no sex.
Heidi Shepherd: With more women in metal, you have more women in the crowds. They feel empowered by girls up there rocking out just as hard as the boys. To be a part of that is incredible.
Carla Harvey: Well, it is different in Europe. Even race-wise. They are light years ahead of us as far as many things. [Shepherd and I] both grew up loving metal and being the minority, for sure, in that feeling of being girls. When we first started, there was extreme backlash toward us.
Shepherd: [Canadian metal band] Kittie got the same thing. Some people want to see it, and others want absolutely nothing to do with it. As Cristina said, you just charge forward and kinda don't care. As the years go by, we're out there doing what we love. And the people we get to touch with our music — that's what matters. When it comes down to the gender-based thing, it's just like ... everyone is just … tired of it. Male versus female … it really should just be a singer in a band.
Scabbia: It's more stereotyping. When I've been asked about it, it's like … [sighs] ... us talking about it makes even more separation. There shouldn't even be questions like that.
Harvey: I feel like it's probably the most asked question. Every single interview, it always starts out "Well, how does it feel to be a woman in metal?"
I wanted to ask you three collectively about the power behind women in metal, not the stereotyping. But the influence that the mindset and style of a woman can provide. Showing how women bring that genre to the next level, and it's important to me.
Harvey: The thing is, people are curious, and that is okay. Women who love metal, like yourself, are curious as to what it would be to be in our shoes. I grew up as a kid in a pit as I'm sure the rest of us did. It was very male-dominated, and sometimes guys would look at you like, "A girl in the pit? Okay…" And now I see more girls leading the pit. But as sick as we are about the question, people want to read about it.
I feel like the real question is: What is it like to be a metal musician, period? To be a musician, on the road, separated from your home life, out here struggling. For me, it's this that's the bigger question over being a female musician.
What about things like Revolver's The Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock? That's focusing on gender, and all three of you participate in that. Do you feel like that sexualization hurts women in music? Or makes them feel empowered?
Scabbia: I was on the very first cover. It was the first time any woman was on the cover. Why is it offensive if a woman is feminine and showing her body? I always thought if it's her choice to go out fully naked, no one else is telling her to do it, do whatever the fuck you want. So that's being empowered by it. Plus, no one has ever said anything about guys using their sexuality. No one has ever said anything about Axl Rose in his Spandex, showing everything. It's always just been taboo for women. Flea can be rocking a banana hammock on stage and people think it's funny and awesome.
Heidi Shepherd: When we first came into this scene, I assumed it was like who's hot, who's not. But as time has gone on, I've realized that when someone is coming out with an album or doing something incredible at the moment and charging hard at their career, that's when they are on the chart. It's not about turning us against each other, because we have the common goal to make awesome music. That's how I see it — how I think we all see it.
So as musicians, you all have worked hard and established yourselves. You're living your dreams, but is it what you expected it to be? How's that balance with your life?
Harvey: It's never easy to leave the people you love behind. But learning how to be on the road is something we learned fairly quickly.
Shepherd: Well, I'm lucky because mine [boyfriend] is in the band. [Laughter] And that's very common in bands like us.
Harvey: I don't have that, so it's a completely different touring experience. My bandmates are my best friends, but you're still alone in a sense, and there's half of you that doesn't want to be there at all times. But if you love it, you do it. This is what I've wanted since I was 11 years old. You make sacrifices.
Scabbia: What's weird is when you're on tour, the perception of time is different than a normal person who has a regular job. Sometimes I'm on tour for four months, and it feels like I left two weeks ago. And I go home and there's a new building that went up, or a friend had a major life event. Things are changing and you aren't a part of it.
Shepherd: On our last album, "Thrown Away" is about that feeling. How when you leave and feel like life should stop at home — but it isn't that way. You lose relationships with your friends, and those precious moments you do get with your friends and family, you hold onto very strongly. I think for us one thing that has changed is the value of those relationships and the need to hold on tight to them. And we have learned how to be a family unit and make decisions as a band.