written by Holly Frances Royle
Heavy metal is encompassed by the understanding that it is ‘masculine’. The metal scene, and music industry in general, is certainly male dominated and men have typically been the primary producers and consumers of metal. It’s important to note that women have always been present in the metal scene even if they have been in the minority of fans and musicians. Over recent years we have begun to see more and more women musicians, producers, songwriters, and fans in metal. All areas of the industry are seeing greater gender equality, however, there is still significant progress to be made.
The term ‘female-fronted metal’ became used more widely across the scene over a decade ago. The phrase is not innately negative – it began as a means to promote the inclusion of women in metal, notably women performing in metal bands. Over recent years the term has faced rising backlash from women across the metal subculture and there are a number of reasons for this. While in previous years the label gave a sense of empowerment to women in metal by acknowledging and celebrating their presence, it now has come to gain a sense of ‘othering’. Stating the gender of one or more band members on the basis that they are women is unnecessary when the focus should be on their talents and the music they create. Female-Fronted as a term places the gender of the artists described above anything else, suggesting that male is the ‘default’ and therefore women need to be specified as being somewhat out of place. An element of tokenism is introduced by highlighting something, in this case gender, that isn’t and shouldn’t be relevant from the perspective of the music.
Many music fans and industry organisations such as marketing agencies or record labels use the term because they prefer the sound of female vocals and want a ‘suitable’ search term for this. Generally speaking, there are particular registers and vocal ranges women vocalists perform but this phrase doesn’t encompass the full spectrum of vocal styles. Placing bands with female vocalists who perform harsh vocals alongside those who perform opera does not assist in categorising music.Female-fronted is not a genre – it cannot fully encompass all of the musical genres, styles, nuances etc., of women in metal bands. It fails as a musical genre tag succeeding only in classifying musicians based on their gender. Observing the metal genre and subgenre labels it is clear that there is no standard criterion for defining a genre. As many musicologists, notably Robert Walser and Allan Moore, have debated defining musical genre in general is not an easy task for the intricacies of musical elements, styles, aesthetics, themes, origins etc., do not provide hard and fast boundaries. Genre is fluid, in a state of flux and is continuously evolving. This can be seen through the numerous subgenres that have been born through combining numerous pre-existing genres in metal.
The persistent use of female-fronted as a genre label appears to be socially driven. The term has become ‘accepted’ by so many fans and across the industry that it is partially ingrained among other taxonomies in metal. Because it has become so widely used to suddenly remove the phrase would be difficult. Wider social expectations of gender also have some influence. Traditional gender roles and social norms still remain prevalent in mainstream society – we are all subjected to the heteronormative, white, Westernised patriarchal forces of this culture we live in. Despite metal being an alternative subculture that in many ways is removed from the mainstream and its ideals, it is impossible to fully separate from the culture we have been brought up in.
These problematic aspects of the term may suggest therefore, that to remove its use entirely is the best course of action. But, as mentioned above that would not be easy to carry out. Further issues to this also need to be considered. While ceasing to define women musicians by their gender and focus on their music is something to strive for, there is the risk that by removing the term the issues surrounding gender equality in metal may become invisible. Experiences of gender inequality may be more easily glossed over with the assumption that because the gender of the musicians is not being widely discussed, any issues have been resolved. Changing language use does not equate to changing social behaviours. We need to find a way to recognise and celebrate diversity across all aspects of the metal scene without stereotyping and othering.
References & Recommended Reading:
- Chapstick, Kelsey, ‘Why It’s Important to Stop Using “Female-Fronted” as a Metal Genre Right Now’, Metal Sucks(2018) <https://www.metalsucks.net/2018/02/07/why-its-important-to-stop-using-female-fronted-as-a-metal-genre-right-now/> [accessed 16th September 2021]
- Connell, R. W., Masculinities, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)
- Franklin, Dan, Heavy How Metal Changes the Way We See the World (London: Constable, 2020)
- Lachmann, Renate, Raoul Eshelman and Marc Davis, ‘Bakhtin and Carnival: Culture as Counter-Culture’, Cultural Critique 11 (1988-9), 115-152 < https://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1354246>
- Moore, Allan F., ‘Issues of style, genre and idiolect in rock’, <http://www.allanfmoore.org.uk/questionstyle.pdf> [accessed 18th August 2021]
- Walser, Robert, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press: 2014)
- Weinstein, Deena, Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture (Boston, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2000)
Holly Royle is a musician and composer from the UK. She is currently a member of the experimental metal band Disconnected Souls and darkwave/ gothic project Sensory Enigma. Holly is a music journalist and works in music PR specialising in the heavier genres, and is currently studying for a PhD researching gender in metal at the University of Chester.