The history of women in metal was, until fairly recently, pretty depressing stuff. For young women first getting into the metal scene, it often seemed as if the only available roles were as a groupie, video vixen, or glammed-up figurehead vocalist — no musical contribution required. Even in the rare cases where women did show up in bands, the bands in question tended to be the kind that no one really took very seriously. Think Vixen — big hair, poppy choruses, and no musical talent of any kind — ridiculous even by hair-metal standards. If you didn’t want to take that route, the only other option was to adopt a rather butch, deliberately non-sexual persona and try to blend in with the male metalheads. The concept of being a strong woman who wasn’t trying to hide the fact that she was a woman? Heresy.
A few pioneers like Germany’s Doro Pesch tried to make their mark, and they were very visible precisely because there were so few of them. But in general, metal as a genre plowed right through the era in which the Riot Grrrl movement was making its mark on punk and pop culture and bands such as Hole and the Breeders were all over MTV with barely a ripple in its smoothly sexist surface.
But things are gradually starting to look up for women in metal. Not only are instrumentalists like Wata from the Japanese band Boris or Doris Yeh from the Taiwanese band Chthonic starting to stake their places in the scene, but there are now a number of strong, credible female vocalists like Ludicra’s Laurie Sue Shanaman and Angela Gossow.
Consider Gossow of the Swedish band Arch Enemy, which is currently touring in support of The Root of All Evil. Gossow is no perky, skimpily dressed front woman trying to market metal in a way that’s palatable to the masses. Arch Enemy is a heavy band — “Iron Maiden meets death metal” — and Gossow’s singing style is more screaming and growling than cute sing-along choruses. She stubbornly refuses to assume the role of either a de-sexualized and invisible female metalhead or what she scornfully refers to as the “soap the car in the background” video prop.
One of the first things that jumps out at you about Arch Enemy, and one of the reasons that its approach to integrating women into metal is different, is that in its case it’s Gossow herself who’s steering the ship. Arch Enemy formed in 1996, and Gossow replaced original vocalist Johan Liiva in 2000. She took over as manager in 2008, a smart move given her background in business (she has a degree in economics and used to be the advertising and marketing manager for a large company). Arch Enemy’s success is a perfect example of what happens when someone in a creative field uses the business skills that they acquired in the mainstream world of employment to give them more control over the work that they do as an artist. This isn’t unique to Arch Enemy. As the old business model starts to break down, more and more bands are taking control of their own careers.
If you’re a woman in metal who wants to be taken seriously, Gossow believes it all starts with controlling your own image. This can be a challenge when a record label and a female artist don’t see eye to eye. Gossow once ended up on Revolver‘s “Hottest Chicks of Metal” list because her label submitted her picture. Even though she said she didn’t want them to do it and “fucking hated it,” sometimes there’s not much an artist can do to prevent it. Arch Enemy’s approach may well be the way forward for women who want to be taken seriously as artists. Since the band has a licensing deal but not a record deal, labels and media outlets can only work with what the band gives them, thus ensuring a much higher degree of control over how they’re portrayed.
Then there’s the media to contend with. Gossow says the most obnoxious questions always come from the press in the United Kingdom. “Questions about backstage orgies” pretty much sums up the general tone of things, she said in a recent interview at the beginning of the band’s US tour. But much as there may be pressure to go in this direction, she suggests that it’s probably not a good idea in the long run. “If you’re just seen as a hot chick, no one’s going to listen to your drumming or your guitar playing or your singing,” she said. So whenever possible, Gossow attempts to steer things back in the right direction by noting, “we have an album out, I’d like to talk about the music instead.” The problem is that whether women in metal are presented as essentially just eye candy isn’t entirely up to them. Gossow says there’s always pressure from record companies for female rockers to sex up their image, and that she understands why young women just getting into the business might find it tempting to do so. “You’re so young and a bit insecure maybe and it works so well for the band, but you sacrifice your own integrity,” she said.
It’s a refreshing thing, seeing a woman in metal forge her own path. It takes a lot of guts to even try it, and there’s no question that there’s some backlash. “We get a lot of hate from guys because they’re very afraid of this,” Gossow said. “They hate it that women take over, and I’m the boss in Arch Enemy.”
Talk to almost any woman in metal and a clear pattern starts to emerge — the desire to be taken more seriously, a refusal to buy into the idea that they still need to sex themselves up in order to find their place in the scene. While talking to male metal musicians — and, indeed, male musicians in general — often leaves you with the sense that many originally got into bands partly to get more attention from girls, the women are a different matter. Being a woman in a metal band is such an uphill struggle that you just don’t do it unless you really, truly love the music.
Gossow was born in Cologne, Germany, but now lives in Sweden, where Arch Enemy is based. In fact, taking a look at the list of women in metal, it’s no surprise that Germany and Scandinavia are well represented. Most of the more successful female metal musicians are based in areas that are historically liberal, progressive and unusually female friendly in general. For instance, Laurie Sue Shanaman of the local black metal outfit Ludicra agrees that it helps to be based in an area that’s progressive and woman-friendly. Nonetheless, even she admits that it’s a little scary as you get older, knowing that you have no real safety net, and she works days as a social work caseworker in order to pay the rent.
Gossow’s advice to would-be women rockers? “Make sure you’re a good musician and you have confidence in what you do, and think well about how you want to be seen first.” Smart words for women in the metal scene, and ones that more and more female musicians seem to be taking onboard.