Rob Halford of Judas Priest, avec whip
Metal occupies a weird, liminal space. It is alternative, Other, different. It causes normies, especially of a conservative flush, to clutch their pearls, gnash their teeth and legislate stickers on album covers warning parents about the horrors inside, and scares Wal-Mart away from even selling some of them. It is difficult music – outsider music – an expression of anger at the way things are and an attempt to summon sufficient energy and rage to bring about tangible change. It is destructive and transformative, ugly and cleansing. It is the opposite of everything that is passive and simply pretty.
The live metal experience is also completely different from most other concerts. Sure, there might be something happening that looks like moshing at alt-rock or hard rock shows, jumping and shoving, and a few assholes who think that means they can punch and stomp people whenever they want. The metal pit is something ceremonial. There are rules and rituals, codes of conduct, strict guidelines about when and how you should come to someone’s aid, how to enter and leave. There are different types of pit activities: straight moshing, circle pits, hardcore flailing, walls of death.
This dance has evolved in tandem with incredibly loud, challenging music, and as such it is appropriately bloody. At this moment, I have a five-inch bruise yellowing on my inner thigh from a boy’s shoulder when I landed on him after someone threw me over several people, gleefully, during a Meshuggah concert two weeks ago. I’ve had split lips and bruises suspiciously identical in size and shape to a men’s size 11 combat boot. Once, an elbow smashed my glasses into my face hard enough that the edge of the lens cut into my eyebrow.
Metal is violent. To pretend otherwise, to try and smooth its edges for the uninitiated and closed-minded, does the genre a measurable disservice. But it is an orderly kind of violence, violence with rules and regulations, and a knowledgeable group of lifelong fans and practitioners who know those rules and will make that violence a joyful, glorious release.
Metal is consensual violence. When you start a track, you know that song is going to try to assault or break you, worm into your mind, come at you with a sledgehammer or a scalpel. Likewise, when you step into a pit (and you don’t have to – watching from a calm and responsible distance is acceptable at every show), you know that you and a bunch of other grinning, sweaty people are about to try hurt each other. There are moments in the music when the only response that seems remotely correct is to slam your body as hard as you can into someone else’s, to feel the impact in your bones and joints, to grab hold of each other and scream.
Consensual violence, in concept and practice, isn’t the only thing that heavy metal and BDSM have in common. Metal fashion is hugely influenced by BDSM culture. Rob Halford, for example, is pretty much responsible for the leather daddy image that fuses fetish wear and biker fashion, inspiring generations of fans with leather jackets and spiked gauntlets. He performed with a whip in hand and cracked it at the audience. Cuffs and collars, leather and spikes fill metal fashion, playing an important role in the culture.
So there is the look, there is the consensual violence, and there is the music itself. Metal often draws on BDSM themes for music, both historically and in the contemporary moment. Marduk released the EP Obedience in 2000; the title track is an ode to kinky sex, and the cover art features a bound woman, on a bondage horse, wearing rubber. Black metal band Carpathian Forest has a 1998 album titled Shining Black Leather, and includes a song straightforwardly called “Sadomasochistic.” Way back in 1988, Manowar released Kings of Metal, which contains the classic “Pleasure Slave.” These themes and ideas, tones and textures, have been a part of heavy metal since the genre’s inception.
Heavy metal, in practice and performance, understands consensual violence and the positivity, the joy, the release that it can bring. Heavy metal should understand and dovetail into BDSM perfectly – except, it doesn’t. There is a point at which the relationship breaks down, where the analogy ceases to work.
Last month, the metal blog Invisible Oranges ran a piece by Kelly Nelson, the bassist and vocalist of the band Embers, about her career as a professional dominatrix. She runs her own dungeon and hosts a series on BDSM workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area. The piece was an honest and illuminating look at what working as a pro domme entails, as well as how that work meshes with her musical career (she shares anonymous work stories with her bandmates; most clients don’t enjoy metal being played during a session, but some do). While she doesn’t think that the kink and metal scenes overlap very much, Nelson does point out a key intersection: “I’ve always enjoyed creating and harnessing intense energy through my music with Embers and through my profession. I’m easily bored with the mundane and have a strong craving for powerful experiences that will help to transform me on some level.”
Metal and BDSM are both intimate and transformative, violently intense. The comments on the piece, though, revealed a great deal of anxiety about kinky sexuality. Commenters admitted that they were “a little weirded out by this” and that they were “not entirely sold on the idea of BDSM being a completely cool thing.” More than one expressed being unsettled by the description of “a dude getting butthumped [sic].” Several commenters pointed out BDSM’s clear influence over metal’s fashions/look and much of its content, but the overall tone was one of squicked-out discomfort.
And this is where I go out on a limb a little bit and might get into some trouble. The reason for this anxiety, and the reason that the connections between metal and BDSM aren’t drawn more often and sharply (and why participants in both scenes don’t openly interact the way they do with goth music and industrial) is this: BDSM is all about power exchange and pansexuality, embracing different modes of being, and often subverting gender norms. Men and women are dominant and submissive with equal frequency, and any combination of orientations and preferences is accepted. Metal, on the other hand, is still primarily straight and male. When someone suggests that anything other than a male-dominant view of sexuality is exciting, many listeners become uncomfortable. This is not absolute, of course, but it is prevalent.
The consensual violence inherent in heavy metal, especially as manifested in the setting of a concert, performance or mosh pit, is a vanilla sort of violence, one deeply steeped in a male-dominant perspective. When metal fans enter the pit, it is to conquer it, to play king of the hill while pursuing an ecstatic release. Establishing dominance, jostling for the best position and clashing spiked shoulders the way that deer cross antlers, there’s no place for a submissive role. Even the act of listening, a profoundly receptive position, becomes a contest for dominance, as audiences respond by listening actively, taking back their agency through physical movement, including simply headbanging.
While there are many places where BDSM and heavy metal intersect, the essence of power exchange and the possibility of submission remain to be reconciled. The only way that submission currently finds a place in heavy metal is in the problematic portrayal of female sexuality in the iconography that dominates the genre, as well as the lyrics of the songs themselves. Every example of a track that deals with the BDSM themes listed above engages from the perspective of a man in the active, dominant role. This portrayal of sexuality is the straightest, most heteronormative and, frankly, hegemonic quality heavy metal embodies. While everything else about the music – the difficult sound, fashion and concert protocol – is driven by a determination to subvert cultural norms and celebrate the outsider perspective, when it comes to sex, especially kinky sex, metal remains stalwartly vanilla.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.