Guest blog: Sexism, tshirts and rock and roll – is heavy music sexist?

Hi, I’m Dave. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a huge fan of rock and metal music. I was making mixtapes of Metallica, Nirvana and Aerosmith when I was in primary school, have been going to see bands playing live since I was ten and currently play guitar in Birmingham band The Crimson Star.

As you’d probably expect from a guest author on this blog, I’m also a feminist, and I want to look at sexism in the music industry – specifically rock and metal music.

Looking at more mainstream genres, particularly pop and hip hop, you hardly have to break a sweat to find examples of sexist attitudes and the objectification of women as a means to sell records and, in many cases, gloss over a lack of talent – Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus spring to mind here. Even strong women in pop like Beyonce, who is an idol to other women and girls across the globe, forsakes doing much singing when she plays live in favour of prancing and writhing around in her underwear. Surely I wasn’t the only one who found those ‘legendary’ sets at Glastonbury and the Super Bowl in recent years to be really cringeworthy?

Anyway, I’m getting away from myself…as a fan of rock and metal, I’d never previously considered either genre to be sexist, especially when compared to those I’ve previously mentioned. One of the things I love about heavy music is the community of fans behind it, who bond over the music regardless of who is playing it and who is listening to it.

However, since becoming more aware of issues facing women in the modern world and supporting excellent campaigns such as the Everyday Sexism Project and No More Page 3, I’ve found myself thinking more often about women in my favourite type of music. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced there was something worth delving into further.

I reached the tipping point, all thanks to some tshirts – these tshirts produced by metalcore bands Emmure, Attila and I Declare War to be precise.

Attila-classy-shirt Emmure-offensive-tshirt I_Declare_War_tshirt

These are real pieces of band merchandise.

No, really.

Now, I’m by no means a prude and am not averse to the odd swear. I’m also not stupid; I know shock tactics always have been and always will be an effective form of marketing.

But, these shirts are so much more than some bad language on cloth – in fact, the swearing is almost a non-issue. Look instead at what these shirts are saying. They are hideously offensive, grossly immature and suggest that the heavy music scene holds an attitude towards women that, as an increasingly passionate feminist, I simply could not allow myself to be associated with.

Thankfully, this attitude is not something I have encountered in my experience of my musical scene of choice, but it reinvigorated my earlier musing and got my thinking…is heavy music sexist? Have I been kidding myself for all these years? Has the fact that I am a man pulled the wool over my eyes?

A quick look back at some of the megastars of this genre and the answer would be ‘yes’; whether it’s Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant commenting on how he will make a woman ‘sting’ because of the way she shakes ‘that thing’, the original artwork for Guns N Roses’ seminal debut album (which, if you weren’t aware, shows a brutally raped woman) or anything produced by Motley Crue.

While all of the above is important, an analysis of sexism and misogyny in classic rock is probably best left for another post on another day. But what of the current scene? How are things for women in rock and metal today?

The world of rock and metal is still largely a club for boys and, while the genre is still peppered with imagery and themes that objectify women, heavy music also suffers from a different form of sexism; the fact that women members of rock and metal bands are still often seen as remarkable and that if any women shows herself to have a shred of musical talent then it is hailed as especially unusual.

Instead of having their talent celebrated, successful women rockstars are still rare enough that many people only seem to be able to give them praise in the form of photo galleries of ‘the hottest chicks in rock and metal’ or similar, held up as something so unusual that they have to gawped at, when, shocking as it may be to read, they are actually just as talented as their male muso counterparts.

That, or if a woman handles the vocals then her band will get lumped into the dreaded ‘female- fronted’ genre, which is one of the most pointless I’ve ever heard of and one that reduces the woman to a mere adjective and nothing more. You never hear, say, Lamb of God being called a male-fronted metal band, but that often changes when you talk about Arch Enemy, despite the fact that, sonically, these two bands are certainly from a similar neighbourhood.

Then, you have the morons who constantly make you wonder if the Internet and social media are such a good thing after all.

Thanks to the sterling work of campaigns like the Everyday Sexism Project and No More Page 3, it is clear that the social web has opened up something of a floodgate for nasty sexism, and the disgraceful people (well, let’s be honest, men) who persist with this behaviour will target anyone. Respected academics? Check. Newsreaders? Check. Some of the greatest athletes we’ve ever seen Check. Women in bands? You bet.

Most bands making a name for themselves these days were born and developed online; it’s never been easier to connect with a band and break down the gap between fan and band member. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, this does mean that women in the music industry are being exposed to the idiots. If you don’t believe me, check this excellent/disturbing post by Lauren Mayberry from the band Chvrches. Or this one from Candy Hearts frontwoman Mariel Loveland.

Not very nice, are they? I know Chvrches are not a rock or metal band but that post was still worth sharing (and I don’t have the energy to get into a genre war right now) – no band member should be reduced to tears just by reading the inbox of their Facebook page.

I have no issues with people voicing their disliking of a band. I used to review bands for a national magazine and was proud to always write what I really thought. I really hated an awful lot of bands about whom I ended up having to scrabble together three paragraphs of copy. Whether it was poor production, out of key vocals, sloppy drumming or just plain old shitty songwriting, I didn’t hold back.

But…sexist idiots out there take note…these comments are all based on the band and their sound i.e. THE MUSIC. If I reviewed a band with a/many women amongst its number, did my reviews suddenly start commenting on the attractiveness of the band members, did I make an assumption that the women in the band were a gimmick to sell more records or did I suggest that sexual assault would be a suitable punishment for being a crap guitarist? No, of course not.

To be honest, the two should never even come anywhere near each other. What’s wrong with judging a band on its product, i.e. the music it makes? I’ve heard lots of great bands, I’ve heard lots of awful bands…why should the various gonosomes of the musicians make any difference?

While the articles I’ve linked to earlier make for sad reading, they also highlights the importance of speaking up. After all, social media and the internet haven’t just made it easier for fans to connect with/abuse bands, it’s also far easier for bands and individuals to fight back, which is something we all need to do to kick sexism out of rock and metal.

This is echoed by Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Paramore are right at the top of the rock tree at the moment. This summer they headline the Reading and Leeds Festivals, last year they released another critically acclaimed album and they are one of the most energetic, captivating and bloody brilliant live acts you will ever see. Not bad going is it? Especially for a band fronted by a girl. I mean, when you take the girl into account it’s even more amazing that they’ve been successful, right?

That was sarcasm by the way.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine last year, Williams had this to say:

“I remember playing North Star Bar [in Philadelphia] and this guy yelled “take off your shirt!” probably 10 times. It had happened a couple of times at this point but this guy was super aggressive about it. By the fifth or sixth time, I realized that I’m the one with the microphone. I’ve got power here. I don’t have to be quiet. Sometimes there’s strength in letting your actions speak for you, but in this moment I was like, “I don’t have to take this.” He said something again, I said something back and was just as consistent as he was, and then he stopped. But, by the end, I was just like, “I don’t like you. Get out,” and made some guy I knew get him out.

“I don’t think it’s all of the industry. It’s finding that voice within us and, for whatever reason, the climate right now feels a little more empowering. It’s like Sinead [O’Connor]’s letter talking about how men are going to make money off of us and all of the choices that we make. I do believe that. It’s always been that way and it’s time to start saying something. There’s enough women that are rad and have great points of view and great things to say who can start encouraging that in one another and the people who are coming to shows; instill something else in them that is not being told to them through society and magazine covers — tell them that having a voice and going against the grain is good.”

I love the attitude of this woman. This is an issue that needs to be talked about and women like Williams proving herself to be a role model and taking a stand will, I’m sure, make a huge difference for female musicians in the future. But what of the here and now?

For me, Paramore is a really interesting case study. Unless I’m missing something huge, they are not widely thought of as a ‘female fronted’ band. They are just a band. A really great band. Sure, their singer is a woman, but so what? Hayley Williams is one of the best vocalists in modern rock, her talent speaks for itself; I’d easily rate her among my top ten frontpeople in rock that I’ve ever seen perform. When I listen to Paramore, I don’t think ‘wow, this is a fine piece of female-fronted rock, I wonder if the singer is hot?’.  No. I think ‘wow, this band is great and this singer is awesome!’

So, if we can accept Paramore as just being a rock band, surely we can apply that across the board? Sadly, no. As we’ll discover later on, the further down the music industry ladder you go, the bigger a deal gender becomes.

However, there are still issues at the top of the rock and metal world right now that need to be dealt with if we are ever going to change the attitude towards women in rock and metal.

Look at the following bits of artwork for release by The Pretty Reckless and In This Moment, bands fronted by women singers.

inthismoment prettysexist

Aside from the obvious fact that this artwork yet again demeans and objectify women, putting them in a position where they are just there to look nice leaving the men of the genre to do the real stuff, for me as a music fan, these images are off-putting. These covers suggest, to me, that the music on them is not particularly good, and the only reason to buy them is to get the cheap thrill of slightly titillating artwork.

The saddest part of this is that there is absolutely no need for bands with women members to rely on a sexy photo to sell records – in fact, there’s no need for any rock or metal act to rely on sex to sell records. Don’t agree? I point you to Metallica’s Black Album, which has managed a mere 16million sales in the US alone. The cover? Erm, blackness…and a snake if you look close enough.

Nope, sexy photos are not necessary. Take Halestorm as an example. Here’s the cover of their most recent studio album.


Amazingly, despite not showing singer Lzzy Hale (a woman in case you hadn’t guessed) in any state of undress they managed to make a fantastic album and are currently one of the hottest hard rock bands out there – isn’t that incredible??

Of course, when bands get to such a level – be they great bands such as Paramore or Halestorm or lesser ones like The Pretty Reckless and In This Moment – it is probably a lot easier for them to detach themselves from any abuse. But what about at grassroots level?

For any band with women members trying to ‘make it’ the abuse is a lot more in your face, quite literally in many cases.

Birmingham band Kerosene Queen know all about this problem. Despite being a hugely talented and exciting unsigned band, they have faced abuse on and off stage, all because three quarters of the band are women.


“We receive the wrong sort of attention because we are female and lack the right sort of attention because we are female,” says vocalist Charly, “I’ve had a long time to think about this over the years fronting bands etc, and basically that is what it all boils down to – ‘female fronted’ is a selling point (which doesn’t always attract the nicest people) and it segregates women from music. The knock on effect from this is that, as a whole, women aren’t taken as seriously in music and we are left feeling like we are not truly part of it all.

“Female fronted’ is so widely used in rock music that it doesn’t even cross people’s minds that the term may actually be offensive. In this case it does help to turn the situation around to understand how it may be offensive, so for instance, “Hey look, that is so and so’s band… the male fronted band”, “So and so is playing tonight, come on down it is a male fronted band”…

“Of course and I’m sure many will agree, doesn’t ‘male fronted’ sound silly? What does being male have to do with anything? So that is why I ask – why doesn’t ‘female fronted’ sound silly?

“I don’t see how my anatomy and basically my sex determines how my band is introduced. Why does ‘female fronted’ HAVE to go in front of the band name on posters and flyers? It just simply isn’t needed.”

Bassist Lexi adds “Yeah, I completely agree with Charly, to me the term ‘Female Fronted’ is like putting a spotlight on the situation like they’re saying “Come see this rare act because wow isn’t it cute they’re trying to do what we do!” or ‘Come to this show because you can look at them”, if it is for neither of those reason, I really don’t see the need to put that there is women in a band. The whole thing is patronising.”

Sexism is clearly an ongoing struggle for Kerosene Queen, who recognise that attitudes towards them are a symptom of a real gender imbalance in modern rock music.

Charly continues, “Of course I’ve tried to think WHY women are introduced as ‘female fronted, female members etc’, and this is because women are scarce in rock music compared to men, there are less women in music in general.

“When I attend gigs with live music, there are less women on stage and in the crowd, when I go to a shop and flick my eyes over the magazine section, the music magazines are generally put in the ‘men’s section’ – and so it feels that people believe women don’t have a place in music, which of course we do, it is just very hard to find the recognition, and due to the lack of recognition, the emphasis on us being ‘female’ continues and it will still continue because of people’s attitudes and the language chosen to describe us.

“I don’t want the fact that I am female to be a selling point for the band, I would much rather people listened and thought ‘I like this band, they have a cool sound’ etc, than just like us and turn up to gigs because I and the other members have vaginas and/or we’re ‘not too bad on the eye’.”

Sadly, Kerosene Queen’s battle with sexism doesn’t end in the mind boggling world of genre classification; at one recent show they were abused by male members of the audience as they played.

Charly explains, “The most recent unfortunate event we experienced as a band was an incident where a few men in the audience shouted ‘get your tits out’ at us in retaliation to a song I introduced as ‘a song dedicated to women in music.’

“I wrote the lyrics in this song to express my analysis of women’s situation in music as discussed previously, and its a song to uplift women in music with a message to stay strong and that we’re in it together. It is motivational if anything.

“Anyway – Of course after hearing this remark from the audience I immediately shouted ‘f*ck off’ at them – I was quite mortified these people were even allowed to stay in the venue after we played! It is not acceptable behaviour and I was highly offended and felt very disrespected – again – all because there are women in the band attracting attention for the wrong reasons.”

Pretty shocking isn’t it? Well it doesn’t end there for Kerosene Queen. As if being abused on stage wasn’t enough, the band also has to deal with unwanted attention off stage as well as being consistently patronised.

Charly continues, “The over-emphasis of “You were absolutely brilliant, I’m shocked” (because we’re women) can also be slightly annoying at times… its a bit of a backwards compliment that people don’t realise is an actual backwards compliment.

“I’ve also noticed in the past from having a few male musicians in the band that other male bands tend to make conversation with the guy and not us, the rest of the female members – it is as if they believe that we don’t know what they are talking about or the fact we aren’t seen to be on the same ‘level’ as them to make conversation. It is bullsh*t. It is still that embedded assumption that the male musician know more about music and equipment and indicates a prevailing male atmosphere.

“Besides this, in the past in previous bands I have encountered comments such as “why are you in here?” (referring to a band room at the back of a stage), “Is your boyfriend playing?” and “come back stage you will do.” (Three guesses to what the last comment means!)

“Also, I don’t even want to mention the unwanted attention I have received when I am off stage men coming in to the dressing room to ‘meet me,’ buy me drinks, follow me around – not for the right reasons either! I’ve accepted a few drinks from some men I’ve had a good chat with, (believing they are genuine and just want a good night out) and when they find out I have a boyfriend they get stroppy with me and words are exchanged.

“I’ve even said to one guy, ‘You don’t buy your mate a drink to get in his pants, so why do it with me? Why can’t you buy someone a drink and not expect anything?’

“It is exhausting sometimes.”

Lexi adds, “From previous bands I’ve been in in which I was the only woman, I noticed a lot of promoters, photographers etc would walk past me and straight to the guys to speak ‘business’ with them, despite having watched us just play, and they wouldn’t realise until I walked unto them that over emails etc I was the one they had been arranging everything with because it was MY band.

Despite being the front woman, a lot of people automatically thought it must be the guys that ran the band, not me.

“I do think there is a slight vibe when you go to new places you haven’t played before and you’re playing to people who have never heard you, as a mostly female band people seem to expect you to be ‘alright’ and that’s it, so as Charly said, when we play a great show & we’re sweating our asses off from effort & performance, people speak to us in shock (unfortunately) that we were actually really good.”

Thankfully, Kerosene Queen are not letting the sexist idiots win. Instead, they are doing what they do best; rocking! And with each gig played, song recorded or new fan won, they are getting somewhere…even if their gender makes progress slow.

Charly says, “It is slowly improving, but we aren’t there yet. People are influenced by society and politics and so this needs to change before the view of women changes, whether that is in music or out of music. Patriarchy will not defeat us.

“Thankfully we have a brilliant network of fellow bands and friends that feel the same way and it is a great feeling knowing we will be a part, whether big or small, in the progression of women in rock music.

“Cos’ we aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. We enjoy what we do.”

I have so much admiration for Kerosene Queen. They are a great young band with huge potential who not only have to face the endless amount of tough hurdles to climb for an upcoming act to succeed – playing gigs in small venues to literally a handful of people, finding the time and money to practice, record, travel and buy equipment, marketing your band in your spare time, trying to get media outlets to listen to you, etc – but they also have extra crap to deal with, all because of their sex.

I’m also part of an upcoming Birmingham band and I know how much effort goes into getting my music out there. But at least I know that, if I play a bad gig or write a song someone doesn’t like, I’m only likely to receive a bit of negative feedback. I’m never going to be called a slut, people will never assume I’m just there to sell merchandise and no-one is going to threaten to rape me. I know that people will judge me and my band on our music, which is all I want. But this isn’t the case for bands with women in their lineup. Why? Surely bands are bands? Why is it so difficult for people to accept that? After all, we’re all fans for the music, right?

I started this lengthy post asking whether heavy music is sexist and I think, sadly, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that my answer should be ‘yes’ – even if it is perpetuated by an idiotic minority who are spoiling it for the rest of us.

There are some very real problems in rock and metal that need to be dealt with (and frankly should no longer be an issue). The fact that women want to be, and are, in bands is not weird or surprising. Being in a band, even one that just plays small shows, is an absolute blast and if you’ve ever been in one, you’ll understand the attraction – regardless of your gender. They are not, or should not be, boys’ clubs. There is no genetic reason (as far as I’m aware) that would make men better at being rock musicians than women, so hearing a talented female musician should not be a shock. Good musicians are good musicians.

There is also no reason why a band of women/with women in its lineup should rely on sexualised, objectifying imagery to market themselves. Why not focus instead on making a really cool cover for your release? Think of some great album covers and tell me what’s sexy about them. Is it the giant pair of tits floating above the graveyard on Metallica’s Master of Puppets or the beam of white light being refracted by a hot ass in a thong on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon? Of course not, because I’ve made those scenes up. They sound completely ridiculous, right? So why is it right that The Pretty Reckless needs an image of their singer naked with an arrow pointing at her arse to sell its latest record?

There is a really great list of things women in music are sick of experiencing over on Alt Press that I urge you to check out.

So, how to end this?

A plea. Let’s get over the fact that women, shock horror, can rock too. How about we forget ‘female- fronted’ this and galleries of the top ten chicks in metal that and instead just let bands be bands?

I listen to music for the music. I really don’t care who makes it – I once listened to a band with two dogs, as in the canine kind, as vocalists. If the music is loud and full of banging riffs then I will probably be interested. With this mindset, my shelves are full of brilliant albums by a host of brilliant bands and musicians. My ears are very much the winners. I urge you all to take the same approach.

On top of this, if you do experience or witness sexism in music I urge you to speak up and speak out. Follow the lead of Kerosene Queen, or contact groups such as the Everyday Sexism Project to share your experiences. Let’s take a stand and kick sexism out of rock and metal so we can keep that awesome community that is the heart of our scene.

And finally, if you want to wear a tshirt that will make an impact don’t go down the route of the pathetic Emmure and their idiotic peers; instead, get yourself something to show support for the No More Page 3 campaign and wear that. I wore one for my band’s first ever headline show last year and, as you can see, it was a blast!

Cheers and rock on!