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Laina Dawes

Laina Dawes is the author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal (Bazillion Points, 2012). She is also a music and cultural critic whose writing can be found in print and online magazines, such as HazlittBitch, SPIN, Cuepoint, Wondering Sound, Flavorwire, Refinery29, MTV Iggy, MySpace, The Wire UK, NPR, Toronto Star and Exclaim! Canada. Laina recently graduated with a MA in Liberal Studies from The New School for Social Research in New York City. 

“Roundtable: Noise Breeding Silence—Heavy Metal Voices”
During the nearly five decades of its existence, heavy metal—or metal as it now tends to be called—has given rise to a rich and complex range of diverse styles and subgenres. For all its stylistic pluralism, though, metal remains fixed in the eyes and ears of many observers as a quintessentially white male hetero form in terms of both its most visible artists and the presumed demographic of its audience. Scholars and critics in the emergent field of “metal studies” have begun to document metal’s appeal to women, non-white, and LGBTQ audiences, and to millions of fans in the developing world. Building on their insights, this roundtable panel sets out to consider the broad question of whom metal seems most to be speaking to or for. 

Our goal is to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the way that power works through metal. Metal scholars such as Robert Walser and Deena Weinstein have stressed that “power” is central to metal as a genre. The sound of metal is infused with signs of power, from dense layers of distorted electric guitar to vocals that might strain toward a piercing scream or be shaped by the weight of a deadening grunt. Metal iconography visualizes this power through an analogous range of symbols. To what extent does this power work in hierarchical fashion, imposing itself over scene participants and serving to draw lines between those inside the genre and those on the outside? Or, to what extent is metal’s field of power more fluid, leaving room for those whose experience is marginal to find a space, and maybe find their voice through engagement with the music? 

Among the more specific issues to be addressed are:

  • Do metal’s various subgenres (death, black, doom, grindcore, etc.) all speak with the same underlying voice?
  • Are different strains of metal more or less inclusive with regard to women, queer or transgender participants, or people of color?
  • How do the aesthetics of metal performance, or the rules of engagement at work in metal subcultures, serve to draw boundaries around the music that may be exclusionary? And, how does metal compare with other major contemporary genres (electronic dance music, rap/hip-hop, country) along these lines?
  • How do these questions concerning metal’s inclusivity look different if we consider the genre as a global—and not just a U.S./Europe centered—phenomenon?
  • What can we learn from metal scene participants who have experienced marginalization, or who occupy non-dominant positions relative to the genre’s core constituencies?

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