If you have not heard of twerking by now, I have no idea what to say to you except, “Google.” There has been much debate around the concept, which some would argue was triggered by the VMA performance of “We Can’t Stop”/”Blurred Lines” by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. Regardless of the origin of the discussion, much of it has revolved around the representation of women – particularly those who happen to be black – as sexual objects, as well as its supposedly “ratchet” nature (but that discussion is for another day).
Anyway, this week, Mastodon released their new music video for “The Motherload”, which featured a heavy dosage of twerking (here it is for the uninitiated):
Unsurprisingly, one was not hard-pressed to find comments denouncing the band for doing so. However, many of those individuals seemed to take issue with twerking being featured in a metal video, with the two factors being perceived as incompatible. It is from this angle that I would like to discuss the video.
I have been an ardent listener of heavy metal for the past decade of my life. I also happen to be an individual belonging to the same demographic as many of the women in the video: I am both female and black. Although my interest has been primarily in the music, years of exploring the genre and watching its music videos, slowly but surely, led to my noticing a lack of the representation of black people. With the exception of a few notable figures such as Howard Jones (formerly of Killswitch Engage) and Derrick Green of Sepultura, the metal scene is dominated by white people. The situation is even more dire when one tries to narrow down the black females in the genre. I personally cannot recall many instances of someone like me being represented in metal apart from, say, Straight Line Stitch‘s Alexis Brown or the other half of the Butcher Babies. And no, I don’t wish to count Jada Pinkette-Smith.
This is one of the reasons I enjoyed the new Mastodon video. Featured in it isn’t just one token black person or woman (sometimes both), but a smorgasbord of black women of all shapes and sizes. Black women both dark and light-skinned, with long and short hair, tattooed or otherwise. In the context of metal, I cannot help but find this positively radical.
It is about time the metal subculture acknowledged that its community is no longer homogeneous. Contrarily, its heterogeneity means that people from all races and cultures listen to and are united by the genre (although elitism and racism quite often prevent such unity from prevailing, but I digress). We are not one-dimensional beings whose daily routines solely involves headbanging. We listen to other genres and have other interests; some of us are dentists, lawyers, teachers; we do ballet and, yes, probably twerk. (I know I do – it’s tons of fun!) Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that for people to claim that twerking (or anything which isn’t headbanging) is incompatible with metal is to erase the existence of those who have an interest in both. What’s next – black people don’t belong to metal? Oh wait, that’s already a thing. Laina Dawes, author of What are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, describes a particular racist incident as follows:
“I went to cover METALLICA at [the Air Canada Centre] in 2009 and that was just totally insane. I had guys making gorilla noises at me when I walked by. I had a couple people call me the ‘N’ word.”
She is certainly not the only one. I, too, have had my fair share of looks and asteism regarding my blackness and how “weird” it is for someone like me to be listening to metal. I have heard more than enough people claim that people like me should be listening to hip-hip or RnB. And I’m tired of it.
This is wishful thinking, certainly, and a single video probably won’t change things, but perhaps metal music videos reflecting the reality of heterogeneity through portrayals of non-white people could contribute to a realisation by the subculture. I don’t know, but it’s just a thought.
This is not to say that the video is without its faults. I could argue against the sexism or misogyny involved until I am blue in the face. I could talk about the implications of the parody making black twerking women the butt of a white man’s joke. I am not at all doing away with those arguments, which certainly have merit. I may blog about them in the future; who knows?
However, in this particular post, I am choosing to praise a band who, in a genre that is sometimes racist and takes itself too seriously, released a video featuring people of a demographic rendered invisible all too often, and showed them laughing, cheering each other on and having fun with their white peers whilst doing something that isn’t a metal cliche.
If only this reality was recognised more often. Then again, this is probably wishful thinking.