Flip Through

Friday, April 05, 2013

Justify the malice, or, How many links can I fit into one post?

For awhile there I was distracted by Tegan and Sara and Leprous, but true love lasts a lifetime and my favorite power metal sneak feminists, Kamelot, are perfect for every season. Part of this is that Tumblr user thesiegeperilous is in the process of posting a series on the female gaze in heavy metal (one of which posts links to my own Kamelot superpost, oh my how I blushed!), and so I've been thinking about image, how groups in these genres portray themselves, and how they might consider their fanbase and fan expectations when creating those images. Though according to Deena Weinstein the male to female fan split is fairly even, the majority of metal performers are male and--as in most media--the product is largely aimed at male audiences...or rather, the default audience, which is assumed to be male. As Stephanie Green points out in her very good 2009 article on Strange Horizons, despite a significant presence female fans may often be marginalized or have their fandom policed (as I noted briefly a few months ago). If, as Green posits, "metal's themes center on untamed masculinity in all its forms," does a female gaze even exist within the music? Why would I refer to any metal band as feminist, even a sneaky brand? On the surface, Kamelot does not appear to meet the criteria: the major female characters in their songs have a tendency to die, and mainly male desires and character arcs are considered. However, two songs from very different eras present a more nuanced view into the band psyche--the "Elizabeth" trio and the four-part "Poetry for the Poisoned." Furthermore, the characterization of Ariel on The Black Halo can be read as, if not created for the female gaze, then an inversion of the male gaze. 

First, Karma's "Elizabeth": nominally about the notorious Elizabeth Bathory, the song is, in Khan's words, about beauty, vanity, and growing old. Within this frame, the song can be interpreted as an examination of beauty standards for women in place since time immemorial, and how straining to meet kyriarchal expectations turns women against one another and against themselves. According to legend and as portrayed in the song, Bathory murdered young women in order to use their blood to preserve her own beauty and youth. Kamelot's rendition is somewhat more sympathetic; the lyrics show a woman full of pride, doubt, and fear, trapped by actions carried out in order to free herself from "the vicious hands of time." American culture dictates norms for women, from our appearance to our sexuality to how we raise our children, and typically these norms are narrow indeed, based around an ideal of fairness (where beauty is white), thinness (where health is unimportant), innocence (where malleability is prized above self-esteem), and availability (to the right men, at the right time). It's easy enough to see myself in Elizabeth, to imagine the demands placed on me carried to their logical extreme. How far are we willing to go to make ourselves desirable, in a culture where a woman's worth is measured by her desirability? Authorial intent is always a murky topic, but I read "Elizabeth" as a song created by someone who was in fact interested in concerns like these, who saw a need to ask what would drive a woman to murder repeatedly, with a specific end goal in mind. As a listener I am free to derive my own meaning from songs, and while I have no idea if any of the band members would take the label "feminist," the "Elizabeth" trio is significant to me through the lens of feminism.

Next, the Ariel question. During Epica, Ariel is presented as a typical masculine hero-on-a-quest: he's active, he has goals, he loves but he sets aside that love in favor of his journey, his lady is fridged for his emotional testing, etc. The Black Halo continues the quest, but Ariel's position has shifted slightly. Beginning with the Epica song "Descent of the Archangel" and continued in "March of Mephisto," "When the Lights Are Down," and "The Haunting," Ariel is acted upon, placed in a position normally occupied by women. Indeed, "March of Mephisto" specifically indicates that Ariel is being seduced--by multiple personages, no less, as his seduction is two-fold and carried out mentally by Mephisto and physically by Marguerite. Now, the plot breakdown of this album as posited on Wikipedia diverges somewhat from my interpretation; it emphasizes that Ariel seduces Marguerite under Mephisto's influence, but it is also indicated that Mephisto delivers Marguerite to Ariel (is that enough italicization?). So for me, Ariel's mental/spiritual assault by Mephisto in conjunction with Mephisto maneuvering Marguerite like a chess piece trumps Ariel's autonomy. In effect the positioning of Ariel gives listeners a two-pronged fantasy: those attracted to women (Marguerite) can imagine themselves being seduced by her, and those attracted to men (Ariel) can imagine themselves seducing him. Ultimately, though the songs and accompanying videos showcase very beautiful women--including the flawless Simone Simons, who really deserves her own post someday--which is normative of androcentric heavy metal, the main male character is not in the typical position of power-over. Lyrically the songs don't stroke Ariel's ego or glorify his relationships; rather they pin the blame for Helena's death and his own downfall squarely on Ariel. Tracks like "This Pain" reveal an awareness of how non-sanctioned sexual relationships affect women, both in the medieval period Ariel is supposed to be part of and in good old 2013. On the flipside, since Khan's voice and appearance are the vanguard of Kamelot, suggestive lyrics come straight from the horse's mouth; the teasing nature of "Descent of the Archangel," the romance of "Forever" and "Temples of Gold," and the lust behind "March of Mephisto" all have an attraction magnified by the fact that they are sung by a beautiful and charismatic performer. Similarly, the "you will kneel before me" line from "Veritas" capitalizes on Tommy Karevik's physical and sonic appeal.

Finally, Poetry for the Poisoned's title track. It's no secret that I am fond of this album, a release decried by many fans, and part of it is that I hear it as darkly reflective of Ariel's journey on Epica and The Black Halo; the main character on the title track is very similar to who Ariel would have become had he fully succumbed to Mephisto. Beyond this, the record features two unnamed female characters who differ greatly from Helena and Marguerite. Though "If Tomorrow Came" is my favorite song on the album--largely for featuring that singular woman--more interesting to interrogate is "Poetry for the Poisoned" itself. The spoken word bit at the end of Part I sets the theme up nicely, making quite clear that this song is about sex and sexual appetite, but Parts II and III turn the female voice into the subject and the male voice into--well, not quite an object, but into someone who is acted upon as he acts upon the woman. It is rare enough in Kamelot lyrics to see a woman acting out, and rarer still in metal lyrics generally to see one whose sexuality is not necessarily objectified or demonized. Not to say that this doesn't occur in "Poetry," but presenting a female character who glories in her sexuality and her physical power is a noble goal--particularly if she is not ultimately punished for it. And even beyond this, the song can be read as a revenge story, as it ends with the male character's death and "life in slow review" as he considers what's brought him to this place. Not only is the female character still alive at song's end, she's been empowered to strike back at someone who assaulted her and assumed she would provide satisfaction for him and nothing more. Of course there are less charitable interpretations of this song, but as a fan of so-called weaponized femininity, I like mine.

No band, actor, writer, or filmmaker is perfect; most of the time I have to analyze the media I'm consuming and see if there's enough There there to make it worth my while. It's entirely possible to be a fan of problematic things; it's why the gods blessed us with critical faculties. And while there is material in Kamelot's catalogue to take issue with, there's also enough thoughtful, unusual material that I feel confident that the band are aware of their non-straight-male fans and are interested in not alienating them, in creating narratives that don't always privilege prototypical male sexuality and that present cognizance of  female desire. 


Donna Banta said...

I am in awe of posts with many links. I find adding links exhausting. :)

Diana said...

I'm definitely the Link Fairy. :B

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