I Went to a Heavy Metal Academic Conference in Finland, and it was Awesome

Metal music historically has had strong undercurrents of misogyny. But metal is still worthy of academic analysis.
Publish date:
June 25, 2015
travel, music, heavy metal, academia

Metal has been interwoven in my life for the entirety of my existence. I grew up in a heavy metal family. My father listens to a variety of music genres, ranging from jazz, to classical, to blues, but the champion of his heart is metal music. My father also tells metal themed “dad jokes,” with one example being:

“This band is called Mastodon, because they’re heavy. Like a mastodon.”

Dad has gone to see Lamb of God in concert by himself, and was the only parent at my middle school who blasted Slayer in their car when they picked their child up from school functions. My Mom likes older metal and rock acts, but has recently been listening to more contemporary metal bands, like Gojira.

Prior to our relationship, my partner and I first bonded over our mutual love of Amon Amarth. Though he and I came from two different continents and two very different backgrounds, we united when “Twilight of the Thunder God” came up on my Mp3 player’s shuffle. That superficial connection was the catalyst to our friendship growing into something greater.

What metal music has joined together, let not man put asunder.

My love for metal inevitably spilled over into my academic life. My dream is to obtain a PhD abroad. My PhD thesis proposal centers on the participation and depiction of women in Nordic metal, with a special focus on Finland. Additionally, I am interested in differences in communal and individualized gender experiences in heavy metal music. I feel that my PhD would be a natural extension of the work that I am currently doing for my Master’s degree in Women’s Studies.

Metal music historically has had strong undercurrents of misogyny. Even today, metal’s brightest stars have been culpable of a contributing to “a culture of crass sexism,” as described in Dom Lawson’s 2014 piece for The Guardian. I also would like to acknowledge the fact that heavy metal music has other aspects that are worth unpacking, like issues of race (while many bands contain people of color, the audience in the West is often still mostly white) and LGBTQ inclusivity.

Metal, like many musical genres, has its faults. Metal music is still worthy of academic analysis.

In an email discussing my proposal, my potential PhD advisor said that he’d probably see me at a conference in Helsinki in June. Through a quick Google search, I found that the Modern Heavy Metal Conference, in collaboration with the International Society for Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), would be hosted by the Aalto University School of Business in Helsinki, Finland. The conference would run from June 8 to June 12, 2015. Keynote speakers included Scott Ian and Alex Skolnick. Numerous panels would occur during the day, in which presenters shared their research with the world. There would be metal shows for conference goers in the evening, and in standard Finnish fashion, a harbor cruise.

This conference was my chance to meet my potential advisor before applying to my top choice program. I also would have the opportunity to do field work in metal music venues for my academic projects. This would be my first academic conference ever, which was incredibly intimidating to me. Still, I knew that I had to go.

I am fortunate enough to have a career that has a great overtime policy, and plenty of overtime hours to pick up. I used every hour of overtime that I earned to pay for my trip. I am aware that I am privileged to partake in this conference at all, as this is something that is not financially feasible for many. I got back into the academic swing of things during my summer break by doing fieldwork at an Ensiferum and Korpiklaani concert (two of Finland’s premier folk metal bands) in late May. By the time I boarded my flight to Helsinki, I was confident, but I was also overwhelmed by heaps of anxiety. Would the other conference goers like me? Or would I be perceived as a bumbling buffoon?

Luckily, the academic heavy metal music community is extremely inclusive. I encountered numerous other scholars from over 30 countries that shared my interests. Monday and Tuesday featured the highly anticipated and aforementioned keynote speakers Alex Skolnick and Scott Ian. I had the opportunity to ask them both about what they thought about gender in metal.

Alex brought up some fantastic points, especially when he noted that women are a marginalized demographic within a marginalized group. He pointed out that metalheads themselves are often talked down to by advertisers, as evidenced by the riffs and voiceovers used in adverts directed towards them.

Alex also noted the fact that few other subcultures, like sports fandom, have ever suffered the indignity of being reviled and stereotyped like heavy metal music has. In regards to gender, Alex told me that in heavy metal today, there is more openness in regards to gender, although there still is work that needs to be done in regards to the double standards present within the metal community.

By way of example: bands that include women fighting typical gender roles, like Arch Enemy, (a Swedish metal band that features a lead singer singing growling, not melodic, vocals), are virtually unheard of in the United States. Alex said that female guitar players in metal music are almost obsolete. If women do play musical instruments, they are pigeonholed as being “girl guitarists” or “female guitarists.” Alex pointed out Nita Strauss (the guitarist for Alice Cooper) and Bibi McGill (the guitarist for Beyoncé) as two examples of women who can really play and are musically talented, but are also identified solely by their gender, not their aptitude. (I would also like to add that Alex Skolnick is the most genuine, thoughtful, and welcoming eminent person that I have ever had the pleasure to talk to -- and because of my former professional background as an employee of two Major League Baseball clubs, I have spoken to a few.)

Interestingly enough, Scott Ian said something in a similar vein when I asked him about gender in metal. Scott, like Alex, pointed out that there are few female heavy metal musicians for young women to look up to. I hope to explore this issue more with further research, and would like to include concepts of masculinity and queerness in heavy metal in my research as well.

Wednesday night provided me the chance to see Lost Society and Battle Beast perform at a concert in Helsinki, as a ticket was included for conference goers. Lost Society is a thrash metal band that absolutely blew me away, and I highly recommend fans of thrash metal to check them out! Battle Beast is a Finnish power metal band that has topped the Finnish charts, and is helmed by lead singer Noora Louhimo.

Noora is an extremely talented vocalist, and Battle Beast are phenomenal to watch live. Battle Beast bassist Eero Sipilä is a burgeoning metal academic in his own right, having completed his Master's thesis on Finnish metal at the University of Helsinki. In addition to performing with Battle Beast, Sipilä attended the Modern Heavy Metal Conference as a scholar. Sipilä presented his paper, “Unique Roots of Finnish Metal? Nationality and Commerciality in the History of Finnish Metal,” the day after Battle Beast's performance. That’s metal.

On Thursday, the conference goers collectively mourned the loss of Sir Christopher Lee, who was a heavy metal artist who sang about Charlemagne (along with being a titan of cinema and overall epic human being, of course).

Although the conference and conference attendees were very progressive on the whole (nearly everyone I spoke to identified as a feminist and was very in tune to issues of race, queerness, and color in heavy metal), there were reminders in the metal community in Helsinki that women are an “other.” While at Bar Bäkkäri, a rock and metal music bar, numerous silhouettes of thin, buxom, topless (and possibly naked) dancing women were projected, wearing typical “sexy” outfits, which included a sexy angel, a sexy devil, and a sexy Poseidon.

Bar Bäkkäri was the official bar of the conference. The images of these women had the feminist wheels of my brain turning. What are the implications of these images, presented on a screen as if they were the most natural addition to the music playing in the bar? If I protested these images, would I be rejected from the heavy metal scene? I believe that my fellow conference goer, and PhD candidate herself, Catherine, said it best:

“On one hand, it validates your research, on the other hand, it’s so exhausting.”

Being an “other,” and constantly having to validate yourself, your fandom, and your work, is indeed arduous. During my own field work interviews, I am constantly asked by male heavy metal fans what my favorite bands are before they will even answer my inquiries. This vetting of my metal knowledge before determining that I am worth talking to is something that I have rarely experienced when interviewing women. Having members of the scene (who are overwhelmingly male) assume that you and other female fans are present solely because they are with their boyfriend (which is an example of both patriarchy and heteronormative culture), to impress a potential male partner, or because they think a member of the band is attractive, is equally as draining. I can only imagine how difficult being a metal music fan in the Western world can be for POC, or for those in the LGBTQ* community.

Aside from this bit of research validation, I can safely say that the Modern Heavy Metal Academic conference in Helsinki was one of the best experiences of my professional and personal life. The academics I met were absolutely lovely (and very metal), as were the professional musicians that I encountered. Readers, if you are a metal music fan, I would love to hear your thoughts on queerness and gender in the heavy metal music scene, so sound off in the comments below!