Photo courtesy of the artist
As a music writer who happens to be both a woman and a feminist, I often find myself struggling with the "female-fronted" question. For years, I thought that the best way to way to acknowledge and support their contributions to the genre was to throw a spotlight on the women involved by calling attention to their talents in features, making lists of inspiring women in doom, in black metal, and so on, aiming for visibility above all. The opposing view—that singling out female and nonbinary artists simply because of their gender hurts more than it helps, even if the attention given is meant to be positive—has begun to make a lot more sense to me, though, especially when confronted with bands like Bristol's Svalbard, who rail against the larger music community's tendency to focus on gender, and, as you'll see below, feel very strongly about the way women's involvement in aggressive music is discussed.
The striking, ambitious UK post-hardcore outfit's uncompromising approach to both their music and their message reminds of me of how Agoraphobic Nosebleed vocalist Kat Katz said she hated the way the media focused on her gender; in our recent interview, she told me that, "I abhor being referred to as a female vocalist." It also brought to mind Jucifer guitarist and vocalist Gazelle Amber Valentine's proclamation that "gender is not a genre!" and an interview I conducted with Electric Wizard guitarist Liz Buckingham years ago. When I asked Buckingham how she felt about those two different approaches to the "female fronted" question, she pulled no punches, saying, "Historical evidence shows that it doesn't really help the cause to scream about it and draw attention to it. That doesn't change people's minds; it just annoys them. It's obvious you are a woman. More energy can be spent just doing it. The separation between men and women in the scene is the problem to start with, so I never understand why some people think it's a good idea to keep separating themselves if their aim is for equality."
Equality is exactly what Svalbard is demanding with the stark new video for "Expect Equal Respect." Guitarist and vocalist, Serena Cherry, penned an essay on the subject to accompany our premiere of the clip, too. I urge you to really focus on what she's saying, and what the song itself is asking for; it'll surely be familiar to more than a few of us
"This shouldn't have to be a battle, this shouldn't have to be said! I expect equal respect—nothing more, nothing less!"
The vidoe itself is just as stirring as the song's driving melody, two-step beat, and Cherry's hoarse roar. Sporting a shirt from Noisey anarcho faves Dawn Ray'd, a gagged Cherry wordlessly holds up cards explaining the exasperated reality that so many non-male musicians experience; the condescension, the pigeonholing, the frustration, the disrespect, the challenges to justify their very existence. As Cherry howls, "Is 50 percent a minority? Is my credibility an anomaly? How dare you treat this like a novelty? Your approval doesn't mean shit to me!"
Read the essay below, and be sure to pick up Svalbard's latest album, One Day All This Will End, from the band or from Halo of Flies Records (North America); Holy Roar is handling the UK release, and Through Love is handling German orders.
"Since when did a musician's gender become a note-worthy thing? When you highlight someone's gender, you reduce them to it. All of their creative output and skill gets buried beneath a flashing neon sign that remarks “female fronted!” with eyebrows raised in apprehension. The term 'female fronted' is steeped in cynicism. When applied on a gig poster, it reads: “Come look at us!” rather than “Come listen to us;” because it is describing a physical feature of the band that is completely unrelated to their sound. Trust me, their ovaries won’t affect their guitar tone. Yet 'female fronted' implies that gender should affect the audience's expectations of the band somehow.
What’s even more alarming, is when women in bands actively using this phrase in self-description. Is it necessary to have gender-based segregation in music? This isn’t football. We don’t need a women’s league. We are all together and equal in music. My fingers can shred as fast as anyone's. I don’t need a separate category on account of my vagina. And I don't need to constantly be noted as someone with a vagina either. I'm a fucking guitarist, end of. My XX chromosomes don't come into it whatsoever.
I often hear the flimsy excuse that women are highlighted in music to encourage other women to play. Yeah, because we’re that fucking impressionable. It’s patronizing to assume that women won’t pick up a guitar until they see another woman do it. “Hey girls, it’s okay for us to rock too!” – that’s just the validation I need! Real inspiration is simply not that shallow. Someone doesn't need to be the same gender as another person to inspire them. How restrictive is that outlook?!
I can't stand it when people congratulate me after a gig: not on a good set, but on being a girl. That is the one variable on that stage that I didn't fucking control, that I didn't spend years practicing! I chose to write these songs and play them to you. You chose to notice that I'm a girl. I'd still be a girl without all the songs I worked so hard on. So why is my gender the only thing you want to talk about?!
The main point of "Expect Equal Respect" is that positive discrimination is still discrimination. I really didn’t want to write a song about this, because I like to live in the hope that people don’t need to be reminded to treat everyone as an equal. But mentioning someone’s gender when discussing their band is no more appropriate than highlighting someone’s race or sexual orientation. It’s irrelevant and diminishing to their art. If alternative music is a sanctuary for the alienated, why are we so quick to highlight people’s differences within it? If a person wants to play music, they should simply be referred to as a musician – nothing else."