Men Explain Music to Me
“Are you buying this for your boyfriend?"
"What'd you get?
"Saxon Japanese import, a Planxty record, and, ah, babe, you've gotta go in there and check out this sweet Ride the Lightning picture disc I found. It's fuckin' sick. Pricey, though."
"Alright then, you watch the dog—be right back," I replied, leaving my boyfriend and our big, antsy puppy on a bench outside as I headed back into the little record store. It was my dude's birthday, and upon hearing the excitement in his voice as he described this particular LP's intricate cut-out sleeve design, I'd immediately decided to buy it for him. We both love records, but he more so than I; even as I stealthily fill every corner of our apartment with books, he silently counters by adding to our unwieldy vinyl collection. We generally like the same kinds of records, too (though his NWOBHM LPs are starting to outnumber my black metal and country ones) so it was the most natural thing in the world for me to pop in and buy him something that we could enjoy together.
The person selling it didn't seem to think so, though. Despite the fact that I look pretty much exactly how one might expect a heavy metal fan to look—long hair, tattoos, piercings, black jeans, band shirt, leather jacket, and so on—the clerk seemed to think that I'd never heard of Metallica. I was wearing an Acid shirt that day, and yet, this bespectacled, tousle-haired norm decided he needed to educate me on thrash/speed metal. As he rummaged around in the New Arrivals bin to help dig out the record in question, he kept up a nonstop patter, informing me of his preferences for Ride the Lightning and "the other early ones, like Master of Puppets," ignoring me when I tried to interject, "Right, the first four" and going on to drop such dazzling truth bombs as, "Cliff Burton, who was the bassist, was really into melody, and you can really hear it on this one."
"Yeah, I know, that was kind of his thing," I edged in, wanting to end the interaction before I started seeing red. "Anyway, my dude is gonna love this, he was freaking out about it out there."
"Oh, you're buying it for your boyfriend?" he said with satisfaction "You're one of the good ones." I stared at him. The "run along now, little girl" was implied.
By that point, I'd had enough, and decided to break with my usual goal of not being That Guy, and drop some fuckin' names. When he launched into a diatribe about how much Lars Ulrich sucked and how irrelevant the band is now, I smiled sweetly, and said, "Well, actually, I interviewed him for work the other day, and he was really down to earth and friendly. The new album's pretty solid, too; if you get a chance to hear it, you should."
Yup. I did it. I well actually-d him. I'm not proud of it, but sometimes, you've got to hold your nose and shut that shit down. It was worth it for the look on his face, and the way he immediately quieted down, muttered, "That's cool," and started wrapping up my purchase. All of a sudden, he didn't want to talk about music anymore.
As I handed over my card, the air thick with quiet tension, I thought about the last time a record store clerk had talked down to me like that. It was a few years back, while I was slinging merch on tour with Black Tusk. We were in Tulsa, or something like that—a dusty, Midwestern city with a small but dedicated metal scene—and I was delighted to stumble upon a record store right by the venue; buying records is still one of my favorite things about traveling, and it was even more so back then. I went in on my own, and happily haunted the stacks for the better part of an hour before hitting the jackpot: a gorgeous, mint copy of Svart Records' 2010 double LP pressing of Reverend Bizarre's classic debut, In The Rectory Of The Bizarre Reverend. I clutched it to my chest and hurried up to the register, all smiles.
"I'm so excited I found this!" I gushed to the clerk, who looked up as I handed over the hefty album. He examined me for a moment, then asked kindly, "Are you buying this for your boyfriend?"
I stared at him. "What? Are you fucking kidding me right now?"
"Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to offend! A lot of people buy records as presents…" he stuttered, handing me my bag. I shot him another icy glare before turning on my heel and stomping out. No one else from our tour went into his record store that day.
On that same tour, a kid came up to my table during a lull and decided to start talking to me and the other merchandise manager (who also happened to be a woman). He asked us what kind of music we listened to, and when I told him I was mainly into black metal and doom, he smirked. This kid—your stereotypical pimply, awkward teenage metal fan, clad in denim and baggy black pants—then proceeded to lecture me all about the genre, blissfully unaware that he was getting details wrong and mispronouncing Euronymous's name. Bear in mind, I was obviously a good few years older than him, and obviously extremely unimpressed with his lecture. I was stunned by how straight up rude he was being about it, too; whenever I'd interject, or gently try to correct him, he'd dismiss me and keep on steamrolling.
It was the kind of behavior I'd dealt with many, many times over my years as a metalhead with lady parts, but the older I get, the more it grates—and the less willing I am to put up with it. At that point, as a representative for the band, I couldn't be outright mean to him—he was a prick, but a prick who was also a potential customer—so I had to think of another way to get my point across. I smiled to myself as I realized the solution: I just needed to beat him at his own game.
So, as he wound down his soliloquy, I turned, pointed to the Bathory goat tattoo on my upper arm, and asked him—"If you know sooooo much about black metal, I'm sure you can tell me what this means, right?"
"It's a goat, duh!"
"But what does it mean?"
"... I dunno, Satan?"
"No. It's the logo for one of the most important black metal bands of all time. Get the fuck outta here, kid."
He sputtered a little, then left with his tail between his legs, hopefully having learned a valuable lesson: only assholes assume that women—or any other minority in this heavily straight white cis dude-centric scene—are clueless about heavy metal. There is a profound difference between sharing information with someone you see as an equal, and condescendingly bleating out screeds of facts and opinions without ever letting the other party engage or acknowledging that they may have anything to add to the conversation. What so many male fans fail to realize is that it's extremely likely that we know more about our chosen genre than they do, because we've had to spend years proving ourselves. We have to know everything, so that others believe we know anything at all. We've been tested, and laughed at, and scorned, and abused, all because we dare to fall in love with the same kind of music that our apparent adversaries are into—it seems absurd, but really, ask any woman who's spent a prolonged period of time involved in heavy metal, or punk, or any kind of "difficult" or "complex" music in general, and see what she tells you.
I know what it's like to be challenged; for fuck's sake, I get idiots on Twitter every day trying to explain metal to me, and I've been writing about the genre professionally (and very publicly) since I was 15. I remember all the times band dudes assumed I was someone's girlfriend (or was looking to become one) when I was backstage, audio recorder in hand, doing my job. I remember every time some boy or man came up to me, eyed whatever band shirt I was wearing, and asked if I "actually" listened to them, looking to "test" my knowledge, to make sure I wasn't just a poser. I remember the time someone told me I was "too pretty" to "actually like metal"—and he meant it as some kind of warped compliment.
This started happening as soon as I first started going to shows, when I was around sixteen; I was crushed the first time I was subjected to "the test," but then realized that I needed to not only pass any bullshit tests thrown my way, but to annihilate them. If these dudes thought I was only there to ogle the guitarist and look cute, I was going to prove them so wrong that they'd be forced to respect my knowledge—whether or not they liked me.
So, I studied. I read every book I could find on the history of heavy metal, subscribed to every metal magazine I could afford, bought imported ones at bookstores, asked endless questions of the few older metal fans I knew, traded CD-Rs with people around the country, spent all of the money I earned from my jobs as a dishwasher and a CVS clerk on CDs, and generally immersed myself in the genre.
I didn't know everything (and still don't), but I knew as much as a teenage girl living in a tiny, rural town with no internet could. That fierce early push to absorb metal knowledge ended up working out for me in unexpected ways, but it also accomplished my initial goal: no boy, and no man, was going to make me feel small, or stupid, or less-than—at least not here. The outside world was another story altogether, but here, within the hallowed halls of heavy metal (or whatever bar, basement, or dingy venue I'd ended up in that evening), I felt untouchable.
That's something I've carried with me over the years, and something I certainly don't intend on giving up without a knock-down, drag-out fight. I do belong here, and so does any other person—regardless of gender identity, sexuality, race, nationality, creed, or anything else—who wants to be here.
And I'll be goddamned if I let any smug, clueless, condescending prick make me feel any different.
Kim Kelly is sick of your shit on Twitter.
Cover illustration by Angélique Labbé.