Updated: Dec 9, 2018
by Maria Kouvarou
There are some notions of which the meaning we think we can fully grasp, and it is only when the moment comes for us to locate these in a specific context that we realize the complication that characterizes them. These are notions that can be expressed and experienced differently by each person, or that we might perceive in different ways ourselves depending on the phase we are at each case we come across them. There are notions that move with the times, are worn differently from each one, become understood in various ways and are expressed in multiple words. They are notions that sound like ‘labels’ but cannot be labels because they do not signify something particular and absolute. They are notions of which they use brings a heavy weight of responsibility. Notions that, according to popular humour, normally end in –ism: sexism, racism, chauvinism, communism, fascism, feminism. And it is exactly this final point that comprises the source of inspiration for writing this article.
Why the fuss? I am sure that many of you already wonder. You may relax. This text is not a feminist propaganda, nor it has to do with mind-settings about female rights and so on (although significant matters indeed). My article has to do with the way in which the notion of feminism can divide opinions even through music. And that which sparked my need to express these thoughts was a conversation that I witnessed.
A few months ago, I was sitting in the living room of a friendly couple of mine, speaking about various topics revolving around (surprise, surprise) music. Among all others, our discussion went to the American band In this Momentand the impressive presence of Maria Brink, who is one of the founding members and the frontwoman of the band.
For those of you who do not know them (and it would be good if you did a Google search), In this Moment have a rising trajectory from 2005 to this day. Probably their most characteristic feature is Maria Brink herself – exquisite vocalist, provocative lyricist, super sexy presence. Dynamism and sexuality. And it was about Brink herself that my friendly couple was found in disagreement, with (let’s call him) Chris supporting that he considers her presence as this is projected through the band to be feminist and (let’s name her) Stella to support that there is no feminism to be found due to her sexually charged image and the fact that this is satisfactory to the male gaze of her male fans, in a way that does not center solely on the musical and performative capabilities. I was keeping silent, since I wanted to study the band more closely before I ‘deposit’ my opinion, as I was not that much informed on In this Moment. So I just focused on the discussion that took place in front of me as much as I could, and it was a discussion informed, with justification of positions. The truth is that I agreed with both of them. But in order to come to a conclusion I had to look more closely.
And that I did. I heard the albums, read the lyrics, watched the video clips. And in reality, at the beginning I oscillated a lot. The reason is simple and has to do with the fact that the theory regarding feminism is not one and stable, but each artist predefines and a different way of approach. The basic thing is that even during my research I came to understand perfectly well the reasons why Chris and Stella had the positions that they did when they had the discussion. And the paradox is that even to the point of writing these lines I do not fully agree or fully disagree with any of the two.
But let me take things from the beginning and speak about the possible oscillation of Brink between feminism and non-feminism by taking into consideration solely her work with In this Moment. As we have already mentioned, Brink is the frontwoman, as well as one of the two founding member of the band. This means that her role in In this Momentis not confined to that of a vocalist – the band is basically her ‘child’, something that automatically gives her authority, privilege that is mainly connected to the male element. And yes, it is true that there is an unsaid stereotype that wants the female members of bands to be confined to the use of the microphone (stereotype that breaks historically in cataclysmic ways from many amazing female instrumentalists), but we should not forget to consider the way in which each female performer handles the microphone. It is impossible to place in the same category a Britney Spears with a Siouxsie Sioux and with all the Spice Girls together. Entering, nonetheless, the terrain of metal this becomes even harder – to begin with, as a genre it is considered one of the most male-dominated, and even as vocalists, the women are in certain minority. But Brink expresses herself by the use of a musical language that is non-feminine by definition. And even more so, she does that by using a type of vocal performance characterized by minimum to none femininity! Although she admittedly has a beautiful, melodic voice, in her work with In this Moment, Brink chooses to approach most of her songs as a proprer screamer – anger and threat flood her singing style. How much femininity should we then afford her as a vocalist? I have difficulties even for saying ‘some’. Automatically she is distanced from the norm of ‘female in accordance to patriarchal stereotypes’. Maybe this is one of the reasons why my friend Chris considers her as a feminist prototype.
The lyrics that Brink performs have to do with the fallen, the sins, the sex and the outcasts. Her words are provocative, often sexually charged, full of disgust and sin, but also punishment. And what she sings becomes even more provocative due to her performance, that is sensual but also dressed with countless layers of anger, aggressiveness and scorn. And the most important? The lyrics she sings, in their vast majority, is her own. Not only she is fully aware of what she says and how she delivers, but each word has been put there by her own self. In other words she has something that often women are considered lacking: authority and control over the content. This automatically gives her a power that does not allow for her classification in the mass of ‘mere vocalists’, even if the fact of her input in the creation of the band is ignored. And authority and control are translatable to female empowerment – and if this is not a feminist feature, then I wonder what a feminist feature is.
And we have now reached the most complicated issue regarding Brink: her appearance. Because she is the basic image for the band and there is no doubt for this! As a presence, Brink is not at all discreet. Dressed (often undressed) in a notably provocative manner, often wearing nets, vinyls, and leather, she projects a particularly charged image, something that reasonably leads many to the conclusion that she uses her sexuality as a means to attract the male attention, to satisfy the male gaze. And this is one of the basic arguments that someone uses in conversations concerning the women of the music industry; the prospect that someone will see them as ‘sexual objects’. Of course, here we do not refer to a pop idol that goes on stage to lip sync while shaking her ass according to the multi-rehearsed choreography. Here we speak about a ‘metal goddess’ as Brink is often described, who provokes in a threatening way.
And, yes, maybe she is projected as a sexual object through her image. Her image? Now wait a minute because I confused my own self. Brink, as a set to her provocative outfit, she often wears make up that does not beautify her. She goes on stage smudged, make up ruined or heavily painted – in a way that often ‘disfigures’ her (admittedly) beautiful features. So, while she makes her body ‘prey’ to the audience, she hides, disfigure or makes her face appear ugly. In essence you could say that she mocks the conventional use of make up as this is promoted from the capitalist show-biz center (namely, to make women look more beautiful and attractive according to the stereotypes of the times). And with this mocking she cannot be exactly classified in what we would describe as ‘accordance to the beauty prototype’.
I can imagine that you also oscillate with me in this debate about Brink’s feminism. But my purpose was not to give a clear answer – simply because I do not have one. And the reason is that I cannot form a specific opinion. Nonetheless, I will dare to give a possible explanation for the reasons why Brink evades the possibility to be classified when it comes to her position towards, or within, feminism: consciously or not, Brink herself seems to be perfectly aware of this paradox and the oxymoron of the female nature, and she plays with her feminine identity in ways that do not allow for a definition, something that in itself shows a careful and thought management of her artistic image. But even if I am wrong in what I have just suggested it is okay. Only that she has put us in the process of discussing the issue in more detail, she has in her own way, lighted up a spark that resulted to the consideration of this fiery topic about the complications of the female presence in music – and especially in the rock and metal scenes.
Discussing the paradox: Sex Metal Barbie
To put what has been discussed above in a representative context it would be good to see it in reference to an In this Moment song. And for this purpose I have chosen to speak about ‘Sex Metal Barbie’ (Black Widow, 2014) that brings together all the parameters that have been discussed in this article.
Here, Brink herself touches on that specific paradox that surrounds her, starting with the suggestions and the possible rumours that exist about her, rumours that possibly stem from her oversexual and provocative image, which for many metal fans makes her and outsider (to not ‘belong in this game’). But the paradox lies with the fact that she sees it herself that, despite the possibility that she is considered an outsider, she is still being not only accepted, but also ‘worshipped’ (still you hold your hands in the air screaming my name”). Therefore, from her words you understand that she knows that her whole image might alienate some due to the sexuality, but on the other hand she recognizes the power that she has in this music scene. And she chooses to keep her image, because it is a part of her art. This same art that makes many scream the name of this Sex Metal Barbie while at the same time having their hands on the air.
Her vocal delivery remains dynamic and sarcastic concurrently. She is being ironic to the rumors that are born from her image, sometimes by almost citing the words, others by bringing in her melodic approach, and others by screaming. As far as the video is concerned, that has been directed by herself, it plays with the limits of the grotesque. It presents a Maria Brink who is dressed in the colours and shapes of a Barbie, but in such a hyperbolic way that creates a disturbing image. Throughout the video she is surrounded by figures that are frightening. But the ultimate ridicule of the Barbie concept comes with the disfiguration of the figures, including that of Brink’s, brought by the way they were captured in camera. No beauty in the conventional sense, and therefore everything that Barbie stands for is undermined.
Nevertheless, nowhere in the video do we see Brink show that she denies the rumours (as evident in the lyrics), nor her oversexuality (her singing is not angry, but rather ironic and provocative), and neither her connection to the Barbie prototypes. In the video she is a Barbie, but a Barbie against conventional Barbies – scary and disfigured. And although she does not deny the rumours, she also does not accept them. On the contrary, she mocks them.
An oxymoron it is, the, ‘Sex Metal Barbie’, and Brink is and ambassador of the paradox who knows well how to posit herself within the female metal sexuality (and I wonder whether we ever had something like that before Brink) but who also defends this position of hers without much effort…