Svalbard’s Serena Cherry on Underground Metal’s Enduring Gender Bias

Serena Cherry is the guitarist/vocalist of English metal band Svalbard. Recently Decibel asked her to write a guest editorial about her experiences as a woman in the underground metal scene.

“Nice boobs.”

You’ve spent 15 years teaching yourself how to play guitar. Seven years touring with your band. Two years working on your latest album. The debut video from your new album finally goes up online. It’s a culmination of years of hard work and determination. It’s your precious all screaming, all shredding baby—how will the public react?

“Nice boobs.”

Really? Yup.

Nice. Boobs. That is one of the first comments on our new music video.

Guys, I’m blushing. What an absolute honor. I spent years of effort working on these mammary glands. We mic’-ed them up real good in the studio. So glad to see the hard work is paying off. Finally, I am being appreciated for something I have no control over.

But… it’s a compliment, they cry! Can’t you be a little more appreciative when you’re being objectified? As a female musician, you should be grateful to be reduced to a sex symbol!

Because as a woman, nothing you do means anything unless you do it… sexily, right?

Metalheads, I’m disappointed—are you really that reductionist? One of the things that drew me to metal in the first place was how it appeared to be the antithesis of shallow pop culture. It seemed, to the impressionable young me, that metal didn’t give a flying fuck about appearances. Who cares if you’re ugly, obese or covered in scars—this community is all about the music. Metal does not concern itself with such frivolities as conventional attractiveness.

Then, over the years, something horrible started sinking in—a daunting realization. There appeared to be one condition of entry to this subcultural haven. Everything was totally cool and welcome in metal… so long as you’re a guy.

Any new male entering the local metal scene was automatically treated with respect. If they played an instrument, musicians would snap them up for a jam in an instant. Newly-converted metal dudes were never subject to grilling or suspicion. They were ushered in like brothers.

I was 14 when I went to my first local metal gig. I found a high-contrast black and white flyer in a second -hand record shop. It depicted band logos spikier than Wayne Static’s hair. Intrigued, I headed down to the dive bar on my own. I didn’t know anyone else who liked metal, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. As I go to pay the promoter the entry fee, he stops and gives me an unimpressed look.

“Why are you here?”

I’m sorry. What?

Why are you here—are you looking for your boyfriend?”

No. I came to check out the bands.

He laughed. He took my money. And he laughed right in my face.

Ladies: Welcome to the othered world of metal. Where you will forever be dismissed. Where you will forever be doubted and accused of “only liking it to impress the guys.” Where strangers will question your right to be at a gig or to wear a certain band t-shirt.

Do you actually even like Darkthrone or are you just wearing the t-shirt?” Hey dingus, last time I checked, 99.9% of people wear the merchandise of things that they like! It’s almost like that’s the entire POINT of band t-shirts—to show your love. Not to make you open for questioning on WHETHER you are a fan or not. Or does the logo say YES but the boobs inside the shirt say NO?

Where does this suspicious attitude towards women in metal come from? How exactly, does our sex betray our passion for the music? Why can’t metalheads get their head around the notion that women are capable of forming their own cultural tastes? Ladies don’t just like something because you do. Please stop attributing devious motivations behind our wearing of band merch.

We’re not ALL trying to get into David Vincent’s pants, you know.

I digress. Soon after being so heartily discouraged at my first metal gig, I felt doors to the metal community slam shut in my face at regular intervals. No one wanted to jam with me because they couldn’t believe I could play guitar. I resorted to making my own records with a four track and a drum machine. Years later, when a small independent label heard these recordings, they offered to release them, “if I used no photos of myself and adopted a stage name that didn’t sound like a girl.”

And on I waded, against droves of doubters. All the while, my love of metal ironically keeping me going against the grain that was the bullshit metal community. I simply refused to believe that this bold, impassioned musical genre which I adored could bear such an exclusionist attitude.

Eventually I plucked up the courage to audition band members for my four-track solo project. When explaining to a potential bassist that I wrote all the music, he shouted, aghast, in my face “Who do you think you are, Mikael Åkerfeldt?!

Still my favorite insult to this day. How very dare I be creative and in control.

Trent Reznor, Tobias Sammett, Tuomas Holopainen—they’re allowed to be one-man musical masterminds; but a one-woman musical project? Well, that’s simply out of the question. Now years have passed since the Åkerfeldt incident, and things seem to be getting better. But I still have one question for the metal world: Why?

Why, in 2018, are you still making it so hard on female musicians? Why are you so discouraging to female fans? In what way does our presence detract from the music? Why the fuck does it matter if a musician has “nice boobs?”

We’re not here to ruin things so there’s no need for all this defensive hostility. We are here to share a passion for heavy riffs without being excluded, objectified and made to feel unwelcome. We love and respect this music. Now it’s time to love and respect us.

Svalbard’s new LP, It’s Hard to Have Hope, is out May 25 via Translation Loss. Pre-order it here