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Kerrang Sexuality In Rock
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How Different Genres Of Rock Deal With Sex And Sexuality

From emo to death metal, here’s how nine of rock’s most vital subgenres express their relationship with sex and sexuality.

“Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” — the timeless rallying cry prioritizes the interests of musicians and fans alike who engage with the once-subversive culture of heavy music. Sex and sexuality, however, is today a little more of a nuanced topic than it was during rock’n’roll’s early development, and the modern rock scene is a many-headed hydra of unique musical profiles. How, then, do different genres of music play out their preoccupations with sex?

Take heavy metal, for example: toughness, evil, and fist-pounding rebellion leaves little room for nuance when confronting or hinting at the topic of sexuality — yet somehow, each subtle modulation in genre can shift an entire scene’s views of sexuality based on a few key elements. Meanwhile, industrial fans and indie rockers agree on little sonically, so it’s easy to see why their approach to sex would come in wildly varying packages. The sounds that draw us in can be subconscious cues to how we move in other arenas (i.e. the bedroom), so what cues can we categorically extract from dominant musical genres’ structures, compositions, and legacies?

Below is a set of deductions made based on the imagery, lyrical content, and overall sound utilized by several popular rock genres, that speak to their relationships with sex and sexuality. Each entry is divided into two sections: the perceived, surface-level sexuality of a genre, and the reality of that culture’s feelings about sex. Enjoy, and remember to always wear protection.

Punk Rock

What you see:

Snarling despondence and anarchistic rage that overshadows the basic-ness of being — or as the kids might say, horny on main.

What you get:

A complex and storied genre, punk has had as many iterations as music itself since Malcolm McClaren ripped off Richard Hell and turned the Sex Pistols into the spitting, fighting poster boy band for the fledgling scene. Underneath the snotty attitudes and reckless energy, though, is the seething sexual frustation of youth. Take Henry Rollins’ famous proclamation about wanting to “fuck on the floor and break shit” — it’s the simple declaration of rage and desire that fuel what drives the best punks make timeless, unforgettable music. That burning, unquenchable need to do something, anything, as long as it’s aggressive and genuine, is what belies punk’s surface-level ignorance of sex, but informs its sometimes crude honesty on the subject.

Punk sex symbols: Wendy O Williams, Richard Hell, HR of Bad Brains, Iggy Pop.

Death Metal

What you see:

A lot of smelly-looking longhairs whose reverence for the female species — should they have any at all — seems solely confined to the tropes of sexy succubus who aims to enchant the poor woe-betiden men, or perhaps the more outwardly violent depictions such as the cover Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb Of The Mutilated, in which the heroine’s mangled corpse is subjected to an oral sexual act performed by a skeletal specter while seemingly incapacitated by the absence of her viscera. Gross.

What you get:

Vile as they appear on the surface, most death metal fans seem more intent on enjoying the pit than outwardly displaying the machismo and morbid attitude their chosen subculture often showcases, making them more tender sexual beings than one might expect. In fact, the nerds you’ll encounter at a brutal death show can often be among the most caring of concert-goers, making sure to pick each other up in the pit and protect the smaller participants rather than go for all-out vicious assault. Sure, misogyny exists in all realms of life, and immature death metal fans are certainly guilty of it. But most gore-loving death metal dorks have found a healthy outlet through which to consume their horror movie fantasies without resorting to actual sexual violence.

Death metal sex symbols: Chuck Schuldiner (Death), Luc Lemay (Gorguts), Angela Gossow (ex-Arch Enemy), Bill Steer (Carcass).

Indie Rock

What you see:

If we look solely at the modern scene (genre stalwarts like Frank Black of The Pixies or Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo will be excluded for the sake of brevity and a contemporary lens), indie rock made by straight, cisgender men is often marked by cliches like sensitive guys with guitars pining on about love, lust, and profound (often involving “manic pixie dream girl” type) romantic experiences. Plenty of women also personify this milquetoast twee heteronormativity, but under the guise of quirkiness that makes them “not like the other girls,” usually through a haircut fans will call brave.

What you get:

Indie rock is a rare example of a scene whose sexual consciousness needed to grow — and then it followed through. The genre possesses an austere rejection of obvious sexuality in many circles, but also a deep-seated toxicity among some participants who revel in their wokeness yet can’t help but say, “Not bad — for a girl” directly into the cleavage of a performer. As a result, more female and queer performers in the genre have developed a special knack for shutting down bullshit — think St. Vincent’s powerfully calculated image and virtuosic shredding skills, or Florence Welch’s wholesale embrace of her feminine grace that bends not one inch in its strength and presence.

Indie rock sex symbols: Karen O, St. Vincent, John Darnielle (Mountain Goats)

Doom Metal

What you see:

On the surface, not a lot in terms of sexuality. Doom, perhaps the ultimate micro-subgenre on this list, seems more content to discuss suffering, gloom, and all the dreadful situations of the world, brought on by religious oppression, drug addiction, or mythic occult forces. You name it, it’s been worried about in doom, and anxiety and sex don’t seem a natural fit.

What you get:

While they may drone on about demons, destruction, and cocaine-induced paranoia (think genre forefathers Black Sabbath), there’s a latent sensuality to doom that seeps through the syrupy thick riffs, rooted as they are in downtempo blues and gut-rumbling volume. Anyone who’s ever been to a doom show knows firsthand the highly physical experience of feeling a long, slow ascension reverberate throughout their bod. That booming sensation extends throughout one’s core and into the extremities, connecting the mind and body while adding a certain hungry sensitivity to the latter. Doom metal is a one big, sad, sonic magic wand, and not the kind with which you cast spells.

Doom metal sex symbols: Young Ozzy Osbourne, Jinx Dawson (Coven), Matt Pike (High On FireSleep)

Goth

What you see:

A funereal presence steeped in depressive antagonism; mall-goths in fishnet arm warmers scowling at passerby in the food court; neon ravers throwing down out beneath a bridge; faux vampires in crushed velvet posing languidly in the autumnal woods. Goths are a breed of many variants, all bound together by the blackened ennui of existence and inexorably drawn to the night and all its trappings. When it comes to sexuality, it’s a strange dichotomy of Vampire: The Masquerade-sylized eroticism vs. the oversexed “Big Titty Goth GF” trope. The recurring theme is trappings — goth sexuality seems to be about make-up, tattoos, and vinyl outfits, with sex sometimes coming across as secondary to what’s worn before or during it.

What you get:

While much of the subculture remains as insular as it was in the ’90s, it’s also easy to visit any local goth dance night and see harness-clad, choker-wearing, sensuous leather- and velvet-draped creatures dancing about in unbound freedom. Goth seems to be a binding element of camaraderie amongst weirdos, and that includes those who fall into the ‘sexual outcast’ category: kinksters, freaks, poly folks, and anyone whose attitude toward mainstream norms skews peculiar.

This can present negatively, with toxic individuals using goth’s nonconformist ‘freedom’ to behave sexually inappropriate. But the far more common upside is that, while seemingly exclusionary to the newcomer baby bat, goth will eventually open its arms to most folks and their quirks, latex fetish included (and applauded).

Goth sex symbols: The reluctant “not-goth” Andrew Eldritch and his one-time bandmate Patricia Morrison (Sisters of Mercy), Siouxsie Sioux, Peter Murphy (Bauhaus), and of course, Type O Negative’s Pete Steele.

Nu-Metal

What you see:

Bros, bros everywhere, as far as the eye can see! Whether it’s horndogs like Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst with their dated fashions and cocksure attitudes, or slinky Lotharios like Godsmack’s Sully Erna, alternating between lust-driven madness and aggressive self-marginalization, a ripe majority of nu-metallers are dependent on the intersection of sex and anger in their music to convey a sense of dominant machismo. This isn’t to say plenty of nu metal doesn’t kick ass -– whom among us doesn’t know the words to Nookie? -– but a lack of self-examination cemented the genre as sophomoric and immature, as well as very Of Its Time.

What you get:

Those elements mentioned above are somewhat of a latecomer to nu-metal’s roots in vulnerability, examined by lyricists like Korn’s Jonathan Davis, whose own exploration of sexuality and emotion is illuminated in tracks like the ultra-disturbing Daddy, which confronts the abuse and molestation he suffered as a child. Part of nu-metal’s ability to reach through the chasms of the ’90s then-stagnant rock scene was its very human connection with young fans, plenty of whom were absorbing the material through a “damaged” lens. But we must also remember the horniest band of ’90s metal: Deftones. Chino’s sultry, whispered delivery on the albums they released at the height of their fame were the soundtrack to many a fledgling hesher’s early sexual escapades.

Nu metal, despite its seemingly immature and poorly aged facade, may well have been ahead of its time in promoting a healthy emotional dialogue, which only makes those in it who sang openly about their sexual exploits and desires the most sensual of all metal musicians. That the genre took a turn towards sexual immaturity is no fault of its progenitors.

Nu-metal sex symbols: Jonathan Davis, Chino Moreno, all of Kittie, Fred Durst (yes, Fred Durst)

Black Metal

What you see:

The austere denial of all human elements — sex seemingly included — hallmarks the aesthetic of black metal, specifically its most-discussed second wave. The genre’s abrasive, uncontrolled sounds are not commonly described as sexy or sensual, so it can seem devoid of hat aspect of humanity. Covers portray Xeroxed portraits of the artists themselves in brutally cold atmospheres, in keeping with the genre’s Scandinavian roots, and the focus is on evil, violence, and the rejection of societal norms. Though symphonic acts like Cradle Of Filth have embraced eroticism, those aspects are more closely associated with their goth leanings than their kvltish tendencies.

What you get:

Black metal tries very hard to be a “practice what you preach” genre, whether that falls in line with the anti-humanist outlook of extreme right-wingers in the genre, or, these days, a wholesale rejection of Nazi-sympathizing bands through the espousal of leftist ideology. When it comes to sexuality, however, one thing is pretty clear: black metal’s horniness thrives on narcissism or nothing at all. The few times you do see sexualized images of people is often in the form of some thinnish, white “babe” coated in corpse paint and bullet belts, mirroring the musicians themselves who were overwhelmingly male for a large portion of the genre’s history. Wanting to gaze into the mirror and fuck the reflection is a tale as old as time, and certainly not confined to black metal, but this genre puts that idea up front, hard.

Black metal sex symbols: Darkthrone’s Fenriz. Literally, just Fenriz.

Industrial

What you see:

Leather, chains, big machines, post-apocalyptic bleakness and a thriving undercurrent of transgressive dance music that grew out of the abrasive roots of acts like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. From those transgressive beginnings grew enormously popular acts like Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails, the latter of which brought the world of fetish to the mainstream starting in the late 1980s and peaking with 1994 single Closer. Armed with heavily sexualized imagery and a hip-gyrating beat, industrial is the forward face of sex’s dark side.

What you get:

Industrial is a genre that wears its heart on its sleeve, but to boil it down to basic bedroom music would ignore the underlying acceptance of sex as revolutionary, in particular toying with and reveling in queerness, kink, and all forms of copulation generally frowned upon by the moral police and their Christian cohorts. Often toeing the line between genuinely sensual and kind of corny, industrial music’s preoccupation with carnality and movement is an ode to revelry and autonomy not found in such a concentrated form anywhere else in heavy music.

From Genesis P. Orridge’s surgical transformations in an effort to reach the Pandrogyne state with their later partner Lady J.; to Al Jourgensen’s early toying with androgynous looks and sounds for gay-owned label Wax Trax, that eventually led to his pioneering work in cut-up-tape methods on Ministry’s mid-career output; to the likes of contemporary genre darlings 3TEETH and their chiseled front man Alexis Mincolla’s vocal approval of indulgence and BDSM; industrial has always been about fucking well and fucking often, and the transgressive nature of doing so without guilt or remorse.

Industrial sex symbols: Till Lindemann (Rammstein), Sean Yseult (White Zombie), Justin Broadrick (Godflesh), Trent Reznor, Alexis Mincolla (3TEETH)

Emo

What you see:

Swoopy-banged lanksters in skinny jeans and Converse pining after unattainable women populate the boys’ club atmosphere of emo. The genre’s sincerity, mixed with its tendency towards introversion and angst explored in a quieter way than that of nu-metal, is not exactly a recipe for foreplay, but the broadcast sensitivity of its makers meant plenty of young girls swooned all over the place when the genre reached peak mainstream saturation in the oughts.

What you get:

As quickly as this DC hardcore scene offshoot gained massive success with bands like Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional, emo mutated and evolved into a self-indulgent mess that took the honest outpourings of early bands and applied a liberal topping of misogynistic whining. Unfulfilled sexual desire is often at the heart of emo’s more recognizable albums, but that never really hindered any of those bespectacled heartbreakers from getting laid and taking their kiss-and-tell asses all the way to the bank.

Despite the later issues with lyrical chauvinism and friendzone posturing, there are still plenty of genuine — if reluctant — musicians with Big Dick Energy in emo. After all, who wouldn’t lust after this clip of a mop-topped Guy Piciotto screaming his heart out with Rites Of Spring in this 1985 performance?

Emo sex symbols: Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional)

Posted on August 13th 2019, 7:00pm
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