If you recall, I had a “moment” a few months ago when I asked myself how feminist I really am. Do I support them with my money and/or reviews? My playlist was woefully dude-centric, so I bought music by female artists, which led to looking up books by and about female musicians. I stumbled across Laina Dawes work of nonfiction called What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal and was stoked.
Heavy metal has defined me as a person! I didn’t want to get with Metallica, I wanted to BE Metallica. And Jonathan Davis. And Sevendust. And Shine Down. And Nine Inch Nails. And Staind. Et cetera — music circa 1996-2001.
Dawes’s book, published by Bazillion Points Books, is a mother-luvin’ hot mess. I mention the publisher (I typically do not) because I have to wonder if they even care about what goes out to readers, readers who have paid for their books. The introduction appears twice in my Kindle copy. When I saw “EPILOGUE,” I sighed with relief, but was confused as to why I was only 75% through the book. It’s because the small survey Dawes distributed is copied three times. You’d think someone got happy with the copy and paste functions and didn’t care to review the final product before publishing it. And typos. Typos as far as the eye can see. Small presses struggle, but they have to have pride to have customers.
Laina Dawes’s work lacks credibility in a way that made me mistrust everything she said. Sources are not cited (there’s a bibliography at the end, but most of it goes to entire books that are not referenced often, suggesting she’s cherry picking information). Dawes references the same few sources repeatedly, including one documentary and a couple of musicians, basically asking them to prop up her poorly researched argument.
And it is an argument — a “should” argument, the kind I taught college freshmen for years not to make. If you argue that “women should make equal pay to men,” that’s not a strong argument because if they “should,” then the would. It’s too simple and lacks nuance. Dawes argued that people “should” be able to listen to whatever music they want without feeling like an outsider or being harassed. Yes, in theory, but it’s not true, as evidenced by her numerous anecdotal evidence.
Dawes purports to be a journalist, but lacks the ethical guidelines of a good journalist like Rachel Louise Snyder. Instead of speaking to the white men Dawes claims side eye her at concerts to give them voice, she assumes they are racist. Am I saying she’s wrong? No, but this wasn’t a memoir, it was a work of biased journalism, which is a no-go in my book.
There are a number of assumptions, too, rather than real investigation. Here is just one example:
Labelle, the ’70s super group that consisted of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash, were known for their glam rock style and their willingness to combine rock ‘n’ roll with societal issues that many singers in that era avoided. Did their images and music preferences stay in line with what black folks thought was appropriate behavior? No. Did they care? Probably not. [emphasis mine]
Dawes, who was a PhD candidate at Columbia University, had access to a research library. I searched “Patti Labelle” on their library site and came up with 14,835 articles and 21 items in the music/book catalog. Is that a huge number of resources? Of course, but that’s part of being a serious scholar in a PhD program.
Though you could consider the blog Dawes maintains a personal space separate from her scholarly and journalistic pursuits, she admits she’s reporting on concerts she attends, including the time she attended a concert with multiple bands, heard a rumor that one of the bands said or did something racist, and then wrote about it in a blog post. She claims she didn’t name the band, but it was easy for her readers to figure it out, and people slammed her for publishing unfounded rumors. If Dawes wants to be a journalist, she can’t conduct herself like a tabloid version of the profession. Because she argued that what she did was acceptable, and later deleted the post, I didn’t trust her ethics.
Sadly, I was disappointed the entire time I read What Are You Doing Here? Poor sources, a questionable author, a seemingly careless press — there wasn’t much to root for. I did check out some of the musical acts she mentioned, surprised that many had a more 1990s alt-rock sound like The Cranberries than a heavy metal sound. Straight Line Stitch was the exception. This is an important topic that likely needed to be a memoir, or perhaps Dawes needed more support — financial, personal, and academic.