What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal by Laina Dawes

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.

30 comments

  1. I’m more a punk fan than heavy metal but enjoyed Straight Line Stitch. Yes I know music journalists like to write fast and loose, but they still have to get it right. And the publisher sounds like they don’t care at all.

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    • She definitely mentioned rock, punk, and metal, which made the book a bit wonky, because, as you likely know, those crowds are all quite different. It’s like Dawes didn’t have enough material to focus on the metal that she wanted to discuss. What Are You Doing Here? should have been novella length (well, maybe it is if the publisher took away all the duplicated sections) or a long paper.

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  2. I didn’t know you were such a big metal fan! It’s a shame this was a let down for you. It’s definitely an interesting topic, so hopefully someone else rises to the challenge of exploring it in book form.

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  3. Wow, this sounds incredibly problematic all around. How weird that it was structured as a serious work of journalism when it sounds like she just wanted to write a memoir. That’s pretty astounding that a scholar/journalist would make the kind of opinion-based or anecdotal assumptions you describe. And I would’ve been incredibly peeved at the mistakes and weird repetitions, even small presses should have rounds of editing to take care of that. Although I read a book several months ago from a major publisher that was so typo-riddled I actually wasn’t sure what a couple of sentences were supposed to say. I’d never seen a non-ARC from a big publisher that was that bad before, so I guess if they can let that stuff slide by from time to time, it can definitely happen at small presses.

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    • Small presses will always make the excuse that they are underfunded and overworked, but then I have to ask, “Why did you start this press? Is your aesthetic so important that the world just couldn’t live without it?” I’ve read about presses complaining the owner sinks all of their personal money into the press, that no one buys their books because “no one values literature anymore,” etc. I think that, like any small business, a small press is a risk, one that may not pay off, and that should, regardless, be done with pride.

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  4. Oh that’s such a shame – a great premise but a real let-down. The press sounds very much at fault too. if they can’t afford to pay editors they need to make sure their authors come to them edited. How horrible a reading experience that must have been – and a topic that could be fascinating in the right hands.

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    • It was quite a let-down, and I also wonder what kind of support Dawes received from mentors and professors while at Columbia. I’m not sure if she finished her degree — I don’t see lots of information about her online. She’s active on Twitter, and her bio there says she’s still a PhD candidate. . .but those are the same credentials she had when she wrote the book, which was published in 2012.

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  5. A great review of what sounds like a sadly subpar book. This does seem like a fascinating and worthwhile topic; it’s a shame it wasn’t handled in a better way.

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      • I don’t think they did. Glancing through my list of college reads I spot a few small presses, but spread across different classes rather than assigned as a group from any particular professor. I had to read quite a variety of styles, some really lesser-known stuff, but on the whole the general focus was much more on the work and/or author, without much attention given to the presses, big or small.

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  6. OMG the repeating of the text in a book? No No No!!! It’s poorly things like that that give all small presses a bad name, they should be ashamed of themselves 😦

    Too bad this was such a disappointment. I’m not a metal fan myself BUT I do like NIN. Are they considered metal? I always thought of them as ‘alternative’. But my husband likes metal and is trying to get my daughter into it. She bangs her head and holds up her ‘horns’ while sticking out her tongue LOL

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    • I think NIN are often called alternative metal simply because Trent Reznor tends to use a lot of computer-generated effects in his music. I love that your husband is trying to get your daughter into metal. My dad had this old AC/DC VHS tape that we would watch together. When I got older, I made a compilation VHS tape of Metallica music videos, concerts, and interviews that we watched together. All three hours.

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  7. […] Welcome to July! Since we had both a new month and a holiday (in the United States), Grab the Lapels had two extra posts. On Monday, I shared what I will be reading in July. Tuesday was a review of The Snow Queen, an award-winning science fiction novel published in 1980 that is actually part of a series (who knew?!) that I’ll keep reading. Thursday was the 4th of July, so I posted a collage of red, white, and blue book covers to celebrate. Lastly, on Friday I shared a review of a rather disappointing work of journalism about black women on the heavy metal scene. […]

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  8. This is the second review I have read recently that features a book where the author does not do proper research and then promotes their ideas as reality. I am sorry people but seriously do the research. I also cannot stand when assumptions are made about what people think and feel. No, just no. Ugh. Interesting review but sad the book was so crappy in both format and function.
    x The Captain

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  9. When I was in the 8th grade I went through a huge “metal” phase, but it was glam metal like Poison, Motley Crue, Skid Row, etc. That was the thing back then. And then came grunge in the 9th grade and I was like, “See ya, Bret Michaels!” I still have a soft spot for all that stuff, though.

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    • Bret Michaels. Is such a dork. LOL. I saw this show on which his daughter made fun of him for accidentally running into that raising wall on the Tony Awards, and he was SO mad at her for even bringing it up because he looked so stupid. I actually learned later that he reportedly suffered a broken nose and a brain hemorrhage. His lawsuit said, “Through his sheer will to live, Michaels was able to survive this trauma.” I’m dyin’!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m sorry this was so disappointing! It sounds like an interesting premise and not one widely explored so it seems like she could have made it a really interesting book.

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