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Sex, Metal, and Videogames

My blog concerns the Gothic, but also sex, metal and videogames (not quite sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, but certainly healthier). In any case, I wanted to briefly cover these areas of interest—why they're so important to me, but also how they tie into the Gothic according to my overlapping tastes. If anyone's wondering what the Gothic is, here's a useful (and funny) guide; it's not totally how I view the Gothic as a mode of expression, but it's a good place for the uninitiated to start. Here's another.

Sex

Who doesn't like sex? All kidding aside, sex is a large part of my identity as a thinker and an artist (I make videogame pinups and erotic art). Most of my teachers in school were women, and the women in my family—from my mother to my great grand mother—were educated. At a very young age I wasn't thrown into religion; I was encouraged to learn. I learned about feminism as an undergrad. From there, I began to experiment and explore; I started to meet interesting people.

Most of my friends are women or trans, and my relationships have predominantly been with people outside of the heteronormative spectrum. There's nothing wrong with cis white men on an essential level, but there is a lot of privilege and defensive attitudes about outsider positions. At the same time, women and trans people are frequently portrayed unfavorably by men in media, and men have had a disproportionate level of power in what is said to begin with. To quote Austen, “Men have had every advantage [of women] in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” 

Gothic media, my area of study, is something of an exception. Over the years, Gothic media has become a refuge for these groups, allowing them to address their lack of representation, but also the problematic attitudes that portray them as sex objects, demons, or both (as explained by trans YouTuber Contrapoints). Academically it was treated as a curious backwater until the 1970s, when Gothic studies, along with feminism, began to not only appear, but grow at a rapidly accelerating pace.

Many of the subjects I've written about concern women in some shape or form. From Amazons to Perfect Blue to female portrayal in videogames, my stance has always been feminist—that is to say, concerned with the female point of view. The female point of view is important, but also tremendously engaging and entertaining. Seminal works like Alien (1979) set the stage; latter-day adaptations like Netflix' Castlevania (2017) carry that tradition forward. 

To this, I look up to women like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conor, but there's no shame in admitting I find them desirable. Who wants a weak woman who can't think for herself, who needs to be rescued? Sexists, that's who. It's perfectly alright to want to be rescued by women, or at the very least expect some kind of mutually reciprocal exchange when the chips are down. And let me tell you from personal experience, boys, consensual submission is not the same thing as "emasculation.*" It's just another way to have a relationship with someone.

*Pro-tip: Feminism will totally get you laid. A popular adage is "women aren't slot machines; you don't put in kindness coins until sex comes out." Instead, you treat them like people, like equals. You don't kiss their asses, but you do let them consent, and let them be heard. The panties just fly off, let me tell you. Whoosh!

The male viewpoint still matters, and so-called "castration fears" are as old as Western Civilization. Many men feel threatened by powerful women; and many women and men feel threatened by trans people. But the real thing to fear is superstition and sexism, coded by society to oppress the disadvantaged by treating them as targets. The privileged attack, only to become abused themselves (racism is bad for white people; fascists submit to authority; and incels [generally men] are virgins in toxic death cults). In Gothic terms, the tyrant "plays the Roman fool," dying an ignominious death.

This abuse comes a system that that utterly favors the wealthy elite. Fear is a powerful tool in the hands of such persons. Deconstructed, it can be turned against one's abusers, becoming the key to self-empowerment (re: sex work, and women controlling the means of production; artistic expression; and writers exhibiting free thought). For this to happen, education is vital. Sex is controlled, but also dialog on sex (see: Foucault's History of Sexuality). A lack of sex education and dialog amount to sex control, or regulation through ignorance. Sex education and sex dialog matter. It gives the interlocutors power.

Not just the nuts-and-bolts of actual sex (though that's certainly important), but also feminism, and raising one's awareness towards other groups. Their needs and wants aren't exclusive to one's own. It's a common strategy to cite feminism as destructive: i.e., "It will destroy Man's way of life!" Hogwash. Life will change, but societal change is necessary for the betterment of all. Consider the Civil Rights Movement, or Women's Suffrage. The Feminism of today has similar aims, as do connected movements like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+. Holistic, universal betterment moves us away from disparity—away from hunger, pain and suffering—and towards a better world.

Metal

Metal was something I listened to a lot growing up. I also enjoyed classical music, though especially tone poems like "Night on Bald Mountain," and of course, Beethoven. The guy's about as metal as they come. He was also a commoner, meaning not of the aristocracy. His music pioneered the belief that all people are equal, and that Napoleon Bonaparte was a jackass. Granted, this hasn't stopped dictators from taking his anthemic "Ode to Joy" and using it for their own anthems (see: Slavoj Zizek's The Pervert's Guide to Ideology). 

Nonetheless, I enjoy metal for its candor. The genre is famous for its outspoken nature, of tapping into our dark, forbidden desires. Black Sabbath famously protested the Vietnam War with "War Pigs." That entire album was a laundry list of complaints against society at large, critiquing everything from nuclear bombs, to drug abuse, to political corruption. This blueprint has been faithfully adapted—from Judas Priest's Stained Class (1978) to Metallica's Ride the Lightning (1986) to Overkill's Horrorscope (1991).

In this sense, metal serves as a space to convey rebellious attitudes, a practice employed by the earliest rock 'n rollers, jazz cats, and slave gospels. Unlike those groups, metal is predominantly white (descriptively speaking), allowing for white men (and the occasional woman) to critique the world around them. Bands like Sabbath and Priest came from an post-WWII England, its industrialized landscape the birthing site for their disillusioned music. The Gothic also came from England, and British metal remained steeped in this tradition, dabbling in murder, sex, and the occult. This dovetails nicely with my own interests: I studied the Gothic while living in Manchester, England.

Long before I set foot on British soil, I loved British music. Especially NWOBH, or the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. This type of music became a national export (similar to K-pop bands, but that's another story). Emulated by American bands, British Metal was reborn in Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica. I enjoyed this faster aggression (not entirely "news" has Germany almost had a thrash movement, re: Kreator, Sodom). However, the nature of the discourse had shifted. Slayer was dubiously conservative at times ("Silent Scream") and Mustaine was, well, himself. I didn't notice this until I was older, more educated; my time in school changed my views on sex, but also metal (which often comments on sex in some shape or form).

Not all American bands are openly political. Even so, the practice has become so commodified and stylized to be labeled as pastiche, "a statue with blind eyeballs" (see: Fredrick Jameson's Postmodernism). It doesn't see the issues; it imitates the observers of yore. Today the NWOTM (New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal) highlights this issue, emulating past styles instead of always having much to say. The hedonist, rebellious attitudes remain, but are extremely stylized and conventional (the titular Painkiller less of a genuine rebel and more a reliable drug to sate one's appetites). It becomes something to learn, rather than a reactionary movement meant to raise awareness towards actual abuses of power.

This being said, the gateway remains. A statue, no matter how blind, still imitates older works. Likewise, the expression of music for its own sake, is as old as the medium. Give music power, and people will bask in it (re: Beethoven). For me, these realities only remind me that metal can be overtly political, or it can be fun. And more often than not, the composers of today revel in the toy box of former Masters. American horror is especially self-aware, full of nods to old works, and older works, and older works. Sooner or later, you wind up back in Britain, Asia and Europe. 

I didn't always see metal as Gothic, but I do interpret it Gothically. This is true for older subgenres, but also Darkwave bands like Dance with the Dead and Carpenter Brut (whose music I've written about, here). '80s nostalgia is all the rage these days, but hauntology has been a huge component of the Gothic since The Castle of Otranto (1764); the neo-Gothic revival of the 1790s was basically a nostalgia craze. 

You can't sing about sex demons without some evocation of the past. Former treks into the void corroborate a huge Gothic theme: fear of the past, specifically of its return. If people are singing about demons, is a tyrant actually near? Or is someone just horny and looking to spice up their sex life? To present them at all is to excite people and make them curious—doubly so if they're privileged (which, in America, usually translates to "repressed").

Videogames

For me, videogames and music crossover nicely. My thesis covered Metroidvania, a couplet genre for two franchises with excellent music. Metroid seldom errs (the Prime series is a little pedestrian at times). However, the music of Castlevania is reliably consistent no matter the title, and plays out with an unmistakably metal spirit. Japan had its fair share of metal imports, ranging from The Scorpions to Yngwie Malmsteen. This could be heard in their own metal scene, with bands like X and Concerto Moon repackaging metal for the Japanese youth then and now.

The same was happening in videogames. After the Atari crash of '83, Japan single-handedly revitalized the market with Super Mario Bros. (1985). From then on, videogames were in demand, and so were composers. These writers were clearly inspired by the metal scene. While these compositions weren't the same love letter to metal that Bobby Prince's Doom was, they remained steeped in the style and the subject material metal generally embodied: sex, the occult, nostalgia, and ghost stories. 

None more so than Castlevania. To this day, few franchises can hope to match the ghoulish energy of Konami's abandoned crown jewel. A salient commentary is always important, but Castlevania's tireless drive demonstrates something equally vital: the energy to push discourse into the present sphere. These are old issues; they need to remain attractive and fun to stay wholly engaging. While I certainly prefer Metroid's mazelike treatment of space (re: my master's thesis), the music in Castlevania really satisfies my inner metalhead. 

It also showcases forms of gender expression that slide away from the Western norm. In this "Bloody Tears" cover, for example, Japanese performers put on Goth clothes and play the music. Just like the in-game characters, these musicians are unusually feminine (to Western eyes). The gig is somewhat liminal. The female performers partially reflect a traditional framing of women in Japanese culture; but their dark, suggestive clothes convey transgression, knowledge and power. The boys are more feminine than ever.*

*For more of my thoughts on gender flexibility and studies in Japanese culture, see my piece on horror and social commentary in Japanese cinema.

In the "Bloody Tears" video, the whole performance (see: Judith Butler's Gender Trouble) is consensual, hinting at its real power. Men don't have to be salary men; women don't have to be housewives. Pretty liberating don't you think? And in the grand Gothic tradition, it's told through the veneer of a dark masque. This being said, consent is a tricky thing for videogame characters; they don't choose their own clothes, the developers do. 

Musicians are different. They can choose their own clothes, and the playing of their music represents a choice to do so. Sometimes this choice is rebellious, like Jim Morrison getting The Doors banned from the Ed Sullivan show by alluding to drugs; or Pat Benatar telling a producer "fuck off, we're not actors" when he began telling them how to stand and dress—how to perform, essentially. To this, the act of making music is demonstrably liberating. It gives people the ability to express themselves freely, to protest if need be, and to celebrate when the time comes.

I digress, Castlevania is near and dear to my heart. I'm also a huge fan of Mega Man—both the classic games, but also the MMX and Mega Man Zero franchises. More I, Robot than Dracula, these games took the metal sound and drove it into the future. Some of the games had a dystopian outlook, but many of them were bright and colorful. This is reflected at least partially by their respective target audiences. Classic Mega Man was aimed at '80s kids. MMX, at '90s teens. 

For me, I played the classics as old rentals, and MMX as brand-new. My teenage years were spent with Mega Man Zero, which incidentally had a darker feel to it. However, this variant was tied to anime, which had become popular as a Japanese export. Few things are as tropey and rote as anime, but there's still room to express Gothic themes (re: dystopia) amid a posthuman drama. Frankenstein was effectively a teenage drama (re: the Creature is Victor's man-made son). Mega Man's not exactly Frankenstein, but something tells me Shelley would have put metal in the book had she known about it; metal is loud, direct and forceful, delightfully exploring humanity's darker side.

One form of videogame music I especially like is the remix/cover. I've been a fan of videogame remixes since Dwelling of Duels and VGmix first appeared. My interest started with The Minibossses and Metroid Metal in high school, and just evolved from there. The Black Mages also rocked; though nearly two decades old, their "Dancing Mad" rendition is still the best (everyone else, organists included, always rush the suspension/resolution before the final movement!).

Such variations are all too common these days. It wasn't always so. In the early 2000s, you had to order CDs through the mail (I bought Grant Henry's Metroid Metal CD with a $10 check). Bandwidth was pretty limited too. A lot of those places were on pre-Discord forums, which were their own kind of jungles. Nowadays there's a million YouTubers who make covers, and honestly the production values are much better. The technology is available, but more time has been spent studying the craft of self-production. Dwelling of Duels* was literally a contest held to award contest entrants for their production skills.

*The site is apparently still around, and doing quite well! They also have a Discord server. All their music, from 2021 all the way back to 2003, is available for download. For some killer tracks, I recommend listening to the finalists for each monthly contest. These events are pretty competitive, so the songs aren't generally made for money or novelties. They're written to sound as good as possible (conversely the YouTube content machine sometimes puts musicians on autopilot).

One of the guys who regularly won Dwelling of Duels was Jake Kaufman. He was actually a pro videogame composer at the time. Since then, he's worked on stuff ranging from Shantae, to Shovel Knight, to Crypt of the Necrodancer. For me, Kaufman's best personal work were "Blood of Ganon" and "Crystal Flash." When presented with music like Kaufman's or other remixers, I feel those old games coming to life a second time. The same goes for metal more generally (re: the "what if...?" Metallica remixers).

This type of revival is communal—driven by videogame fans who grew up loving the characters, but also the music that brings them to life. Some of them became developers and the whole thing repeats. What is Hollow Knight (2017) without Super Metroid (1994) and Dark Souls (2011), and what are they without Alien (1979) and The Castle of Otranto (1764)? All were set to music; music is the driving force.

Conclusion

I could go on, but this provides a good summary of what I enjoy about sex, metal and videogames—both casually and critically—and how they're connected to my profession, the Gothic. It didn't occur to me to cover them previously because I hadn't really organized them in my mind up to this point. I also didn't think people would want to know about me and my interests, but I'm starting to find that I like writing about that, too. Maybe I'll do more of these in the future.

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My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I have my MA in English Studies: The Gothic from Manchester Metropolitan University. 

Check out my interview series: Hell-blazers: Speedrunning Doom Eternal, "Giving My Two Cents: A Metal Compendium," and the Alien: Ore" Interview Project.

My favorite posts: Dragon Ball Super: Broly - Is It Gothic?Mandy (2018): ReviewGothic Themes in Perfect Blue. Also check out my guest work on Video Hook-Ups.

Follow me on Twitter! Watch my Gothic podcast! Purchase a commission through my art website! Or support me on Patreon or Ko-Fi!

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