the sweet 16
(11) the creatures, “exterminating angel”
(7) swans, “let it come down”
AND PLAY ON IN THE ELITE 8
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 20.
YES, LET’S: KYLE SIMONSEN ON “LET IT COME DOWN”
I don’t know if I should even be writing an essay about Swans and their inscrutable frontman, Michael Gira.
At the beginning of the academic year, when I am selecting essays to assign my students, I pause over Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me.” Alexie describes growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, learning to read through comic books, and illustrates the transformative power of literature. It’s an ideal choice for my students, who will be writing their own literacy narratives. It’s the right length, uses the right sort of language. It’s widely anthologized for a reason. But I hesitate, because Sherman Alexie has been accused by more than one woman—at least ten of them, in fact—of sexual misconduct.
Gira, too, has been accused. Of rape, by a former musician on his label, Larkin Grimm. She claims that Gira sexually assaulted her while she was intoxicated and unconscious, and that many times afterward he propositioned her, came on to her, forcibly kissed her. Gira, for his part, denies any wrongdoing entirely, and says any contact between the two of them was entirely consensual.
I wear a lot of hats. Literally. Mostly baseball caps that cover up my bald spot, bedecked with favorite sports teams and bands. (None of those bands is Swans.) Hats I don’t want to wear: trillbies, fedoras, bowlers.
I also wear a lot of hats figuratively. Teacher, writer, husband, mentor, father to both a son and daughter. Hats I don’t want to wear: defense attorney, megaphone, or signal booster for a sexual predator.
Michael Gira likes wearing a pale cowboy hat he acquired from Jarboe La Salle Devereaux, his former Swans bandmate. In an interview from 2013, he explains:
STEREOGUM: When did you start wearing the cowboy hat?
GIRA: [Laughs]. In 1985. Jarboe’s father was a former FBI agent. I saw this wonderful hat and it was his FBI hat and I started wearing it. But I’ve always worn hats.
STEREOGUM: It’s kind of like Indiana Jones in that the hat makes the man.
GIRA: Well, there’s a lower part that might also make the man.
I decided to assign Alexie anyway. But after discussing the essay’s literary merits with my students, I disclosed the charges against Alexie. I asked them how they felt about reading the work of a man accused of sexual harassment.
They said you have to separate the art from the artist. They said that’s bullshit, and that’s impossible. They said that as young black men they appreciated reading someone else who felt along the seams of a racial ceiling imposed by society. They said that I should have told them at the beginning.
Was that wrong? To let them fall in love with Alexie first, to sympathize with him, to picture him flipping through the pages of the titular Superman comic book, trying to make sense of it and the world on the reservation? Is it wrong to present him as a model to my students and then kick the legs out from under the desks just as they are trying to figure out what the fuck an essay even is?
I’ve never been in love with Swans. I listened to them a lot around 2010, when they reformed and “The Seer” came out, but they were never one of THOSE bands for me, the ones you listen to on headphones in the dark staring up at a ceiling you can’t see (because of the aforementioned dark) and trying to decide who you are, who you will be today and who you will be forever, and who everyone else will be to you, for you.
The song “Let it Come Down” appears on the Swans’ 1989 LP, The Burning World. Come down it did: the album, more palatable than the bleak, noisy records that had preceded it, was a commercial flop. The band’s label, UNI, dropped them soon after its release. Gira has said that he hates the album. Will this affirm your own hatred of it, or make you like it more?
As someone who grew up an avowed metalhead, my first inclination is to make clear that I don’t even consider Swans a gothic rock band, because that’s what I did as a young metalhead, and what I think most young metalheads do: spend a lot of time gatekeeping the genre. We’d do it with some irony, mocking music that we didn’t consider “tr00” metal, but we also took it seriously, because we were at an age where belonging mattered a lot to us, and we didn’t want to be associated with “fake” metal. So we were long-haired, spike-bracered, combat-booted bouncers at a metaphorical club no one probably even really wanted to get into very bad.
But anyway, to me at least, Swans are properly post-punk, or now perhaps post-rock. And though all goth rock is post-rock, the reverse is not true; it’s the “all poodles are dogs, but all dogs are not poodles” problem from your basic freshman logic class.
So, the point: does this Swans song even belong in the company it now finds itself in?
Well, they are in that company, and at the risk of betraying my metal brethren and our boundary enforcement club, I’m not sure gothic rock is really a clearly defined subgenre at all. Usually, when we are picking apart a genre, we’re looking at stylistic elements: instrumental qualities, singing styles, technology used. But goth has always been more about the atmosphere of the music than anything else: droning, dramatic, dark, and romantic. And The Burning World and “Let It Come Down” are certainly that.
Perhaps it says something about the allure of the gothic sensibility that as forceful a creative persona as Gira was drawn away from his abrasive origins, seduced by the Egyptian makeup and fishnet tights, perhaps, to something more melodic. I’ve seen “The Burning World” described as alt-country, folk rock, and world music, and none of those things are wrong, but the atmosphere of the music is unquestionably gothic: obsessed with endings, with apocalypse, with giving in entirely to any sort of darkness that will have you.
In a Bitch Media article, Beth Winegarner describes “the commodification of goth with Hot Topic and Marilyn Manson, who was arguably—if accidentally—a big part of the reason goth faded from the mainstream. After the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, rumors started that shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were goths and fans of Marilyn Manson (they weren’t). Schools across the country began cracking down on ‘goth kids,’ barring students from wearing black clothes, trench coats, weird makeup, and spiked collars to school.”
I was a freshman in high school in 1999. The school I attended then was Standley Lake Senior High. Jefferson County School District. Twenty-one miles away from Columbine down Wadsworth Boulevard.
As I remember it, goth music had already “faded from the mainstream.” I certainly wasn’t listening to it. The only bands in this bracket my friends and I listened to on a regular basis were Manson, NIN, White Zombie, Smashing Pumpkins. The goth-adjacent. Not tr00 goth. I listened to Ministry, because my uncle did, and I grew up idolizing him, and I would sometimes listen to Bauhaus or Nick Cave because I’d read other musicians I liked mention them in guitar magazine interviews and so of course I had to like them too.
I remember watching the Columbine shooting alone in the apartment I lived in then with my mother and brother.
I remember impromptu counseling sessions held by teachers and administrators at our school in the days after, though I don’t recall my friends or I knowing any of the victims.
I remember the weird looks I’d always gotten as a lanky kid with glasses hiding beneath a too-big biker jacket taking on a slightly different tinge. I remember, when I went to pick out that jacket, some other kid at the store in the mall braying to his parents as they watched me try it on: “Look at that kid, he thinks he’s a badass!” The truth, of course, was that I knew I was no such thing. But I desperately wanted to be. I always got funny looks in my leather, but after Columbine the whispers themselves got a little bit quieter. Some people were overtly nicer.
Sometime after the incident at Columbine, I was called to the principal’s office. This wasn’t unusual. I was a bad student who skipped class a lot, mostly to hang out in “The Pit” with my friends and smoke cigarettes (or a joint if we were lucky) and play hackysack and listen to music. There was one girl who did smoke cloves; she should probably be writing this essay.
But anyhow, I found myself in the principal’s office. What had happened was this: as we reviewed homework in biology class, I’d grown bored and flipped the worksheet on taxonomic rank over and began doodling and scrawling song lyrics in the jagged all-caps that are the hallmark of an edgy fourteen-year-old. I don’t remember which sludgy riffs were running through my head that day—though I am sure they weren’t Swans’—and so I don’t recall what the lyrics were, exactly, but in the culture of fear that permeated the school in the weeks and months following Columbine they were enough to make my teacher—a sweet, patient woman—turn my paper over to someone in the administration rather than handing it back to me.
I pushed my glasses up my nose and stared at the faux woodgrain on the desk in the vice principal’s office and tried to explain, as he and the biology teacher looked on with folded arms and furrowed brows, that I wasn’t violent. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I was just writing lyrics to the songs that ran through my head, songs that described the violence of the world around me, songs that seemed true.
They never made me stop wearing my leather jacket, that I can recall, and if they’d taken away my black band t-shirts I don’t know that I could have made it to Wednesday without showing up shirtless. Goth hadn’t died for me or my friends that April. The strange looks were just of a different sort. A gaze without any romance.
“Let It Come Down” is perhaps the most accessible song on what is widely regarded as Swans’ worst album. To this day, The album literally haunts Gira, who says he “abhors it.”
He’s not alone.
Writing for Brainwashed, Creaig Dunton calls The Burning World “easily the most maligned release in Swans' discography.” Aaron Lariviere, in listing it as the worst of Swans’ entire catalog, notes the “poor match between newly light songwriting and too-thin, too-precious production.”
Fan communities—message boards, subreddits, old mailing lists—are full of comments with fans halfheartedly imploring others to “give it a shot,” because the album “really isn’t that bad,” about as tepid an endorsement as one will see outside of the political arena.
Even within the context of The Burning World, controversial album that it is, “Let It Come Down” isn’t on its face the most notable song. “Saved” was the only song on the album that rose to the Billboard alternative rock charts—Swans’ only song ever to do so—and the song that has had the most staying power from the record is “God Damn the Sun,” a downright dirge that’s still more or less a staple of their live performances. [This song, possibly superior, was deemed ineligible by the Selection Committee on account of its participation in a previous March Xness tournament: 2016’s March Sadness. —Editors]
What “Let It Come Down” has that those songs don’t: Sha la la la la la la.
You may be unsurprised to learn that the cover of the album features an open, drooping flower with a visible pistil.
You may, at this point, be entirely unsurprised to learn that the song begins with a meditation on masculinity: “Some men are made of steel and blood/Some fall from Heaven when their time does come.” No word on what sorts of hats these men are wearing.
The verses are pretty much a gothic word cloud: there’s a knife, there’s some cold black pain, and some accumulated dark by a window for the narrator to stare into. There’s an unbroken chain, a heart to be split, some betrayal.
I’m most intrigued by the burning rain in which the narrator vows to drown at the end of the first verse. This is the sort of paradox I find myself wrestling with.
I can imagine an essay that’s not about “Let It Come Down.” I can imagine an essay that’s about “God Damn the Sun,” perhaps the one clearly redeeming song on the reviled album, the beautiful black rose amidst the etc. etc. thorns. I can imagine an essay that’s able to point out that even the darkest, blackest etc. contains a shimmering something beautiful in an overlooked recess of the endless abyss. That’s pretty gothic.
I can imagine that essay arguing that you need to be able to find beauty in even the most horrible people, not even just the alleged horrible people, but the confirmed horrible people, the horrible people being horrible in unambiguous ways in brightly lit rooms, their horror recorded on video and audio devices, undisputed and unmuffled by baglama, bouzouki, tabla—the instruments of The Burning World.
I can imagine the essay desperate to provide an answer to how we ought best to consume the art we can no longer entirely focus on without hearing the hisses and clicks of the recording process, seeing the violence inherent in the brushstrokes, even if those hisses and strokes were what drew us to that sort of art in the first place. I can imagine an essay of defense, of preservation.
But this essay is about “Let It Come Down.” And so we have our prayer, our mantra. Sha la la la la la la. Let it come down.
Kyle Simonsen has written for Assay, Sidebrow, Rain Taxi, and others; a chapbook of his poetry is available from Blood Pudding Press. He teaches creative nonfiction writing, composition, and technical editing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Come to Kill Your Sons: melissa faliveno on “exterminating angel”
Here it comes again
Taste of jagged glass and rusty can
“Women just aren’t good musicians,” my cousin said. I was fifteen and she was sixteen. She, like me, lived in rural Wisconsin, our towns an hour apart, with populations of only a couple thousand, most of whom were working-class, God-fearing, and white, who drove pickup trucks with their radios tuned to the country station.
She, like me, was a black sheep. But while I tried to fit in, she reveled in her outsider status. She cut off all her hair, dyed it bright orange, and wore it in short gelled spikes. She painted her nails black and drew charcoal circles around her eyes, wore oversized black t-shirts with band names spattered across them like blood, and maybe, if memory serves, a wallet chain—those signifiers, sacred and profane, that we of the small-town sectors could only obtain from a weekend trip to Hot Topic. It was a look that, back then, and in that place, was sometimes referred to as goth. But usually it was just called freak.
It was a look I coveted. I experimented with eyeliner, chokers, and, briefly—one of many missteps in a failed understanding of goth aesthetics—JNCOs, but never went much further. I admired my cousin for having the courage and irreverence I lacked, for so fully embracing her weird. And so I followed her like a disciple into other obsessions, taking in the words she taught me: that women didn’t make good music, that men were better actors and athletes and writers. And for a while, I believed them.
The Creatures started out as a side project. Formed in 1981 by Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie, the Banshees drummer and Siouxsie’s future husband, the drums-and-voice duo released their first full-length album, Feast, in 1983, followed by Boomerang in 1989. Their third record, Anima Animus, was released ten years later, when the Banshees had disbanded and Siouxsie and Budgie, by then married, had turned full-time to the Creatures.
Inspired by Carl Jung’s concept of the woman inside the man, the man inside the woman, Anima Animus came out in 1999. I was sixteen. I didn’t know who the Creatures were then. I didn’t know who Siouxsie and the Banshees were, either. I had no concept of punk, post-punk, or goth. What I did know was goth’s nebulous 90s progeny: industrial music.
My cousin got me into it. We played The Downward Spiral on repeat. We watched MTV2 in her basement, marveling at Marilyn Manson’s vampiric sexlessness, both horrified and strangely turned on. As was the regrettable fate of so many teenagers at the turn of the century, we would soon move on to the angry-man titans of nu-metal: Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and Korn. But for a while, our truest love was a band called Orgy. Posters on my bedroom walls of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonathan Taylor Thomas were replaced by Jay Gordon’s industrial quintet of androgynous men in asymmetrical haircuts, glam outfits, black eyeliner and lipstick. Alone in my bedroom, I ran my finger along Jay’s jawline and memorized the angles of his spiky black hair as he screamed New Order’s “Blue Monday” through the speakers of my Sony three-disc stereo. It’s embarrassing now, my infatuation with a neo-goth dude like Jay Gordon. But where my cousin and I came from, landlocked and limited to Top 40, before either of our households had an internet connection, bands like Orgy were as transgressive as it got. And with his penciled-in eyebrows and high cheekbones, a swivel in his hips as he sang, Jay’s was the queerest body I’d ever seen—long before I had the word for it. Like my cousin, he existed in a strange new space between the masculine and feminine, and I looked to them both with wonder: this boyish girl and this girlish boy, so far beyond the frontiers of normal, each possessing something I wanted and wanted to be.
Plumes of dirt
Caress a urine-coloured sun
Swarms of angels
Come to kill your sons
There are two ways, linguistically, to interpret the words “Exterminating Angel.” First, as entity: The Angel Who Exterminates. (See also: the Angel of Death.) Second, as action: Killing the Angel. In both cases, in my mind, the Angel is a woman.
In her essay “Professions for Women,” originally delivered as a talk to the Women’s Service League in 1931, Virginia Woolf wrote, now famously, of killing the Angel in the House. From a poem of the same name by Victorian poet Coventry Patmore, the “Angel in the House” is the ideal woman: a devoted housewife who cooks and cleans and cares, whose purpose is to serve her husband and children and God. She is passive and powerless. She is charming, graceful, and meek; she is submissive, sympathetic, and self-sacrificing—“If there was chicken,” Woolf writes, “she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it.” She is pious and pure. And she should not dwell in the mind, but rather the heart; for it is the heart, and not the mind, that makes a woman.
It is the woman writer’s job, Woolf says, to kill the Angel in the House.
“I should need to do battle with a certain phantom,” she writes, “and the phantom was a woman. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing…. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her.”
“My excuse,” she says, “if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”
Oh those strange Argonauts
Digging again in your pit
Cover them in menstrual stream
Throughout history and across cultures, the Exterminating Angel has made several appearances. It’s the name of a 1962 Mexican surrealist film (and a 2015 opera adaptation) and the nickname of a sixteenth-century French pirate. The Society of the Exterminating Angel, meanwhile, was a nineteenth-century Spanish Catholic group that killed liberals. But the iteration I like best, and the one I would wager inspired the Creatures’ song, is a 1981 painting by Salvador Dalí.
In the painting, “The Exterminating Angels,” an angel bearing a dagger appears to pour forth from the body of a woman—more specifically, from a gaping hole below her belly, in a stream of something that could be interpreted as menstrual blood. The angel, who has no discernable sex organs, raises one arm high above its head, clutching a dagger. Its wings fan out behind it. It is both flying and lunging forward—toward what? Another kill? We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that in angel’s wake, beneath the woman from which it was borne, two bodies—one that might also be an angel (for it too clutches a dagger)—fall dead.
Cover them in black gold
Ripping through your menstrual stream
Anima Animus is a weird album. It’s industrial, kind of, marked by lots of synths, metallic-sounding drums, and plenty of studio fuckery. But it’s also techno, electronica, alternative, and art rock. It’s a little bit of everything, and a thing entirely its own, uncategorizable and genre-defying. Whatever it is, it’s dark, atmospheric, strange, and erotic. It’s disturbing. It’s haunting. It’s undeniably goth.
The labels rejected it. It wasn’t commercial enough, they said; it was too avant-garde. So Siouxsie and Budgie made it themselves, and created their own label, Sioux Records, on which to release it. The Times of London gave it eight out of ten stars, calling it “entrancing, hypnotic, and inventive.” The Sunday Times wrote, “Siouxsie’s voice has lost none of its ability to seduce and unsettle.” They called the eighth track, “Exterminating Angel,” “exquisitely menacing.”
“Exterminating Angel” is a song about the end of the world. More specifically, it’s about destruction borne from the body of a woman who’s sick of it all. Let me be even more specific: It’s a about a giant, man-killing, universe-ending menstrual stream, and the woman who unleashes it. The apocalypse progresses like so: There have been some dudes—let’s call them Argonauts—digging around in our hero’s pit for far too long. And so, like the women of Lemnos, she decides to kill them. All of them. First: Plumes of dirt caress a urine-colored sun. And then: Swarms of angels come to kill your sons. These angels of death pour forth in the great tide of our woman-god’s menses, washing away the sun and the stars, covering the land in death and darkness. Oh, and there are also locusts: hordes of them, blotting out the sun, raining down, rain on everyone. It’s chaos. It’s biblical. It’s a big, bloody war, and this omnipotent woman in the sky is waging it. After all the sons are dead, she’s going after the bourgeoisie (poor little rich thing, poor little misunderstood), and then I’m pretty sure she’s going to kill the angels, too. Because why not? She’s had it, and this is Armageddon. And we the listeners: We’re left somewhere out in space, in the aftermath. There are just black holes where the stars would be watching. Just black holes where the stars should have been.
Show me a song more goth than that.
Out of sync, out of phase
Out of sight, out of spite
I first heard Siouxsie in the early 2000s at a dance club in Madison, Wisconsin, called the Inferno. Like so many businesses in the Midwest, the Inferno was housed in a strip mall—a squat gray building next to a liquor store, a body shop, and a Chinese restaurant, out near the airport and the Oscar Mayer plant, where for many years my father worked. The club is closed now, but back then it was a haven for misfits in a city that afforded few such spaces. The Inferno hosted a monthly theme night called Leather & Lace, at which goth music and the city’s kink scene converged. For a few years, while I was finishing college, I went nearly every month. And it was on one of those nights—the Cure and Joy Division and the Banshees droning through the speakers, pale bodies disaffectedly bopping in the strobe lights, their fishnetted skin flashing in the dark—that I first saw Siouxsie, too. Projected onto a screen, videos in black and white: Siouxsie in a black shirt and tie, Siouxsie in leather. Siouxsie in short, spiky black hair, Siouxsie in painted black lips and eyes. She was everything I had once loved about Jay Gordon but so much better. Jay but so much more real. Jay but a woman, wearing a look that—like the cover song that made him famous—he had only co-opted, and she had created.
As for me, I wore PVC pants and knee-high leather boots. I wore a studded leather belt, a dog collar and cuffs, a tie or a corset or a zip-front Dickies dress, depending on the day. I cut off all my hair and wore it in short black spikes. For a while I ran in the fetish scene, got tied up and tortured, and did plenty of the torturing too. I was top and bottom; I was neither and both. I went to houses in the suburbs, where men called Sir built dungeons in their basements and hosted BDSM play parties that doubled as potlucks—casseroles and crudité after a round of flogging; Midwestern bodies, mottled and red, eating Swedish meatballs from paper plates. And though I eventually decided the scene wasn’t for me, I discovered some important things there, tied to a crucifix in a suburban dungeon, dancing at the Inferno, falling in love with women and men. I asked questions of myself—about my body, about desire—that I’d never been able to ask.
Siouxsie Sioux was born Susan Janet Ballion in 1957 and raised a suburb of southeast London. Her mother was a secretary and her father was an alcoholic bacteriologist who extracted venom from snakes. Siouxsie was sexually assaulted when she was nine, an event that inspired both her music and her rejection of suburbia. She dropped out of school at seventeen, left home, and joined the punk scene in London, following the Sex Pistols and cultivating what would become her signature style: a combination of punk, glam, and bondage fashion—stopping in at least a few times to Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique—her look would become an iconic part of the goth aesthetic. “I was isolated,” she said in a 2005 interview. “So I invented my own world, my own reality. The only way I could deal with how to survive was to get some strong armor.”
Susan became Siouxsie and formed the Banshees in 1976. Two years later, the band’s first single, “Hong Kong Garden,” reached No. 7 on the U.K. charts. “Siouxsie just appeared fully made, fully in control, utterly confident,” said Viv Albertine of the Slits. An impressive number of musicians have named Siouxsie an influence, from PJ Harvey, Shirley Manson, Sinéad O’Connor, and Santigold to Kim Deal, Ana Matronic, and Rachel Goswell of Slowdive (whose name derives from a Banshees song). Siouxsie Sioux was not just a pioneer of goth; she also changed the landscape for women in music.
Siouxsie Sioux is also a problem. Her name is an appropriation of a tribe of people to which she doesn’t belong, a name she gave herself nonetheless. Much of Siouxsie’s music has taken inspiration from other cultures, and the Creatures were no different: The drums on their final studio album, Hái!, were recorded in Japan. Boomerang was recorded in Andalusia, Spain, and incorporates brass arrangements popular to the region. The band’s first album, Feast, was recorded in Hawaii, and features the Lamalani Hula Academy Hawaiian Chanters on several tracks. Like such influences, Siouxsie has said her name was chosen in honor of a people she respected. And some of her music, like “Hong Kong Garden,” was written as a critical response to the racism she encountered in the punk scene. But even so, I can’t help but see a white artist taking what isn’t hers.
And how do we reckon with this? Where do we go with white, feminist icons who have given us something radical, something revolutionary, who have raged against various systems of power but who also take part in similar systems? The question is not a new one, but I still don’t know the answer. What I know is that, much like loving misogynistic music as a teenage girl—singing along to the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” or Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP—as a listener, I’m complicit. I know that, even though the song was written as a send-up of skinheads, I can’t hear “Hong Kong Garden” without feeling uncomfortable. I also know that when I first saw that image of Siouxsie—dark, androgynous, slicing open the idea of femininity, of woman—something inside me broke open. That when I first heard her sing, I was transfixed. I know that each time I write Siouxsie’s name on this page, I feel the problem in my fingers. I know that when I listen to “Exterminating Angel,” I hold that problem in my fist as I throw it into the air.
I grew up in a family that appreciated music. I was raised on oldies, folk, and classic rock, and my parents started taking me to shows when I was young. Of all the musicians we saw together, and there were many, none of them were women.
I grew up playing music, too. I sang in the church choir and was trained on the trumpet. I played classical and jazz, and I was good. I summoned solos more than I played them, the silver instrument an extension of my body. I was the grace of Handel, the guts of an improv over twelve-bar blues. I was the growl of a rolled tongue in the mouthpiece, the wail of a high D.
The trumpet was an instrument for boys. All the musicians we studied were men, and most girls in my school bands played the flute, clarinet, violin—those instruments more tender and sweet. The trumpet was loud, and left no room for prettiness. You had to get ugly to play it. I knew this as I tightened my lips, as my face turned red, as the tendons in my neck stretched and the veins in my temples bulged. But I didn’t care. All that mattered was the music.
It could have been the same for guitar. I got my first acoustic when I was eighteen, my first electric ten years later. Both guitars were gifts. I never bought one for myself, I think now, because I never thought I deserved one. I was living in New York when I got the electric, a pretty sunburst Ibanez, and by then had played in a handful of soul bands as a backup singer and horn player. Two of those bands were fronted by women vocalists, but it was men who played the music. When I started playing guitar in a band of my own, I was terrified. Even though I’d been playing on my own for a decade, in a rock scene made almost entirely of men, I felt like a fraud. On stages throughout the city, I stood with my guitar in my hands and felt like an accessory to the real musicians—the men—who played lead guitar and bass and drums on those stages with me. Somewhere, in the darkest recesses of my brain (probably in the same corner of shame where I stored the Limp Bizkit phase) I heard my cousin’s words. When I gripped the neck of my guitar, my fingers shook.
Piss on it
I’m sick of it
Enough is enough
I wanna fuck it up
I’m still learning to forgive myself for the misogyny of my youth. I’m still learning to destroy it. When girls are raised in working-class towns, where men are defined by their jobs and women are defined as mother and wife; when all girls have access to is the work of men, the music and movies and writing of men; when they are told that men make the money, that men are the heroes; they internalize it. In places like where I grew up—even when one is raised in an open-minded family, where girls are told they can do anything they want—sexism is as indoctrinated as the importance of hard work and independence, as a love of guns and land, as the worship of God and beer and football and hamburger casserole. It builds up in us like a fortress, and it takes a very long time to dismantle.
“She died hard,” Woolf writes of the Angel in her House. “Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her.”
I used to think of my own Angel only in terms of my life as a writer. It turns out I’ve had to kill her to make music, too. In both cases, it’s a murder I’m committing every day.
I was bleeding when I started writing this essay, and I’m bleeding now, a month later, while I finish it. Maybe this is a coincidence, and maybe it isn’t. But after spending so much time examining a song about an apocalyptic man-killing menstrual stream (and the woman who sang it), I’m struck by how hard it is to even mention my own.
The Creatures released their last record in 2003. A year later, Siouxsie toured for the first time as a solo act. Budgie was still on drums, but hers was the only name on the bill. The Creatures disbanded in 2005, and Siouxsie and Budgie announced their divorce in 2007.
In an interview that year, Siouxsie was asked about her sexuality—a question she dodged throughout her career. “I’ve never particularly said I’m hetero or I’m a lesbian,” she said. “I know there are people who are definitely one way, but not really me. I suppose if I am attracted to men then they usually have more feminine qualities.”
The same year, when Siouxsie turned fifty, she released her first solo record.
I wonder, sometimes, if Siouxsie ever felt like an imposter, a woman standing on a stage of men, pretending she belonged there. It’s hard to imagine Siouxsie Sioux feeling anything but confident, so utterly herself. But I can’t help but think of the Creatures as Siouxsie’s real sojourn into selfhood. The band was both Siouxsie and Budgie, sure. But to me, it seems, the Creatures—and in particular “Exterminating Angel”—spoke of something that had lived inside Siouxsie for a long time and was finally making its way out: something darker, something stronger, something about to split open. Of all Siouxsie’s work, “Exterminating Angel” is perhaps the most turbulent. It’s fed up, and it’s angry. It’s a feminist battle cry, a call to arms. It’s an incantation, a spell, a summoning of creatures brutal and dark. It might also be a proposal: to kill the Angels within us—that were born in us, that were instilled in us, that have lived inside us for so long—so that we might be free.
Maybe “Exterminating Angel” is Siouxsie’s own breaking free, as a musician and a woman, after existing for so long in a band, in an industry, in a world made of men.
Or maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see. Like all art, we bring to it our own interpretations. Our experiences and desires and hopes become what we make of it.
About a year ago, I bought myself a new guitar. It’s a Stratocaster, its body a glossy black. I replaced its colorful pick guard with a black one. It’s a gorgeous machine, and so exquisitely goth. I’m still learning how to trust myself when I hold it, to walk onstage and play without thinking about how I’m being judged. I’m still learning to believe I belong there. Sometimes when I play I’m a kid again, unafraid, my body a part of the sound I create. It vibrates in my fingers and rises up in my spine and fills my chest like I’m made of it. And sometimes my cousin’s words still ring in my ears. When that happens, I might channel Siouxsie Sioux. I might channel Karen O. I might channel Neko Case or Shirley Manson or Kathleen Hanna or Sister Rosetta Tharpe—any number of women who I have loved, who came before me, who did this long before I did and in circumstances far less forgiving. Who raged against systems that were made by men, who killed whatever angels lived in their houses in order to do it. Who got onstage and said, Enough is enough. I wanna fuck it up.
Melissa Faliveno is an essayist, musician, displaced Midwesterner, and member of the decidedly un-goth band Self Help, whose debut record, Maybe It's You, was released in 2018. Her essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, Midwestern Gothic, Prairie Schooner, and others, and her first collection, Tomboyland, is forthcoming in 2020.