Judging a Book By its Cover: The Corruption of Feminine Purity on Metal Album Covers

Reader Advisory: This article contains depictions of nudity, sexual acts, and discussion of rape.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. We’ve all heard the old adage, but in truth judging products by their covers is exactly what we’re all forced to do. The cover is the part that needs to grab a shopper’s attention and compel them to look at the product. Because of this little dance that we all do, the art of making compelling covers has been honed by many different industries over time. One of the industries that has been honing their craft for years is music. Album covers have long been a way to try to represent their sound through a visual medium. In Hall’s definitions of representation he says, “music is a ‘ language’, with complex relations between different sounds and chords, though it is a very special case since it can’t easily be used to reference actual things or objects in the world (a point further elaborated in Du Gay, ed., 1997, and Mackay, ed., 1997). Any sound, word, image or object which functions as a sign, and is organized with other signs into a system which is capable of carrying and expressing meaning is, from this point of view, ‘a language’.” (Hall, 2013, p. 4-5) Some album covers have been so effective as representations of their music that they have iconic symbols themselves, ala Pink Floyd’s Darkside of the Moon. Even as record stores have waned as the most common place to get music, album covers are still thriving on apps like iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. Now whenever you look at your screen the album covers are ever present with each song. You can also observe cultural shifts in album covers over time looking back to the big band era of the 10s and 20s through the groovy 60s and 70s to the music of today we can see the evolution of culture. This means that album covers are also a medium that we can use to examine the culture of a community and how they represent themselves. 

Heavy metal is perhaps the genre of music that is most subversive. It is driven by shredding guitars, distortion, extreme sometimes incomprehensible lyrics, the pure emotions of anger, range, pain, and fear. It utilizes and embraces that which isn’t socially acceptable putting itself on the line of the occult and embracing your baser instincts. Metal gives people an outlet to go and embrace those parts of themselves within a community that tends to be full of upstanding people that take care of one another. But how do their albums present themselves to people? With images of demons, war, corruption, death, and sex. Metal albums viscerally attack your senses. When looking through albums one main theme kept being shown across various albums: women and girls being objects of purity and innocence to be corrupted by dark forces into sex crazed demons. Let’s begin by looking at a common image on Metal covers, a little girl juxtaposed with death.

No Cross No Crown by Corrosion of Conformity shows a young white girl with blonde hair holding a decaying human skull aloft on a background that evokes thoughts of tombstones or ritual stones at dusk. The girl is the model of purity put forward in the Emphasized Femininity model: a thin, small, white girl. As Dr. Jen McClearen points out, “femininity has long been characterized as physically powerless and in need of patriarchal assistance and protection. The pressure for white women to be thin supports their representation as fainting or collapsing when faced with danger or the need to physically assert themselves, such as the classic Trope of the White heroine requiring rescue by a knight in shining armour.” (Toffoletti, 2018, p. 47-48) With the occult tones of the image we can also tie this idea back to the story of Adam and Eve. They were the definition of purity in the religious sense of the word. Eve is then corrupted by the snake, dooming humanity to sin. This image shows a parallel to Eve plucking the apple and accepting corruption with the girl instead accepting death.

When looking at Immortal Bird’s Thrive on Neglect, we are presented with the idea of innocence being preyed upon. Though the setting is ambiguous, the sheets and pajamas like clothing lead the viewer to interpret the space as a bedroom. The girl is alone in her room, seemingly neglected by whatever family she has and tortured by the demons of the night, all of which are decaying and revealing their skeletal interiors, actual living death. This time the corruption is more apparent, directly visible to us and more noticeably non-human in form. This album is an interesting interpretation of the purity and corruption model due to the girl’s active resistance, she closes her eyes and covers her ears in an attempt to remain safe. Despite this action, the demons creep closer, practically crawling on top of her, and surrounding her on all sides. Or, if you take the title of the album into account, her actions could be interpreted as her attempt to remain herself rather than fall into the trap of neglect of which she may have been placed. When looking at this album, it tends to stand out as noticeably different when compared to many of the others presented in our list. Despite the imagery presented, the album has a sense of serenity, maybe only held together by the girl’s purity while she denies the existence of the demons at large.There is a shift in tone, but all the elements of purity and corruption are present.

In popular media, young girls are often shown as the embodiment of innocence, purity, and virginity. They are the object that must be protected. For this reason, it is not uncommon for the young to become victims, targeted by outsiders or those deemed “evil” with the goal of using or corrupting that innocence. In Korn’s self-titled album, we are directly presented with the fragility and innocence. We are shown an image of a young girl, a scene not unlike anything we would see in daily life, swinging on a swing set. Yet, this image presents us with the concept of losing that innocence or virginity. Due to the shadow being cast by this outside force in combination with the visual effects on the photograph this sense of unease is built. Compared to many other albums within this genre, this may seem like much more of a tame style, but it builds off this idea of corruption and purity, maybe even more so by placing it firmly in reality with predatory behavior. It is due to this sense of reality that this image causes such a visceral reaction. This image brings up the notion of abduction and rape, both of which are important in the concept of corruption and losing one’s sense of self. The individual is forcefully stripped of their purity and virginity against their will, much the same way the idea of a demon forcing corruption upon an individual is done. What makes society says makes a woman pure and innocent is taken from them, usually in violence, and changing the individual permanently.

Coming away from the depiction of girls we now come to the depiction of adult women. Possessed 13 is one of the simpler examples to analyze as there is very little to unbox outside of how the woman is depicted. There is nothing unnatural about the image, nothing supernatural, and nothing stretched so far to the extreme as to make it representative or interpretive of anything else. We are just given a woman and a tombstone. The woman is shown as scared, seemingly trying to flee some unseen force, all while wearing very little. It is through this that we see how a woman, not yet affected by evil and demons, is pure, weak, and fearful. She is needing protection and not able to defend herself. And while she may be wearing very little, she is not sexualized to the same degree as women may often be in other genres like rap or pop. She is not sexualized with the intent to attract, instead she is made vulnerable with the intent to instill fear.

What we see here is the common subversion of expectations that we see in many horror movies and shows. The idea of that which is pure, holy, and chaste/moderate being juxtaposed as demonic and horrifying or sexualized in some way. In Widow’s Life’s Blood we get both, a nun whose clothes have been torn open revealing her breasts and midriff as well possessing bloodied hands and a red, devilish face. This album cover is meant to play with the idea of the devil nun, although metal covers tend to be more empowering and less overtly use sexualization, that doesn’t mean there are no examples. This album is one instance where the sexualization of a woman is utilized overtly where it wasn’t necessary to portray the idea of corruption. As we see, the nun’s clothes were ripped open just enough so to show off her breasts and stomach, but not up to her head. The rest of her body is red and demonic, yet her midriff and breasts remain humanistic, possibly still chaste and holy, enforcing this sexualization.

Of all the albums, Sexorcism is the most visibly direct with the notion of demonic corruption. We see a woman tied to a chair facing up in a demonic scream. She is wearing what looks like a skimpy Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform with her underwear around her ankles. Her face is being transformed with horns, necrotic looking skin with horns growing from her face and blood red eyes. We also can see that her fingernails are growing into long claws. Once again we see the idea of taking a ‘pure’ woman and corrupting her in some way, this time through both demonic corruption and implied loss of sexual purity. We can see that she is bound implying that none of this is happening to her by choice, she is ultimately helpless.

Terrifyer’s cover may be one of the more straight-foreward uses of sexualization present, a woman front and center with the focus being on her breasts as her face is blacked out. This is an interesting depiction because if you unpack what is shown, this is actually a direct representation of what corruption is in metal music. The woman’s face is currently blacked out, not so that we may divert our eyes, but because her identity has been destroyed. If you look, all around her face are scratch marks like on an old photo. Her body is covered in bruises and blood. Her face, where you can see, is bruised. She has been tortured and changed. The woman depicted is not showing her breasts simply to be sexualy entising, but because she’s lost her sense of self. She’s lost her sense of purity and innocence. As a result, we are not shown a woman who is cowering away, who is fearful, we are shown a woman who has taken her torture in stride and now stands front and center, provoking the buyer to come look. 

While stylistically similar to Pig Destroyer’s Terrifyer, this album cover does show more the power of corruption and the difference in depiction of men and women.. Where Terrifyer was a single woman, partially shadowed and seemingly a provocateur, Blood Guts & Pussy shows us multiple people with the front woman being lighter, almost presenting a sense of power or dignification. This cover, as with the rest of the album, was made intentionally to cause controversy, actually covering their models in animal blood and depicting them fully naked. The man on the cover, while not shown to be in a position of power as he is bound is the only one given any sort of covering. Blood Guts & Pussy does break away from some of the normal depictions of emphasized femininity showing the women as the ‘evil’ ones having tied up this man and covering him and themselves in blood.

Both Images Obtained from Discogs: Tomb of the Mutilated & The Wretched Spawn

When looking at the artwork from the various Cannibal Corpse albums, the rest of the Metal albums shown all seem tame in comparison. It doesn’t matter whether you see Tomb of the Mutilated or The Wretched Spawn, both are immediately eye catching but that doesn’t mean they are the same. Starting with The Wretched Spawn, we are presented with extreme and grotesque image of control and corruption. The woman present is being ripped apart from the inside out by a seemingly demonic fetus while hellish creatures look on almost as if in anticipation. This image, though striking, is congruent with the notion of a forcibly lost innocence. The woman present has been corrupted, seemingly through rape, and as a result of losing her virginity she has become “impure” and is forced to endure torture through childbirth and mutilation. This is the image of an innocent woman who was corrupted by evil forces. On the other hand, we have Tomb of the Mutilated which shows a very different power dynamic. In this scene the woman, despite being destroyed inside by corruption and sin, she remains powerful and in control. She is upright, arms out as if in a crucifix for her lost sin, and yet she has power over the men around her as they bend down and rot while to give her cunnilingus. As a woman who has lost her virginity and innocence, she has been changed and no longer fits the role of a feminine woman. She may be destroyed from the inside due to her corruption, but in doing so she has lost femininity in place of power and control.

Fuck Me Jesus is the most on the nose album we looked at regarding the idea of corruption and loss of feminine purity. As we’ve progressed and looked at the different depictions of purity this one certainly stood out as a magnum opus of our point. The image is a naked woman on her knees masturbating using a crucifix. Part of the occult allure of metal is the rejection of Christian expectations for society. The album shows the holiest and most recognizable symbol of ‘purity’ and it is being used to commit a sin. She has fully embraced the corruption of the genre.

Image Obtained from Amazon

This is an interesting album to look at. First, because of the depiction of the woman in it and second, the context through which this album cover was made. We spent a bit of time looking through some popular metal albums to create this list, but found very few by bands that were headed by women which also presented women in the ways we discussed. This is one of the few that fit both criteria, and as a result, there are some noticeable differences when it comes to how the woman is depicted. First off, and probably the most prominent, is the position of power.While you could argue for some of the other albums presented that those women are powerful, they are powerful due to or after corruption/decay or by directly opposing what is socially acceptable. What we see here is not a woman who became a powerful figure, but is a powerful figure. The demons and the damned are below her, reaching up, they are not equal, there is a clear power difference. Dispite this, the use sexualization is still present, showing that even by women, sexualization and body identity (post-feminist ideals in this case rather than objectification) are still in the forefront and utilized. This album shows how, especially with bands headed by women, that some of the common themes of metal albums shift from objectification to empowerment. It also raises the question of if this sexualization and corruption theme across metal is something that actually hurts women that like metal. The genre by its own culture strives to be extreme in showing blood, sex, and death. Metal is subversive for subversive’s sake so it can be an outlet for these baser instincts and its possible that these themes, when embraced, are empowering to women in the metal community.

Citations:

Hall, S., Evans, J., & Nixon, S. (2013). Representation / edited by Stuart Hall, Jessie Evans and Sean Nixon. London: Sage Publications.

Toffoletti, K., Francombe-Webb, J., & Thorpe, H. (2018). New sporting femininities embodied politics in postfeminist times. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

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