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Continuing the Conversation With Kittie

Morgan and Mercedes Lander talk about their groundbreaking heavy metal band.

“She is not scared to die

The best things in life drive her to cry

Crucify then learn”

—From “Brackish” by Kittie

When teenage sisters, 15-year-old Morgan and 17-year-old Mercedes Lander formed Kittie in 1996 —along with Fallon Bowman and Tanya Candler—their agenda was simple: they wanted to rock. Inspired by bands such as Van Halen, Marilyn Manson and Korn, Kittie set out to play the same intense heavy metal music they loved. At the time, they were entirely unaware that four young women wanting to play heavy metal music would be such a controversial endeavor.

Provided by Kittie, used with permission
Source: Provided by Kittie, used with permission

“We just wanted to write great songs and have fun and be a great band. For us, many of our influences were not women. We weren’t looking at strong women and saying that we want to be like that. We were looking at men and saying we want to be like that,” Morgan told me. “And to us, it didn’t matter. There was no rule that you couldn’t look up to men … We didn’t understand how impactful and how controversial it was and that we’d be talking about this 20 years later. We were so young and naïve that we were like, we’re friends and we know we’re girls but that doesn’t matter because we want to play music.

“We want to be awesome.”

And for the most part, Kittie found that they were received with the same enthusiasm with which they played their music. The band signed with NG/Artemis records. And their first album, Spit (2000), was certified gold, selling well over a million records.

At the same time, Morgan and Mercedes discovered that there were some people who did not evaluate them on their music or live performances, but rather judged them based on pre-existing stereotypes. At first blush, it would be easy to assume, because Kittie was a band consisting of all women, that they faced the same stereotypes and discrimination that plague women in every part of society.

But Kittie was not just an all-female group—they were an all-female group of teenagers who were playing heavy metal music. And this was a different kind of confrontation. Kittie was part of a lineage that included punk groups like the Runaways, alternative rock bands like Sleater Kinney and L7, and heavy metal bands like Vixen, all of whom challenged the notion that women could not rock out the way men did.

And Kittie took things a step further; they were part of a new genre called nu metal and they weren’t just singing—they were screaming. It was bad enough when young men were screaming about a range of issues from devil worship to suicide—but it was particularly frightening to some when it was young women.

Morgan described feeling so fringe even within the already fringe metal community,

“The people that started metal music were mostly men and it’s an aggressive type of music. And society has told us that that’s just not what good girls do,” Morgan described. “It was like we were the ‘other other’. As a whole, metal is already fringe. And the people that love metal and that are fringe but are also the fringe of the white straight hetero angry man that metal usually encompasses, those were our people. The teenage aspect was a big part of it as well.”

Why was it that young women playing heavy metal music felt so frightening? Part of it may be that any form of female empowerment is threatening simply because it challenges the norms of a male-dominated society. “It’s probably because we were breaking stereotypes and we had broken the mold. And anything that’s not a part of the norm probably is viewed as bad because it’s not normal,” Mercedes explained. “I feel like because traditionally … and this is just a f*cking observation … traditionally, men have been in power since the beginning of time. And I feel like any time there’s a power struggle between a man and a woman, those people who are in charge feel threatened.”

But there is something unique about this type of confrontation to a patriarchy. One of the insidious ways that discrimination against women works is not only to say that women can’t have power, but also that there is a narrow range of what women are allowed to be. With their aggressive music and screaming vocals, Kittie was challenging the notion that only men can be aggressive.

“In acting that way and being aggressive and having a loud voice and doing all of these things that are not expected of women, it’s like you’re acting like a man … Maybe that’s why there’s some apprehension about it. Women are supposed to act a certain way and we have our gender roles. And when you cross over into the world of metal, that’s mainly about anger and testosterone…then you’re acting like a man. And that’s taboo because that’s not what society dictates for women,” Morgan described. “You’re not a beast—only men can act like that. Only men can have those actions and aggressions and desires. But women are not allowed to do that because they only have one purpose and one role—and that’s in the kitchen.”

According to Morgan and Mercedes, the bias Kittie faced took on many forms. But overall, there was a feeling that their looks and sexuality were being emphasized and highlighted at the expense of recognition of their skill as musicians, songwriters and live performers.

“Especially with women, a lot of times a record label will want you to look a certain way…it allows for more manipulation and an easier sell,” Morgan said. “It’s like sex sells and if you look a certain way, people are going to want to purchase your music more” “And we were always under the threat that the record company’s going to shelve your record at any time if you piss them off. Or if you don’t do this interview you’ll never get any funding for your next record,” Mercedes explained.

Even journalists tended to focus on the band’s gender rather than the music. “Some of it is journalistic laziness. ‘What’s it like to be in a girl band?’” Morgan said. “When you ask that question, it’s putting you as the other. It’s like, ‘What’s it like to be a girl?’ You’re apart from the group. What’s the other? That’s men. So, now you’re the other. Why is that? What’s the difference? I was never able to process what journalists were getting at when they asked that question. And for us on tour, it’s typically been just a general band touring experience.

“It’s like, ‘What’s it like to wear pants.’ What does it matter?” Mercedes asked.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on sex and gender fed into the stereotype that Kittie was more about female sexuality than about skill. “We were aware of it. The truth is the sad double standard—the world is judging you because you’re a woman, so you have to bring it,” Morgan said. “You had to be better. And we were always conscious that we had to be a great band.” “I don’t think anyone goes to a Slayer show and says, ‘Let’s see if they’re good,’ Mercedes said. “So that’s an extra hurdle we had to jump over. We knew we had to perform 100% all the time.”

And even if they did play well and prove themselves, it was not always enough. Perhaps most egregiously, Kittie faced accusations that they were not even playing their instruments. Because how could young girls play that well? “Not even that long ago, we had a fan come up to our guitar tech,” Morgan recalled. “The techs stand off the stage, they’re holding the guitars and tuning them for the next block of songs … and said, ‘So it’s you playing behind them?’”

Mercedes described one incident where the power went out at a show. Typically, when a band powers through a song during equipment or power failures, it’s an opportunity to celebrate the band’s skill. But in this case, it became an opportunity for a journalist to question whether Kittie used backing tracks—a mortal sin in rock and metal. Mercedes was not amused.

“The power went out. And the only thing we were playing were my drums and fucking Fallon’s guitar. We pushed through the song. Just one guitar … We finished the song … And I read an article later on that said our backing tracks went out,” Mercedes said. “What makes it so hard to believe that you’re playing or I’m playing? What makes it so hard to believe that? What makes you think that?

“Do you f*cking hate your mom?”

Unfortunately, Morgan and Mercedes observed that the bias did not end with obnoxious comments or ignorant interviews. There has long been the perception that radio discriminates against female artists by not playing their music as frequently. Morgan and Mercedes described their observations on how some radio stations simply refused to play Kittie’s music.

“We had an indie going out and working for us. The radio station told this person that they wouldn’t play our songs because they don’t understand. They don’t get women screaming … or they don’t play women on a modern or alternative rock station,” Morgan recalled. “I think it was the ‘What I Always Wanted’ single where there’s some metal guttural backing vocals. They would say they don’t play that kind of music. Meanwhile, Lincoln Park, that first album is the same format but they play that. So, what is the difference?

“What are you afraid of?”

Perhaps we are becoming less afraid. At a glance, it appears that stereotypes are being broken and progress is being made. Women are more represented in a range of arenas, including political, artistic, academic and business. And movements such as #MeToo and the Women’s March are continuing to address issues facing women.

And Kittie has led by example. “For a very long time I never felt like we needed to talk about it,” Morgan said. “Every single night when we were out there, when we were on tour and becoming a better band and not succumbing to any of the pressures of journalists or media or history itself, just doing what we did trudging through that mud. For us we’ve always made it a point to not talk about our political views or religious views. Or even really focus on a women’s movement in general. For me I always thought that our presence spoke for itself.

“Now I realize it’s part of a bigger conversation.”

And Morgan and Mercedes encourage people to appreciate the wins but recognize that the fight is far from over and the conversation needs to continue. “People say real change is happening. But until I actually see that and I actually notice those stereotypes being dropped, I don’t think people can change overnight,” Mercedes said. “I don’t think ideals can change overnight because for years and years and years it’s been you have to be pretty, you have to be sexy … You can’t just wake up one day and the entire world thinks different.

“That’s just not how it works.”

But for now Kittie can be content knowing that they’ve made the world a bit different. Their hard work has paid off and they are getting their due. Kittie: Origins/Evolutions is out now. OC Weekly named Kitttie one of the top Canadian heavy metal bands of all time. And both Spin and Fuse have called Kittie’s song “Brackish” one of the best nu metal songs of all time.

And they are encouraged that their fan base seems to be people who feel marginalized, but have gravitated towards Kittie’s “other otherness.”

“I feel like we were the island of misfit toys band. You look into a crowd when we play – there’s the LGBTQ fans that listen to hard rock, there’s the hairy heavy metal dude that listens to Slayer, there’s women that listen to riot grrrl music. It’s just such a mixed bag. And then there’s old perverts,” Mercedes said.

“There’s such a mixed bag of people and you don’t see that at other shows.”

And Kittie is influencing the next generation. “Because it’s been twenty years, a lot of the fans we had when we first started had children of their own,” Morgan said. “Now the children are coming to us and saying my parents loved your band. I love your band too.”

But remember, we are not only talking about Kittie today because they were breaking norms. We are talking about them because Kittie backed it all up with their music – and they achieved their original, simple vision of wanting to rock.

“Even from day one we backed it up. We weren’t just sitting there talking – a terrible band who wasn’t able to play. We’ve always been able to back that up,” Morgan said. “We were talking with Eddie Trunk on Sirius, and he said, ‘I saw you guys headline Irving Plaza back in 2000, and I brought some of my colleagues with me who were skeptical. They all walked away being like, Wow that was a great show.

‘This band kicks ass.’”