Woke Me Up Inside: Feminism via Evanescence (Intro)

(oh god I’m so sorry about the title)

Hey, so did you know that Evanescence is still making music?

The little emo/goth/nu-metal/early-00s-silliness band from Little Rock actually put out an album in 2017, titled Synthesis. Granted, it only features three new songs (one of which is an instrumental), but it features new takes on all the old songs, stripping out the foreboding guitar riffs in place of many, many more foreboding, but less overdriven, string instruments. It’s an attempt to separate the band’s goth-opera bombast from those older albums’ dated genre sensibilities, and while I’m pretty sympathetic to those sensibilities, I both appreciate and enjoy the end result.

(Even more recently, in June 2018, one of the songs on that album got released as a single featuring violinist Lindsey Stirling, who as far as I can tell got famous mostly via YouTube? Way to reach out to the kids, Evanescence.)

This latest burst of yet another band from someone’s youth screaming “hey we’re still around buy our merch” into the void isn’t the subject I’m going to be diving into in a moment, but it’s an interesting angle to start with, because at least one person (Amy Lee, lead singer and figurehead) thinks Evanescence still has something to say in 2018.

At least two people, actually, counting me. (And probably tons of other people, judging by if nothing else the “Monthly Listener” count on Spotify.)

this album cover still rules. sorry not sorry, etc

If most people remember Evanescence, it’s for “Bring Me To Life,” a very silly song featuring Paul McCoy doing a weird rap-rock-yelping thing that would have felt more bizarre except that the song came out in 2003, right next to peak Linkin Park. It was featured on the Ben Affleck Daredevil soundtrack, for God’s sake (and in the movie, during a wonderful scene where Jennifer Garner stabs punching bags with sais and spills a bunch of sand all around her empty condo). Griffin McElroy referred to the song as “Wake Me Up Inside” while talking about DropMix on his podcast Wonderful, and I think this is about as resonant as that song’s ever going to be at this point. By and large, it is a weird artifact of its era, best left in that context. (I think Amy Lee herself would agree; more on that in a future post.)

For me, though, “Bring Me To Life” was just the tip of the sword. Fallen, Evanescence’s 2003 major-label debut, hit me just as I was forming opinions about music and burrowed deep into my moody teenage soul. I never quite identified with the band’s “we’re in the Matrix, but also sad” aesthetic, but the music itself is, well, teenaged with all its naked, loud emotion and exploding of small-scale drama into operatic nightmare vignettes.

Lee’s voice, and specifically the fact that a woman was singing/bellowing/screaming on top of those chunky guitars and moody pianos, meant something.

So to put this in context, here is some other music I listened to a lot, unfortunately, in my formative years:

  • KoЯn (the backwards R is Important)
  • Linkin Park
  • Eminem
  • Slipknot
  • Godsmack
  • Rammstein
  • Rob Zombie

(Acne is bursting out onto my fingertips just typing that list, and I have a sudden urge to be invited to parties that I don’t want to attend.)

One main thing those bands had in common was men crying about their problems–literally, at least in KoЯn’s case. These problems were usually a little vague, so as to resonate with all manner of teen angsts both inane and intense (my running joke about Linkin Park is that any of their songs can simultaneously and accurately be read as addressing either a mean ex-lover or an absent father); the important part was the expression of emotion, most often anger but also regret and frustration and trauma.

Music is a good channel for catharsis when you’re young. It’s common to feel that your very ordinary adolescence is uniquely horrifying and unbearable, and that no one can truly understand you. Music and instrumentation are emotion made audible; you can graft songs onto your personal experience so easily that they can feel like a part of you, friends at every turn who understand and echo your toiling feelings in the form of rocking guitar solos or sob-worthy piano arpeggios. This is all even before the lyrics, which are usually just a form of making tone and subtext into pure text, which is a very clunky thing to do unless your audience averages out at age 13 or so.

In the early 2000s, the pop subgenre called “hard rock” pulled every string it could find to recite that text for a listening audience of (it assumed) adolescent boys. There’s an unnerving mean and misogynist streak wherever you find specificity in the lyrics of the day (well, or in rock lyrics from any day, but that’s a different conversation) — a sense that the vulnerability and anger and sadness are all women’s fault. From Eminem’s fantasy of murdering his wife in earshot of their daughter, to Linkin Park’s Chester demanding that you shut up when he’s talking to you, to Slipknot declaring that they’ll reach in and take a bite out of that shit you call a heart, much of the pop music of this era spoke to boys by telling them that their moody teen anger was right and righteous.

Evanescence is doing the same thing, ostensibly, but it’s a woman talking about the men. This is theoretically a small thing, but in practice it completely changes the context and implication of the music. Validation of men’s bad feelings, and apologetics for the oft-bloody consequences of those feelings, has been part of the patriarchal engine for as long as societies have existed. Validation of women’s feelings doesn’t come up quite as often, and usually when it does it’s confined to “women’s spaces” or music that would be identified as for that audience.

(Not always; I can rattle off many names that feel like exceptions to this supposed rule, from PJ Harvey to Alanis Morissette. But I think there’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of Harvey and why you probably never heard Alanis played on any “all rock, all the time” stations in her heydey.)

In this context Evanescence might function as a gateway: If you’re a boy used to hearing men yell, and now you’re listening to a woman in the same space, demanding that her complaints be taken equally seriously. I imagine this sort of violation of popular gendered boundaries had something to do with the popular backlash against Evanescence (well honestly it was probably the Daredevil thing) but that it was also a key feature of the band’s success, that it suddenly made this form of expression both accessible to a typically alienated audience and that it gave the typical listener to the genre something new to consider.

(All of this, of course, is post-hoc explanation, and I’m no music historian. I’m speaking to what I remember, how I recollect, and my vague understanding of the public collective consciousness. Bear with me.)

I don’t listen to many of those other bands anymore, except in momentary spurts of embarrassed nostalgia. But when I come back to Fallen, it usually sticks with me for a little while. Previously, I’d laugh about that; this stuff was pretty good, I’d think, cranking up the radio for all those lovely mid-tempo psuedo-metal anthems and somber piano recitals. The most recent time the album swung around on Spotify, though, I decided to grab on and try to pay attention.

2018 is an interesting time to be doing that. We’re of course in an era of #metoo, call-out culture, and public grappling with concepts like privilege, fragility, intersectionality, and rape culture, ideas that previously had been confined to academic spaces that cherish nuanced theory over messy, reductive practice. Men–white, straight men in particular–are being asked to think, hard and often, about things that they (we) had previously been allowed to ignore or dismiss. Their (our) reactions range from thoughtful engagement to pushback, resentment, anger, violence, and voting for Donald Trump.

If only those men had listened to Amy Lee!

Nah seriously, I’m not pretending like I’m going to grapple with the existential crises of our day using a band that spawned a million Hot Topic sales. What I do want to do is take an album I liked, and still like, and reconsider it as the person I am now, in the world I’m forced by the dreadful circumstances of linear time to live in today.

Mostly, I just want to put Evanescence lyrics up against a few popular ideas from feminist theory and give Amy Lee a very generous amount of credit for being very woke back in 2003.

First up: “Going Under” and gaslighting!

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