Sounding Board

Here’s To 20 Years Of Kittie

A look at the metal band every 'Women In Rock' thinkpiece left out

In the opening scene of Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s book The Virgin Suicides, an ER doctor asks the youngest Lisbon sister why she tried to take her own life: “What are you doing here honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” To which, she looks him in the eye and deadpans: “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year old girl.”

Around the same time, in London, Ontario, four other teenage girls (two of them sisters), similarly fed up with suburban malaise, were trying not to take their own lives but to live them.

Mercedes Lander and Fallon Bowman met in seventh grade gymnastics class and started jamming together, Lander on drums and Bowman on guitar. Mercedes’ older sister (Morgan, then 14) soon joined on vocals, their classmate Tanya Candler followed on bass, and Kittie was born. After playing at Canadian Music Week in 1999, they were spotted by NG Records and offered a record deal, to be produced by GGGarth Richardson (Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled, L7’s Hungry For Stink.) The result, Spit, was vibrant nu metal alchemy — crackling with intensity, aggression, humor, and deep-seated rage. Spit would go on to sell 650,000 copies in the US alone. Kittie gained momentum, going on tour with Slipknot and Coal Chamber, and inspiring a generation of fans that would include future badasses such as Princess Nokia.

For the 20th anniversary of their first demos and live performances, Kittie are releasing Origins/Evolutions, a career-spanning documentary four years in the making. It’s been six albums and multiple lineup changes since their inception, and the band is ready to look back and reflect. True fans won’t be disappointed — there’s a methodical retelling of the band’s chronology and no shortage of archival footage with some thoroughly iconic 00’s looks. (Black lipstick and braces! Spaghetti straps and JNCOs! Barrette clips and middle parts!) There is a deep emotional payoff in watching the band go from playing a Battle Of The Bands in a small town in suburban Canada to cresting a moment of glory that felt like setting the whole world on fire. But while it promises to be a no-holds-barred assessment of the band’s historical significance, it leaves out a lot of the context that made their story so compelling.

***

At the turn of the millennium, teen pop culture was dominated by still squeaky-clean Mickey Mouse Club alumni (Justin before SuperBowl XXXVIII, Christina before Xtina, Britney before the meltdown) whose glowing skin, golden cross necklaces, and purity rings evangelized a perfection unattainable, we would soon learn, even to them. The equal and opposite reaction was an “alternative” counterculture, clothed in Hot Topic merch, brewed in the early internet. DeviantArt would launch in the year 2000, SuicideGirls in 2001. Where riot grrrl had fanzines, Kittie fans crafted elaborate fan sites via Tripod, GeoCities, and Angelfire, documenting their devotion with impassioned essays, archived photos, fan art, buddy icons, and glittertext. Kittie toured the United States and Europe, played festivals and packed venues, and fully lived the dream — a high documented in the full-length tour doc Spit In Your Eye.

In the year 2000, just one year after Woodstock ’99 made headlines for countless unchecked sexual assaults, including in the pit, Kittie co-headlined the daytime stage at Ozzfest. They toured alongside Pantera, Static-X, and Soulfly, with Talena Atfield replacing Candler who had left the band due to struggles with anxiety and drug use. They were the only girls on the bill and the youngest performers on the lineup. (Even Incubus’ fresh-faced Brandon Boyd was comparatively adult at 23.)

That same year, the Oscar for Best Picture went to a movie in which a middle-aged Kevin Spacey fantasizes about his daughter’s 16-year-old best friend naked on a bed of rose petals, and reporter after reporter eagerly questioned four teenage girls as to whether writing songs called “Suck” (“Believe me when/ I say/ You suck”) and “Choke” (“Hope you choke”) or dressing the way that any teenage mallgoth dressed (chokers, creepers, pleather, lip rings) meant that they were obsessed with sex.

It’s always surprised me that the 2010s wave of thinkpieces chronicling “Women In Rock” always left Kittie out. Then again, the late ‘90s were a dark time. The riot grrrl wave had crashed in the mid-90’s, the movement fractured, sarcastically eulogized by an extremely over-it Courtney Love on Hole’s Live Through This closer “Rock Star” with the line “I went to school/ In Olympia/ And everyone’s the same/ What do you do with a revolution?”

The members of Kittie didn’t identify as feminists. In interview after interview, they spoke about how metal and hard rock were male-dominated scenes, how people assumed they didn’t write or play their own songs (going as far as peeking behind amps to see if men with instruments were somehow hiding back there), that they were constantly being sexualized and condescended to by audiences and industry people alike. But instead of shoring up an identity politic, they distanced themselves from it as much as possible. “Equality is basically the theme that we like to express, but we’re not necessarily preaching about it. We’re not feminists; we don’t even talk about equality in our songs,” an 18-year-old Morgan Lander told MTV News in 2000.

It’s hard to blame them. At the heart of each interview is a deep exhaustion with being labeled a “girl band,” of being constantly asked the “girl band” question, or compared to bands they had nothing to do with. While most riot grrrl bands formed while attending university and sought to build an intentional political movement, the members of Kittie were girls pulled straight out of high school that just wanted to rock and be taken on their own merit. In the absence of solidarity networks and liberatory analysis, the ’00s were stuck with Revolver’s “Hottest Chicks In Metal” franchise. “You don’t call Machine Head a ‘boy metal band,’ you call them a metal band,” lamented Morgan in the aforementioned MTV interview. It’s a problem music media still hasn’t gotten past — our framework might be more intersectional, our wording more critical, but we’re still asking all marginalized artists to speak as politicized subjects and represent their gender or race or orientation, while letting white cis men slide as neutral.

In writing this, I am of course a hypocrite, because although I am also growing weary of our collective tendency to call any and all art from the margins “important,” I will say that Spit felt deeply important and, yes, political, and also raw and vital and fucking gnarly. That four high school girls writing a song called “Do You Think I’m A Whore” felt like a flash of lightning in an empty field. But also that Morgan’s taunting lead vocals facing off with the snarling avalanche of Fallon’s vocal counterpoint on the “Brackish” chorus was fodder for endless giddy headbanging. The screeching guitars over the frantic explosive backing track secured the song’s legacy within a genre that specialized in catharsis for anyone utterly and exquisitely fed up.

***

Kittie’s later years would prove more difficult. Bowman left while they were writing their second album, 2002’s Oracle, tailed by bizarre, unsubstantiated rumors about a Columbine cult. (In reality, the split was over creative differences — the Landers wanted to dive into more extreme metal while Bowman was getting more into industrial and electronic music, a direction she would pursue as Amphibious Assault, in a record which dealt with post-9/11 anxiety and South African apartheid, and in a later solo album with members of the Birthday Massacre.) According to the documentary, Atfield left shortly after, though fans regularly circulate a quote claiming she was preemptively replaced. The next decade of Kittie lineups would include Jennifer Arroyo, Trish Doan, Lisa Marx, Tara McLeod, and Ivy Jenkins, though the Lander sisters would always be the band’s anchor. Kittie’s later albums would evolve away from “nu” and towards more straightforward metal, scorching and seriously crafted. None would match the hype of their debut.

For all of Kittie’s rocky history, Origins/Evolutions is relatively benign. Save for Atfield’s conspicuous absence from the doc, the women of Kittie seem ready for reconciliation. Any truly venomous Behind The Music-style airing of dirty laundry is out. Notably absent as well is the “girl band” issue. There is little discussion of either their experiences as teenage girls in an industry dominated by older men, or their frustration with the media constantly begging the question.

It’s not surprising that women who have been reluctantly showponied as “girls in metal” for most of their careers would be averse to rehashing the significance of their gender yet again. But by leaving these things out, the documentary often plays like a live-action Wikipedia article — a blow-by-blow account of songs, labels, and lineup changes, without the context that gives a band’s narrative formidable historical weight. Perhaps in doing so, Kittie has finally gotten what they always wanted — to tell their story on their own terms, to be a metal band that’s allowed to exist as simply a metal band.

***

I first heard Kittie in seventh grade, when the video for “What I Always Wanted,” the single off of Oracle, hit MTV2, and was instantly floored by its melodic black metal pop hybridity, how the unrelenting drum crashes and guttural growling came from people who looked like my friends.

Both today and back then, there have been plenty of venerable women in metal (Diamond Rowe of Tetrarch, Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy, Otep Shamaya of Otep … ) But Kittie were teenagers, writing from a distinctly teenage place so brutal and aching for agency that if you stop to think about it for even a second you wonder how it’s possible that any major metal band is made up of anyone other than teenage girls. Looking back, I realize that although there was no shortage of teenagers being sold to us as the mouthpieces for some truly hypnotizing pop music, teenagers actually writing and performing music about their experiences felt like a thing that simply did not exist. (Okay, there was Fiona Apple and JoJo, but they didn’t shred.)

“So, I’m nothing? / You took something from me, now you’ve disappeared,” Morgan sings on “Charlotte,” naming a familiar wound on a song I would play between classes, glaring vengefully at everyone and everything that ever wronged me and feeling like for once I had backup. (In the video, the backup is in the literal form of a white girl gang of Lisbon sister lookalikes who chase a disgraced boy angel off a cliff.) Truly, there are many historically significant things about “Charlotte.” First, the refrain in the song is Morgan repeating “It’s not alright,” demonstrating a capacity for boundaries that takes most of us years of therapy to learn. Second, she claims her victory by declaring, “Now I’m something? / And your head is in my closet,” reminding us that this is a band of teenagers in the age of Rotten.com, that the songwriting is coming from someone potentially once quoted as saying “Giving me flowers is like putting me down … Flowers are just so wimpy! If someone is going to give me something, they should, like, give me … a bouqet [sic] of dead babies!” And then, in the middle of it all, the song breaks into a forlorn disembodied interlude, in which a rare clean guitar melody briefly shares melancholy space with wisps of vocals that build until the drums pick up, and a crash of distortion washes everything away.

Towards the close of The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides explains, “In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.” I watched the film a lot for a while, then never again. Maybe it felt dated or maybe I stopped seeing the appeal in that sort of pretty martyrdom. Spit feels dated now as well, like any nu metal album, like opening your old Emily The Strange diary. Whatever version of myself I have evolved into finds easier resonance with Mercedes’ new project the White Swan, doomy and sludgy, opaque and viscous like the depths of an unknown ocean. We’ve all grown some. I rarely talk to my friends from seventh grade anymore but we’ve all exchanged rubber bracelets and fishnets for more subdued ways to present as goth.

As Kittie’s career progressed, their songs grew more introspective — less a call to break stuff and more an assessment of all that has been broken. Their last studio album, 2011’s I’ve Failed You revolves around what it means to let someone down, culminating in a ballad that laments, “In your eyes I’m found/ But I can never come home.” Had the Lisbon sisters aged, they too would have had to compromise. But none of that is really all that fun. And when it gets too heavy, there is still the visceral thrill in putting on Spit, hearing the drum fills at the start of “Charlotte” or the guitar line on “Brackish,” and feeling fully what it was like to be handed down a world so full of flaws, to witness it, and to spit right in its face.

Tags: Kittie, Ozzfest