Punk, Parody, Politics: Inside Sharptooth's Fight to Make Hardcore That Matters | Revolver

Punk, Parody, Politics: Inside Sharptooth's Fight to Make Hardcore That Matters

Singer Lauren Kashan: "Screaming feels like purging all of the pain and anger and injustice out of my body"
sharptooth_2019_press.jpg, Ruel James
photograph by Ruel James

"I made the most feminine thing anyone's ever seen in hardcore or metalcore" proclaims Sharptooth's lead screamer Lauren Kashan. From her home in Boston, where a pet reptile is currently running loose, the former zoologist is discussing the music video for "Say Nothing (In the Absence of Content)," a single off the band's sophomore LP, Transitional Forms. In it, Lauren screams as though she has five lungs and four throats, dressed in hyperfeminine pop-star garb, imitating the likes of Kesha and Lady Gaga. "Now this is the part of the song/Where we slow shit way down for you/So you can all kill each other/It doesn't even matter what I'm saying here anyway/Can you even understand a fucking word I say?" she asks in the video, dressed as Katy Perry on a pastel-pink cloud, seemingly mocking the genre she's part of. Why? "Because one of the biggest issues in metalcore and hardcore is aggressive toxic masculinity," she says. "There's an abject negativity for the feminine in this scene. I made something calling out all the bullshit."

Hardcore was originally built to outpunk the punks. When the latter genre fell flaccid, a new community came together to tackle the big issues of their day. Armed with a sound brutal enough to fuck fascism with, the scene not only offered an outlet for the kind of trauma and rage considered too excessive for polite society, but it also harnessed that energy as a political call to action. When Kashan discovered Baltimore's hardcore scene during her adolescence in the early Aughts, the bands onstage would sandwich their songs with diatribes on systemic oppression, and attendees would go home with a zine detailing some of the city's political injustices. Then the tide turned. Rage became individualized, hardcore turned inward. The scene and its songs were largely hollowed of political meaning, she says, and instead began to function as instruments of male aggression. Women weren't welcome. "No clit in the pit," Kashan was instructed. "People didn't go to those spaces to feel ignited socially and politically anymore, and they still don't," she says, "I'm like, do y'all know the roots of your genre at all?" Today, Sharptooth are attempting to both return the genre to its political roots and to move it forward — to widen its scope and representation.

Sharptooth were an almost unrecognizable beast when they formed in 2012. For one, the lineup is 40 percent different today, with original bassist Phil Rasinski and drummer Connor Mac replaced by Peter Bruno and Matt Hague, respectively. More important, the group took more of an apolitical pop-punk approach before Kashan put the sharp in Sharptooth. Once she joined, her bandmates gave her the opportunity to steer the group's creative direction and purpose. What emerged, at first, was extremely brazen. "Fuck You Donald Trump," one of the band's first singles, established their sociopolitical approach, as did their 2017 debut, Clever Girl, but both, Kashan admits, lacked the nuance Sharptooth have today. Transitional Forms holds everything their first album may have lacked. Instead of spouting sociopolitical platitudes, the album holds its listener to account. Fuckboys who date feminists just for the optics are called out. As are absolutists. As are rapists. As are the solely self- indulgent. It is, unsurprisingly, not easy listening. When you turn on Transitional Forms, you're tuning in to the sound of someone screaming for their life.

"Passion is just what's always drawn me to music," she says, "whether it's a musical or whether somebody's very impassioned, telling you about the struggles of their day-to-day life." Educated at a performing arts school in Baltimore, Kashan originally came to music through interpretation and emulation. Her parents recognized their daughter's talent for singing from an early age and paid for her vocal lessons for at least a decade, a privilege she recognizes: "I'm a white girl from a very well-off white family," she admits. When she first heard Atreyu — her gateway band into metal and hardcore — she was almost immediately able to imitate Alex Varkatzas' vocals. In her early screamo days, she wasn't concerned with finding a voice of her own, "since my background wasn't in creating art, but embodying it," Kashan says. "That's what theater is all about — the act of leaving yourself behind and becoming someone else for a while, something that's very appealing when you're a depressed teenager."

At school, Kashan carried a trauma her classmates seemingly did not. She went through her high school years with undiagnosed depression, which caused her to numb herself with drugs and cauterize her pain with screaming metal. Through the latter, she was eventually able to discover her own voice — a process that's been a long time in the making. "When you're one of the only women in the genre, there aren't a lot of people you can be compared to, and usually those comparisons aren't accurate." Determined to define her own identity, Kashan's journey to discovering her true voice was helped along by screaming-coach-to-the-stars Melissa Cross, who taught her how to equate feelings with sound. "After that, it became so much less about trying to emulate another person's voice or range, and more about seeing how much you're capable of yourself. I feel like I can do anything now."

You have to be a certain kind of person to take pleasure from screaming at a crowd of people, and Kashan is that certain kind of person. Metalcore and hardcore, despite the scenes' pitfalls, have been the only genres to give her the outlet she needs. "Screaming to me feels like purging all of the pain and anger and injustice out of my body," she says. "Metalcore has made me feel empowered and strong in the face of pain and turmoil in my life. This is the place where we go to get all those feelings out, because, especially as a woman, people have a really big problem if you're outwardly angry or loud or seem argumentative or confrontational."

But performing trauma for a crowd can sometimes take its toll. There have been times Kashan's felt "unbelievably drained and mentally bludgeoned" in having to confront and articulate her most traumatic experiences for an audience. "I think the biggest indicator of that was my experiences in playing 'Left 4 Dead' because that song is about me becoming OK with the fact that I was able to verbalize that I was raped. I put that song out into the world in a way that felt empowering and safe." But, surprise: There are days you wake up not in the mood to recount your rape yet again. "I would talk about it, pretty much every time we played that song live, but there did start to become a point when I did need to become careful about when I played that song, who I played it to and where I'm at mentally in order to be able to do that." For Kashan, it's been a difficult tightrope to navigate — feeling obligated to speak up for people who don't have a voice, while at the same time, having to protect herself.

Sometimes, the scene isn't always the safest environment to do so. It's no secret that Sharptooth are semi-frequently targeted by a portion of hardcore's less progressive fans, the kind who come to the scene as a form of escape, or to just unleash some aggression. They're also the type of fans who want to keep politics and femme and minority representation out of the scene "When they tell us to 'keep the politics out of it,' I'm like, you're at a fucking hardcore show. It's like going to a political protest and being like, 'Guys, guys, we just need to calm down and go home.'"

Despite the pushback her band might receive, Kashan's determined to stay the course. "I could decide that I don't want to be in metalcore or hardcore anymore because I don't like the problems in it, or I could choose to stay in it because I love this music and I believe so much in its ability to heal people and to help people come together and find a sense of unity," she says. "Nothing changes in the world if you just run away from things that are hard or bad."