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Editorial: What SINGLE Metal Band Will Someday Represent ALL of Metal?

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Sorry to once again be a total Chuck Klosterman fanboy. But I’ve just read the cultural critic’s latest book, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, and it may be his best work yet. The second part of the title is actually more telling with regards to the book’s subject matter than the first: the book tries to imagine what historians hundreds or even thousands of years in the future will make our time period.

At one point, Klosterman turns his attention to rock n’ roll. He envisions a future in which rock music isn’t nearly as popular as it is today, and is remembered by most of society through the persona of ONE band or artist. For example, Klosterman points out that if you ask basically anyone who is history’s greatest composer of marching band music, their answer will inevitably be John Philip Sousa, because at this point, he’s the only composer of marching band music anyone remembers, save for a very small niche of scholarly experts; similarly, if you ask almost anyone who is the greatest architect of all time, 98% of them will answer Franklin Lloyd Wright, 1% will say Frank Gehry, and the other 1% are, again, scholarly experts. Who creators does or does not remember, Klosterman posits, is basically determined by people who don’t actually care, or know much, about that person’s medium.

I won’t give away which artists Klosterman considers for the title of “Sousa of Rock N’ Roll.” But I do find the intellectual exercise so fun and fascinating that I thought it would be a blast to apply it to metal.

So. Pretend it’s a thousand years in the future. Metal still exists, but on a far, far smaller scale than it does now. There are scholarly experts who have knowledge of lots of metal bands and genres. But to the general public there is ONE band or person who ostensibly represents ALL of metal. Their entire perception of heavy metal music and culture is based on what they know of that ONE artist.

Who will that artist be?

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The obvious answers, of course, would be either Black Sabbath, who are generally considered to be the first metal band, or Metallica, who are generally considered to be the most famous. But we can’t just consider the obvious answers, because they may not seem so obvious in the future (hence the “But what if we’re wrong?” part of the book’s title). Remember: the world didn’t think all that highly of Van Gough, Kafka, or Melville when those artists were alive. They weren’t necessarily complete unknowns — Melville actually wrote best-sellers prior to the release of the critically-lambasted Moby Dick — but if you’d of told people that they were going to be considered the crème de la crème of their fields in the future, those people would have thought you were nuts. Art is constantly being re-evaluted; which artists are in or out of favor changes all the time.

Additionally, certain aspects of the culture will advance through history for reasons having very little to do with the work itself. For example, Klosterman points out that in the future, anyone who studies the medium of television will have to study The Sopranos, because that show marked the beginning of cable television (and, eventually, streaming services) being recognized as legitimate outlets for top-notch episode series (our current “Second Golden Age of Television”). And anyone who studies The Sopranos will study the series’ infamous final scene; and anyone who studies that final scene will therefore come into contact with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Therefore, someone in the future who has no real concept of what rock music was might, understandably, assume that Journey is a fair representative of what that style of music was like. And so suddenly, a future in which Journey are better remembered than The Beatles seems plausible. (Don’t worry, I’m still not really giving anything away — Klosterman considers a whole bunch of other artists, too.)

So what metal bands are tied to cultural events that might carry their work into the future?

Interestingly enough, neither Sabbath nor Metallica really fit that bill. I suppose if you were to study sports, you might encounter “Enter Sandman”… but they might also encounter other metal or semi-metal bands, like Guns N’ Roses and Nightwish. Likewise, studies of The Simpsons could lead people to Metallica or Judas Priest (AND give people a better sense of what death metal really was). And Ozzy, solo, is almost a more likely nominee than Black Sabbath as an entity, just because he’s been in so many movies, has had multiple television shows, and may appear as a footnote in textbooks about The Alamo.

Or maybe American history students will learn about Stryper when studying this year’s election. Maybe they’ll review this speech by Barack Obama and assume that all metal bands were Finnish (which, again, could lead them to Nightwish)… or this speech by Barack Obama and assume that all metal bands sounded like Korn. Maybe Freddy Lim’s political stature will give Chthonic the edge. And if science classes study the Miss Curiosity Mars rover, they will very likely learn about Anthrax’s cover of “Got the Time,” which was used to “wake up” the rover in 2012. So it’s possible that Anthrax will be remembered throughout all of history… primarily for a song they didn’t write. Which will more or less be irrelevant if no one remembers who Joe Jackson was.

Still, all of those examples lack the specificity of the Sopranos/Journey scenario.

When it comes down to it, there are two artists that I think are far more likely to rise to the historical stature of Sousa. And I suspect neither of them are the artists most modern metal fans would choose to represent the genre in the future.

The first of those artists is Marilyn Manson, whose name will forever be tied to the Columbine massacre. In the grand scheme of the universe, Columbine may seem like a fairly unimportant historical event — but if the gun control debate is ultimately viewed as central to the fall of the American empire, then it’s not unlikely that Columbine will be studied for years and years to come.

The second artist — and, in my opinion, the one even more likely to survive —  is the Eagles of Death Metal. I don’t have to tell you that, the band was, through no choice or fault of their own, wrapped up in a major terrorist incident just last year. It is not unrealistic to suppose that the Paris attacks will be in history books in the future. And so, while as metal fans today we all know that Eagles of Death Metal aren’t really a death metal band (or a metal band at all), we wouldn’t be able to blame a kid who encounters the group while studying history in high school for guessing that they are, in fact, a strong representation of what metal was. After all, the name of the genre is right there in their moniker.

Which bands have I failed to consider? Who do you think is most likely to ultimately be remembered as THE metal band throughout history, and why? Debate in the comments section below!

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