I’m not some demented ingrate, so I understand the reluctance of many fans to call bullshit on Metallica. After all, for a metal listener in the ‘80s, there was no discussion of the best or the most influential band: Metallica and Metallica. What was the standard to which all metal bands were held? Metallica. Which metal band commanded the biggest stages before the hugest crowds? Metallica. Whose records had the best covers? Metallica. Whose members exuded mystique (no videos!) and uncommon friendliness (marathon autograph sessions following marathon shows)? Metallica. Baddest singer? Metallica. Awesomest riffs? Metallica. Most importantly, the best music? Metallica!
Okay, fine, that didn’t last forever; one day, Metallica was gone and replaced by four anybodys singing flat, non-committal butt-rock songs about scary nightmares and wuving your girlfwend. What a bummer. But it’s really no crime. Sure, it is the representation of a pathetic longing to be liked by every living being (not to be all Varg), but even so, a great Metallica record of any type would’ve overcome suspect motivations. Regardless, the repercussions of Metallica as jock jammers go beyond a few cruddy albums and some disappointed fans of thrash metal. Mostly, it’s just a shame that Hetfield and co. were no fucking good at hard rock.
But the issue has become confused. See, Rocktallica/Alternica apologists are quick to describe anti-Metallica sentiment as bitterness and selfishness, as though Metallica were our hot girlfriend who left us for a smug uptowner. And they insist that it’s, like, our own hang-ups that obstruct the path to a civil post-nup relationship. In their defenses of Metallica’s post-Justice work, there are insinuations that those left behind all need to accept what happened nearly two decades ago and find someone new.
Fuck that. Most of us truly moved on – or fled screaming – from Metallica’s defection to radio rock. And, again, none of us could’ve justified staying mad for long had the Black Album been good; most of us tried to pretend that it was good, so bottomless were the depths of our denial. That it wasn’t good upsets me to this day, but remains beside the point. There was so much badness still to come. And with every new atrocity, there was fresh outrage.
Yep, the years that followed the Black Album’s preposterously long touring cycle and progressively undercooked singles (“Wherever I May Roam?” Seriously?) were marred by bad haircuts, bad make-up, bad cover art (emphasis on bad art), bad alternative rock (infinitely worse than their bad hard rock), bad impressionistic videos (the same pretentious argle-bargle that they once viciously derided), bad tours (cough Lollapalooza cough cough), and very bad singing. It was a total reversal, a one-eighty, a decade-long cry for help.
But still, Metallicans insisted – correctly – that a band must follow its collective heart even though doing so causes so much heartache to so many ex-fans. Which is to say that if self-pity, shrill Danzig-isms, and a superfluous Kirk Hammett are what Metallica wants, then for us to protest would be to court fraudulence. So what if fans, with the benefit of ceaseless scrutiny, had a better understanding of Metallica’s limitations? Fans can either move on or listen in; no bitching allowed.
(Well, more accurately, no bitching is allowed regarding their transformation to a simpler, featureless band that made records for people with no interest in music but enjoy the act of purchasing stuff. The music, conversely, it remained our duty to evaluate and rate.)
So, defeated by logic, we Metallican’ts had to swallow our embarrassment and rage at their convenient betrayal. It was tough: the music sucked ,and even more galling and exhausting to bear were the antics of Lars Ulrich, who embarked on a quest to distance himself completely from metal via hare-brained shows of legitimacy. Each of his little endeavors seem to ask of no one in particular, “Aren’t I a stereotype-buster? Didja ever think a metal drummer would do this?” Gosh, Lars, I dunno. Let’s see. Would a metal drummer would get totally coked out and impersonate an art dealer for a few years? Would a metal drummer suddenly cast himself publicly as an imminently hate-able/noticeably high copyright crusader? Would a metal drummer drag down his band onstage ’cause his offstage time is spent on anything but drumming (sniff)?
Still, even now it’s pretty much up to the individual to hold Metallica accountable for their actions up to 2004. To some, every misstep and shameful gaffe can be counted as the actions of a damaged living entity in its adolescence; Metallica once was a snarling teenager, they’d say, and, despite tragedy, has since matured into a saner adult with less interest in the interesting. To others, post-metal Metallica was little else than a Vichy France to Alternative rock’s fascist regime.
But no matter where you weigh Metallica’s wrongdoings on a scale of intent, let no one dispute the effects of their decisions. Forget that Metallica playing radio rock is as offensive as Michael Jordan in a White Sox uniform. Fuck it. It was never Metallica’s, like, obligation to not suck – but the success of their cardboard ballads and farty rockers (“Fuel” OMG worst song ever) had a titanic effect on metal. Metal, to the business minds in music, could hereby be sanitized, neutered, and deadened. Metal, which even in its hair rock mode at least paid lip service to recklessness, could be intimidated, tamed, and hammered into the same tired shape as rock made for the bar-and-car crowd. Money men could wave a copy of the Black Album at metal bands young and old, and with a smirk drawl the words “Sound like this or be poor. The rules have changed.”
So, followed by the explosion of alternative realism and Pantera hardcore-isms, the multi-platinum Metallica set off an irreversible crisis for commercial metal bands. While listeners can afford to ride out trends and witness the evolution of genres, major label bands were required to make money. And if the Black Album spelled the end of thrash metal – or at least the enactment of a law requiring metal to abide by boring rock’s rules – would it not seem pathetic and ridiculous for all the almosts (Anthrax, Testament), not-quites (Flotsam and Jetsam, Kreator), and outright followers (Megadeth) to release thrash metal albums? Would they even be allowed to?
Metallica’s new success bankrupted metal. Not grunge, not hair rock excess, not jock rappers. It was Metallica.
They didn’t wage any wars; it’s more like they’re three Einsteins (and Kirk) who, with their greed (monetary and otherwise), enabled construction of a metal doomsday device, which was then seized by reactionaries to intimidate the good-hearted. Sure, my life would’ve been brightened by a few more real Metallica records – though their belated attempts at a return to metal can be charitably described as “sonic puke stains “– and if they’d devoted themselves to quietly sucking without the marketing and publicity stunts and attention grabs, it would’ve been much easier to be unharmed by their desertion. After all, they kept insisting it was all about the music, not universal acceptance. Yet they never again made music that spoke more loudly than sad, desperate actions.
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