Donald Trump is a Lot Like Metallica in the Early ’80s
You guys read the Lefsetz Letter, right? If not, subscribe immediately. Bob Lefsetz is like a Howard Stern-type figure when it comes to the music industry: super interesting analysis, completely independent, and his audience counts big executives and celebrities in its readership. He’s a contrarian voice in a sea of peer-generated status-quo opinions about media.
I’m a fan, even when I disagree with him. So I was excited to check out his article from the other week, “Trump is a Metal Band.” It’s a comparison nobody else has made yet, particularly given how metal, like every other youth subculture, is riding the Bernie train. Bob says,
“Alice Cooper turned out to be a Republican who plays golf and Ozzy Osbourne is a harmless grandfather who putters around the living room and you’re supposed to have me believe that Donald Trump is DANGEROUS?
“Those with memories will recall when music tested limits, when the establishment was up in arms about the sound and the lifestyle, before every act became a brand playing to corporations to get money. What’s the first word you hear in music? SPONSORSHIP! Whereas Donald Trump paid for his campaign by himself, garnering tons of free publicity in the process. Yes, Donald Trump is a rock star, if you go back to what that once upon a time meant, someone who adhered to his own vision living a rich and famous lifestyle who cared not a whit what others said…
“Metal… Sold out arenas when no one was watching. Ain’t that America, where despite garnering dollars the establishment shies away from that which it believes is unseemly.
“And the reason metal triumphed was because it was the other, it channeled the audience’s anger, it was for all those closed out of the mainstream, and it turns out there’s plenty of them.
“Lady Gaga ain’t had a hit in eons, but the press keeps fawning over her. But her audience has moved on. Give Taylor Swift credit, at least she understands the new game, where you’ve got to make news all the time. But she’s safe. Drake’s more dangerous and he just blew up the charts. Then again, that’s a chart so antiquated, so irrelevant, that you’ve got to laugh. No, x number of streams does not equal an album, IT’S JUST X NUMBER OF STREAMS!
“And there you have the story of the music business in the twenty first century, even at this late date clinging to past models, praying that the old days will come back, burying its head in the sand re the new. We haven’t had a rock star in music since Shawn Fanning, who disrupted the status quo.
“That’s what Donald Trump is, a disruptor.
“As is Bernie Sanders.”
You know, he’s kinda spot-on. Trump and Bernie both built their campaigns the same way that Metallica, pre-Black Album/the “One” video did: they went out on the road and barnstormed the fuck out of the country. One of my favorite aspects of the Metallica story was how they were playing arenas, co-headlining along with Ozzy Osbourne, and selling massive amounts of records, before the sentimental narrative of the mainstream media even acknowledged their existence. Trump and Bernie, who are completely anti-status-quo just like Metallica were, forced the media to care.
The truth is that most people (“normies” or whatever you want to call ’em) usually accept that an artist is worth their time after they’ve been familiarized with that artist. That familiarizing process happens in many ways, but the dialogue around it is shaped by media outlets, who act as the connection between fan and band. And as Trump points out in every one of his speeches, those media outlets were bought and paid for by the “1%,” and incorporated into a corrupt system years ago.
Large media companies – even the most punk rock and DIY ones – eventually cater to some kind of corrupting influence. Not necessarily because there is an evil boardroom of executives deciding when Lady Gaga will be famous and when Bernie is going to be marked “out of the race,” but because the system is a hobbling, massive beast that demands financial satisfaction. Somebody has to, and will, get paid. That’s the world we live in.
Steve Albini talks about this a lot. But he misses a crucial point: a smart, talented person can game a system to their advantage. And this is exactly what Trump’s doing. He forces every news station to deal with his bullshit every single day, because it is so absurd and because he commands a huge audience that exists outside of the system. He doesn’t even really need CNN’s constant media-swirl OR their support — just like how Bernie doesn’t need it. Ignore your friends who post memes about how unfair and corrupt the media-complex is: Bernie is truly doing just fine on his own. Neither of them need the system, because they built their own!
Regardless of what you and I think about Trump supporters, that audience is a lot like Metallica’s audience pre-MTV’s recognition. Metal was regarded as a dangerous outsider culture, even taken to court by the ruling elite during Tipper Gore’s PMRC hearings on obscenities in rock lyrics. It seems hard to believe, in an era where Miley Cyrus swings naked on a wrecking ball and Justin Bieber’s cock is all over Instagram, but there was a time when people legitimately believed that rock music was a boogeyman, and caused kids to commit suicide, act out in violence, do drugs, and “hail satan.”
Of course, metal is no longer an outsider culture: it’s now a subculture AND a tiny economy. MetalGF wrote a great article last month asking whether metal — or ANYTHING — was still “counterculture.” I yawn at thinkpieces about how the Internet caused this, because MTV did it first, on an even bigger scale. It shouldn’t be a surprise to you to learn that one of MTV’s founders, Tom Freston, invested in VICE as the company was on the upswing in 2011 — helping lube many of their lucrative overseas distribution deals and connecting them with Hollywood powerhouse Ari Emmanuel, which ultimately led to their HBO deal. VICE continues to hire executives from MTV, by the way.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Companies like VICE, much like how Rolling Stone, NPR, and the Village Voice have rebranded themselves, thrive on delivering niche content to millenials, of which metal is just one of many niches that they can package and market. I don’t mean to roast these companies too hard, because what they do is SUPER important, but at the end of the day their primary mission is generating publicity about bands, like Albini talks about in that interview.
Trump and Bernie Sanders are kind of like these niches; mainstream-subcultures all on their own who have built up audiences so large that the media simply must cover them, on whatever terms their branded outlets choose to. They’re quite open about it, too: Trump is good for media business.
Trump is the political version of Steve Albini’s ideal form of a band: he does things on his own terms and, importantly, finances himself according to his own whims. But unlike an underground band that wants an audience, he doesn’t need to let media outlets brand him for their own good. His audience, like pre-MTV Metallica, is scarily large on its own. It might grow in parts due to all the “free media” he gets, but one of the few things you can actually say is true about Trump is that he really did build up his fame on his own, over decades of writing books, appearing in movies, creating/starring/producing in television shows, maintaining relationships with influential media figures like Jimmy Fallon and Howard Stern, and yeah, building his own business.
As Lefsetz points out in his article, the mainstream political-media complex still operates with an ’80s mindset, and is therefore completely ill-equipped to deal with outsiders like Bernie and Trump. Again, even alternative outlets like VICE have executives from the old media model making major business decisions. The dialogue created by the press about Trump is sort of irrelevant, because he has such a strange influence that he renders those headlines powerless. Similar to the shitstorms leveled against bands like Trivium and Slipknot, actually: those bands continue to reach massive audiences in spite of the dialogue always being against them.
Steve Albini might be right that you can’t outsmart a system like the music business, but that’s never been true of politics. Trump’s not the first person to do this even in America – Robert Moses, Lyndon Johnson, even FDR were all brilliant politicians because they understood and played the game at a high level. Trump says literally everything wrong by the standards of that business, and he still wins. He’s skipping playing the game of trying to “have a PR game” by sucking up to the ruling elite. That’s how Metallica won: by going right to their audience.