The 25 Most Important People in Metal: #20, Rob Halford
As much as metal is a genre of music and a lifestyle, it is also a community. And like all communities, it has its leaders — men and women whose work, be it by design or circumstance, affects all lovers of extreme music on a regular basis.
Throughout November, MetalSucks will celebrate these industry leaders by counting down The 25 Most Important People in Metal one per day. To be clear, this is a list of the people we believe are most important to metal today, in 2016 — not necessarily the most important people overall in the entire history of the genre. Some of them are musicians. Many of them are not. Some of them are people you’ve heard of. Many of them work behind the scenes and do not routinely get to take a bow. But they all have one thing in common: more than just cogs in a machine, they are truly, undeniably irreplaceable.
Rob Halford’s name might as well be “Rob Trailblazer.” He may have single-handidly created the operatic, glass-shattering vocal style which has since become a staple of innumerous other bands. He’s almost certainly responsible for making studded leather a cornerstone of heavy metal fashion, which caught on not merely because it looked cool, but because it helped metal to establish its own identity separate from punk (by way of contrast, look at old Maiden promo photos: they basically dressed like The Ramones). His place in metal history would have been assured if he’d never done anything besides sing for Judas Priest.
Of course, he’s done much more than. I’m not sure people who weren’t into metal in 1998 can appreciate how bold it was of Halford to come out of the closet. There were absolutely ZERO prominent, out gay metal musicians at that time. Metal culture was notoriously homophobic, with “fag” and “gay” considered two of the greatest insults you could level against someone. Halford was still enjoying a successful career at that point, but he wasn’t in Judas Priest at the time — which is to say, he didn’t have the protective shield of an internationally-revered brand name, so coming out truly had the potential to damage his career. It seems crazy now that anyone ever didn’t know Halford is a homosexual (again: studded leather), but it was still important for Halford to come out. Halford sent a loud and clear message to the metal world that gay men and women should not have to hide who they are from the community. And he made it so that homophobes could no longer dismiss rumors that Halford liked men. Whatever feelings they had about being massive fans of a gay performer, they no longer had any choice but to confront those feelings. We have no idea how many LGBT metal fans found in Halford the inspiration they needed to come out themselves, and we truly have no idea what impact Halford’s coming out had on fans psychologically. It’s not hard to imagine someone who was raised to ignorantly believe that homosexuals are “inferior” to realize, through their love of Halford and his work, that such an assertion is a fallacy.
In other words, in a number of ways, what Halford did nearly twenty years ago continues to reverberate throughout the metal world today. Every Mina Caputo and Paul Masvidal owes some debt to Rob Halford; evolution takes time, change is generational, and there’s no doubt that Halford kickstarted this particular evolution in metal.
And as if all of that wasn’t enough, Halford is STILL blazing trails today — specifically, by proving that metal icons can, indeed, age gracefully. Halford is sixty-five years old now; Judas Priest’s debut album, Rocka Rolla, come out forty-two years ago. And yet, Halford continues to be one of metal’s finest frontmen: his voice is in great shape, and he still has plenty of charisma to burn. He never even went through some lame period where he chased trends in the name of fame; there is no Load, no Timbaland-produced embarrassment, no ill-advised foray into reality television on the man’s resumé.
And it is for ALL of those reasons that Rob Halford remains so very important to metal even at this late stage of his career. He represents, in every way, the best of what metal has to offer. We should all aspire to be more like Rob Halford.
In fact, I’m gonna go shave my head right now.