Better Living Through Headbanging: The Grammys, Metallica, and Why Mass Appeal Isn’t the Point

Metallica Performs with Lady Gaga (Getty)
Metallica Performs with Lady Gaga (Getty)

I never watch the Grammy Awards, mostly because they do not feature much music that I like. This last Sunday’s award show promised a rare exception: a seemingly odd pairing of Metallica and Lady Gaga. Metallica was the first metal band I ever loved. True, when I first found them, they were in the midst of their hard rock phase of Load and ReLoad, two albums scorned by many longterm fans. I will always love those albums because they introduced me first to the band, which led me to their thrash metal 80s output, and then opened up an entire genre to me. From there, as they say, it was off to Never, Never Land.

That they were performing with Lady Gaga was a nice bonus as well. I do not listen to much pop, but I enjoy Gaga maybe a little more than I would like to admit. I would like to believe it because I picked up on her influences: she is heavily influenced by metal acts and rock acts like David Bowie who, while not metal, are close to the hearts of many metalheads. It should have been an excellent matchup and while the band and Gaga held up their end, the performance was somewhat overshadowed by a couple tiny humiliations. The presenter forgot to introduce Metallica, mentioning only Gaga and then, Hetfield’s mic mystery became unplugged, leaving the performers to improvise a solution until well into the song.

This incident launched a number of hot takes, including The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who saw this incident and others as evidence of rock’s diminished role in the Grammys. Perhaps rock’s role has diminished in the Grammys and in popular music, but Metallica are not rock, not like U2 or Bruce Springsteen. They are metal and metal and hard rock never enjoyed a privileged status in the Grammys. Even more mainstream acts like AC/DC have never won anything more than “Best Rock Album”. The hard rock and metal legends Guns N’ Roses have never won a single Grammy award, not even for Appetite for Destruction, one of the greatest debut albums in any genre.

This is partially by design of course. Metal is simply not the kind of music that wants to be embraced on a wide scale the way that pop music is. In metal, the embrace of the masses can be seen as evidence of “selling out.” Just like Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer from Saturday Night Live, metal isn’t here to be your buddy. It’s here to punch you in the face.

Among the metal faithful, loyalty to the genre is as strong as ever. A 2015 study by Spotify found that metal listeners were by far the most loyal to their favorite bands and genre. Metal is more than just a type of music; it is a lifestyle. Its adherents do not just listen to a favorite metal song here and there, but whole albums, whole discographies. They go to tours, they wear the t-shirts. Metal is a music that inspires intense reactions: either you are completely turned off or you are converted.

I remember when I first encountered metal in middle school. I was a sheltered kid, only one year removed from a brief stint in home school. I was good, conservative preacher’s kid, protected from all forms of music but southern gospel and country. At Poplarville Middle School, the kids my age walked around in Marilyn Manson shirts and moshed at school dances. I was horrified. Metal is, at its core, a deeply alienating art form. It is frightening and intimidating. The one thing it isn’t, however, is boring.

In contrast, I spent a great deal of time recently listening to praise radio in search of new songs for our band to play on Sundays. So, the radio stayed on Christian radio. One day, I picked up my wife from work and as she got into the car, a new song started playing on the radio.

“Have you heard this one yet?” She asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“I only ask because I know you’ve been listening to this station for a couple of days.”

I searched my memory and I honestly couldn’t remember whether or not I had heard the song. Instead of distinct songs, my memory could only recall several hours of chiming guitars and mid-tempo drums with breathy, airy vocals singing of the greatness of the name of God or something like that. The sound of this song was indistinct from every other song that station played. Every song had the same sound: that of an even less interesting Coldplay.

I wondered if it was because of the music I had listened to prior to listening to my worship binge had been heavy metal. I have only in the last year or two discovered the wealth of great metal being produced now. After dipping my toe back in, I have dived in headlong. After a year of thudding double bass drums, chugga-chugga guitar riffs, vocals that alternate between the operatic and hearty yells, the timid sounds of modern praise music became diminished. And unlike the syrupy homogeneity of praise music, heavy metal is a broad, diverse genre, much too big at this point in its history to simply fit under the umbrella of hard rock. Some metal is melodic; some is harsh and aggressive. Power metal, sludge metal, nu metal, progressive metal – a wide range of sounds and subject matters.

Take, for instance, one album I found myself listening to quite a bit in the last few years, Foundations of Burden by the doom metal band Pallbearer. Neither the sub genre designation “doom metal” nor the morbid band name would indicate this, but the album is quite lovely. In the opening track “Worlds Apart”, a lead guitar plays an elegant melody line over a chugging rhythm section until lead singer Brett Campbell’s high tenor takes the lead nearly a minute into the song. The song itself is ten minutes long. The song is gorgeous, but the Arkansas-based band clearly took no consideration of how this would play on the radio. It is simply not made for quick consumption. It is a steak dinner, not a Happy Meal.

Another example is Atlanta’s Mastodon, a band that has quickly become one of my very favorite bands. Three of the four band members sing, and each with a distinct style, giving them endless sonic possibilities. Mastodon has no bad albums, but one of their best is Leviathan, a concept album based on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Like its source material, Leviathan is dense and intimidating, made even more inaccessible by its big riffs and a vocalist who sounds like a goat-eating creature from folklore. “Blood and Thunder”, its opening track, is among their most beloved songs in the metal community, but it’s easy to see why a sludge metal song about classic American literature never received the same widespread play as “Hello” by Adele.

I wonder if what draws me continually to heavy metal is its brashness, its unwillingness to compromise itself so that others will embrace it. It doesn’t care if you like it. I wonder if it attracts me so much because I care too deeply about whether or not others like me, so much that I’m willing to reduce myself to the generic mediocrity of much of Christian radio, the kind of nondescript blandness celebrated by award shows. Perhaps that kind of homogeneity will win meaningless awards, but it will never do anything interesting, never stand out. The only sure way to be embraced by everyone is to be so indistinct, so inoffensive so as to not say anything notable.

When I need to charge forward, to motivate myself, to feel as though I could walk through a wall if needed, metal is the music I turn to. I need its intensity to push me beyond nondescript pleasantness, beyond my need to please everyone. Metal inspires me to do the difficult things. When you encounter it, don’t let its abrasiveness turn you away. You may find it a part of the appeal, and then its beauty, complexity, and its diversity will become more apparent to you. Open this pit up!