Is Metallica Edging Closer to the RP Revolution?

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Metallica
has always been a somewhat apolitical band, letting the music speak
for itself. Although they have made political statements over the
years in various interviews they have given, they have primarily
avoided coming out with any official statements regarding specific
policies or the direction of the country. It is mainly through their
music and lyrics that we can discover their views on such issues
as capital punishment, war, government corruption, censorship, and
drugs. Their recent concerts at the Bridge School Benefit, though,
indicate that the band has begun to state clearer positions on opposing
the war, media manipulations, and a controlling state.

The band members'
views on issues regarding collectivism and individualism have largely
been expressed in public and private by the two main spokesmen for
the band, singer and guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich.
A number of their personal opinions, which clearly differ from each
other, can be discerned from hobbies or statements they have made
over the years: Hetfield is an avid hunter, having taken trips around
the world to Patagonia and Siberia for the sport, while Ulrich once
called Bill Clinton "the smartest guy."

Their opposing
views were never clearer than in the 2003 documentary of the band,
Some
Kind of Monster
, when Hetfield has just returned from a
stint in rehab and they are discussing continuing with the film-making
process or not. Ulrich argues that "If Metallica collectively
decides to do this [make the film], we can make it happen."
Hetfield responds, "That scares me. Metallica is three individuals
and three individuals have to decide what to do… I'd like us to
be three individuals instead of us all feeding the beast for the
benefit of Metallica." This exchange is significant, because
a recent major event in Metallica's history was the battle with
file-sharing website Napster, in which the band argued they should
be able to control the distribution of their songs over online media
and even testified before the Senate urging laws be passed to protect
intellectual property rights. Ulrich's collectivist position breaks
down when Hetfield asserts his own individuality and personal needs.

The Napster
episode was highly publicized, with the band having been quite willing
to use the State to defend their claims to control the use of their
songs in every available medium. Despite a pro-state battle against
file sharing, though, has Metallica recently begun to shift their
views of the state? Much time has passed and events have directly
affected the band since the Napster case, and it seems they have
come out with their clearest political statement in years. This
was exhibited in their choice of songs to play at the recent Bridge
School Benefit in late October 2007, an event at which Metallica
played two consecutive nights. Surprisingly (at least to this longtime
fan), they opened each night by playing four cover songs which they
had never before performed. The choice of songs, though, gives an
indication of what they may be thinking of the war, the state, the
media, and their recent experiences with them.

Metallica have
been writing songs with anti-war messages for over two decades now.
An obvious example, which they played at the Bridge School Benefit,
is “Disposable Heroes,” from their Master
of Puppets
album released in 1986. With lyrics such as “Bodies
fill the fields I see, hungry heroes end / No one to play soldier
now, no one to pretend,” and “Bred to kill, not to care / Do just
as we say / Finished here, greeting death / He’s yours to take away,”
the emphasis is clearly on the disconnect that soldiers feel in
killing people they do not know for reasons given to them from other
people they may not know who care more about an undefined "win"
than with any moral considerations.

Similar thoughts
are echoed in songs such as “One” about the situation of a soldier
who has been left with no limbs to move, or senses to use, or way
to communicate with the world, and therefore no real reason to survive,
but who also lacks the ability to control his fate. The music video
for this release even featured scenes from Dalton Trumbo's 1971
anti-war film Johnny
Got His Gun
.

A distrust
of being controlled and manipulated has also been a recurring theme
of Metallica dating back at least to the Ride
the Lightning
album and the song “Escape,” as well as …And
Justice For All
's "Eye of the Beholder," to name
a couple. The song that was played at the Bridge School Benefit,
though, is a clearer example. “The Unforgiven” tells the story of
a man who, from soon after he is born, is controlled throughout
his life. Although he vows “That never from this day / His will
they’ll take away,” his only way to fight back against a life of
being controlled is to label his controllers and consider them "unforgiven"
for their actions against him. His battle, though he fights it his
entire life, results in his finally succumbing to apathy and a regret-filled
death. Those controlling the man are never named, but certain lyrics
point to a “Brave New World” style State conditioning the individuality
out of the man: “The young boy learns their rules," “This whipping
boy done wrong," "They dedicate their lives / To running
all of his,” and others points clearly to a system that aims to
train and control people against their will and diminish their tendencies
towards individuality to better serve the state: “He tries to please
them all,” alas, to no lasting success.

So, Metallica
has demonstrated a consistent attitude of being anti-war and harboring
a distrust of the state. To be fair, their image took a big hit
on the anti-state position with their battle against file-sharing
software company Napster. In particular, Ulrich's appearance before
the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2000 was made to defend their
claim of intellectual property rights and the illegality of sharing
music online. But moving on from this divisive event in the band’s
history, we can now explore the statements they have made in their
choice of cover songs to play at the 2007 Bridge School Benefit.
After moving in a decidedly pro-state direction during the Napster
debacle, recent experiences point to their moving back in the opposite
point of view.

The first song
played on both nights was Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate.”
This song contains a number of pro-individual liberty statements,
such as “I put my faith in the people / But the people let me down
/ So I turned the other way / And I carry on, anyhow.” Just based
on the first song, it can be argued that the message may be a defense
of the charge against the band every time a new album comes out
that they had finally sold out, a charge they have been defending
literally since their first album. This is a distinct possibility,
because the band has been working on new songs, but it still illustrates
Metallica’s emphasis on individual freedom, pleasing oneself, and
not caring what the mob thinks.

However, is
the line in the song, “Had my hand on the dollar bill / And the
dollar bill blew away,” another in a string of celebrities decrying
the falling value of the American dollar? Obviously this is a more
subtle message than models demanding to be paid in other currencies,
and rap stars flashing Euros in music videos, but it is a message
nonetheless, especially as Metallica has deep roots in Europe, with
drummer Lars Ulrich being born in Denmark, keeping his Danish citizenship,
and spending a good deal of his time there with his Danish girlfriend
Connie Neilsen.

Nazareth’s
“Don’t Judas Me” is a clearer example of Metallica's apparent shift
to more pro-liberty positions, and may reflect the band's assessment
of the mainstream media and its propaganda. “Treat me as you like
to be treated” is obviously pro-liberty enough, but the choice of
this song, in the midst of media propaganda about the threat of
Iran and a police state out of control with daily taserings and
intrusive searches at airports, is especially interesting. “Please
don’t headshrink me / Don’t disguise your innuendos / Make no lies
to me,” and “Please don’t number me / Don’t betray my trusted promise
/ Please don’t anger me / I find it hard to bear no fairness / Don’t
frustrate me, manipulate me,” could be Metallica’s subtle warning
to fans not to trust automatically anyone using a position of power
or media exposure as a bully pulpit. It is hard to listen to the
song without hearing echoes of a coming national ID card, the betrayal
of large parts of the "trusted promise" between the people
and their government enshrined in the Constitution, and a media
that specializes in propaganda and bad stenography. It is also hard
not to hear echoes of particular Revolution by supporters clearly
angry at what they are getting from government and has been a constant
victim of unfairness.

The use of
this song without a specific message stating their views would fit
with Metallica’s statements that they feel it inappropriate to use
their fame to espouse overtly political positions. As Hetfield himself
stated in an interview with the band's official "Metclub"
in 2003, "People at interviews ask you u2018what are your views
on the war?' Well, as a singer in Metallica, I've got nothing to
say about it, because this is not a soapbox for me. I really don't
like it when someone uses their opinion just because they're popular."
This echoed a similar statement from Ulrich in 1996 regarding the
band members' politics that "nobody ever gets to the point
of being so pushy that is pushes Metallica in one way or another."

This focus
on a media out of control and glorifying in negative messages is
carried through to the next song on the first night, Garbage’s “I’m
Only Happy When it Rains.” Lyrics such as “You know I love it when
the news is bad / And why it feels so good to feel so sad” reflects
a view that revels in bad news and a misery loves company attitude.
In addition to this being as accurate a summary of neoconservative
ideology as one is bound to get, it may reflect the band's own opinion
of a negative, exploitative media.

Without a direct
statement from the band, of course, the conclusion is left to speculation,
but the overall tone of these first three songs seems to show a
consistent focus on individuality and a distrust of labeling and
easy answers given by a centrally-controlled source, such as the
Old Media or the State. Of course, singer and guitarist James Hetfield
was himself briefly a subject of the negative news machine, when
he was stopped at an airport and reported to be a potentially suspected
terrorist, due to his "Taliban-like beard." If someone
who sells nearly 100 million records worldwide can be considered
a possible terrorist and detained at the airport for facial hair,
who is immune? Of course, the message is that everyone is a suspect.
The fact that the incident did not happen as described certainly
did not deter the rumors from spreading much further than the truth.

The last two
songs are more overtly anti-war than the others. The first is “Veteran
of the Psychic Wars,” by Blue Oyster Cult. This song may also be
a dual statement on the media manipulations and war itself. Obviously,
"psychic" wars going on here at home are just as important
as real wars in convincing the public that war is useful and going
well. Weariness of a war going on far too long, along with an assault
on personal liberty and privacy, is the message of lines such as
“But the war’s still going on dear / And there’s no end that I know
/ And I can’t say if we’re ever… / I can’t say if we’re ever gonna
to be free,” and “It’s time we had a break from it / It’s time we
had some leave.”

The band playing
a song that refuses to differentiate between real and "psychic"
wars indicates a growing distrust of the government, which has used
their recordings to torture detainees in Iraq, who are unused to
heavy metal. Ulrich vehemently disagreed with this use of the music,
but realized that he could do nothing about his intellectual property
being used as a torture device. His statements on the issue, in
an interview to the European press, are particularly revealing of
his feelings on torture: "I feel horrible about this. No one
in Iraq has ever done anything to hurt me, and I don't understand
why we have to be implicated in the bullsh–." He seemed no
less frustrated when discussing how Metallica's name in particular
has been associated with torture when he states, "What about
firing up some Venom or some of those Norwegian death metal bands?
The problem with that is then it wouldn't be a soundbite. Sometimes
Metallica become the token heavy metal band that you can talk about."
Ironically, though, he does not invoke his intellectual property
rights when discussing the state's use of his music for means he
does not agree with: "What am I supposed to do about it, get
George Bush on the phone and tell him to get his generals to play
some Venom?"

The band’s
own personal involvement in the war, through the use of their songs
as an “enhanced interrogation” technique, and the false reports
spread through the media of Hetfield being stopped at an airport
on suspicion of a terrorist-style appearance, may have convinced
them to make a stronger statement opposing big war and big government,
without violating their decision to get on the official bully pulpit.
Metallica have been used as a tool to fight the amorphous war on
terror as well as at least one member having his individual rights
infringed upon. As the BOC cover song finally asks, “Did I hear
you say that this is victory?”

The final cover
song that Metallica chose to play at the Bridge School Benefit is
Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms.” Although the song, throughout
most of it, seems to glorify in the camaraderie of being soldiers
for a common cause, the emphasis on this concept of “brothers in
arms” is turned on its head in the final lines. The song emphasizes
the strength of bonds that are formed “Through these fields of destruction,”
“As the battles raged higher,” and “In the fear and alarm,” which
may indicate that strength is found in becoming closer to those
allies with whom one fights a battle. But, the final lines of the
song are “We’re fools to make war / On our brothers in arms,” repeating
the “brothers in arms” line used throughout the song to show that
all humans have common bonds, no matter that “There’s so many different
worlds / So many different suns.” When individuals go to war for
a state, they are fighting individuals that they have more in common
with than they will ever share with the state they are fighting
for. Individuals, says the song, hold stronger bonds amongst themselves
than they will ever have with an abstract state. This message is
emphasized in the performance itself as Hetfield repeats the final
lines (“We’re fools to make war / On our brothers”) numerous times
until the end of the song.

So, have Metallica’s
experiences in the war against terror affected their views on war,
liberty, or the state? It certainly seems as if they have, based
on their choice of songs to cover for the Bridge School Benefit.
The strong collectivist position of the group imploring the state
to help them exert greater control over their intellectual property
has given way to outright disagreement with state decisions of its
own use of that intellectual property, and a pro-individual liberty
stance. Although these ideas have been expressed in various Metallica
songs throughout their career, never before have they played a set
with such a consistent message. In fact, that is the aspect of the
shows that strikes the long-term fan immediately. Having read much
on the history of Metallica and their personal views and having
collected nearly 800 bootleg concerts on CD and 100 on VHS tape
(yes, all of Metallica), I can not remember any other concert focusing
so strongly on any single message for nearly the entire set. In
their choice of cover songs, Metallica seems to have laid out a
message stating a new, emphatic, anti-war, anti-state position.

December
7, 2007

Nick
Heeringa [send him mail]
is a real estate broker in Whiting, Indiana. When not working, he
can be found studying twentieth-century history, the history of
the Catholic Church, and philosophy. He enjoys playing music and
running, and volunteers year-round with the Whiting High School
cross-country team.

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