I have a bad habit of taking a long time to catch up on popular media. I mean it when I say a long time. I recently watched the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster for the first time. It came out in 2004. The events depicted in the film transpired among the band members over a decade ago, which is almost as difficult to believe as realizing that Robert Trujillo has been playing bass in Metallica for ten years. Granted, the point in the documentary when he joins the band is probably the group’s emotional peak, so it’s not a major surprise that he’s stuck around.
From merely a sociological standpoint, the film is already fascinating. As the party line on the documentary reads: After Jason Newsted left the band in 2001, it accelerated an emotional and professional tailspin for the band’s remaining three members and their erstwhile producer Bob Rock. Considering how the band had been a money-making machine for Elektra and its parent companies for well over a decade, their management company hired a $40,000-a-month (that is not a typo) therapist named Phil Towle to get them to make up and make an album. Their label also sponsored an extravagant recording bunker in upstate California to force them back into the “organic” cradle.
Such is the tragedy of major-label success. You’re not really a band anymore as much as sustained capital, and many scattered workers within the pop-metal cloud rely on you for their sustenance. This dynamic is pretty recognizable to anyone who’s read enough Karl Marx, C. Wright Mills, or even Simon Reynolds and/or Will Straw. Despite innumerable reasons to do so at the time, Metallica did not break up. They did make tremendous fools of themselves, though, between James Hetfield’s highly publicized stint in rehab and subsequent bizarre work ethic, not to mention Lars Ulrich’s crusade against illegal music downloading (though Jonah Ray would have you think otherwise).
Well, the band as an entity suffered, their high-priced therapist exposed himself as highly unethical, and critics generally firebombed the record that emerged from it (St. Anger), but the humans behind Metallica emerged from the ordeal in four individual pieces and continued earning massive sums of money for Elektra, Warner Music Group, and all the other vested interests.
In thinking about my own research interests, Metallica are distinctively relevant for other reasons. In Suroosh Alvi’s fascinating 2007 documentary “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” the featured band Acrassicauda doesn’t wake up a crowd at a Damascus cafeteria show until they creep into the opening chords of “Fade to Black.” Alvi comments that the rock fans at the show came to life because they’d never had the opportunity to see Metallica live, and this was the next-best thing. They could practically close their eyes and imagine being at a Metallica concert.
After I watched that documentary a few years ago, I immediately flashed back to being in Rabat in 2004. I stayed with a wonderful host family for a few days in the medina, where my host brother Zak, my friend Arnd, and I sat in the kitchen. The small satellite television played a succession of music videos from Lebanon, Egypt, Great Britain, and the United States. The first American video to play was, somewhat surprisingly, “St. Anger.”
The video was filmed on location in San Quentin State Penitentiary, focusing on individual inmates’ stories of how they got locked up. Zak’s little brother Mohammed ran in, sat down, and started singing along with the chorus. At the time, Mohamed was nine and barely spoke any English, and he was learning it from the worst music Metallica had ever produced*. Arnd turned to me and whispered, “not the most positive depiction of the United States.” Of course it wasn’t, but the video did present a brutally honest depiction of life for many Americans. It was hardly glossy, but it was more in line with the generalizations and propaganda that Americans spend their whole lives being fed, visually and subliminally, about the Muslim world.
Given Metallica’s fanatical following in the Middle East (and across the entire planet, despite losing their best musician and secret weapon 27 years ago), the band does seem to understand (and be at terms with) their power and influence. The same reasons that their management would not let them fold are the same reasons that they need to remember that they are ultimately pop stars and cultural ambassadors. Of course their popularity only tells a shred of the story of metal’s role within the interstices of cross-cultural geographic thought, and so this infinite line of thought begins. I highly doubt that Bob Rock had little metal-heads halfway around the world in mind while he was overproducing Kirk Hammett’s guitar riffs, but as the world shrinks, cultural influence tightens, and it may surprise you when you witness it. The music lover in me still regrets not going out and digging up a copy of Ride the Lightning^ for Mohammed, but I can only assume he discovered it eventually.
* I generally do not partake in bashing artists or any such entities online. But, to be fair despite certain misgivings I expressed here, this is honestly approximately the 192,439,822nd most-offensive thing that has been written about Metallica on the internet, and I am among the legions of fans who have nothing but praise for their near-perfect first three LPs.
^ To understand what got me into (classic) Metallica after many years of apathy, check out the intro sequence to the hilarious 2009 romp “Zombieland.” Certain readers probably already know what I mean.