Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery. William Erwin (Ed.). Blackwell, 2007.
It is not often that one can get a basic philosophical education and a heavy metal history lesson in one book. Equally unusual is a philosophy book promoted by the likes of Scott Ian, guitarist for heavy metal standard Anthrax (“The most elucidative dissertation on Metallica ever written. And a kick-ass read to boot!!!”). But this addition to the ubiquitous “Culture and Philosophy” series has accomplished these very things.
In 1999, Open Court Publishing released Seinfeld and Philosophy, the first title in their Popular Culture and Philosophy series. Since then the series has grown into an impressive collection of philosophical investigations of such pop cultural icons as The Simpsons, The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Passion of the Christ, Star Wars, Narnia, Monty Python, as well as Baseball, Harley Davidson, and The Atkins Diet. Before scoffing at such offerings, the relative popularity of the typical philosophy book or series should be carefully considered. The publisher clearly tapped into something that the general public found extremely interesting.
In 2006 Blackwell Press entered the game with South Park and Philosophy and has continued with mostly television-related titles until the recent release of Metallica and Philosophy which discusses themes found in the songs of the most popular heavy metal band of all time. For those who are not familiar with the band the question might arise: “Why should we care what Metallica has to say about anything?” For heavy metal rock music fans this is like asking why we should care what Tiger Woods has to say about golf. For decades now Metallica has been the premiere American hard rock band having achieved virtually unparalleled successes both artistically and commercially. Metallica’s extraordinarily talented musicians thus command considerable, generation-spanning influence. Like them or not, Metallica’s attitudes and ideas must be taken seriously. “Philosophica” anyone?
Metallica’s first album, Kill ‘Em All, was released in 1983 followed by Ride The Lightning in 1984. The difference in quality between the two was substantial. Rarely do sophomore releases meet the expectations created by a band’s initial offering, and to surpass those expectations is even more impressive. Remarkably, 1985’s Master Of Puppets continued the upward trend, and yet the band was still not at the height of their career. In 1988, after the bus-accident death of bassist Cliff Burton in 1986, the silence was broken with the release of And Justice For All. Fans were astonished by yet another hefty leap forward in musicianship. Justice reached number six on the US charts, received a Grammy nomination for best hard rock album, and the band received the first-ever Grammy for best metal performance.
Incredibly, up to this point Metallica not enjoyed any serious air time on the radio, and had not recorded a single music video (something virtually unheard of at the time). With the unparalleled success of Justice it would have been completely understandable if Metallica’s next album was less than their best. Yet it was the band’s fifth recording, the self-titled 1991 release Metallica (affectionately known as “The Black Album”), that elevated their career into the mainstream. Metallica went straight to number one all over the world, earned a Grammy plus other major awards, and sold over 15 million copies worldwide.
The band maintained their hard rock profile throughout the 1990’s despite the genre’s loss of popularity and the replacement of glam metal with grunge music. Metallica cut their hair, got a bunch of piercings, and released their sixth album, Load, which was followed by Re-Load and S&M – a live show recorded with the San Francisco Symphony. The first full length album recorded in the 21st century was 2003’s St. Anger (which was, notably, the band’s first release to be poorly received by fans). This is the point in Metallica’s history where the book picks up (i.e., “Death Magnetic” is not featured).
It may seem unusual to non-head-bangers that heavy metal’s most successful band has very few songs about sex or drugs (and their major drug song is decidedly against its use). True, the band’s career began with absurdly metallic titles like “Metal Up Your Ass” and “Whiplash,” but they quickly matured with more sublime offerings like “Nothing Else Matters” and “Fade to Black.” The band’s lyrical themes have included wartime death (“Disposable Heroes”), suicide (“Fade to Black”), addiction (“Master of Puppets”), false evangelists (“Leper Messiah”), the exodus story (“Creeping Death”), the failure of religious beliefs to save from death (“The God That Failed”), and a tribute to Dalton Trumbo’s World War II novel Johnny Got His Gun (“One” – the song which prompted the band’s first video). Metallica certainly cannot be accused of simply producing “kill your mama music.” Many of their lyrics are quite intriguing and often personal.
As one who grew up listening to Metallica and who later became interested in the study of philosophy, it was with great interest that I looked into what insights editor William Irwin (Ph.D. – currently on faculty at King’s College, PA) had collected from the various contributing authors of Metallica and Philosophy. The book offers twenty articles on twenty topics ranging from a comparison of Platonic and Aristotelian views of art, to the file sharing ethics of Napster. These articles are grouped into introductory matters, existential issues, end-of-life ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and social construct theories.
Space does not allow for a consideration of the merits of various articles. Overall, the band is treated fairly in that they are neither looked down nor heralded as this generation’s philosopher-poets. The legitimate philosophical issues underlying Metallica’s songs are not offered as proof of the band’s incredible depth, nor are they dismissed as naïve. Rather, they are more often considered as the effects of universal themes in philosophy that may describe any thinking person’s writing.
One of the overall strengths of the book is that unlike some of the former Culture and Philosophy books, the authors of Metallica and Philosophy do not simply devote an introductory paragraph to some line in the band’s lyrics and then proceed with a paper that has little to do with the band or its music. The authors generally demonstrate both knowledge and appreciation for Metallica’s writing, and the result is an actual increase in the reader’s knowledge and appreciation of both philosophy and Metallica.
Of course, it is rare that any writer (including this one) will report on what he sees in other’s work without injecting some of his own thoughts. As evidence of this I will comment directly on only one article that I found to be potentially misleading. Peter S. Fosl’s chapter (“Metallica, Nietsche, and Marx: The Immorality of Morality) quickly degenerates into a personal diatribe against Christianity that is only superficially disguised as a commentary on Metallica’s critique of religion. Songs such as “The God That Failed” or “Leper Messiah” do not justify Fosl’s thoughts here. These lyrics are directed against religious falsehood, not the falsehood of religion. Some of the songs that Fosl cites say nothing about Christianity whatsoever, or can be taken in more than one way. It is well known that Metallica’s chief songwriter, James Hetfield, has legitimate issues with his Christian Science upbringing (his mother died of cancer without attempting surgery because of CS’s teachings [note: not Jesus’s!] – this has been reported to be the impetus for “The God That Failed“). But Fosl confuses these expressions with his own belief that Christianity itself promotes an anti-life morality (Fosl’s disgust with Christianity is clear from his writing here, as well as his bio at the end of the book). This misuse of Metallica’s legitimate critique of religious charlatanry will only resonate with those predisposed to that viewpoint.