…And Justice For All

Band/Artist: Metallica
Album: …And Justice For All
Best song: “One” or “Blackened”
Worst song: This is pretty much great all the way through.

Fairly recently, actor and Simpsons voice genius Hank Azaria started a conversation on Twitter (this is how we all communicate now, by the way: Someone just throws some meat into the Twitter lion cage and we all fight over it) about a very American subject and who would top a very American ranking.

These kinds of cheap tricks are just that, but they are fun. Thousands of people participated and there were plenty of joke answers that made me laugh (someone said the Bloodhound Gang, I hope, in jest). There were far too many talking about the importance of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, which kinda feels like a cop out (also, fuck that guy). The Heartbreakers was a similar choice, as though that really is different. A lot of dumbasses said things like Pearl Jam (garbage), CCR (lame) and The Eagles (awful). Some decent people nominated R.E.M. (interesting, but nah), the Velvet Underground (a good choice, for sure) , Nirvana (an even better choice) and others.

The definition of “greatness” is the sticking point here. Because art is subjective, it resembles but does not completely mirror the MVP debates in sports wherein the word “valuable” gets litigated within an inch of all of our lives. When it comes to art, “greatness” is squishy, as influence can be the determining factor, records sold can be a factor… hell, Grammys can be a factor. This is all in the “Eye of the Beholder.”

It’s obvious from the way this blog is set up that you know who my choice is, which is why I would suggest Metallica is basically the closest definitonal band to the examples Azaria notes. Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are all known for redefining and popularizing (hard, in Zep’s case) rock’s golden age; Metallica did that for metal. In fact, Metallica is the defining post-Sabbath metal band (from any nation). There are band who made better records or didn’t drop off as much after their peak, but no band reoriented and popularized the genre, made perfect records and had as big an influence.

There is a decent argument to made for popular bands being “great”; in a market-based culture, there is value in “50 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” Similarly, it builds off the “influence” notion, in that not every popular band influences the most other bands, but there is a connection between popularity and influence. The Beatles aren’t the Beatles if they don’t sell so many records, for example.

My reasoning for Metallica to be the greatest American rock band is also reliant on the idea that no American band has produced a three-album run like Metallica has (Ride the Lighting, Master of Puppers and …And Justice For All. I love Metallica’s 1980s output (and a few stray songs after that). The first record is a great, albeit very raw, statement of purpose. It’s on Ride the Lighting– a perfect album – that the band became the juggernaut it was destined to be. Master of Puppets expanded the band into long movements and progressive changes and …And Justice For All is the end of that plateau, as the band just totally spanned so many subgenres of metal.

…And Justice For All was my first exposure, as a very small child, to Metallica via the video for the song “One,” arguable the band’s best single track. We didn’t have MTV at home and I remember being on a Florida vacation with my family as, probably, an eight-year-old, seeing the video and being absolutely horrified. I was also transfixed, the same way I was with horror movies. I probably knew it would terrify me, but I couldn’t look away. I knew it was, if nothing else, cool. Cool but awul.

And, to a point, this is Metallica’s MO during those peak years, but especially when it comes to …And Justice For All. The entire album is a bummer, from the enviro-apocalyptic “Blackened” to the “I HATE YOU MOM AND DAD” anthem of “Dyers Eve.” In between lies songs like “Harvest of Sorrow,” a first-person murder story, the red-scare themed “The Shortest Straw” and an oddly prescient title track that deals with the inequalities inherent in the American justice system. The album just celebrated its 30th anniversary two years ago, by the way. …And Justice For All, an album with a title track describing an unfair criminal justice system, is older than most Metallic fans. What is behind the song’s message has only gotten worse; the justice system is far worse, albeit more along racial lines than anything else (Metallica, did not specifically address this in the song).

But, let’s get back to “One,” for a minute. The video and the song are very obviously an antiwar statement, down to the inspiration for the song being Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun and the video interspersing clips from the film version between the band playing in black and white. The song’s duel guitar solos are often considered two of the best in the history of rock and roll, the imagery of the lyrics describe the agony of war casualties and the shifting pace of the song conjures the shifting pace of war.

It is a perfect companion piece to the band’s other great anti war song, “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (also inspired by a book). In each, the lyrics paint a clear picture of a situation of desperation and aftermath of war, with “For Whom The Bell Tolls” being more about the battle itself in narrative form. The futility of it all is summed up in its final lines: “Crack of dawn, all is gone except the will to be/ Now they see what will be, blinded eyes to see.” But, it also a parallel to “One” in that the rhythm section echoes the warfare of the period. Lars Ulrich’s dual thuds to open the song evoke the boom of the cannons of the Spanish Civil War period, just as the term “machine gun” drums perfectly describe Ulrich’s work during the bridge of “One.”

In both, they are powerful statements against the horrors of war and the toll that war takes on those who go off to fight. It’s some irony that Metallica is a favored band of many enlisted American soldiers, who chose to sign up with the knowledge that war is, indeed, brutal.

But, I expect nothing really less from this country or, to be honest, this band. While they are a band of unparalleled greatness, the dudes in Metallica seem to be dumb as hell. The Napster fight, while perhaps moral, was a very stupid fight to initiate, but the anti-war songs being so great is something that bothers me. Not because I am pro-war (I am not), but rather that Metallica never really seemed to internalize the messages of their own songs.

The most obvious example is that the band put out a video in 2008 (admittedly, 20 years after “ONne”) that is basically an “Army of One” avertisment. To say it glorifies war, I think, would be an understatement. This is not the work of a band that explicits hates war. The song itself is pretty decent (good changes, totally cliché/nonsensical lyrical content), but the video is a work of a band that thinks war looks cool. Unlike some of their contemporaries, Metallica did not do videos until “One,” so the music stood for itself (hence “For Whom the Bell Tolls” being so powerful).

The other thing is something I’ve done on Twitter, with regards to the band and it speaks to a different issue.

For anyone who has seen Some Kind of Monster, it’s abundantly clear that Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield are absolutely not people you want to hang out with. They are not particularly empathetic or introspective men. They are,in a word, a little bit ignorant and not particularly worried about it.

Case in point: This infamous photo. Axl Rosenberg at Metal Sucks wrote a whole piece on the history of this kind of imagery and how metal has (and has not) learned from the feedback from those things. He outlines what I think is the key factor in metal (and extreme music, more generally) and how it as often cozied up to racism/Nazi imagery: Shock value. Black metal, famously, is lousy with white nationalists and they are drawn to the “FUCK YOU, DAD!” aspect of the music. Which is certainly what Ulrich and Hetfield are doing in that photo. Maybe the two of them (one a European immigrant, the other a man with a very dark family past) are actually sympathetic to National Socialism. Or, more likely, the two driving forces of a band with this album cover think shocking people as an aspirational value.

Is Metallica in the vein? It’s hard to tell. As they’ve got older, they’ve each embraced their particular aethstetic; Hammet’s guitars have horror movie iconography on the, Ulrich seems to want to look like a fancy aging art dealer/cool Euro uncle, Robert Trujillo never stopped being a SoCal skater guy and Hetfield’s a hot rod dude. In that final case, two issues come up.

1.The Iron Cross is, at best, Nazi-adjacent. Does Hetfield know this? Or that the Iron Cross is a very popular white nationalist symbol? Probably not. He probably knows it through the hot rod/motorcycle/things that go “vrrrroooom” world (West Coast Choppers, which has its own issues with white nationalist, uses the symbol for its logo) and thinks it looks cool. But, even then, well…

2. The anti-war consistency or not consistency. This gets to the above tweet. The Iron Cross is a symbol of war. I don’t expect Hetfield to have a peace sign on his guitar; again, this is a band that festooned its debut album with an implication of murder-by-hammer. But, it is weird that this symbol of war on the man’s signature guitar is used to play “One” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” during shows.

There’s a bit in one of the seemingly innumerable Metallica live videos the band has released on its YouTube page (yes, it’s ironic that the anti-Napster band has so embraced free Internet content) where in James gives some sort of “well, people are people! Metallica loves everyone, no matter your color!” And, like, OK. That’s better than, like, Inquisition having to deny being a bunch of Nazis or Myrkur popping off about how Muslims aren’t really welcome in Europe or whatever racist nonsense she said (and her recent flirtattion with German Aryan imagery for an album cover). Overall, the genre has a real problem with Nazi imagery and overall bigory. Metallica is not that.

How far from “All Lives Matter” is “Metallica loves everyone?” The Metallica dudes come, largely, from a metal culture where acknowledging their minority fans is a step up. Should I expect them to have a more nuanced view of race and the politics of race? Venom Prison, after all, has an antifascist anthem that doesn’t make them sound like morons.

— As mentioned above, metal has a “FUCK YOU DAD!” vibe to almost everything, with this notion that shocking or provoking is more valuable than actual thought. But that’s far from the only downside to the genre itself. Aggressive music – punk is like this, too – attracts overly aggressive people; check out any Metallica video’s comments section and it’s lousy with fascist sympathizers (mostly, oddly, from Brazil. That fucking country loves heavy metal). The metal fan, writ large, isn’t the most nuanced thinker. It appears they equate aggressive music with an overall aggressive lifestyle.

And why wouldn’t they? Metallica is not Nine Inch Nails, a band that largely exists within a sadboy framework; rather, they spent a decade partying. And once had a t-shirt with this on it. One of the greatest metal albums in history – and the greatest in the post-metal subgenre – asks its listeners to think about the surveillance state in a time when that was considered sorta revolutionary. Al Jourgensen has spent the last 20 years trying to be eloquent about politics and has largely failed (but at least he’s not a white nationalist and at least he’s trying). “One,” “…And Justice For All” and “Blackened,” in a way, were more facile political statements, but they were something.

Are the Metallica guys dopes or dope? The answer is more complicated than an either/or proposition. As with all of us, their youthful energy propelled them to a real place of greatness. In getting older, they have turned inward and the results suggest that they are not the most nuanced thinkers in the world. The recent work’s crappiness does not invalidate the greatest three-album run in history. It shades my view of them, in a way, because I have stopped thinking of James Hetfield or Lars Ulrich as people with whom i share certain views about war, peace, justice, etc. It sounds, more and more, like they dabbled in things that resemble deeper thought, but their introspection in aging belies that.

Public people degrade when you learn more about them. If we never got the Dave Mustaine “I’m divorced and a libertarian” years, I’d think far more highly of him. If we never got the Iron Cross period, I’d think Hetfield to be a lot cooler than he is.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

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