The Meaning of Metal

Like many Americans of my generation, I have a lot of experience with the genre of music called heavy metal — represented by bands like Black Sabbath, Slayer, Metallica, and Linkin Park. When I was in high school, I knew a lot of heavy metal fans and I attended a number of concerts. As I got older, however, my musical tastes moved away from metal. At the time, I thought it was because I had grown tired of what I perceived as limitations of the genre: its focus on the emotions of anger and fear, on the topics of death and destruction, and its seeming inability to express a wider range of emotions and thoughts than these.

Last week, however, as I was flipping through radio channels, I heard the opening chords of “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, and I decided to give this old metal classic a listen. For those who don’t know, “Enter Sandman” was the opening track of Metallica’s Black Album, an early 90s album that might be the most famous heavy metal album of all time.* “Enter Sandman” itself is an excellent and unusually accessible example of a song in the metal genre — hence its continued radio play even after the 15+ years that separate us from its original release date.

While listening to this song, I had a revelation that changed my perception of the metal genre entirely. What I realized is simply this: Heavy metal is valuable precisely because it puts emotions like anger and fear at the center of its emotional landscape. In this way, it is a counterweight to the false “positivity” and shallow sentimentality of so much other popular music. And, for all of these reasons, it has a strong affinity (or, at least, an analogy) to those modern intellectual traditions that have also emphasized the significance of such dark and difficult emotions, as well as diagnosed the reasons for the avoidance of these emotions by so many widely accepted interpretive frameworks. I am thinking in particular of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and the existentialism of Camus and Sartre.

I encourage readers to take another listen to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” from this perspective. The song includes the voice of a young boy saying a conventional Christian prayer that includes the words, “If I die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.” The lead singer then sings “Hush little baby, don’t say a word / And never mind that noise you heard / It’s just the beast under your bed / in your closet, in your head.” Here the child is being told (truthfully) that there are beasts in the world: other people can be beastly, the ways of the world can be beastly, and we ourselves harbor beasts in the unexplored or unacknowledged parts of ourselves (what Freud calls the unconscious). The world is not (only) a playground of sun and light, it includes dark, difficult, cruel, destructive forces (what Freud calls the death drive). Near the end of this verse, the volume and intensity of the guitars rises until we reach the chorus, at which point the rhythms and harmonies suggest a shift from the verse’s vulnerability to a manifestation of some unexpected new power, even a kind of security maintained by the forcefulness and violence of the new deeper and darker position to which we’ve just arrived. And the listener hears (singing): “Exit light / Enter night / Take my hand / We’re off to never-never land.” In other words: I will lead you into the hell of the unconscious, where fear and anger are among the most powerful forces, so that you can master these and become a stronger person.

I still think of heavy metal as just one genre among others, with its own conventionally-based limitations. But I can better appreciate now the value of its message. It helps us to notice and to more creatively orient ourselves to the tragic, aggressive, and destructive undercurrents that are an unavoidable and important aspect of reality itself.

*It’s generally thought that the genre began with Black Sabbath in the 1970s — who were the first to take the longer-standing tradition of hard rock, inclusive of groups like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, in the “darker” and “heavier” direction that defines metal. Sabbath was followed by Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Metallica, among others, but Metallica seems to have been the band from this early era with the greatest productivity and staying power (as judged by popularity and name recognition) in the 1990s and 2000s.