Kyle Harris went to a Metallica concert in Denver and was troubled by what he saw.
The Westword Culture Editor didn’t witness thousands of people gathered to enjoy music. Nor did the Denver scribe see a band which has, for more than 30 years, provided entertainment, meaning, food for thought and even escape to millions.
No, what Harris saw was fascism and totalitarianism. He even went so far as to compare the concert goers to pigs: “In the right light, the crowd looked like enthusiastic pigs in an over-packed feedlot.”
He must be a blast at parties.
At first blush, Harris’ issues with the concert dealt with the optics in play. He notes the throng of fans, the massive screens and sheer spectacle reminded him of something from a Leni Riefenstahl film. It seems as if he might engage in a thoughtful discussion of the Dionysian spirit and its evocation as concerts grow in scope.
He doesn’t quite leave it there:
“Look, it was just another stadium concert, right? That’s just how they work. But Metallica is no Justin Bieber. The band’s vision of the world is introspective and couched in mass violence — the sort of horror perpetrated by big bombs, big armies and big nations. It’s the music of the trauma of war.”
His criticism isn’t so much of the concert mechanics and optics but instead of the kind of music being played at the spectacle. If Harris were laying claim to the notion that the Dionysian spirit and groupthink necessary to truly take part in a rock concert can be weaponized by the cynical, that would have been a very interesting article.
Sadly, the author lacks such nuance.
Harris seems to have no issues with the spectacle of a modern concert when used by the correct type of artist, such as Bieber. Instead, he indicts the heavy militaristic sense that he sees artists such as Metallica engendering.
Yup, for Harris a pop concert is OK, but a heavy metal one is somehow totalitarian. He’s essentially become a new avatar for the neo-victorian town elders in “Footloose,” or any movie featuring old, and usually religious, guys criticizing new music.
Metallica’s music is, according to Harris, “wholly American, for better or for worse, in its power and in its rage.” He seems to forget that band co-founder Lars Ulrich is a Dane who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 17. Ulrich had only been in the states for a short time before he and James Hetfield formed the band.
This most “American” thing about Metallica is either its English language lyrics or diversity.
The group consists of a Dane, a Lapsed Christian Scientist, the son of a Filipina Immigrant and a bassist of Mexican and Native American heritage. They joined to create music that attempts to rise above and beyond their particular origins.This level of ineptitude with regards to the subject matter here has an almost comedic quality about it.Click To Tweet
Also, about that “power and rage.” Harris believes that indicates the music is wholly American in its style. Harris might be shocked to find that thrash, speed and heavy metal can be found everywhere from Brazil to India.
For instance in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries the metal scene is replete with bands whose aggression and tone make Metallica seem like easy-listening.
Listen to Your Colleague
One of Harris’ co-authors at Westword, who wrote this article about the 10 best Swedish Metal Bands might be able to educate him. Who knows, maybe the aggression of Swedish metal is a response to Swedish social programs, nationalized health care and snow.
Or it could be that youth is often buoyantly aggressive and, given the right musical instruments and technology, creatively channel it via words and music to find an international audience.
Saying Metallica’s vision of the world is militaristic and its tone decidedly “American” is to misunderstand the band in embarrassing fashion. Harris’ claim that Metallica’s music is “ethically ambivalent” with regards to “state violence” and the power of the state is demonstrably false.
Metallica has self-consciously avoided partisan politics. But almost every Metallica album contains songs indicting some broad social policy from war to environmental collapse.
The band’s Grammy winning song “One” is based on “Johnny Got His Gun,” a 1939 anti-war book by Dalton Trumbo. The story follows a man who loses all his limbs, face, eyesight and speech during WWI. It stands as one of the most poignant and incisive anti-war songs in any genre.
“Disposable Heroes” from the group’s “Master of Puppets” album, deals with the senselessness of war. Even on their earliest albums Metallica took strong anti-war stances.
Songs such as “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” inspired by Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War, questioned war. “Fight Fire with Fire” dealt with the nihilistic consequences of lex talionis and the possibility of destruction from such a retributive and revenge based world view.
The list goes on, and Harris should be ashamed by his intellectual laziness. Instead of doing research and looking into the history of the cultural touchstones he is too eager to indict.
He’d rather just yell “fascist” and be done with it.
The Reagan Error
The author also notes “Metallica’s music is rooted in the ’80s: the era of GOP austerity and Cold War swagger and the Iran-Contra hearings.” While this is a fascinating theory, he supplies almost no evidence for it other than the fact that he thought of it.
Madonna, rap and Yanni also came of age during the ’80s. Would anyone argue they reflect the era’s austerity and a response to Republican political ascendancy?
Ulrich said very clearly what the band stands for:
“The thing you’ve got to understand is that METALLICA is made up of four people from four different places who took four very different paths to where we are now. The one thing that unites us is the love of the music that we’re playing and that all four of us felt like outsiders trying to figure out who the hell we were. We didn’t come together because we were questioning this in the culture or that about politics. We came together because we were all a little lost and trying to get a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves.”
The effects of political austerity on the arts, or the arts as a response to societal norms is fertile ground for substantive research and commentary, Harris however, can’t be bothered to research these things.
Only his feelings matter.
If there’s way to link a cultural event to something he believes strongly in, in this case that Republicans are bad, facts be damned.
It’s Just Like ‘1984!’
Of Harris’ most embarrassing statements, and believe me, there are many, was his unease over the audience singing in unison, “Obey your master”:
“Still, when the band broke out “Master of Puppets,” tens of thousands of us belted “obey your master.” It was pretty creepy.
Now I don’t know if he’s actually ignorant about the song “Master of Puppets,” or just pretending, but even the most basic contextualization of the song makes its meaning plain as day. It’s about drug addiction.
Most fans at the concert knew that. For Harris, the chant became political. He feels it, so it must be true.
Here’s betting Harris sees President Donald Trump lurking around every corner. He could probably turn the making of a deli sandwich into some sort of cultural symbol of Trump’s corruptive influence.
What’s sad is that his piece could have been thoughtful and important. An examination into the role that music plays with regards to revolutions and social movements is par for the course for any cultural examination.
The use of music in fascist regimes, how it can motivate soldiers to kill or even the role of collective euphoria and music festivals in the ’60s to fuel social unrest are all worth serious consideration.
Instead, Harris goes for the low-hanging fruit. Even his conception of fascism, replete with larger than life daddy figures projected for consumption and reverence, is based on the dark grey Pop Culture fascism made famous by Apple’s brilliantly dystopian 1984 commercial, not fact.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But Harris is the “Culture Editor” of a serious Denver publication. For one reason or another his opinion on culture seems to hold sway with others.
This implies he possesses actual knowledge regarding the culture about which he writes. Instead, the review he posted speaks, at best, to an ignorance resistant to change. At worst, it’s an attempt to mislead. Both are flaws unforgivable in a so-called culture critic.
What’s worse is that every time someone like Harris makes the thoughtless accusation of totalitarianism it diminishes the efficacy of real cultural criticism that calls attention to areas where those elements might rear their ugly heads.
People get tired of hearing there are fascists around every corner. Overuse makes these warnings meaningless.
Moreover, reviews like his minimize the untold suffering and pain caused by these regimes. It’s as removed from the real thing as Harris’ understanding of Metallica is from the band’s music.
We all make mistakes. This level of ineptitude with regards to the subject matter has an almost comedic quality about it. I’m still waiting to find out that the whole thing is satire. I’m fairly certain it‘s not.
His review might play well in the gastropubs he frequents, filled with people unaware of history, Metallica, music in general, and, more specifically, its use in political movements. For everyone else, his review reads like the factually challenged and incoherent navel-gazing that it is.