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Metallica – The Anti-War, Anti-State, Pro-Liberty Metal Band?

Metallica – The Anti-War, Anti-State, Pro-Liberty Metal Band?

I know that a title such as the one above is patently self-evident and possibly redundant, but has Metallica recently made a subtle statement on their pro-liberty views of the current state of the world? It seems they have done just that in their choice of songs to include in their set lists at the recent Bridge School Benefit in late October, an event at which Metallica played two consecutive nights. In a surprising move, they opened each night by playing four cover songs which they had never before performed. The choices of songs that they felt important enough to play, though, gives an indication of what they may be thinking of the war, the state, and life in general in these United States of America at the present time.

Metallica have been writing songs with anti-war messages for over two decades now. An obvious example, which they played at the Bridge School Benefit, is “Disposable Heroes,” from their Master of Puppets album released in 1986. With lyrics such as “Bodies fill the fields I see, hungry heroes end / No one to play soldier now, no one to pretend,” and “Bred to kill, not to care / Do just as we say / Finished here, greeting death / He’s yours to take away,” the emphasis is clearly on the disconnect that soldiers have in killing people they do not know for reasons given to them from people who care more about winning than any moral or personal considerations. Similar thoughts are echoed in songs such as “One” about the plight of a soldier who has been left with no limbs to move, or senses to use, or way to communicate with the world, and therefore no real reason to survive, but who also lacks the ability to end his life.

A distrust of being controlled and manipulated has also been a stable message of Metallica dating back at least to the Ride the Lightning album and the song “Escape.” The song that was played at the Bridge School Benefit, though, is a clearer example. “The Unforgiven” is the story of an Everyman who, from soon after the time he is born, is controlled throughout his life. Although he vows “That never from this day / His will they’ll take away,” his only reaction to a life of being controlled is to label his controllers dub them unforgiven. HIs battle, though he fights it throughout his life, results in his complete lack of care and a regret-filled death. Those controlling the man are never named, but certain characteristics point to a “Brave New World” style State conditioning the individuality out of the man: “The young boy learns their rules,” “This whipping boy done wrong,” They dedicate their lives / To running all of his,” and other lyrics, while not eliminating the possibility of other influences besides the State, seems to point to a system that aims to train and control people against their will to eradicate their own tendencies to better serve the state: “He tries to please them all.”

So, Metallica has demonstrated an attitude, through songs spanning both the Old and New eras of the band, of being consistently anti-war and anti-state. Their image, of course, took a big hit on the anti-state position with their battle against file-sharing software such as Napster, when they relied on institutions of the state to defend their claim to intellectual property rights. Having examined Metallica’s position on this in great detail, but not having explored the other side of the argument much, I will not try to defend either side in this essay. But moving on from this divisive event in the band’s history, we can now explore the statements the band may have been making in their choice of cover songs to play at the 2007 Bridge School Benefit.

The first song played on both nights was Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate.” This song contains a number of pro-liberty statements, such as “I put my faith in the people / But the people let me down / So I turned the other way / And I carry on, anyhow.” Of course, this may be a defense of the charge against the band every time an album comes out that they had sold out, but it still illustrates Metallica’s emphasis on individual freedom and not caring what the mob thinks. But furthermore, is the line “Had my hand on the dollar bill / And the dollar bill blew away” another in a string of celebrities decrying the falling value of the American dollar? Obviously this is a more subtle message than models wanting to be paid in other currencies, and rap stars flashing Euros in music videos, but it is a message nonetheless, especially as Metallica has deep roots in Europe, with drummer Lars Ulrich being originally from Denmark.

Nazareth’s “Don’t Judas Me” is a clearer example of being pro-liberty, and may even contain some accurate assessments of the media and its affects on the American population. “Treat me as you like to be treated” is a seemingly straight-forward statement that has been analyzed in its various forms for centuries. The choice of this song, in the midst of media propaganda about the threat of Iran and a police state out of control with daily taserings and intrusive searches at airports, is especially interesting. “Please don’t headshrink me / Don’t disguise your innuendos / Make no lies to me,” and “Please don’t number me / Don’t betray my trusted promise / Please don’t anger me / I find it hard to bear no fairness / Don’t frustrate me, manipulate me,” could be Metallica’s subtle warning to fans to do some research on their own and not trust anyone using a position of power as a bully pulpit. This would fit well with Metallica’s own statements that they feel it inappropriate to use their fame to espouse overtly political views, and may indicate a distrust of a government that used their recordings as tool to torture enemy detainees in Iraq, who were unused to heavy metal music.

This focus on a media out of control and glorifying in negative messages is carried through to the next song on the first night, Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When it Rains.” Lyrics such as “You know I love it when the news is bad / And why it feels so good to feel so sad” indicates a view that revels in bad news and a misery loves company attitude. Is this choice of song Metallica’s statement that only being fed news through the state-influenced media will make listeners willingly complicit in the negative messages? Without a direct statement from the band, of course, the conclusion is left to speculation, but the overall tone of these first three songs seems to show a focus on individuality and a distrust of labeling and easy answers given by a centrally-controlled source, such as the Old Media or the State. Of course, singer and guitarist James Hetfield was himself briefly a subject of the negative news machine, when he was stopped at an airport and reported to be a potentially suspected terrorist, due to his beard. If someone who sells 100 million records worldwide can be considered a terrorist and detained at the airport, who is immune? Of course, the message is that no one is not a suspect.

The last two songs are more overtly anti-war than the others previously described. The first is “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” by Blue Oyster Cult. this one may also be a dual statement on the media manipulations and war itself. Obviously, psychic wars going on here at home are just as important as the real war in attempting to convince the people that war is useful and going well. Weariness of a war going on far too long, along with an assault on personal liberty and privacy, is the message of lines such as “But the war’s still going on dear / And there’s no end that I know / And I can’t say if we’re ever… / I can’t say if we’re ever gonna to be free,” and “It’s time we had a break from it / It’s time we had some leave.” Metallica has covered BOC before on 1998’s album “Garage, Inc.,” but did not use such an anti-war song. Again, the band’s own personal involvement in the war, through the use of their songs as an “enhanced interrogation” technique, and the reports of Hetfield being stopped at an airport, may indicate their awareness of a need to make as much of a statement as possible opposing big war and big government. As the song finally asks, “Did I hear you say that this is victory?”

The final cover song that Metallica chose to play at the Bridge School Benefit is Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms.” Although the song, throughout most of it, seems to glorify in the comaraderie of being soldiers for a common cause, the emphasis on this concept of “brothers in arms” is turned on its head in the final lines. The song emphasizes the strength of bonds that are formed “Through these fields of destruction,” “As the battles raged higher,” and “In the fear and alarm,” which may indicate that strength is found in becoming closer to those allies with whom one fights a battle. But, the final lines of the song are “We’re fools to make war / On our brothers in arms,” using the same “brothers in arms” line to show that all humans have common bonds, no matter that “There’s so many different worlds / So many different suns.” When individuals go to war for a state, they are making war on their own brothers. Individuals, says the song, have more in common amongst themselves than they will ever have with an abstract state. This message is emphasized in the concert itself as James Hetfield repeats the final lines (“We’re fools to make war / On our brothers in arms”) numerous times until the end of the song.

So, have Metallica’s experiences since the war against terror began affected their views on war, liberty, or the state? It certainly seems as if they have, based on their choice of songs to cover for the Bridge School Benefit concerts. Although these ideas have been expressed in various Metallica songs throughout their history, never before have they played a set with such consistent messages. In fact, that is the aspect of the shows that struck me immediately, having read much on the history of Metallica and their personal views on issues affecting the world. It is mainly through an artist’s work that they communicate to us and we can communicate with them, and each concert a band plays is an expression of their own communications with their work and the work of others. In their choice of cover songs, Metallica seems to have laid out a subtle message about their current views of the world and an anti-war, anti-state stance that has only been reinforced over the past years with public events, such as the torture issue and the airport, and their own personal reflections.