Thursday, January 31, 2013

Metallica, Musical Genres and Popularity

I still have not finished "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll" by Elijah Wald, but I'm really enjoying it and it has given me plenty to think about. As I mentioned when I first commented on this book, Wald argues that truly popular music doesn't get written about in proportion to its importance to its contemporary audiences or in its role of providing context for the innovative musics that do get written about.

He also argues that what makes music interesting in retrospect and what makes it popular in its own time are quite independent. For example, Elvis Presley excites music nerds because he expanded the white audience for black music and created new and interesting combinations of existing styles that would create what we think of now as rock and roll. What made him so wildly popular in the 50's and 60's was his ability to appeal to so many different types of listeners by doing music that had little or nothing to do with rock and roll, including "old fashioned" pop music, in the mode of the crooners we think of him as leaving in his dust.

 Think about "Love Me Tender." It is not rock and roll in any sense but it was critical to his success and the broadening of his audience.

This got me thinking about Metallica.

I am used to thinking of Metallica as the band that introduced millions to thrash/speed metal. I also remember when I first heard them I thought their name was ironic. To me the least interesting thing about them was that they were a heavy metal band. So why shove "metal" in the audience's face? To me, calling themselves Metallica was not playing to their strengths. What I thought was cool was their speed, something I associated with punk.

I was completely missing Metallica's brilliance. Speed metal, and its siblings, brought the wildness and energy of punk rock into metal, something it desperately needed at the time. Not all metal fans were accepting of this, nor were punk fans. So Metallica did various things to ingratiate themselves to various audiences, punks and devoted metal heads only being two of them. Reminding everybody who heard them or saw their logo that they were, in fact, a heavy metal band probably only helped.

By their fifth album they were playing "regular" hard rock that wasn't recognizable as metal or punk.  They had already added a few songs with along the way with finger-style acoustic guitar passages, something not entirely new for metal bands, but they took it further than most, certainly further than most high profile acts.

Speaking of high profile, Metallica is, hands down, the biggest band of their kind, dwarfing their nearest rivals such as Anthrax. They sold records and concert tickets to people who had little interest in speed or thrash metal before hearing Metallica on the radio. In part, this was because the Metallica songs most likely to be heard on the radio in the 80's and 90's weren't in fact thrash metal and maybe not metal at all.

Compare this to another active band doing a related style of metal that formed around the same time, Napalm Death. Napalm Death plays (and helped invent) grind core, a relative of death metal. Like speed and thrash metal grind core is derived from both heavy metal and punk. In fact, all of these styles are very closely related.

Napalm Death only plays their style of grind core. It wouldn't be right to say their many albums all sound the same, but it is right to say that most of them contain one and only one type of music. It should not surprise anybody to learn that Napalm Death only appeals to people who like the super-heavy styles of the death metal family of heavy metal. This excludes most punk rock fans, most metal fans and everybody who likes neither punk rock nor heavy metal.

It's a no-brainer.  Napalm Death has, and always will have, a much smaller audience than Metallica. The mistake that is easily made is to think this is because they play a more extreme type of heavy metal. That is only part of it. It is also that they only ever play heavy metal while Metallica has reached beyond heavy metal in multiple directions and caught the ears of people who don't think of themselves as fans of any variety of heavy metal.

In another thirty years, when both Metallica and Napalm Death have retired, people will write about both of them because they are both "important," innovative and had massive influence on other musicians. But they will mostly write about them as heavy metal bands, when in fact, what made Metallica the phenomenon that they are is their willingness to play other kinds of music...just like Elvis Presley.


Peter Thompson-Yezek said...

I got to the end of this and thought of a quote from Red Dwarf where Rimmer is taunting Lister about music and says "Why don't you listen to something really classical, like Mozart, Mendelssohn or Motorhead?"

I distinctly remember my parents, and my mother in particular, really bristling against the concept of "Classic Rock & Roll" back in the 1980's. Perhaps it was a sign of the final end of youth, that your music becomes something other than rebellion or innovation and becomes and influence, a part of the cultural legacy. Our generation is starting to see that shift in the meaning and importance given to "our" music. Your post really brought that together for me!

DJ Dual Core said...

Changes in the way music is perceived over time is fascinating stuff. That is one of my favorite Red Dwarf lines too. That and "make it the smooth stuff...where you get your eyesight back after two days."

I felt very old indeed the first time I realized a radio station was appealing to MY nostalgia. On the other hand, I think our generation got hit with that early. When I moved back to Iowa City in 1993 one of the bars was already having "80's Night."

On an unrelated note, I realized shortly after I finished this post that people who don't know me might not realized that I'm a Napalm Death fan and own no Metallica albums.