Metallica is the most popular metal band in the world, but few bands in history have spent as much time alienating and angering their most passionate fans. To be fair to Metallica, some of the things they’ve done to antagonize the fans is inevitable for a band that is as popular as they are, such as their sound evolving in directions that angered the fans. Other actions that Metallica took were going to anger fans, and they knew it. Still, it is worth examining exactly why Metallica is, in some ways, hated by their most passionate fans. Each controversy will be broken down as a trial with a presentation of the prosecution’s case (the fans) and the defence (Metallica) with a verdict being drawn about whether or not the venom was fair, or unfair with a modifier on the degree to which it is true.
To understand why Metallica has had such venom thrown back at them, it must be understood why Metallica was so beloved in the first place. That means first examining the heavy metal scene in the 1980s. There is no doubt that the 80s were a golden era for metal. It was the era of Iron Maiden’s best albums, the Dio years for Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest released “British Steel” that decade. That is just scratching the surface, and doesn’t touch on America. In America you had two major genres of metal emerge: Glam Metal, which is now known as Hair Metal, the popular genre based in LA. This was party music, and also featured the eponymous power ballad. The other genre, based in the Bay area, was Thrash Metal. Thrash Metal was harder than Hair Metal, and was very much a reaction to it. The Hair Metal guys dressed androgynously. Thrash went out in jeans and t-shirts. While Hair Metal was happy, Thrash Metal would dwell on the darker side of life. To the hardcore metal fan, the type that revels in being an outsider, there was no question that Thrash Metal was the genre that they gravitated to.
Metallica was the unquestioned king of Thrash Metal. Metallica in the 1980s played faster, harder and better than almost any other band in history. They moved from LA, the center of the Hair Metal scene to San Francisco because they were too raw for the clubs there. That symbolism cannot be underestimated. They moved from “them” to “us”. The band gained huge popularity with almost no radio play. How popular were they? As Steven Hyden points out in his fifth part on his Winners History of Rock and Roll series, Metallica went platinum with their third album Master of Puppets. Furthering this, they went on stage in t-shirts and jeans and played even faster than on their albums. Each of their first three albums are complete classics to the point where fans can choose their favorite and not get ridicule. Even their fourth album …And Justice For All is loved by the hardcore fans, despite its obvious flaws. They were the kings of the outsiders.
Being the kings of the outsiders matters because Metal music is outsider music for people that enjoy being outsiders. To illustrate a point, picture a metal head. An image immediately came to mind, didn’t it? Jeans (maybe leather pants), a band t-shirt, and a leather jacket. It is as much of a uniform as anything that people might officially wear. Being a fan of metal is being part of a club. When out in public wearing the t-shirt of an obscure metal band, it is not unheard of for a random individual to go up to you and talk about the band. With this comes the basic suspicion of anything new that becomes mainstream. For millennials it is actually fine to like Hair Metal it was big 1980s and many current metal fans are fans because of that music. With new bands however; heaven help them if they become mainstream. As Rikki Ratliff indicated in the VH1 documentary Heavy: The Story of Metal about the only band that ever crossed over to the mainstream that fans didn’t turn on was Guns ‘n Roses. This is a rarity in the community. A list of mainstream metal bands, who were mainstream at the time, reveals a list of bands that those hardcore fans hated at the time. (Note, none of the discussion about younger fans being allowed to like older mainstream metal applies to Nu-Metal because Nu-Metal is irredeemably awful).
It was this band of outsiders that went into the 1990s and this band that would go on a decade and half of angering their fans. It was this fact that they were looked on as part us that would enhance the venom directed at the band. As we will see, love and hate go side by side.