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Victims of the In-House Drive By

Even though musicians boil our lives down to their essence and then give them back to us in a way that allows us to keep on living, many music fans can’t wait to attack them for “selling out.” Abstract standards of purity are set--the punk obsession with commercial failure as a moral test, the rap mantra of “keeping it real”--and a perverse delight taken when artists fail to measure up.


In the case of Metallica, the cries of “sell-out” began with 1991’s “black album,” which featured hit singles, the band’s first videos, and a more song-oriented approach to music making. With the June release of Load, the question of treason has been raised by the rock press and a section of fans simply because Metallica now includes blues, country and classic rock elements in its head-pounding brew. Even worse, they are dissed because all four band members, famous for swinging their long hair in concert, have shorn their locks,


By defining “sell out” in terms of changes in music or fashion, the naysayers have got it completely backward.  Musical change is the only way an artist of any style can avoid developing into some version of Spinal Tap (“I’d be worried if my favorite bands didn’t change,” notes Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich). Nor does musical change mean that artists have abandoned the things that made them important to fans in the first place.


In the case of Metallica, Load continues the band’s fifteen-year run of voicing the pain of soul-shattered people who badly want to communicate yet are so paranoid they reject with one hand what they offer with the other. Load’s “The Outlaw Torn” sums it up: “If I close my mind in fear / Please pry it open / And if my praise becomes sincere / Beware.” On “Mama Said,” James Hetfield has the brutally frank talk with his mother we all could use, part of Load’s insistence that our needs as individuals are needs we have in common (“Everyone must have the sickness / Cause everyone seems to need the cure”.)


Sell out? The 1984 Metallica album Ride the Lightning indicted capital punishment with searing words and riffs. In 1996, the band eagerly provided the music for the HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Paradise details how three Arkansas teens were railroaded to murder convictions by a prosecutor who argued that listening to Metallica, when combined with wearing black clothes and an unusual religion, was enough to make up for a lack of physical evidence.


The reason many fans, and not just Metallica fans, are so quick to point fingers comes from the role music plays as a constant friend, memory marker for good times, instrument for survival of bad times, information highway, and connector to other people. The thought that an important part of that music might no longer be there when it’s needed drives some people crazy. Crazed people don’t think things through. They rush to judgment. Given the power of music in people’s lives and the way most of those lives are deteriorating, the hunt for “sell-outs” becomes understandable, if no less useless.


Adding to the problem is music’s changing political role. During the civil rights era, although musicians such as Sammy Davis Jr., Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, and Bob Dylan were far out ahead of the most liberal politicians in expanding the freedom struggle nationwide, they were never perceived as the leaders of the movement. That’s because the movement involved millions of people with their own indigenous leadership. The same was true during the Vietnam war when artists ranging from the Temptations to the Grateful Dead to Eartha Kitt added their voices to those of millions Americans opposed to the slaughter.


Today, American political movements have been relegated to the fringes of national life. Yet musicians continue to agitate for change. In the absence of massive organized support, it often seems as if the Geto Boys are leading the fight against police brutality, Rage Against the Machine the battle for human rights, and Sting the effort to save the environment. Coupled with a constant flow of benefits and socially-conscious songs from musicians everywhere, unrealistic expectations are created. Despite the fact that musicians at any level have to spend most of their time dealing with music and the music industry, they run the risk of being labeled “sell-out” any time they fail to embrace a cause.


But new possibilities for large-scale movements--from the drive for a progressive third party to nationwide gang truces--now loom on the horizon. As this activity expands, an organic alignment with musicians becomes both possible and essential.


The return to a more natural relationship between music and politics will mean discarding current notions of “selling out.” As many artists as possible must be brought into the fold--no matter what their music sounds like, how they wear their hair, or whether some magazine has dismissed them for not “keeping it real.”



Rock & Rap Confidential / 1996

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