When I first began to venture into music other than my parents, hard rock and heavy metal were among my first choices. At first, it was Christian Rock/Metal groups because that is what I could get away with. I’d go to the Christian bookstore and stock up on groups like Petra (rock, not metal), Bloodgood, Deliverance, Whitecross, Sacred Warrior and Vengeance Rising. I still listen to those groups often (they sing about topics no one else does – spiritual warfare, judgment, etc)
But eventually I began listening to secular hard rock/heavy metal groups (here I’m including lots of sub genres – industrial metal, even grunge). At first, it was the popular stuff – Mötley Crüe, Def Leopard, Stryper; but, I got tired of guys in spandex and makeup. I moved past that quickly, though sometimes return for sentimental reasons. I settled into a grove with groups like Metallica, Megadeth, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Queensrÿche and NIN – favorites during late high school and college (links to favorite songs by each group). I know I was drawn to this genre, in part, because it gave expression to my anger, which was always just below the surface.
These groups are dark. At times the lyrics are blasphemous. At times, they are beyond vulgar.
So why did I, why do I, still listen to them? What possible good is there in this?
Raw honesty. That’s what I like about it. A lot of metal is built on [informal] nihilistic philosophy. In other words, many of these bands would agree with the premise that God is dead and life is meaningless. (Of course, there are a lot of hard rock and metal bands that sang dumb songs about ex-girlfriends and partying, etc. Never drawn much to them.)
With the rise of post-modernity, two responses to the nihilism prevailed in pop culture. One was the happy nihilism of Seinfeld. Ron Rolheiser describes it as such
His celebrated sitcom and his stand-up routines are so popular precisely because of his exceptional ability to trivialize everything in a way that makes it light, funny and disconnected from all the soul-scarring pain that betrayal, wounded sexuality and death bring into the world. In this kind of nihilism, nothing means anything because everything is a joke. Nothing is heavy and sullen because nothing carries enough meaning to make it heavy and sullen. Life is a laugh: so smile, cut your losses and move on with some style. There will be more laughs in the future.
I have watched five, maybe six episodes of Seinfeld. I hate it. It just doesn’t resonate with me.
But, the nihilism of metal does. If life is meaningless, if there’s no purpose to existence, I wouldn’t laugh it away. I’d sink deep. The purveyors of metal pave the way with their dark and brutal honesty.
For example, a New York Times article from 1996 describes Trent Reznor (NIN) song “I Do Not Want This,” as “snarling,” and “bemoaning not the futility of a generation but of existence itself.” Alice in Chains album “Dirt” was deemed “the most nihilistic album of the era” (Billboard). The album explores the pains of addiction (which would wreck the band, taking lives) in songs like ‘Angry Chair,’ ‘Them Bones,’ and ‘Down in a Hole.’
Each year when I go to the gym for my workout, my playlist will be heavy laden with Metallica. They’re my go to. They are probably the most popular, well known metal act of the last twenty-five years. And they are a decidedly philosophical band. Dr. Peter Fosl writes,
“Metallica is, to those who’ve actually paid attention to their music, a decidedly philosophical rock band. While, granted, the band members have had no formal philosophical training ,the lyrics of their songs and various qualities of their music do exhibit real philosophical meaning.”
Metallica’s songs chronicle complaints about injustice, meaningless, religion, and more. But, unlike punk (another post for another day), there isn’t a call to rise up and set these things right. They just are the way of the world. And it sucks.
The nihilism of their worldview is evident in many of their songs, none more clearly than the song “Through the Never“:
All that is, was and will be
Universe, much too big to see
Time and space, never ending
Disturbing thoughts, questions pending
Limitations of human understanding
Too quick to criticize
Obligation to survive
We hunger to be alive, yeah
(Twisting, turning through the never)
All that is, ever, ever was
Will be ever, twisting, turning
Through the never
In the dark, see past our eyes
Pursuit of truth no matter where it lies
Gazing up to the breeze of the heavens
On a quest, meaning, reason
Came to be, how it begun
All alone in the family of the sun
Curiosity teasing everyone
On our home, third stone from the sun, yeah
An endless search for something true. A quest for meaning, a reason to survive. No answers, just twisting and turning through the never.
For me, the dark nihilism of metal is a reminder of where I’d be without Christ. I know this is not true for everyone. Some can laugh off meaningless and go on living with a perpetual grin. Not me. I have friends who are committed atheists and live according to their constructed meaning, choosing not to push beyond it and ask ‘why?’ I can’t do that.
Apart from the Christian message, I am left with nothing.
If there is no God, then I am only an (un)happy accident. If there is no creator, then I have no design, no reason for existence. But…I have been created by God, Maker of Heaven and Earth, for a purpose. I exist to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
If there is no fall from innocence, then the world I see around me is the world as it has always been – broken, ugly, red in tooth and claw. But…the fall of Adam teaches me that this isn’t the way things were supposed to be. And, it gives me a glimmer of hope that this is not the way things will always be.
If Christ has not come and died, the I have no pattern for for life and no hope of reconciliation, only floundering, failure and wrath. But Christ has come and shows me the true potential of humanity. And Christ did die, so there is mercy and forgiveness.
If Christ has not been raised, then death is the end and everything truly is temporary and fleeting. But Christ has risen, and his resurrection is the first-fruits of the future resurrection – new life, new heavens, new earth. Hope.
If not Christ, then all I have left to do is rage against the nothingness, vent my vitriol at the vanity. Metal is this. When I listen to metal I at least feel like I’m listening to lyrics with some bite, with some substance (unlike most pop music). There is actually something to grab hold of and wrestle to the ground with truth rather that the vapidity of other genres.