The harsh noise of deep thinking

Metallica and Philosophy
June 29, 2007

The first few words of the publicity blurb for Blackwell's Philosophy and Pop Culture series are "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down", implying that as much as philosophy is good for you, it can also be unpalatable. So it is that Metallica and Philosophy , the second volume in the series, is desperate not to appear dull or difficult. Pedagogically, the collection may indeed succeed in sparking an interest in philosophy among heavy metal fans, particularly students. The question is whether Metallica and Philosophy has any wider value.

Books using popular culture to teach philosophy have been a minor phenomenon over the past few years. Metallica are certainly no less suited to being the focus for an "...and Philosophy" collection than any other pop culture icon. Their body of work has been highly innovative and influential in the metal world. Their austere and often complex sound provides a contrast to some of the more Neanderthal forms of metal. Singer James Hetfield's lyrics deal intelligently with heavyweight issues such as addiction, war and environmental destruction.

The majority of contributors to the collection treat Metallica as "James Hetfield's lyrics". One chapter shows how their development over time illustrates different kinds of "virtues". Another discusses alcoholism, drawing on the work of Plato and Aristotle. Several chapters use Metallica to illustrate themes in existentialist philosophy. Issues discussed in Metallica's lyrics, such as euthanasia, the death penalty and madness, are the springboard for discussions of moral philosophy and ethics.

While the collection draws on a number of different philosophers and philosophical traditions, there is little discussion of contemporary radical philosophy. Philosophers of language are also conspicuous by their absence. The only contribution to discuss gender extensively (Judith Grant's chapter on homosociality in the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster ) is the only chapter that barely discusses philosophy at all.

This collection may work as a "painless" way into a limited slice of philosophical thinking, but it does not work well as criticism. The emphasis on lyrics is at odds with the concerns of contemporary popular music studies, which long ago recognised the limitations of an exclusive lyrical focus. In some chapters, one would hardly be aware that Metallica are a band rather than just the vehicle for Hetfield's lyrical concerns.

Nothing here approaches the sophistication of Glen Pillsbury's recent book-length study of Metallica, Damage Incorporated .

The problem is that, more often than not, the contributors to Metallica and Philosophy use Metallica merely to introduce philosophical issues. In doing so they fail to demonstrate how philosophy can contribute to our understanding of Metallica. Rather than showing the relevance of philosophy to real world problems, the book runs the risk of treating it as a domain of abstraction and the "real world" as a source of novelty illustrations of philosophical points.

Perhaps this ultimate lack of engagement in Metallica is one of the reasons for the fairly desperate attempts by the contributors to prove they are Metallica fans. Many chapters are filled with puns and overdone references to Metallica fandom. At times, particularly in the toe-curling descriptions of the contributors, one is reminded of the stereotypical trendy vicar's "hey kids, the Bible can be cool" rhetoric. At the same time, a few chapters make some kind of worthy contribution to scholarship. Mark White's chapter uses Kant in a creative way to discuss what fans and bands owe each other and provides a fresh perspective on fans' accusations of betrayal when bands such as Metallica change their sound. Robert Delfino's chapter on Metallica's fight with Napster also offers an informed discussion of an important debate.

At their best, "...and Philosophy" collections can be effective ways of philosophically educating non-philosophers. But such work requires academic rigour and a deep engagement with the subject matter.

Keith Kahn-Harris is the author of Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge and a research associate at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths College.

Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery

Editor - William Irwin
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 2
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 9781405163484

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