Ignored: Has Heavy Metal Been Exiled From Popular Culture?

-By Doc Coyle

Few things feel worse than being marginalized, made to seem as if you don’t matter. Irrelevance. This is often how I feel as a modern fan of heavy music as reflected through mainstream culture. I recently stumbled upon Rolling Stone’s “Best Albums of the 2000’s” list. I was in disbelief that only 2 Hard Rock albums, System of a Down’s Toxicity and Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R, were on the list. There were zero Metal albums.


It’s hard to believe that Kanye West had 4 albums in 10 years better than the any release by the Foo Fighters, the biggest rock band in America. I was also recently listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Grantland (also a popular Sports and Pop Culture website), who was doing a review of the Grammy Awards, and the 2 show hosts literally scoffed at the Metal category as if it’s import was a nagging fly to be swatted away.

Metalheads don’t really care about the Grammy Awards. Right? It’s fairly obvious that whoever nominates and votes on the Grammy’s is out of their depth in relation to subgenres. There is, of course, the infamous incident when Metallica lost the first ever Hard Rock/Metal Grammy to Jethro Tull in 1989. Although not quite as egregious, the most recent Metal Grammy Award was nabbed by the generally non-metallic acoustic duo, Tenacious D, for a cover song on a Dio tribute album. We pretend not to care, but this one burned. Not because heavy music fans don’t like Tencious D. They love them. They just don’t consider them metal or heavy for that matter, even if some of their albums and songs pay homage to metal. This is just another example of Metal being disrespected and metaphorically swiped under the rug like a regrettable one-night stand. Something is amiss.

Perspective is everything. A lone piece of information without context, history, nuanced detail, and an overall sense of scope surrounding the information, is mostly useless. I don’t feel old, but I am old enough to have perspective on where our heavy music scene was, is, and hopefully where it’s going. As we get older, we tend to feel more and more detached from the “kids today” and their predilections.

Metal, as we know it, is the grandson of Rock n Roll. This has always been so obvious to me: the connective bridge between and The Beatles and Morbid Angel. I suppose that’s not really obvious to most people. Rock music, and by virtue Metal, has seemingly disappeared from the popular culture.

While that sentiment is largely irrefutable, should it even matter to us? The contemporary attitude is that metal has always been outsider music, a counter culture. If you are going to rage against a machine, popular culture is certainly part of that machine, right? Maybe not.

When I was a teenager, my older compatriots would tell me about a golden era enshrined in Heavy Metal glory called the 80’s. I’m from New Jersey, home to Bon Jovi, Skid Row, and Twisted Sister. Jersey was apparently a glam paradise in the 80’s where giant, teased hair reigned queen, every guitar player could shred, and Heavy Metal was king shit on the hill. Hair Metal be damned, it filled stadiums, topped the charts, graced magazine covers, and dominated MTV and radio.

By the time I got into Hard Rock in Metal in early 90’s, it was supposed to be over. At least, that’s what they told me. But I didn’t see it.  Glam had all but faded, but Guns N Roses and Metallica appeared to be the biggest bands in the world.  Grunge was the anointed “next big thing”, but it was still defined by loud guitar rock with aggro, gritty vocals and bleak imagery. As far as I was concerned, Grunge fit in the heavy music, Hard Rock wheelhouse. It all made sense. It wasn’t over. Heavy music was still at the forefront of the culture.

Young people might not comprehend how powerful pre-internet MTV and radio were. It’s important understand that these were the main gatekeepers to expose artists. These outlets were HOW you found music as a young person, with magazines, word of mouth, and live shows being distantly influential. Rock and Metal used to own the MTV airwaves. At the 1991 MTV Video Awards, 5 out of 12 performances were Rock and Metal, including Metallica, Guns N Roses, Van Halen, Poison, and Queensrÿche. The presence of guitar driven band music has dwindled as the years have rolled on. By 2013, there were zero Rock acts performing, and zero in 2014 as well, unless you consider Maroon 5 a Rock band.

To highlight how much things have changed, I researched the history of the MTV Video Awards, which is a decent barometer for what young people are connecting to on a mass scale. MTV didn’t start handing out awards designated by genre until 1989. They started with a “Metal” category (won by GnR), but no “Rock” category. The following year, in 1990, they changed the category name to “Metal/Hard Rock”. By 1997, they dropped “Metal” altogether from the category, and changed it to “Hard Rock”. In just the next year, 1998, they dropped “Hard” from the title, and now it was only “Rock”, which has remained until present day. Guess who won the Best “Rock” Video in 2014? Indie-Electro-Art-Pop star, Lorde. Maybe they are just fucking with us.

Rock music was so important to the broader fabric of our culture that in 1993, Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam was on the cover of TIME Magazine. If TIME Magazine doesn’t reflect a significant moment in time (pun intended), I don’t know what does. Pearl Jam also broke the record (at the time) for album sales in a single week with their album, Vs. Pearl Jam might not be a metal band, but they are still part of the family tree of heavy music. Agree with him or not, Eddie Vedder had something to say and it affected our culture.

Our Rock Stars used to move the needle. They weren’t just pretending to be promiscuously dangerous in hopes that TMZ would follow them around, and inflate their fleeting celebrity. The “Rock Star” lifestyle was a real thing. I say this while completely understanding that Rock musicians were actually wealthy in the heyday, and could afford to trash hotels, bang supermodels on private jets, and had an army of managers, agents, and A&R people to clean up the mess when said Rock Star was overly hopped up on a miscellaneous cocktail of substances.

It’s rather fitting that 2015 will serve as the year of the final farewell Motley Crüe tour. No band has embodied the archetype of what a rock star is supposed to be. Despite every arena being sold out, mainstream culture has told us there is no place for us. It’s time to put Hard Rock out to pasture. The “Rock Stars” of today are rappers and DJs. Steven Tyler is that wild guy from American Idol and Gene Simmons is a cranky reality TV star that chastises us for downloading records. Ozzy? He’s still alive? Even Lemmy has quit drinking Jack Daniels. I wonder who will replace these icons when they are no longer with us.

Who was the last musician in the Rock and Metal world that made an impact on the outside world? Marilyn Manson? At least, he’s under 50. Slipknot and Rammstein are mammoths in the industry, but often have their accomplishments diminished by being viewed as being tent poles for goths and weirdos. People care what Dave Grohl says, but the Foo Fighters are so pervasively successful that they are elevated far above the fracas on the ground level. Every now and again, we get a Jada Pinkett Smith or Ice T to come visit us in the trenches. Thanks for saying hi guys. We do appreciate it. No. I’m serious. Please come back!

I’m not sure if I am angry at the mainstream world for ignoring us or disappointed at Rock musicians for being so boring. I don’t know who’s to blame. Maybe both. Maybe no one. Or maybe I am complaining about a problem that doesn’t even exist. Perhaps, I should be content to stay in our little lane. That should be good enough, but it feels like the lane is getting thinner and thinner day-by-day. We don’t have the Lollapalooza tours where Ministry, Ice Cube, and Soundgarden could appear on the same bill anymore. Everyone is in their own segregated corners. The cool kids are at Coachella being…well…cool. The flyover state yokels are at Rock on the Range slamming overpriced Coors Light to Godsmack. The extreme metal troo-thers are at Wacken windmill headbanging and singing Nordic hymns to Eluveitie or some other band whose name I can’t pronounce with a lute player.

It would be nice to be a part of the conversation.

[Photo: Getty Images]