Justify Your Shitty Taste: Metallica’s “The Black Album”

I understand that doing this piece on “The Black Album” basically reads as “Justify Your Shitty Taste: George W. Bush,” but I have a few good reasons for taking on what could be construed as the archetype of metal “selling out.” The biggest one is nostalgia, which is the poison of everyone once they get older. The other is, just like Bush, it got a whole lot worse later which makes you pine for the simpler times of “Enter Sandman” instead of shitty Bob Seger covers or Donald Trump. I think I got my metaphors tangled up there.

I suppose I should get a few things out of the way: First, I don’t really give a shit about Metallica’s “classic” albums. Sure they’re good and have some resolute bangers on them, but I never really grew an emotional attachment to them the way I did this album or And Justice… before it. Second, I always thought Megadeth was just the better band with better songs. Even now, nearly 30 years later, I stand by this sentiment. And, finally, C: Half of you stopped reading at the headline and are now sweating and grunting to be first in line to comment what an asshole I am, like my mother didn’t tell me that until I stopped caring growing up.

“The Black Album” came out a few days before my 13th birthday in 1991. As a small boy in Pittsburgh, I was coming out of the musical junkyard that was the 1980s in a city whose radio stations either stuck strictly to pop or played so much hair metal you could smell the Aqua Net through your speakers. I remembered there being some pissing and moaning because Metallica did a video for “One,” which I had on cassingle, but I didn’t really understand the concept of why someone would be upset by that.

Unlike the video for “One,” when I first saw “Enter Sandman,” I didn’t think it was terrifying but rather goofy, yet the song was heavy (to me) and catchy as hell. And because the cover was so basic it passed the parental test because I grew up in a time where parents still gave a shit about what their kids bought. And it helped become one of the very first soundtracks to a time in my life that I can really remember, bullshit hair metal and ’80s dreck notwithstanding. I played the fuck out of that cassette, it felt like a shield to what was going on around me. You see, around that period of time, my parents started having serious trouble and my first exposure to my father being capable of being an abusive asshole at a point I could properly process it happened around this time. “The Black Album” was really the first angry and somewhat dark record I owned, so it spoke to me during this experience. I wasn’t one of those kids who shot out of the womb and discovered Slayer and Venom and, honestly, I doubt the majority of the assholes who say they did simply because fuck them and their condescension.

Of course, over the next year or two, grunge became huge and I fell deeply into that and eventually found my way into death and black metal. But for that brief time, I thought Metallica was the heaviest shit possible and I think that it’s the memory of that naivety which is most valuable to me, the idea that there was a sense of a simpler time but that it was also just as fucked up as any.

Therapist bullshit aside, I’ve revisited this record during writing this piece, probably for the first time in at least twenty years and it still brings back some good feelings, but I also can look at it critically and see why people were upset at the time. It’s a lot slower, it has more emphasis on hooks, it has a lot more “yeah!” on it and it’s way less dark than the previous decade. But as its intention appears to be that of a pop hard rock/metal record, it definitely hit its mark and holds up a lot better than a lot of the late ’80s swinging into the ’90s hard rock does.

This is one of those records that, unless you were a certain age when it came out, you’re probably never going to appreciate, sort of like the Ramones (except you’ll see a thousand Ramones shirts of people who don’t appreciate them before you see one “Black Album” shirt) in a sense of what its relevance in its time was. And I think most of us can agree that it’s head and shoulders above the records that followed it. I’ll defend the record with the snake all fucking tiny on the cover over the one with cum (and it’s equally cummy sequel) and cum puns. And maybe that’s why I can look back on this record using the lens of personal experience; because I had no real emotional attachment to their early work, I didn’t feel a sense of betrayal at their (obvious) goal of going commercial. Metallica was the girl who gave me a handjob at the park, not the one who left me at the altar. Please note that this was all a metaphor. I don’t make a habit of taking my dick out at parks anymore.

This album doesn’t deserve the shit it gets from kids who were born years after its release (and yet can still find Reeboks that were made ten years before their parents met), especially in light of what came later. It’s not a speed metal masterpiece or an especially dark hard rock record. But it definitely was a gateway drug for me, and I’ll take it over Thin Lizzy any day.