While at CPAC in February, I wrote a Buzzfeed-esque article about seven songs that are politically charged or driven by conflict. The article focused mainly on classic rock songs like “Fortunate Son” and “Sympathy for the Devil” and left out an entire genre that is arguably one of the most politically charged genres ever: heavy metal.
I recently took a class about the genre that studied both the technical virtuosity and the culture behind heavy metal. The class gave me a new perspective on an interesting subculture, but more importantly introduced me to a genre that is often overlooked when talking about politically motivated music. Metal is heavily influenced by politics, conflict, and the concepts of life/death, and that’s obvious in lyrics and album covers. For the sake of succinctness and readability, I left out any bands or songs in the Black Metal or Death Metal subgenre as they can be really heavy and hard to listen to. The list focuses mostly on 80s metal, nu-metal, and thrash metal, three of the most popular genres of heavy metal.
1. “Peace Sells” – Megadeth
“Peace Sells” is a song off of thrash metal band Megadeth’s sophomore album Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying? The album was released in 1986, which was a still a particularly tumultuous time in the world, especially in the realm of foreign policy. The lyrics are driven home by lead singer and guitarist Dave Mustaine’s raspy and matter-of-fact style of singing. The song opines on the lack of a peaceful world and failure of political systems in the past, saying, “If there’s a new way, I’ll be the first in line, But it better work this time, Can you put a price on peace?” Mustaine then repeats the line “peace sells, but who’s buying” until the end of the song. It should also be noted that the album cover reflects the sentiments of the title song, showing a skeletal figure, which is also the band’s mascot, leaning casually on a for sale sign in front of the bombed-out UN building. Megadeth’s most popular album, Rust in Peace, also features a somewhat political cover, and includes world leaders like George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev.
2. “Ride the Lightning” – Metallica
“Ride the Lightning” is a song by thrash metal band Metallica, which is one of the most successful bands of all time. The song comes off of the album of the same name, which, in my opinion, is their best album of all time. The song takes issue with capital punishment, specifically through the electric chair. At the time of the song’s release, 1984, the use of the electric chair was still somewhat prominent, although now all states use lethal injection. The lyrics question the use of capital punishment from the perspective of someone who is heading to the electric chair: “Guilty as charged, But damn it, it ain’t right… Strapped in the electric chair, this can’t be happening to me. Who made you God to say ‘I’ll take your life from you?'” The album cover also features a picture of an electric chair with lightning strikes.
3. “One” – Metallica
Yes, another Metallica song. “One” is off of the album …And Justice for All and is reportedly based on a soldier who is severely injured in a war and is in excruciating pain. The video for this song features footage from the 1971 anti-war movie “Johnny Got His Gun” and Metallica usually uses sound effects and visuals to simulate war when playing “One” live. The song shouts vivid adjectives of pain and suffering to drive home an anti-war message. The lyrics reinforce their message: “Now that the war is through with me, I’m waking up, I cannot see, That there’s not much left of me, Nothing is real but pain now.” “One” is a staple of any metal fan’s library, and features a range of different musical elements, including an absolutely face-melting bridge and solo.
4. “Killing in the Name” – Rage Against the Machine
“Killing in the Name” is a song by nu-metal band Rage Against the Machine off of their self titled 1992 album. The song mixes elements of rap and heavy metal, with spoken lyrics and heavy riffs that contribute to a raw, uncensored sound. The song seeks to address racial inequality and police brutality, and was released after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were in response to the death of Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of the officers responsible. Zack De La Rocha delivers his lyrics with force to drive home his message, although some of the things said in the song are a bit too extreme. The beginning lyrics of the song allege that police are members of the Klu Klux Klan. La Rocha also screams “F*** you, I won’t do what you tell me” over and over again, insinuating that he doesn’t listen to authorities. The album, Rage Against the Machine, also features a black and white version of a famous photo in which a monk lights himself on fire to protest actions in the Vietnam War. Despite its often radical message, “Killing in the Name” is still a great experimental metal song.
5. “Holy Wars … The Punishment Due” – Megadeth
“Holy Wars” is an anti-war song off of Megadeth’s popular 1990 album Rust in Peace. The song doesn’t specifically name a war, nor a time period, but instead rails on the idea of using religion to back up going to war. “Holy Wars” features one of the most recognizable opening riffs in all of thrash metal, as well as complex riffing and an unbelievably virtuosic solo towards the end of the song. Lead singer and guitarist Dave Mustaine rails against war, singing, “Brother will kill brother, spilling blood across the land, killing for religion, something I don’t understand.” Mustaine asks listeners later on in the song “Do you kill on God’s command?” The song is rife with anti-war lyrics and sentiments, however, due to the incredible speed and heaviness of the song and solo, those messages are often lost or not heard properly. Either way, “Holy Wars” will forever be one of the most memorable metal songs of all time.
6. “Run to the Hills” – Iron Maiden
“Run to the Hills” is one of Iron Maiden’s most popular songs and is off of their best selling album, The Number of the Beast. “Run to the Hills” focuses mainly on the treatment of Native Americans by white settlers when they first arrived. Lyrics include, “White man came across the sea, he brought us pain and misery, he killed our tribes killed our creed, he took our game for his own need, we fought him hard, we fought him well, out on the plains we gave him hell.” The chorus, “run to the hills,” echoed by Bruce Dickinson and his piercingly high voice, illustrates the terror felt by Native Americans when attacked. The mistreatment of Native Americans is a repeated theme in metal, as Anthrax’s popular song “Indians” focuses on the same subject.
7. “Pyschosocial” – Slipknot
“Pyschosocial” is easily the heaviest song on this list, featuring driving riffs and Corey Taylor’s screaming voice. Some of the lyrics are hard to make out in this song and there are numerous interpretations of the lyrics, however, the most likely interpretation is that of an anti-war/anti-government song. The song starts off with “I’ve done my time and I want out,” which most see as a disillusioned soldier sick of war. Other lyrics include “Go drill your deserts go dig your graves, then fill your mouth with all the money you will save,” which most likely references the Iraq War, as many saw the war as having been fought for foreign oil. One line, which talks about a big lie, could also be referencing the reasoning for going into Iraq, WMDs, and the realization that we were wrong in that assertion. “Psychosocial” is as enigmatic as the band that plays it, however, the song is a modern metal masterpiece.
While the message in most of the songs listed doesn’t align with my personal views, they’re still great songs that define a politically charged genre. If you can look past the long hair, intense vocals, and heavy guitars, you’ll find a complex and politically conscious genre and fan base.