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The Rich History of the Rock ’n’ Roll Sellout

In an excerpt from Rob Harvilla’s new book based on his podcast, ‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s,’ he breaks down some of the most infamous cases of trading reputation for money that the decade saw

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This Tuesday, Rob Harvilla finally sells out. His hit podcast, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, is now a book with the same name. And you can buy it (by preordering here)! Below is an excerpt on, uh, selling out.

Lars Ulrich is the Derek Jeter of drummers. I take no joy in reporting this; I say this with great affection. No, wait, sorry, that’s not true: I take great joy in reporting this. Sorry. Let’s establish up front that making fun of Metallica is fun. It’s fun if you hate them, or if you are indifferent to them. But it’s extra fun if you love them, if you worship them, if they constitute your whole lifestyle. That way, you can take the greatest possible joy in making fun of them with the greatest possible affection.

And so, Lars Ulrich equals Derek Jeter. Lars is a god, an all-timer, a Hall of Famer, whatever. But he’s also a crazy overrated drummer. He’s flash over competence. He’s ostentatious. He’s booting easy ground balls, and diving all over the field unnecessarily, and diving into the stands unnecessarily. The Lars Ulrich experience, particularly in the band’s early thrash years, is one giant drum fill: BRUMBUDDABRUMBUMBUMBUM. Listening to an ’80s Metallica album is like falling down the stairs for an hour. And yet Lars struggles, as many have observed, to keep time. His own bandmates have observed this. “To this day, he is not Drummer of the Year,” Metallica frontman James Hetfield conceded to Playboy in 2001. “We all know that.”

And we all do! But the larger truth—given that making fun of this band gets more fun the more you love them—is that Lars is the all-time Drummer of the Year precisely because we know he’s not; he’s a Hall of Famer because he’s crazy overrated; he’s a god because he’s such a profoundly flawed mortal. While in the studio recording Metallica’s massively bonkers 1991 self-titled record—better known as the Black Album, and righteously kicking off with the immortal “Enter Sandman”—Lars talked to the journalist/biographer Mick Wall about how he used to idolize the flashiest drummers imaginable, like Neil Peart from Rush or Ian Paice from Deep Purple. But now Lars had learned to love the unflashy, laid-back, rock-steady guys like Phil Rudd from AC/DC or Charlie Watts from the Stones. “I used to think that stuff was easy,” he conceded. “But it’s not.”

“Enter Sandman,” then, is the moment when Lars finally committed to making the routine plays.

“Enter Sandman” is also the moment when Metallica sold out. Maybe. I say that with great affection. This notion of selling out—compromising your art for money, for fame, for mainstream validation—absolutely dominated the decade; the great author/critic/pop philosopher Chuck Klosterman, in his 2022 book, The Nineties, described the sellout question as “the single most nineties aspect of the nineties.” Here in the 2020s, it is just as dominantly fashionable to marvel at how antiquated, how irrelevant the sellout question seems now that even the coolest artists in any medium are encouraged to get as rich as possible by appealing to as many people as possible. But at the time, mainstream popularity was a colossal embarrassment, and even modest ambition a mortal sin. That’s an oversimplification, but what isn’t, what wasn’t? And who can blame Metallica, then or now, for chasing true pop stardom with “Enter Sandman” and succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest imagination?

Metallica fans, that’s who. The Los Angeles–born band’s first three albums—1983’s Kill ’Em All, 1984’s Ride the Lightning, and 1986’s deified Master of Puppets—are a holy trinity of thrash metal, hellaciously fast and heavy and punishing and uncompromising. Those are also the three Metallica albums to feature beloved bassist Cliff Burton, whose shocking death in a 1986 tour bus accident in Sweden—he was only 24—is the band’s defining tragedy, in part because he’s haunted his bandmates ever since. Everything Metallica does, every record the band has released from that moment forward is suspect, is sacrilege. What Would Cliff Have Done? Would Cliff Have Done That?

What makes it worse is that Cliff was Metallica’s avatar of integrity, of staying true to their roots. But he was also the most open-minded guy in the band, musically and visually. You read about Metallica now and you’re constantly reminded that Cliff wore bell-bottoms, and looked like a hippie, and was obsessed with Bach, and listened to Yes and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kate Bush and R.E.M. So post-Cliff Metallica is screwed now if they stay the same, because Cliff wouldn’t have done that, but they’re extra-screwed if they radically evolve and get more commercial, because Cliff wouldn’t have done that either.

Post-Cliff Metallica certainly gets off to a rollicking start with 1989’s scabrous and labyrinthine … And Justice for All, which, in a hilarious act of hazing perpetrated against new bassist Jason Newsted, features no audible bass whatsoever. But the harrowing and intense anti-war dirge “One” scores the band some honest-to-God radio play, and a ton of MTV play. The universe is bending to the band’s will, and at first it really is the mainstream embracing Metallica, not the inverse. “One” is not the sound of a band compromising to get famous; it’s the sound of a band getting famous for refusing to compromise.

“Enter Sandman” is … different. Brighter. Shinier. Catchier. Huger. “The idea,” Lars himself once explained of the Black Album as a whole, “was to cram Metallica down everybody’s fucking throat all over the fucking world.” Very well. As helmed by the band’s new hotshot producer, a guy literally named Bob Rock, the Black Album is conceived, from the onset, as a Heavy Band Goes Supernova record. Think AC/DC’s Back in Black. Think Def Leppard’s Hysteria. Think 16 million-plus copies sold in America alone. Think lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s indelible, indestructible opening riff to “Enter Sandman,” as butchered daily by millions of teenagers in every Guitar Center or Sam Ash that ever existed. Think James Hetfield’s comically gruff but still somehow vulnerable lyrics about childhood nightmares, about unconquerable demons, about never-never land.

The Black Album defines heavy music in the ’90s just as surely as Nirvana’s Nevermind did, but Metallica spends the rest of the decade letting the ’90s define them. Nirvana, and the grunge and alternative-rock explosion more broadly, rattles our heroes quite a bit. Metallica’s reinventions, the makeovers, the zeitgeist schemes of really the next 25 years or so, starting with 1996’s even slicker haircut-and-piercings provocation Load … it’s all baffling. Just incredibly strange behavior. Not terrible, even, necessarily. Some of Metallica’s work in the last quarter century is truly great. But all of it is just so bizarre. The Lou Reed record! The folding-chair-snare-drum record! The song literally called “The Unforgiven III”! If only every rock band courted mainstream acclaim with such outrageous success; if only every artist sold out with this much zest.

For, uh, another perspective on Metallica’s Black Album, let us turn now to Pantera bassist Rex Brown, writing in his 2013 memoir, Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera. “We thought it sucked, of course—I mean we thought it was just terrible—we didn’t get the commercial sound of it at all, and this made us even more determined to make our new record even heavier than anything we’d attempted before.”

All right! Born in Pantego, Texas, in 1981, Pantera—whose first stable lineup featured generational guitar god Dimebag Darrell; wailing horndog Terry Glaze on lead vocals; future memoirist Rex Brown on bass; and Dimebag’s older brother, Vinnie Paul, on drums—spent most of their first decade as armadillo-trousered spandex knuckleheads who at various times can sound like KISS, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Slayer, Ozzy Osbourne, Journey (!!), and, yes, early Metallica. But with 1990’s almighty Cowboys From Hell, the band’s second album to feature super-growly new frontman Phil Anselmo, Pantera reinvented themselves as “groove-metal” mercenaries who favored colossal, concussive, uncompromising riffs in an ongoing effort to, as Anselmo himself put it, “trim off all that other bullshit, man.”

Now, let me tell you a secret. A lot of rock bands, even decent rock bands, when they super-ostentatiously announce that they’re gonna trim all the bullshit and rebrand as a no-bullshit rock ’n’ roll band, they quickly discover that their sound was entirely bullshit, and if they ever truly cut out all the bullshit, they’d be left with literal silence. Rock ’n’ roll, broadly defined, depending on the era and the subgenre and the specific band, is anywhere between 85 and 99.7 percent bullshit. That’s the point. The bullshit is the point. The bullshit is the vast majority of the point. Whether they’re trying to sell out or not, very few rock bands in world history could even conceivably cut out all the bullshit, and basically none of those bands should.

But Pantera could. Pantera did. And ’90s Pantera quickly emerges as an invaluable counterpoint to ’90s Metallica: no compromise, no pandering, no mercy, and, sure, no bullshit. No sale. I don’t know if I agree with these guys that Metallica’s Black Album sucks, but the highest compliment I can pay Pantera’s exhilaratingly brutal 1992 album, Vulgar Display of Power, is that it sounds like a bunch of guys who think that Metallica’s Black Album sucks. And that brutality peaks with “Walk,” driven by a deceptively simple blunt-force-trauma Dimebag Darrell riff that almost any amateur guitarist can learn to play poorly, but no other guitarist on earth can play correctly. Not with Dimebag’s swing, his semi-pornographic feel, his swagger, his soul.

Put it like this: If you ever need to teleport to a strip club, just put on a ’90s Pantera record and crouch. (I would try it right now, but I’m wearing pajamas.) Moreover, as the decade progressed, the boys somehow got bigger as they got gnarlier: Far Beyond Driven, from 1994, is by universal consensus the hardest and heaviest and least accommodating no. 1 album in Billboard chart history. In 1996, Metallica cut their hair, got a few exotic piercings, and put out Load, a disconcertingly “alternative”-feeling power play that further alienated their core thrash fan base; Pantera, meanwhile, served up the bombastic shriekfest The Great Southern Trendkill, which sounds like a bunch of guys who think that Load is the worst fuckin’ album ever made.

The Pantera story ends in acrimony, dissolution, and unimaginable tragedy: In 2004, Dimebag Darrell was shot and killed in Columbus, Ohio, while onstage with Damageplan, a new band he’d started with his brother, Vinnie, who died of a heart condition in 2018. But their legacy is unimpeachable: Nobody sold more records while pushing harder toward seemingly uncommercial extremes. Pantera cut out all the bullshit, and everybody wanted a piece.

What prompted Metallica’s edgy, cringey makeover between ’91 and ’96, anyway? Why, “alternative rock,” of course, with its new breed of Seattle-based rock stars ambivalent toward, if not outright hostile to, the very idea of rock stardom: its compromises, its moral depravities, its commercial demands. Consider “Hunger Strike,” the 1991 karaoke classic from Seattle supergroup Temple of the Dog, in which Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell and recently anointed Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, whose respective bands are about to sell millions of records, tenderly duet on a song about their reticence to sell millions of records.

“We were living our dream, but there was also this mistrust over what that meant,” Cornell explained to Rolling Stone, describing his existential crisis when Soundgarden first triggered a major-label bidding war. “Does this make us a commercial rock band? Does it change our motivation when we’re writing a song and making a record? ‘Hunger Strike’ is a statement that I’m staying true to what I’m doing regardless of what comes of it, but I will never change what I’m doing for the purposes of success or money.”

And so, when Eddie and Chris sing about stealing bread from the mouths of decadents, they’re talking about cashing checks from major labels. As an added moral wrinkle, Temple of the Dog’s sole self-titled 1991 album was a full-length tribute to Andrew Wood, frontman for ascendant Seattle glam-rock band Mother Love Bone, whose own major-label debut album, 1990’s Apple, was set for release mere days after Wood died, at 24, of a heroin overdose. Wood, by all accounts, was very into the idea of rock stardom: the swagger, the grandiosity, the devotion, the scarves. Think ’80s Pantera, not ’90s Pantera; think Guns N’ Roses, not Metallica. Andrew Wood clearly wouldn’t have minded selling millions of records; with “Hunger Strike,” Cornell paid tribute to his dear friend while further emerging as a generational rock star himself, but one who’d rather go hungry than do it for the wrong reasons.

What are the right reasons to be a rock star, though? Such a dilemma can’t help but feel a tiny bit frivolous in the face of the existential crisis facing young hip-hop superstars at the same time. By 1991, the Compton-raised rapper Artis Leon Ivey Jr., a.k.a. Coolio, was in his late 20s, and had survived poverty and incarceration and addiction, and could describe the several lifetimes he’d already lived with a youthful ferocity and vivacity. He was so charming that it almost scared him. “Should I dance on it for a couple of dollars?” he rapped in 1991 as a member of the L.A. group WC and the Maad Circle. “Or sell away my soul to put a rope on my collar?” Coolio has a grim awareness of how rap music is sold—how the rappers themselves are sold—to those rap fans not raised in South Central Los Angeles. And he is aware of the national cultural biases he is expected, by those eager outsiders, to confirm.

Here’s where I tell you that as an early-’90s junior high doofus, I adored Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing,” and Young MC’s “Bust a Move,” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” and MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” all massive, cheerful, turn-of-the-decade crossover rap smashes you could (very awkwardly) dance to. Here’s where I tell you that I still wince a tiny bit on MC Hammer’s behalf when I listen to “Check the Rhime” by deified Queens rap group A Tribe Called Quest, when Tribe leader Q-Tip disses Hammer and announces, “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop.”

Is a rap song less credible if it crosses over to the pop charts, to the suburbs? Do you take a hit rap song less seriously if it makes you want to dance, if it’s funny, if even the white kids are dancing, if the white kids are laughing? Who gets to laugh, and at what, at whom? This conflict did not originate with Coolio, but few chart-topping, fun-loving rappers of the ’90s did a better job of unifying America, and pretty much nobody found that experience more alienating. Both his success and his discomfort peaked, in 1995, with “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

Coolio’s debut album, 1994’s It Takes a Thief, kicks off with an ecstatic and unifying little tune called “Fantastic Voyage”; that song’s hit MTV video made him a huge and hugely uncomfortable star. The charisma. The whimsy. The beach-BBQ geniality. The spidery braids of his hair. The guy is quite a striking human being, and musically, his lane appears to be revelry and goofball humor and breezy escapism, even if there is quite a chasm, physical and metaphysical, between what many of his newly minted MTV-bred fans might be escaping and what Coolio, himself, is escaping.

“Gangsta’s Paradise” is his attempt to bridge that divide, or maybe his attempt to burn the bridge between that divide. The galactic flip of Stevie Wonder’s 1976 classic “Pastime Paradise” is unforgettable, and the same goes for Coolio’s thunderous opening line about walking in the valley of the shadow of death. It’s the shockingly Tupac-caliber intensity of his voice, the genuine despair, the preacher’s grandiosity. This is Coolio reveling in all his charisma, and ferocity, and even swagger, but he ain’t laughing, and this time nobody else is, either.

Nobody’s laughing, right? The song first blew up on the soundtrack to the 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer drama Dangerous Minds, which Butt-Head, he of the distinguished MTV duo Beavis and Butt-Head, once astutely described as “that movie where, like, you know, that white chick goes into the hood and teaches everybody how to get good grades.” And indeed, the “Gangsta’s Paradise” video mostly consists of Michelle Pfeiffer sitting in a chair in a smoky room and listening to Coolio rap, and I was always struck by how hard Michelle Pfeiffer listens. It’s just a very intense physical display of listening. It’s like someone told her there was a Pulitzer Prize, or at least an MTV Video Music Award, for Hardest Listening.

Did anyone hear him though? The pain? The devastation? The isolation? Are we sure nobody was laughing? Enter “Weird Al” Yankovic, whom I love with all my heart and soul, and who is rocking Coolio’s spidery braids on the cover of Al’s 1996 album, Bad Hair Day, which does indeed include a transcendent “Gangsta’s Paradise” parody called “Amish Paradise.” Coolio hated it. “I ain’t with that,” he told reporters backstage at the 1996 Grammys, after “Gangsta’s Paradise” beat out both Biggie and Tupac for Best Rap Solo Performance. “No. I didn’t give it any sanction. I think that my song was too serious. It ain’t like it was ‘Beat It.’ ‘Beat It’ was a party song. But I think ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ represented something more than that. And I really, honestly and truly, don’t appreciate him desecrating the song like that.”

Now, Weird Al always asks an artist’s permission before doing a song parody, and most artists take it as a profound honor—Kurt Cobain was thrilled, for example. But in this case, Al’s label had talked to Coolio’s label, but Coolio himself was unaware, and Al was unaware that Coolio was unaware, and Al was very upset and apologetic about all this, and Coolio, eventually, would soften his stance on “Amish Paradise,” telling Rolling Stone in 2015 that his initial opposition to the parody was “probably one of the least smart things I’ve done over the years.” Weird Al vs. Coolio is now safe, defanged, nostalgic trivia. But Coolio, at the Grammys, using the word desecrated still knocks me sideways. “Gangsta’s Paradise” is, at heart, a very serious song. An anguished song. A tragic song. And a pop song whether Coolio wanted it to be one or not. And the least generous read of “Amish Paradise” that I can offer you is that for some large percentage of Weird Al’s target audience (and Coolio’s less-targeted audience), the Amish lifestyle and the gangsta lifestyle are equally remote, equally exotic, equally unimaginable.

Ice Cube knew that, too. “I do records for Black kids,” he once told the revered feminist author bell hooks, “and white kids are basically eavesdropping on my records.” Many of those songs—including 1988’s almighty “Fuck tha Police,” from his brief but genre-defining stint with instant Compton supergroup and eventual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees N.W.A—already constituted some of the rawest, most vividly confrontational rap music ever made by 1992, when Cube released his third solo album, The Predator. But on that record, he unveiled his most seductive rap-as-pop provocation yet, and what he deftly sold all those eager eavesdroppers isn’t quite what many of them thought they were buying.

“It Was a Good Day” is the Ice Cube song seemingly everyone knows, everyone loves, everyone can recite by heart. The galactic flip of the Isley Brothers’ 1977 classic “Footsteps in the Dark” is astoundingly beautiful, and indeed, nearly every word out of Cube’s mouth is absurdly quotable: the breakfast with no hog, the triple-double, the Lakers beating the Supersonics, the Fatburger, the AK he doesn’t even need to use. It’s all great fun. Have fun. Ice Cube’s having fun and he wants you to have fun. But it’s a Good Day when he doesn’t have to use the AK because usually he does. It’s a Good Day because it includes no police cars, no police helicopters. It’s a Good Day because “nobody I know got killed in South Central L.A.” It’s a Good Day because he’d started it “thinkin’, will I live another 24?” He can’t believe it was a Good Day.

A lot of people who listen to, and love, and rap along to “It Was a Good Day” are eavesdropping. Put it that way. I was. I am. For all Ice Cube’s anger, delightfully sprayed all over his solo catalog, about other rappers who sell out, who go pop, who can new jack swing on his nuts, this song, on his terms, is immaculate, revered, enduring pop music. It’s fun. Have fun. Rap along to it. Or rap along to most of it. But depending on who you are and where you come from and what experience you have with where Ice Cube comes from, just respect the fact that your favorite lines might feel a little different in your mouth. The next song on The Predator is called “We Had to Tear This Muthafucka Up.” It’s about the L.A. riots in the aftermath of the 1992 acquittal of the four LAPD officers who beat motorist Rodney King half to death, on camera, not that it mattered in court. “It Was a Good Day” is a song about one day. The rest of Cube’s catalog is about every other day.

Excerpted from 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s ©2023 Rob Harvilla and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group. 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s will be released on Tuesday; preorder it here, and check out the podcast here.


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