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Why Metallica’s “Black Album” released 30 years ago is a turning point in pop culture?

This Friday, the reissue of the “Black Album” by the Americans of Metallica is released, to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. This metal album is considered worldwide as a classic of pop culture. That’s why.

The “Black Album” became number 1 in sales in several countries upon its release in 1991 © AFP / JASON KEMPIN

It’s one of those records that’s easy to ask for at the record store, just like the Beatles’ “White Album”, although in reality that’s just the nickname fans gave them because of the color of the cover and the absence of a real title. Metallica’s album “Metallica” was released on August 12, 1991 and 30 years later, its reissue this Friday is a reminder that it is still one of the most important records in history, having inspired generations of artists, in all genres and beyond music. He is quite simply the one who brought metal, its music, its codes and its (counter-)culture into popular culture.

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Records all over the world

Before being world rockstars, Metallica is first and foremost an independent thrash metal band. With Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, they invented this sub-genre of heavy metal in the early 80s, playing very fast and very loudly, when the fashion was for glam metal bands, more colorful, syrupy and having fun with the femininity by putting on garters and lipstick. With each album, the popularity of the group grows, the criticism is more and more laudatory, and this, without being able to benefit from a radio broadcast. The success therefore did not go beyond the sphere of metal lovers, even if the previous album “… And Justice for All” managed to rise briefly to the 6th position of the American charts.

On July 30, 1991, the group releases its first single “Enter Sandman”within two weeks of the release of the album, and ranks 16th on the US charts and in 5th position in the United Kingdom. In a few weeks, more than 500,000 copies were sold, which represents a huge success for such a group. The album follows the same race to its publication: number 1 in the United States (almost 600,000 sales in one week), in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and Norway. Since 1991, nearly 17 million have been sold in the United States and more than 25 million worldwide, far ahead of ABBA, Bob Marley or even Eminem. It has spent more than 620 weeks (non-consecutive) on the Billboard 200 chart for weekly album sales since its release, the last time in 2020.

An album to bring them all…

Metal bands from the end of the 70s to the end of the 80s are very often considered by the general public as marginals, dumbfounders a little low on the forehead, and even dangers in the eyes of the most conservative and puritanical. They are particularly extolled and forced to explain themselves (among other artists like Prince and Frank Zappa) before the US Senate, following repeated accusations from the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), a lobby founded by Tipper Gore (the wife of Al Gore, before he became vice-president of the United States between 1993 and 2001, then Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his environmental activism) who denounces the supposed violence and pornography of their songs, to satanist subliminal messages.

As early as 1985, many metal artists were accused by the PMRC of inciting violence.
As early as 1985, many metal artists were accused by the PMRC of inciting violence. / Screenshot

Metallica is not directly targeted by the cabal, but the whole genre still suffers from the accusations. The PMRC manages to impose the inscription of a logo on certain albums, the Parental Advisory, a warning to parents to protect the chaste ears of their offspring. Like many bands, Metallica makes it a selling pointand in 1986 sticks a fun puritanism sticker on his album “Master of Puppets“:

“The one track you definitely won’t want to listen to is ‘Damage, Inc’ due to the infamous ‘F’ word being repeatedly used. [fuck]. Otherwise, there are no ‘shits’, ‘fucks’, ‘piss’, ‘cunts’, ‘motherfucker’ or ‘cocksucker’ on this album.“

…and in darkness bind them

In 1991, Metallica is the most famous band in the metal world. But when the “Black Album” comes out, for the first time, a barrier is broken: the general public is won over. The four musicians abandon complex pieces, played at full speed and which last 7 or 10 minutes. They adopt a radio format, push melodies on a much slower tempo. A disk “easier to listen to for someone who has never heard Metallica before“, recognizes at the time the singer and guitarist James Hetfield in an interview with Rolling Stone. It’s still a metal album, but designed to speak to everyone. For example, the group composes instrumentations reminiscent of those of Ennio Morricone and even quotes bars from “West Side Story” on the track “Don’t Tread on Me”. Metallica becomes the ambassador of a musical genre democratized and ultimately socially accepted.

For the first time in the group’s history, several tracks from this album entered radio playlists. Their ballad “Nothing Else Matters“ in particular, which tells the story of long distance sentimental relationships, becomes #1 on the charts in over 30 countries (including countries where Metallica has never played a concert), and even a classic that we play during ceremonies and wedding parties (the clip has just exceeded one billion views on Youtube). However, such a theme had no real place in this very masculine world. After Metallica, other bands followed suit, making metal a musical genre culturally recognized on the same basis as the others, broadcast on MTV, present at the annual awards ceremonies of the music industry (Metallica won a Grammy in 1992).

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popular monument

30 years later, this “Black Album“ has become a monument of pop culture. If he put off the trash metal band’s early fans, it flooded all of popular culture. There are several songs in the series The Sopranos, The Simpsons, South Park, Dr. House, and in the films Mission Impossible 2, X-Men, The Big Short or Zombieland. “Nothing Else Matters“, in a re-recorded version, was even chosen by Disney to top the soundtrack of their latest film released this summer, Jungle Cruise.

The reissue that comes out this Thursday shows how much the album has influenced all subsequent generations of musicians. To accompany it comes “The Metallica Blacklist“, a compilation of covers in the form oftribute by about fifty artists from all over the world who evolve in all styles, from rockers Mac DeMarco, Weezer and Idles to jazzman Kamasi Washington, rapper Pharrell Williams, pop and country singer Miley Cyrus, passing through the Indian pop of Vishal Dadlani, the electro of the Mexican Institute of Sound and even the Frenchwoman Izïa Higelin . Without knowing it, your children have probably even heard Metallica while listening to Aldebert. The favorite singer of your children considers that Metallica had as much importance as Brassens in his learning of music. If you’ve ever seen him in concert, he may have even played one of their songs for you.

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