thesis/book entitled “The Heavy Side of Metal: Metallica‘s Counter-Hegemonic Trilogy.“
Swanson teaches Intro to Sociology, Contemperary Social Problems and
Deviant Behavior at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey. The Express caught up with Swanson, a Charlevoix native, to figure out why he chose to
dedicate years of his life to the study of heavy metal
and how he puts what he has learned to use in the classroom.
NE: How did you come to the idea of working with
Metallica as the subject for your master‘s thesis?
Swanson: I listened to Metallica -- it was my first intro
to heavy metal music. Metallica allowed me as an older
teenager to vent my rage and frustration in a
non-harmful way. I thought this would be something of
interest to a sociological inquiry, that the
phenomenon of channeling rage into a more productive
activity was worthy of study. I thought, yeah, I could
write about the messages that Metallica was putting
out in their lyrics and how the messages themselves
had the ability to transform rage into something that
could transform society itself.
NE: Can you tell me some about the course your
Swanson: I was going to do Metallica, Rage against the Machine,
Sepultura, Slayer and Pantera and even a band called
Fight. I quickly learned that the breadth of that was
way out of synch with reality. I knew I wanted to do
just the lyrics. I got resistance from faculty that
thought that focusing on the lyrics was not very
sociological. (There were) a lot of methodological problems
that shed some doubt as to the legitimacy of the
project. Once that was cleared up I was able to
It was enlightening because I had listened to the
lyrics a lot. When I researched what they were saying
I came to understand that these three albums (Ride the
Lightning, Master of Puppets and Justice for All)
really have a pretty coherent message there. It‘s not
just an amalgamation of songs that aren‘t related to
each other, they are thematically consistent with each
NE: Can you give me a little background on those
three albums, when they came out, where they fit in?
Swanson: The first album that Metallica did was called
Kill Them All, which I chose to leave off because
it wasn‘t very lyrically sophisticated. It was about
celebrating rock‘ roll and celebrating pleasure.
James Hatfield, the lead singer of Metallica, started
to watch CNN when CNN started around 1982. Believe it
or not, mainstream news. He started to get really
pissed off about the news he saw, world events
and the use of American military. The album they put
out, Ride the Lightning, in 1984, was a really harsh
critique of some of the things they were seeing. Ride
the Lightning is a direct allusion to the electric
chair. It is an exploration of human-on-human
violence. How it is we come to harm each other through
violent means. It is a very thorough investigation of
this and it‘s a sophisticated one.
The first album didn‘t have that much to say, but when they hit their
second album they became musically much more
sophisticated and lyrically that album was just
Then they moved on to Master of Puppets which is even
more sociological in nature. The album cover for Master
of Puppets has these godlike hands with strings from
them leading to a bunch of gravestones. They are
crosses, and it looks like Normandy. Just to further
make sure there was not any miscommunication, one of
the crosses has a dog tag hanging from it, so it was
clear at that point that it was a direct manipulation
of powerful forces was leading people to slaughter
people in mass quantities. The individual songs on
this album are just wonderful, they talk about spousal
abuse, talk about the military killing machine, they
talk about televangelists and how they manipulate
people. The breadth that they explore in that
manipulation and control is excellent, It‘s
sociologically excellent -- it‘s musically excellent.
It‘s one of my favorite albums.
NE: What year did that come out?
Swanson: That was in ‘86, Master of Puppets was ‘84 and
then in 1988 they came out with And Justice for All.
The subtitle to that chapter in my book is “Injustice
for All.“ In that album the criminal justice system
itself is put on trial in their lyrics and they talk
about how deviance and criminal behavior is defined by
a few powerful folks who use the criminal justice
system to control the population through violent means
by using the criminal justice system and jails and
cops and all that. It shows how money can create an
alternative justice system for the wealthy where
there‘s really no prosecution for people
who can buy off the court system.
NE: Where does Metallica fit in with the heavy
metal scene and history?
Swanson: Metallica is the most important heavy metal
band ever except for Black Sabbath, who started the
whole thing, and bands like Judas Priest that kept it
alive in the ‘70s. They brought a punk kind of an
attitude and sound to what bands like Judas Priest
were doing. They made it heavier, more intense, kicked
up the lyrical content. They took metal in a whole new
direction. Even Judas Priest -- who I really do respect
a lot -- didn‘t say a whole lot, they made some
critiques, they kind of yelled about some things, but
they didn‘t have a sustained criticism of society or
anything like that.
Metallica brought an awareness of
society and an awareness of injustice to music that
was expressed in a way that reflected the degree of
their rage. The people who made this music were
extremely pissed off at what they saw, they saw wars
that were killing people for no reason, they saw
massive starvation all over the world, they saw
religious stupidity all over the place.
Metallica put a certain level of discipline and
structure to heavy metal that wasn‘t there before. It
was not just a stupid generalized angst -- it was a
focused attack on the things that were causing the
things he (Hatfield) was angry about.
NE: I was in junior high in the ‘80s and I
remember seeing some kids in Metallica shirts and
thinking that they were sort of like, “stoner kids,“
and I didn‘t really imagine that they were involved in
a political critique and a movement that was organized
around heavy metal music. How much do you think the
Metallica message was consciously received by fans and
what was your experience of Metallica as a kid?
Swanson: I don‘t think that those people you saw in
Metallica shirts really knew a whole lot. I think
either Beavis or Butthead wears a Metallica shirt,
which says something. I asked Dina Weinstein about
this. She wrote a book called Heavy Metal and is one
of the foremost experts on the subject. I asked her
why it seemed most people didn‘t have awareness of
Metallica‘s message. What she said to me is that your
friends aren‘t interpreting these lyrics differently --
they simply aren‘t interpreting. Most of the people
just listen to the music and pick up a few key
messages here or there. Most of the people who listen
to Metallica, sadly, are not really internalizing or
analyzing the content of those lyrics.
Most of the people just have a general idea of the
attitude of the music. That is one of the reasons I
wrote the thesis. Metallica are amplified sociologists
and they are not given any credit for that. I wanted
to educate the academic sphere as to this band that is
writing this wild stuff they‘d never listen to and I
also wanted to cross-educate Metallica fans that had
been listening to it but never really knew what it
said. I had a dual purpose.
I didn‘t get into Metallica until I was 17. When I saw
Metallica shirts in the early ‘80s, I was an idiot -- I
had no idea whatsoever.
NE: Can you give me an example a passage from a
Metallica song that you think casual listeners might
not have caught but is important somehow?
Swanson: Sure. In the album And Justice for All, there
is a song called “Eye Of The Beholder“ which is
the central focus of that album in a
critique of who exactly it is that defines what normal
and abnormal is. How it is that some people can have
an opinion about normality and criminality and then
impose that opinion on entire societies?
There‘s a lyric that goes, “You can do it your own way if it‘s
done just how I say.“ In American society we have the
message that we have a free society and people are
free to make their own mistakes that even if they
think in a way you don‘t agree with, they can still
think that way. But the song puts the idea forth that
you can think whatever you want, you can even do
whatever you want, as long as it‘s done within the
parameters given to you. As long as it‘s done within
the framework of what is acceptable in our society,
what a small group of old white rich men say is okay,
other than that you will be punished. Freedom is an
illusion in our country.
People hear that line and they think, ‘yeah right!“
They think of parents or of a teacher saying that but
they don‘t think of the broader implications for the
NE: You are teaching sociology now at NCMC, how
has your study of Metallica and heavy metal music
informed your teaching style?
Swanson: I use Metallica and other bands like Sepultura
in my class. I rely on Pink Floyd a lot and even Rage
Against the Machine. I‘ll bring in my ghetto
blaster/portable radio and play them a song and have
the lyrics in front of them. A lot of people hear
songs all the time but don‘t pay attention to the
lyrics. Every time I have a first class I play “Imagine“
by John Lennon and have people actually look at the
lyrics, because what the lyrics say is ‘imagine another
world,‘ and that is what sociology is all about.
I teach to the idea that C. Wright Mills brought out
called the sociological imagination. He talks about
how it takes a certain leap of mind to understand the
connection between society and the individual. There
is an interplay between the biography of individuals
and the history around that individual in society. And
the song “Imagine“ by Lennon really ties in nicely with
that. I am able to use music and lyrics to bring in
people to sociology. Music has an emotional component
to it that just dialog doesn‘t. When you can use that
to turn on somebody‘s mind to alternative
possibilities then you are opening their mind to
different ways of thought, different interpretations
of things. Then they can start to learn sociology.
NE: Have you heard the ads for extreme learning at
NCMC? Do you think that your classes and this style of
teaching is part of what is being referred to there?
Swanson: When I first heard about the ads I thought they
must be talking about me. But I learned from the
administration that, no, it wasn‘t really me they were
talking about but rather the innovative work/study
programs. I do like to think that because they are
advertising extreme learning, that gives me more of a
mandate to teach extreme things.
NE: Do you think parents are going to be able to
understand and get along better with their heavy metal
listening offspring as a result of these
explorations? Have you experienced any practical
Swanson: I have a lot of friends with kids that are
teenagers and because they trust me and know that I am
not violent or harmful when I tell them that Metallica
and other heavy metal bands have a positive message
rather than a destructive message I have eased some
minds that way.
But for the most part Metallica really does represent
a radical restructuring of culture and society and
that by itself is threatening. In that way the more
conservative parents still won‘t be happy with the
message Metallica is putting out because it is
counter-cultural in a way. It is talking about peace
and justice in terms of violence.
American culture isso keyed up on violence. Any child that doesn‘t
embrace violence is considered homosexual. People just
aren‘t respected or trusted if they aren‘t acting in
some kind of violent way. Especially around here in
Northern Michigan it seems to be to the norm to be
overtly violent especially if you are a male --
hunting, fishing, beating up friends.
I don‘t know if parents can take a whole lot of
comfort in the real message that Metallica is saying
unless they happen to be enlightened
folks, unless they can understand that Metallica is
really pushing for a reduction in harm reduction and
an increase in justice as opposed to just wanting to
create chaos, that is not the case at all.
NE: Have you looked into hip hop?
Swanson: I know that there is definitely a split in hip
hop just like there is in metal. Most metal doesn‘t
pass muster in terms of lyrical content; a lot of it
is a celebration of machismo and violence and I
understand parents‘ trepidation with that stuff and
rap or hip hop has the same thing.
There is a clear demarcation between those who are celebrating violence
and those who are merely reporting the reality of a
situation. And the hip hop that is just a sincere
reflection of life as it is in the streets of America,
that‘s hip hop that I really dig because it‘s sending
out a message of reality. It‘s violent stuff,
sometimes brutally violent, but that‘s what life is
like where they are, and for parents and others to
criticize that is really just telling them to shut up
about it, just deal with what you got and don‘t tell
us, we don‘t want to know.
So I think that hip hop is extremely important -- almost more so than metal because
it has got a more urgent message because it is coming
from a racial group that is more overtly oppressed
than the white poor people that Metallica represents.
NE: Can you recap your thesis?
Swanson: The subtitle of my thesis is The Heavy Side of
Metal: Metallica‘s Counter-Hegemonic Trilogy. Hegemony
means the control of the public through force,
through the criminal justice system or through war, and
through their own consent. Our whole nation is really
duped into accepting the control that‘s put over them
to the point where they are not even aware that they
are being manipulated and controlled.
Metallica is putting out a message that is attempting to awaken
people to what I call their “hegemonic fog.“ This haze
is created by the media that puts nonsense into our
heads, things that make no difference at all like
celebrity gossip and manufactured crises around the
world that take our attention off the cause of the
trouble in the world. There is trouble all over the
world and you can find that most of it starts right
here in the United States. Americans are uniquely
situated to be able do something about the world‘s
trouble at the source and it‘s hegemony that keeps
people from knowing anything about that. So
Mettalica‘s message is counter-hegemonic in that it is
trying to raise awareness,to create an image,
Metallica serves like a sun that is trying to burn off
all that hegemonic fog that people are living in.