The book that is the subject of this review is Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery, edited by William Irwin and published 2007. It is part of a growing genre of books that examine such pop culture icons as The Matrix movies, the Lord of the Rings series, The Simpsons television show, and others through the lens of philosophy. The book is made up of a series of twenty short essays examining the band Metallica, the interpersonal relationships between the members, and the lyrics in the context of some of the main ideas of Western Philosophy.
The main purpose of the book, and the series as a whole, is to introduce the average reader to the “great ideas” of philosophy while providing a more entertaining venue. Philosophy is very often studied only in places of higher learning and only grudgingly by its students, who must force themselves to delve deeply into the reading material and gain what insight they can. Knowledge of this sort does not come easily, and attempting to answer the most profound questions of existence and being human requires difficult thinking. Thus, the editors of the series seek to show that studying philosophy can be more entertaining, though, and “thinking deeply about TV, movies, and music doesn’t make you a ‘complete idiot.’ In fact it might make you a philosopher, someone who believes the unexamined life is not worth living and the unexamined cartoon is not worth watching.” Metallica, as one of the most successful bands in history, gets the philosophical treatment in this installment in the series.
As a student who took numerous philosophy courses in college and who has read another installment in this series (The Simpsons and Philosophy), these kinds of books have always been intriguing. The question begs to be asked: is the book written for philosophers interested in Metallica, or Metallica fans interested in philosophy, or is there a difference? It is unlikely that many Metallica fans will find themselves in the Philosophy section of their local Borders unless they are interested in philosophy. But it is equally difficult to imagine the stereotypical college professor picking up a book titled Metallica and Philosophy. However, the fact that over twenty authors contributed to this series of essays shows that there are a number of professors, authors, and students of philosophy who also share an appreciation for the biggest heavy metal band of all time. The themes that are found in the book also show that the authors knew the lyrics and history of Metallica well enough to offer valuable insights as to the philosophical context of Metallica’s work.
With twenty essays contained in the book, it is impossible to review every theme presented. The essays serve as introductions to the great questions of philosophy, and use James Hetfield’s lyrics as the greatest source material. Issues such as insanity and capital punishment are examined through various songs, as well as the band’s relationship with religion and the answer to the meaning of life. Quite heavy topics, no doubt. However, each essay is written with the ultimate goal or readability in mind. While the themes often examine the abstract, the authors use frequent examples, such as quoting lyrics, or use anecdotal examples from the history of the band. This makes the ideas much easier to understand and the essays do not get caught up in long period of exposition on esoteric matters. Many of the essays could have been slightly longer for a fuller discussion of the issues, but the length of each was sufficient to raise a theme, examine it in the context of philosophical thought, and lay out some conclusions or areas for further research.
Besides analyzing lyrics, though, a number of the essays also examine the overall context and history of Metallica, and attempt to answer some of the more contentious points raised over the years. These include the issue of the band “selling out,” their image of nonconformity with traditional rock roles, and Lars’ battle with internet file-sharing website Napster. Did Metallica sell out when they released an alternative hard rock album (LOAD)? What role did nonconformity play in shaping Metallica and why can they not return to it ever again? Was Napster about money or something more, and was Lars’ argument fundamentally correct? The answers are examined in detail in the book, and they may not be what the reader expects. As one of the authors writes, “Hey, philosophers are supposed to be objective — I don’t like it anymore than you do!” But these events and themes are the ones most often discussed when speaking of Metallica, who have been accused of selling out since their second album in 1984. The old arguments of either side are given new teeth when examined through the context of philosophy.
The book is a a welcome introduction or reintroduction for Metallica fans to philosophical ideas and thinking. For the serious philosopher who has spent time reading the original works cited in the essays, it may be just a casual summary of the themes in a heavy metal context. But for Metallica fans who desire to know more about the motivations of the band and get inside their heads, as well as understand the reasons that they find themselves drawn to Metallica and heavy metal in general, Metallica and Philosophy provides an ideal overview of these most important concepts.