Plato on Pop

Philosophy and pop culture

Lou Reed and Metallica: Existentialist Brothers in Black

Why does this unlikely pairing work?

Lou Reed and Metallica have just released an album together. The question is why? When Cliff Burnstein (of Q Prime Management) suggested Metallica jam with Lou Reed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert at Madison Square Garden in October 2009, both sides were unexcited about the collaboration. The guys in Metallica weren't fans of Lou Reed or The Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed seemed to look at Metallica as if they were the stereotypical knuckle-dragging airheads who just turn their amps up to 11. But Cliff Burnstein was right. When Metallica backed Lou Reed for performances of "Sweet Jane" and "White Light / White Heat" there was genuine musical chemistry. As the musicians parted ways later that evening, Reed suggested they do an album together. Now, much to everyone's surprise, they have.

So why does this unlikely pairing work? I don't think that Lou and the Metalli-guys even know, except to say it feels right. But here's why I think it works. Both Lou Reed and Metallica are prime examples of existentialism. What's that? It's notoriously difficult to define, but here's a definition anyway: Existentialism is a philosophy that reacts to an absurd or meaningless world by urging individuals to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation. As discussed in my book, Metallica and Philosophy, Metallica express existentialist themes with lyrics focusing on death, anxiety, freedom, and authenticity. Reed's lyrics likewise reflect individual experience with alienation, transgressive sexuality, and drug culture.

See All Stories In

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Existentialism is most closely associated with European philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Søren Kierkegaard. But in America, existentialism has found its home less among philosophers and more among artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Charles Bukowski, and Woody Allen. As musical artists known for their distinctive voices and unique phrasings, Lou Reed and James Hetfield (of Metallica) share a common bond with another American existentialist, Johnny Cash. They speak only for themselves, but in doing so manage to speak to alienated souls everywhere. With their songs about insanity and heroin, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground were un-60's icons of the flower power 60's. Likewise, with their rejection of image and MTV, Metallica were un-80's icons of the over-the-top 80's. Both are rebels and outsiders by choice, and their willingness to work together only confirms this.

Many Lou Reed fans will be tempted to accuse him of pandering to a mass audience, and many Metallica fans will accuse them of pandering to the elites at Rolling Stone and other such irrelevant arbiters of musical taste. But despite the predictable condemnations the two have joined forces. And the result is worthwhile. The newly released album, titled Lulu, will not be any Lou Reed fan's favorite, nor will it be any Metallica fan's favorite. But it does bring out some of what is best in each. The heaviness of Lou Reed's lyrics and message are matched and supported by the heaviness and complexity of Metallica's music. Existentialism may be difficult to define, but Lulu lets you hear it loud and clear.

Copyright William Irwin 2011

William Irwin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

more...

Subscribe to Plato on Pop

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?