We hate it when our friends become successful


In a recent review of a High on Fire show, The Obelisk said:

It was bittersweet to watch Matt Pike, Des Kensel and Jeff Matz on stage — and not just because I could barely see them for all the people standing in front of me. In a way, it was like saying goodbye. I’m still a High on Fire fan, and I even thought that some of the material from their latest album, Snakes for the Divine, which maybe I didn’t dig so much in its studio incarnation, sounded really good live, but there’s no question it’s different now. They’re a big-ass band, playing sold out shows. Hell, I saw that bus outside. It’s just not the same.

This reminded me of my review of Mastodon’s Crack the Skye:

After only a minute, I was violently allergic. That singing – ouch. I felt as if an old friend had showed up in a shiny new Hummer. Something had changed irreparably.

Why do metal fans hate it when bands become “successful”?

I have three theories. The first is that metal fans are territorial. We feel like we “own” bands. We are cool because we discover them earlier than others do. We lose that cool (and lose our cool) when others, especially if they’re the “wrong” people (hipsters, critics, outsiders to whatever circles we draw around ourselves), start liking our bands. What we like isn’t special anymore, so we’re not special anymore.

The second is that metal is classist. Musicians aren’t cool if they’re rich. (This goes back to territoriality. If musicians are rich, and we’re not rich, then they’re not “one of us”.) This is the opposite of hip-hop, which may have started with “keep it real” values, but now celebrates bling. Poor people want to be rich – and only rich people want to seem poor. Does metal, then, actually operate from a position of privilege?

The third is that bands compromise themselves (“sell out”) to become “successful” – and that metal fans hate such compromise. (Contrast with hip-hop, where “selling out” is now the goal, not the enemy.) This issue is complex. “Selling out” does not equal “becoming popular”. The two sometimes correlate, but just because a band does one doesn’t mean it’s done the other. Many bands couldn’t sell out, even if they tried. Some bands become popular without changing their sound.

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Mastodon from very far away

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“Selling out” is sort of a useless inquiry. Take Metallica and Mastodon, two bands that have been accused of “selling out”. Yes, Metallica stopped writing thrash and started writing radio hits. But what if Metallica wanted to do exactly that? Metallica wouldn’t be compromising themselves, and thus wouldn’t be selling out. The same goes for Mastodon. They’re not writing pop songs now. If anything, their music is more oblique and self-indulgent than ever. In fact, I’d prefer it if the band compromised itself and wrote actual riffs.

The best inquiry, as always, is “Is the music good?” (To be precise, that inquiry is really “Is the music good for me?”) If the music is good, I don’t care how the band made it. If the music is bad, I can walk away from it. And if I really support a band, I’ll support its “success”. Do I want Matt Pike and Des Kensel to go back to digging ditches? Hell no. They should be rewarded for their talents. They didn’t write ballads. They didn’t lose their riffs. They stayed true to their sound and made the right moves. They worked for their fanbase, signed to a label with huge resources, and are living the dream. Their bus should be posh.

— Cosmo Lee
High on Fire photo by Metal Chris