I’m currently in a hotel room with my parents in Wakeeney, Kansas, which I realize doesn’t sound like a real place. We, along with a couple other families, are headed to Copper Mountain in Colorado to go skiing over Spring Break (obviously, I’ll really be living on the edge during my week off from student teaching). As we were making the (horrendously boring) drive through Kansas I began to think about the rather beautiful drive we’ll experience tomorrow as our car weaves through the mountains. (To be fair, Kansas does have some pretty cool wind turbines that would totally freak out Don Quixote.) I then remembered driving through the mountains in 8th grade on a church trip while listening to Metallica. Even now when I listen to …And Justice For All (1988) (specifically, for some reason, the intros to “Blackened,” “…And Justice For All,” and “One”) I think of driving through Colorado and admiring the mountains. Remembering how I felt about these songs eight years ago made me remember how I incorporated Metallica’s “One” into my English II classes just a couple weeks ago. And this got me thinking more about heavy metal’s potential value to high school English curriculum.
The sophomore English classes I am currently teaching are in the middle of a “War as Lit” unit, which is full of World War 1 and World War 2-based literature, which tells the stories of real people who experienced these wars. Because this unit moves chronologically (and alphabetically) we start with various prose pieces and poems about World War 1. Some of this stuff is pretty shocking even for today (descriptions of amputations, living in trenches, etc), but some kids were still unable to keep their heads up. I remembered the “One” music video by Metallica, a long, dark video that features mostly close-ups of Kirk Hammett’s hands and the creepiest clips from the movie version of Johnny Got His Gun, originally an anti war novel written by Dalton Trumbo in 1939. After finding text for the Johnny Got His Gun novel, I read about our main character waking up in a hospital after exploding in a trench and discovering that he has no arms, legs, or face (yes, he’s still alive, even though he is blind, deaf, speechless, and can’t walk or juggle). Then I read about him banging his head against his pillow to say “KILL ME” in morse code to his doctors. I thought, “This might be a little heavy for the students. I don’t think I’ll use this.” The next thing I knew I was reading parts of the novel to them and then showing them the “One” music video.
I forgot how much high schoolers like Metallica. Seriously, they love Metallica. Eventually they’ll turn 16 and realize that Megadeth is better, and that Kirk Hammett abuses the wah pedal, but until then, they are crazy-excited to listen to “One” and play along on their air guitars. All of a sudden Metallica made WW1 and its literature more interesting to many of my students.
I didn’t know Metallica had such educational potential.
If you’re a teacher discussing war or war literature, maybe consider using “One” in your class. Or “Disposable Heroes” from Metallica’s Master of Puppets album (and don’t forget about “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, or “BYOB” by System of a Down, which are similar thematically even though they are written decades apart from each other). History teachers, maybe use “Don’t Tread On Me” from The Black Album (I guess Metallica never saw that one bit in This is Spinal Tap), and show that picture of the snake flag, too.
I once saw a presentation on using music in the classroom by Alan Sitomer and one example used was Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills,” the most rocking song about genocide ever.
“White man came across the sea
He brought us pain and misery
He killed our tribes, he killed our creed
He took our game for his own need”
This is the first stanza of “Run to the Hills” (The Number of the Beast, 1982) and it should give you an indication that the song is about the killing of Native Americans. This song alone could be used in English to teach about Native American literature or genocide (maybe I can use in Night?), in American history class to teach early American history or immigration, in science class to teach about disease, or even in math to teach percentages (using the lyrics to inspire a word problem in which students figure out what percentage of Native Americans were wiped out by disease brought from overseas). I wish I had come up with those ideas for this song, but these are all from Mr. Sitomer.
Still, look how metal can be used! Are you an English teacher teaching Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner?” Well, put on the last track of Iron Maiden’s Power Slave (1984) and listen to Maiden’s own take on the poem!
Iron Maiden is surprisingly literary. So is Rush (“Tom Sawyer,” anyone?). Does the content Iggy Pop’s The Idiot remind anyone of a Dostoevsky novel of the same name? The Rolling Stones wrote about Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in “Sympathy for the Devil.” David Bowie sang about George Orwell’s 1984 in “Big Brother” and “We Are The Dead.” Literary references are everywhere! (I realize these last few examples have strayed away from heavy metal.)
As my dad continues to watch March Madness and my mom is dozing off, I’m realizing how tired I am as I write this. This is definitely something of interest to me (hopefully you too, at least a little–I mean, even if you don’t like metal, your 10th grade self would take a metal video over poetry alone, right?), so I’ll probably write about it again at some point, but right now I need to charge my ipod, since I am obligated to listen to some Metallica at some point on tomorrow’s drive.