As a metal riff played in the background, the music video for Death's 1993 song, "The Philosopher," opened on a shirtless child running through the woods. Two misbehaving cartoon teenagers named Beavis and Butt-Head watched the video from their couch, ready to offer their brand of no-nonsense armchair commentary.
"Hey, check it out, it's Jeremy," observed Butt-Head, a reference to the diminutive, angsty star of Pearl Jam's breakthrough single.
"Did I mention that this sucks?" he chided as the video's closing chyron flashes on the screen. "Yeah, but, ya know, can't hurt to say it again," confirms Beavis.
Death had done alright for themselves before they ever crossed Beavis and Butt-Head's dilapidated, rabbit-eared television. They'd been a band for ten years and their influence was so far-reaching and their body of work so critically respected that they're often credited as being one of the founding fathers of the eponymously named death metal genre. But Death never achieved the level of success of Pantera, whose video for "This Love" fared far better with the cartoon duo.
The treatment given "This Love" by our perpetually parentless heroes had every element that made Beavis and Butt-Head so poignant—and highlighted everything that Death's video lacked—all together in one place just waiting to be unpacked: raging teenage hormones, suburban boredom, unmitigated rage, and tales of broken families. More to the point, Pantera was relatable. Death wasn't; they were too heady, too forward-thinking, too much a product of a bygone era, or at the very least of an unfamiliar, more urban scene. Pantera was the stuff of sprawling subdivisions, big box stores, inescapable socioeconomic stagnation, and, most importantly, anger. Lots of anger. Their members were irascible boozers and partiers from the dirty, hard-scrabble South who just happened to be good at their instruments. Death was started by a kid who grew up on the Gold Coast of Long Island, and its members were the nerds that came home from school every day and practiced their instruments for hours on end, and who would eventually push the limits of metal to include elements of jazz, fusion, and classical music. Challenging and interesting, absolutely, but if you were an American teenager at the time—aimlessly wandering through tract housing subdivisions, tipping cows on soon-to-be-subdivisions and playing baseball with a live frog outside a trailer park—which would you choose?
Metal needed a savior in 1993, and with Beavis and Butt-Head, it got two. And while it may seem ludicrous to give two animated characters hatched in the imagination of creator Mike Judge's credit for resurrecting an entire subgenre of rock, consider the landscape of heavy music at the time. Hair metal had died a fiery, brutal death in the preceding two years, with the pomp and circumstance of glam swiftly replaced by the stripped-down, lackadaisical, ambivalent attitude of grunge. Thrash metal had grown old and stale, its youthful fury and aggression replaced by Bob Rock's hyper-polished production on Metallica's black album in one fell swoop. Death metal's wider fanbase failed to materialize the way the major labels thought it would when Earache Records—with its who's-who roster of Carcass, Entombed, Godflesh, Napalm Death, and more—signed a huge distribution deal with big players Columbia that ended just as quickly as it'd begun. But to a nation of angry teens and pre-teens unaware of the intricacies of metal, Beavis and Butt-Head was a portal to this evolving scene. The show was at once an influencer, a tastemaker, and an embarrassingly accurate reflection of American youth.
Beavis and Butt-Head were surprisingly knowledgeable about metal and tuned into current trends for a bunch of burnouts who struggled with basic elementary school arithmetic in their high school classes. Sometimes the simple presence of any combination of fire, boobs, butts and/or generally gross stuff of the juvenile variety (poop, boogers, etc.) was enough to earn their stamp of approval. The appeal of Gwar was obvious, what with their intergalactic monster costumes that spewed blood and semen from cannons and giant prosthetic dicks on stage, while Rammstein's bombastic live show was irresistible because FUCKING FIRE! By tapping into that visceral, non-cerebral filter (or lack thereof), Beavis & Butt-Head connected with an entire generation, and shaped how metalheads processed music and formed new tastes, a connection that continues to this day.
But at the same time, Beavis and Butt-Head were capable of assessing an artist's cultural worth on a more sub-conscious level. There was always something more inherently "cool" about Crowbar than Grim Reaper and Beavis and Butt-Head inherently knew that, just as today's "cool" metal culture craps on Periphery while giving bands with a whole lot of very similar musical elements like Pallbearer a pass. It doesn't take a genius to know what's cool and what isn't; perhaps those assessments are better left to those who don't over-analyze every facet of everything anyway.
The duo's tentacles of influence even worked their way beyond metal and into hard rock, with Nirvana, Aerosmith, Primus and Red Hot Chili Peppers all appearing on The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience, a 1993 compilation CD released by Geffen Records that went double platinum. The latter's cover of the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster" in the hit film Beavis and Butt-Head Do America—which has grossed over $60 million to date—became a bonafide hit, reaching number 22 on the Mainstream Top 40 Chart. Even pop star Cher got in the game, teaming up with the duo for a new version of her 1965 hit "I Got You Babe," the album's first single.
Beavis and Butt-Head had a knack for being brutally honest even in praise, and sometimes a light roasting could act as their seal of approval. About Crowbar, for example, Butt-Head once joked, "They're always taking a dump," while watching their video for "Existence is Punishment," before declaring, "This music is slow and fat," a startlingly on-point assessment (even taking their physical appearance completely out of the equation). It'd be tempting to view those comments as a slight until we hear Beavis making fun of a "wuss" at the band's concert by suggesting, "His mom's waiting outside in the station wagon." That wuss, according to the gospel of Beavis, isn't cool enough to hang at a Crowbar show.
Speaking of wusses, no band was more emblematic of the negative sway Beavis and Butt-Head could have than Winger, whose logo adorned the t-shirt of the duo's dorky, try-hard, tag-along neighbor Stewart, picked on and bullied relentlessly. There's been much debate about whether Winger's career tanked because of grunge or because of Beavis and Butt-Head, but this much is certain: Beavis and Butt-head forever altered the band's public perception, and Winger and the TV show are forever linked. Kip Winger still has to answer questions about it in interviews to this day, although he appears to have made peace with it.
The members of Crowbar recognized the power and influence of the show well before their videos ever appeared on it, asking their record label at the time to send Mike Judge a press package in hopes of being featured, good or bad. Bandleader Kirk Windstein explains to Noisey, "We wrote something in a letter like 'We're a bunch of fat guys, have fun with it if you want, we're all about it and we think it's hilarious.' We presented it hoping that the show would pick up on it and put us on the air. We wanted them to take shots at us. As long as they rock out to it and don't say we suck, then we're happy, we don't care if they make fat jokes. That's part of the entertainment." Windstein doesn't hesitate at all when asked if the band's appearances on the show helped boost their career: "There's almost not a show that I'm at, barely a day goes by, that somebody else won't come up to us and say 'Man, I remember ya'll all the way back from Beavis and Butt-Head!' In my opinion it really worked and helped us out as far as getting the name out there."
Beavis and Butt-Head always got it right. Of Iron Maiden's "From Here to Eternity" they observed that even if the band played on MTV's Unplugged, they would "never unplug the explosion machine" that made their videos so badass, a tenet that keeps the band filling arenas worldwide to this day. To Korn's very first single "Blind"—with zero hindsight of what nu-metal would become—Beavis delivered a professorial critique after intentionally making himself dizzy, proclaiming, "this video speaks less to the mind and more to the sphincter." The two heshers captured the cultural zeitgeist surrounding Metallica at the time by arguing through the duration of the two-minute clip—an eternity by Beavis and Butt-head standards—about whether the band sucks or rules (fittingly, no one really won but they do agree that Metallica isn't as cool as Gwar). With Napalm Death, the duo couldn't quite concur on whether Barney Greenway's voice sounded like it's coming out of a butt, Godzilla, or out of Godzilla's butt before they both lost interest and recounted the time they stumbled upon a dead horse (literally) and beat it (literally). "Hey look, it's another one of those heavy metal videos with a naked dude all curled up on the floor," is all you need to know about what they think of Morbid Angel's "God of Emptiness." And so on and so forth.
Perhaps nothing sums up Beavis and Butt-Head's cultural bridge to the metal world better than their quintessential anthem, a singalong of which the iconic main riff would become the triumphant refrain of jubilant teens everywhere: Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." Despite asking "Where's Ozzy?" and questioning whether the man fronting Black Sabbath is actually Ozzy's son, Beavis and Butt-Head completely nailed it here, too; in 1993, who under the age of 30 gave a crap about these old geezers? Fucking no one, that's who.
We can only surmise what Beavis and Butt-Head would have said about the 14 years of metal between the show's cancellation in 1997 and its brief reprise in 2011, which shifted with the times and saw the duo focusing most of their critiques on MTV reality mainstays such as Jersey Shore, Teen Cribs, and 16 And Pregnant alongside a few music videos by of-the-moment acts like MGMT and Skrillex. Of nu-metal, we can imagine their horrified faces while watching Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff" and we can picture in our mind's eye Butt-Head delivering a swift, back-handed slap to Beavis's face for enjoying Crazytown's "Butterfly." You can bet your ass they would've had plenty to say about metalcore's good cop / bad cop vocal approach ("Why'd these guys have to ruin a perfectly good song with this bullcrap?" ), deathcore's repetitive formula of breakdowns and more breakdowns (something tells me they might've actually been into it?) or djent's over-indulgent prog riffery.
Metalheads have navigated the past 20 years of metal just fine on their own, but the absence of the guiding voices of Beavis and Butt-Head was certainly felt. Everyone's a critic now, with social media and blogging dominating the music journalism space, so perhaps our protagonists would be obsolete. But everyone could use a little guidance now and then, and for a generation of metalheads—for a solid chunk of the 90s—two cartoon teenagers were those guides.