I wasn't going to write about this. I swore to myself that I wouldn't, that I'd let the glittering parade of Musicians I Don't Know and Stars I Don't Recognize march off into the LA sunset with nary a now-traditional "the Grammys sure suck at metal" piece from yours truly. But then Lady Gaga had to go and play a song with Metallica, and it all went to shit.
Don't get me wrong—I have no inherent problem with Lady Gaga. On the contrary, I think she has a killer voice, and appreciate her outspoken support for the LGBTQ community. I watched her Super Bowl thing, and hummed along to "Bad Romance," and appreciate that she's tried to branch out into country, sort of. I am most emphatically not a hater, but I've got to be honest with you, when I saw her onstage with Metallica, all spangled and bedazzled and googly-eyed, I was bummed. She has a chance to flex her rock'n'roll chops, and to pay tribute to one of her self-professed favorite bands… so of course, instead, she chose to act like a frickin' weirdo. I know that that's what Lady Gaga does—it's her entire brand—but it would've been great to see her abandon the manic pixie nightmare act and embrace a genre she actually loves, and that the Academy has a longstanding tradition of giving less than zero fucks about.
Straight out the gate, there was trouble. Presenter Laverne Cox failed to name Metallica when she introduced their performance, inviting the audience to watch "eight-time Grammy award winners and six-time Grammy winner, Lady Gaga." She quickly apologized to the band via Twitter, and I'm sure it was an honest mistake—it's a high-pressure gig, after all—but, come on, this was meant to be Metallica's big moment. Instead, that initial fumble set the stage for further embarrassment.
Technical issues put a damper on things from the outset, as a faulty microphone initially left Metallica vocalist James Hetfield to silently huff and puff and yeah-heah to no avail. For the first few bars of "Moth Into Flame," one of their new record's strongest tracks, the mighty Metallica were reduced to the status of backing band as Lady Gaga belted out the lyrics in Hetfield's stead. As I mentioned before and you undoubtedly know already, Gaga has a hell of a voice, and it worked well with the song's thrashy aggression—her throaty, histrionic yowl wasn't quite Acid material, but it wasn't monumentally far off, either. Gaga would slay if she ever wanted to hang up her couture and start a heavy metal band of her own; if she played her cards right, she may get the chance to open for Savage Master someday.
As it stands, though, nearly every other metalhead I've seen mention the performance has expressed the same sentiment, ranging from a strident "It sucked!" to a more charitable, "Maybe she was thrown off and overcompensating because of James' mic?" Whatever the cause—which I'm going to go ahead and posit was Gaga's own very human desire to be universally beloved—the performance itself felt forced, awkward, and ill-conceived. She should have known better than to try to appeal to both audiences, even if Metallica's audience has expanded to include anyone who's ever come upon "Enter Sandman" while scrolling past the local classic rock station and decided not to skip it.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this whole dog and pony show is that Lady Gaga should have known better. The woman is a bonafide metal fan, and has been for far longer than she's been a global pop superstar. Back when I lived in London (between 2009-2013, arguably in Gaga's heyday), I was a couple degrees of separation from the pop star via her former performance partner and opening DJ, Lady Starlight, who was well-known to a handful of my friends as a glam rock obsessive and heavy metal fan. Starlight—born Colleen Martin—has also toured as an opening act for Judas Priest, and her love of the riff surely rubbed off on Gaga (or perhaps vice versa), who's long been open about her adoration for classic heavy metal like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and, yes, Metallica.
Anyone who's dropped gems like. "I always used to say to people, when they would say, 'Oh, she's the next Madonna.' No, I'm the next Iron Maiden" in the press has surely got more than a little molten steel flowing through her veins, and that's to say nothing of her infamous studded G.I.S.M. jacket. Back in 2014, I even spotted her in the (very tiny, very drunk) crowd at SXSW, rocking a Killers shirt and losing her shit to Atlanta tech metal trio Lazer Wulf.
Point is, she's far from a neophyte, and yet her performance looked for all the world like what happens when your drunk coworker Karen jumps onstage and really "lets loose" during "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at office karaoke night. First off, the onstage "mosh pit" was so cringe-worthy I could barely stand to watch her emerge from the small sea of flannel-clad, off-kilter, gyrating extras, and the "stage dive" into a puddle of seat fillers reeked of choreographed desperation—an unspoken barbaric yawp of "Am I cool yet?" echoing silently between the notes.
The in-between bit—the performance itself, or what was left of it once Hetfield finally stalked over to share Gaga's mic—was a hodgepodge of motion, further confused by the presence of those damned stage "moshers" and Gaga's overenthusiastic hip swivels. The Metallica vocalist's palpable fury as he kicked over the mic stand at the end was the most metal thing about the whole knuckle-gnawing affair.
Did the sound engineer make an honest mistake? Did they not realize that Hetfield was the singer? Was it all a cunning plot to ensure that Gaga's vocals would take center stage, and leave the hoary old thrash icons to act as her backing band? The world may never know, but I have my suspicions (and Pitchfork reckons they've cracked the case).
There is plenty—and I mean plenty—of room in metal for cheesy, sweaty live shows (it's kind of our thing), but Gaga's crucial error was that she just couldn't let go of her theater kid instincts, and felt compelled to ham it up like she was playing the lead in a community theater production of Spinal Tap. The performance never gelled, and she never looked comfortable during the specific moment onstage that belonged to her—the only other metalhead in attendance who'd been given the chance to play—more than anyone else in that gilded room. It could have been great, but instead, it was what it was. Once again, armed with all of their firepower and production and money, the Grammys just couldn't do justice to metal—not even for less than five minutes.
The indignity of Gagtallica was compounded by another egregious fuckup that cast an awkward pall over Megadeth's long-awaited win, and further underlined the Grammys' historical disregard for heavy metal. The Grammy house band played "Master of Puppets"—arguably the most recognizable song from Dave Mustaine's former bandmates in Metallica—as Megadeth walked up to the stage to collect their Metal Performance award for the album Dystopia. It was a move that would have seemed masterfully shady if I believed for one moment that the Grammys cared enough about metal to be able to differentiate between the two extremely famous, legendary bands (let alone be cognizant of Mustaine's well-documented bitterness surrounding his departure from Metallica). Predictably and justifiably, the metal media jumped all over the gaffes, and fans expressed their opinions across social media as colorfully and vehemently as only metalheads can.
At least Baroness and Gojira got nominated. That recognition of talent and drive was wonderful to see, and gives me hope that someday—if not anytime soon—the Grammys will finally get their manicured thumbs out of their asses, and give the heavy metal community a real, honest, respectful chance to show what we can do.
Cover photo by Kevin Winter / Getty Images
Kim Kelly is done thinking about the Grammys until next year on Twitter.