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‘Nothing Else Matters’ Was the Moment Metallica Stopped Caring About Selling Out

Over their career, the thrash-metal veterans have been derided for courting mainstream success. But this power ballad’s enduring popularity is tied to the fact that it’s a song about not worrying what the world thinks of you

Metallica have been around for 40 years, and for most of that time, they’ve been busy selling out. That’s not true, of course, but if you’ve followed this band at all, it’s a question that usually comes up: When did Metallica truly and completely compromise their principles in the quest of courting the mainstream? This wasn’t just a debate out in the world — the band members worried about it, too. A few years ago, producer Flemming Rasmussen, who worked on three albums with the group in the 1980s, said that on their sophomore record, 1984’s Ride the Lightning, those anxieties were already there:

“I think they had pretty big confidence in their songwriting and the songs they were doing. The only thing on ‘Ride the Lightning’ was that they did a pretty short song [‘Escape’] that they more or less did so that they had like a single. … [T]hey kind of felt that they were maybe selling out a bit. But they were on that Megaforce label and they desperately wanted to go on a major label. So it was kind of their way of pleasing a major label without knowing what they really wanted … [T]hat’s the only time we kind of talked, ‘Is this too short? Too poppy? Too whatever?’ That’s the only thing where they ever questioned, ‘Are we gonna do the song or not?’ … But what happened then was once they got that major [label] deal [it was] because the album sold pretty well and that was mainly because of ‘Ride the Lightning’ and ‘Creeping Death’ and [edgier] songs like that. After that they went, ‘We’re never gonna try to please anybody else but ourselves.’”

“Escape” is infamous in Metallica lore: It’s widely known as the one song the band really didn’t want to write and has almost never been played live. It’s not a terrible song, but it definitely has the feel of a track that’s trying to be a little more accessible. But in the world of thrash metal, “accessible” was verboten: Bands were constantly being measured by how hard, how fast, how loud they were. Anything that flirted with mainstream acceptance was a sell-out.

Flash forward to this week. Metallica was out promoting The Metallica Blacklist, a sprawling celebration of their 1991 bestseller Metallica, which everybody calls The Black Album. The Metallica Blacklist features a wide-ranging list of artists covering songs off the original album, including St. Vincent, Weezer, the Neptunes, Phoebe Bridgers, Kamasi Washington and Darius Rucker. And as part of their promotional rounds, Metallica went on Howard Stern to play a song with Miley Cyrus. It was “Nothing Else Matters.”

The Black Album has been divisive ever since it came out, and the recent pieces commemorating its 30th anniversary have discussed how the record brought the San Francisco group to the masses while pissing off a lot of original hardcore fans because of its streamlined, commercial sound. If there was ever a definitive moment when Metallica sold out, it was The Black Album. And the song that was seemingly the biggest compromise was “Nothing Else Matters.” Stuff like this used to matter a lot more than it does today. The question is whether we were wrong back then, or if we’re wrong now.

Metallica formed in 1981, at one early point consisting of drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarists James Hetfield and Dave Mustaine and bassist Cliff Burton. Then, Mustaine got kicked out — he went on to start Megadeth — and was replaced by Kirk Hammett. The band’s early records were hard-fast-loud, featuring songs with titles like “The Four Horsemen,” “Seek & Destroy” and “Fight Fire With Fire.” They named their debut Kill ‘Em All. The title track to Ride the Lightning was about a guy waiting to be executed in the electric chair. 

But even back then, they weren’t afraid to slow things down to explore moodier textures. The ballad “Fade to Black” opened with acoustic guitar as the narrator expresses his disillusionment with the world and prepares to kill himself. “It was pretty much our first ballad, so it was challenging and we knew it would freak people out,” Hetfield, the band’s frontman, said in 1991. “[Bands] like Exodus and Slayer don’t do ballads, but they’ve stuck themselves in that position we never wanted to do; limiting yourself to please your audience is bullshit.” 

From there, the band jumped to a major label, Elektra, and put out 1986’s Master of Puppets — the one Metallica album everybody loves — and then …And Justice for All, which got them onto MTV thanks to the harrowing antiwar ballad “One.” (There was also tragedy along the way: Burton died during the Master of Puppets tour in a bus crash.) But the group was getting into a rut creatively, their songs now frequently stretching out to six and seven minutes. Plus, Justice’s bottom end was nearly nonexistent, leaving the album feeling thin and airless. In a 2005 interview I did with Ulrich for the now-defunct music magazine Blender, he admitted, “We had pushed that progressive, let’s-cram-50-riffs-and-25-time-changes-into-10-minutes type of thing about as far as we could go.”

So when the group began work on what would become Metallica, they decided to go in the complete opposite direction. Shorter, tighter songs. As big a sound as possible. “[W]e wanted to come up with a Back in Black, an LP stacked with singles,” Hammett later admitted. “That was the concept, songs which sound like singles but aren’t.”

And they moved on from working with Rasmussen, selecting Bob Rock to be their new producer. At the time, Rock was best known for being behind the boards for poppier hair-metal acts like Mötley Crüe. Metallica envisioned their album having a big, dynamic sound — they wanted it to hit like a fist — but that didn’t mean Rock was that awed at the prospect of working with the respected metal band. “I didn’t grow up on Metallica. I just came in to help them with a record,” Rock said a few years ago. “If [I] were doing Led Zeppelin, that’d be a different story for me. I’d be so enamored with them, I’m not sure I could do it. With Metallica, they were just guys to me. I didn’t cater to what they were. I catered to what they wanted to do. That’s ultimately what a producer is.”

It took a little while for the band, who very much preferred doing things their own way, to get used to Rock’s hands-on approach in the studio. Basically, the guys didn’t like being told what to do, and there were fights. “We’d sit there and Bob would say, ‘Play it again,’” Ulrich recalled in that 2005 interview. “I just played it, fuck you. ‘Play it again, but make it swing a little more.’ Fuck you, you play it again and fucking make it swing.” 

Nonetheless, the band was generating incredible songs like the raging “Sad but True,” the hypnotic “Wherever I May Roam” and the eventual first single “Enter Sandman.” But there was also a ballad that Hetfield was nervous to share with the rest of the group. “It’s absolutely crazy, that was the song that I thought was least Metallica, least likely to ever [be] played by us, the last song anyone would really want to hear,” Hetfield later said. “It was a song for myself in my room on tour when I was bumming out about being away from home. It’s quite amazing, it’s a true testament to honesty and exposing yourself, putting your real self out there, and taking the risk, taking a gamble that someone’s either going to step on your heart with spikes on or they’re going to put their heart right next to it, and you never know until you try.”

On an album that dealt with addiction, war, religion and other ills, Hetfield snuck in “Nothing Else Matters,” a song that sings plainly about valuing an important connection with another person. Lyrically, it’s not especially sappy, but the directness of the words was striking for Metallica:

So close, no matter how far
It couldn’t be much more from the heart
Forever trusting who we are
And nothing else matters

Never opened myself this way
Life is ours, we live it our way
All these words I don’t just say
And nothing else matters

Trust I seek and I find in you
Everyday, for us, something new
Open mind for a different view
And nothing else matters

“I can’t speak for what James wrote,” Rock said earlier this summer, “but to me, the song was all about him trying to write a love song without saying the word ‘love.’” Metallica had done ballads before “Nothing Else Matters,” but they were couched in dark themes that still felt “acceptable” for metal fans: suicide, war. But this was an unabashed love song — or, at least, unabashed by the band’s standards.

“Musically, we wanted it big but not bombastic,” Rock recalled in that same interview. “We wanted size and weight, but we didn’t want to do what all the ‘80s metal bands were doing in those kind of cheesy power ballads. We really worked out the arrangement to make it huge and dramatic … but real.”

Technically, “Nothing Else Matters” is a power ballad, but it didn’t quite feel like one. Sure, Hetfield’s singing was more hushed and less confrontational than usual, and the tempo was slowed way down — there was even a string section — but the song didn’t feel sappy. There was a restraint and a spareness to the arrangement that didn’t permit room for the syrupy emotional overkill that usually makes these kinds of ballads feel so soggy. But the emotion within the song still shone through. 

“We built this reputation of ‘tough guy’ and, you know, ‘we’re made of stone, you can’t hurt us, blah, blah, blah,’” Hetfield said on Stern. “And [‘Nothing Else Matters’] is one of the most vulnerable things and, obviously, the tougher the armor, the bigger the heart you want to show, but you’re afraid to.”

As Metallica worked to complete The Black Album, Ulrich was feeling optimistic that listeners would be ready for the band’s musical shift with this record — partly because he noticed that the hair-metal groups of the era were starting to wane in popularity. “The fucking Warrant ballads and the fucking BulletBoys — you could sense people were getting fed up with it,” he told me. “I remember kinda feeling that the tides were turning.” 

And, indeed, when Metallica came out in the summer of 1991, it felt like a cleansing blast of pure hard rock. From its jet-black album cover to its focused, muscular songs, the record was no bullshit, receiving glowing reviews and becoming a huge seller. It’s the only Metallica album to place in the Top 10 of the Village Voice’s annual critics poll, and the tour was a massive success. So, naturally, all that acclaim and new fans tended to piss off some who felt the band had abandoned its principles. 

“They had a loyal following for a long time, but when they released Metallica they just blew up into mainstream music and became more acceptable to everyone,” complained Phil Fasciana, the founding guitarist for the death metal band Malevolent Creation, in Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica. “I personally gave up on them after that album. They are merely a rock band now.” 

Of course, that’s exactly why lots of new listeners embraced them. As Ulrich told Spin in 1999, “[The album] appealed to people who wanted to like Metallica — who had the T-shirt but didn’t understand the previous albums.” Even the decision to call the record Metallica played into the strategy: This was where you should start if you wanted to get into the band.

“Enter Sandman” had been the lead single, becoming their highest-charting song, and was followed by “The Unforgiven,” which also went into the Billboard Top 40. “Nothing Else Matters” was the third single, released in April of the following year. It peaked at No. 34 in the States, but went to No. 6 in the U.K. For the video, the band reused footage from their documentary A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, a behind-the-scenes look at the album’s making. If anyone worried that the band had gone soft, the clip demonstrated that the musicians considered themselves far superior to the wussy hair-metal of the era. Most notably, there’s the image of a grinning Ulrich in front of a dartboard with a picture of Kip Winger, the hunky frontman of the critically derided band Winger. Years later, it’s still probably the video’s most iconic moment — and it still infuriates Kip Winger.

“[T]hey’re a very powerful act,” Winger said in this year’s Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ‘80s Hard Rock Explosion. “And they were basically telling their fans that I suck. It was an attack on me. Personally. So they can live with that. … I mean, c’mon. … [E]verybody knows Lars is not an amazing drummer. … It’s a fuckin’ joke. So, whatever. I’m not a bullying, slag-off-other-musicians-to-try-to-prop-yourself-up person. That’s what they are.”

But by drawing those musical lines in the sand — the poseurs versus the authentic rock gods — Metallica reached the height of their popularity. Between Metallica and the September 1991 release of the Use Your Illusion records, mainstream hard rock was in a very good place, helping to banish the Poisons, Warrants and Wingers from the collective consciousness. Suddenly, hair-metal, which was already starting to flag commercially, felt passé. Metallica capitalized on that sea change.

But then came Nevermind, which dropped shortly after those twin Guns N’ Roses records. The explosion of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the aggressive, raw urgency in Kurt Cobain’s vocals and guitar felt exciting, dangerous and like nothing else in rock music at the time. “When we were making Metallica, nobody even knew who the fuck Kurt Cobain was,” Hammett would later say, but Nirvana’s whirlwind success cemented grunge as the most important thing in rock. Metallica sold a ton of copies, but this new band from Seattle instantly made them seem uncool. The fact that Cobain so publicly wrestled with the fear of being perceived as a sell-out himself because of Nevermind’s polished, radio-friendly sound only bolstered his artistic bona fides and left Metallica looking corporate by comparison. All of this stuff sounds ridiculous now, but it was a big deal at the time.

Metallica spent the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s perpetuating the public’s belief that they weren’t cool anymore. They cut their hair. They tried to pretend they were alternative rock. They made a live album with a symphony orchestra. They sued Napster. They appeared in Some Kind of Monster, a documentary that showed them falling apart during the making of 2003’s St. Anger. There’s much that’s commendable about the period the documentary chronicled — the band did group therapy to talk through their issues, and Hetfield went into rehab for addiction — but Metallica couldn’t help but come across as a massively self-absorbed, insulated, rich rock band. The movie felt like a sad illustration of the perils of “selling out”: You have all the money in the world, but you’re miserable and lame.

Not that the band gives a shit. To this day, they remain one of the biggest rock groups in the world. When they tour, their shows are huge, and people buy their new albums when they come out. Plus, The Black Album continues to sell: It was among the 200 top-selling records of 2020. Metallica is a big deal, and has been for 30 years now.

Many of The Black Album’s songs are permanently embedded in the culture, but “Nothing Else Matters” has a special place. You can measure its lasting impact in different ways. It’s the band’s only video to reach one billion views on YouTube. And it’s used as the song for newly-married couples’ first dance:

Even before The Metallica Blacklist, “Nothing Else Matters” was a go-to favorite for other artists to cover. Hard rock band Godsmack did a piano-centric version that had an almost funereal quality. Shakira dressed it up with Spanish guitar. Macy Gray turned it moody and jazzy. And this year’s Jungle Cruise featured a new instrumental arrangement, aided by the band, that made it feel like the soundtrack to an epic cinematic adventure. Musicians of all stripes seemingly can’t get enough of the song.

“I like what it means to me,” said Gray, who’s actually recorded two versions of “Nothing Else Matters” in the last decade: 

“You never fully know what the writer was thinking, but for me, it’s this thought of where we could all be in the way that we approach things, see things and deal with things. You’re just reminded of what’s important and what really matters at the end of the day. And it’s so pretty. When it first came out, I wasn’t a big heavy-metal fan — I always liked Metallica, but that wasn’t my favorite song by them. I’d never really listened to the words — and lyrics are the most important part of a song — until someone was performing it at this nightclub. It was a non-heavy-metal version, so you could really hear the words he was saying. I just really fell in love with what that song means to me.”

Probably it’s not an accident, then, that on The Metallica Blacklist, “Nothing Else Matters” is the Black Album track that has the most covers. “This is one of the best songs ever written,” said Elton John, who Zoomed into Stern when Metallica and Cyrus were on the show. “It’s a song that never gets old.” John appears on Cyrus’ Blacklist version of “Nothing Else Matters” alongside, among others, Yo-Yo Ma.

It’s a fairly faithful cover, although I find myself gravitating to the original because, like most redoes of the song, Cyrus’ amps up the sonic bombast. But what made “Nothing Else Matters” work is that Metallica and Bob Rock worked hard to pare that excess away, to not fall into the power-ballad trap. And while Cyrus, who made headlines performing the song during her set at Glastonbury in 2019, can belt, Hetfield’s more subdued singing gave the track its poignancy. We always knew Hetfield had pipes — but as he sings in “Nothing Else Matters,” this song came from the heart, so it didn’t need the histrionics.

“It’s interesting: The man that I knew back then … he could certainly feel love, but he could never say the word, especially in a Metallica song,” Rock said this year. “This is his genius, to be able to say it in his own way and really mean it, despite everything he was going through, all the demons, all the anger he had in him.”

Hearing the original now, it’s hard not to think about Hetfield’s own journey. Some Kind of Monster makes it plain what a sensitive, tormented guy he’d always been. (He went through another rehab stint in 2019.) And ever since he was a kid, he’s been angry, with a lot of that anger being funneled into his music. “I think the anger comes from family of origin, a feeling of not being heard, a feeling of manipulation. [There’s] probably still a teenager in here somewhere that’s still sorting out some past issues — you know, parents, upbringing, things like that,” the frontman said in 2018. “So there is that, but I think a lot of it is a defense mechanism — it is. Even when my kids scare me, or someone tickles me, I get angry. That’s my first reaction to most things, so it’s my default — I don’t know why, I don’t know why.”

On previous Metallica ballads, you could hear that anger — whether it was in the spiritual desolation of “Fade to Black” or the maimed soldier’s plight in “One.” But with “Nothing Else Matters,” the prevailing sentiment is openness. If the song is about the vulnerability of being open with someone, it’s also about the scary feeling of revealing part of yourself to an audience that might not accept it. And so, even in “Nothing Else Matters,” there’s a little anger — or, at least, defiance. It’s really a love song about you and that special someone taking on the world together.

Never cared for what they do
Never cared for what they know
But I know

Ultimately, “Nothing Else Matters” argues that you have to believe in something — and if someone else believes in it, too, that’s pretty amazing. The fear Hetfield felt sharing the song with the band is embedded in the way he performs it — and I think it’s why people keep responding to it. It’s scary to tell someone you love them — it’s scary to do something that’s out of your comfort zone. “Nothing Else Matters” was Metallica “selling out,” but it was also them walking away from the worry of what other people’s impression of “selling out” meant. 

In 2017, Hetfield talked about the stigma that’s always followed his band. “Even with a song like ‘Fade to Black,’ people were flipping us off. ‘You sold out! You suck!’” he said. “And then The Black Album and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ or cutting [our] hair or whatever it may be. … But when you look back, it’s like, ‘You know what? We did it ‘cause we felt it was the right thing to do.’ It’s as simple as that. We’re artists, and we’re on a journey. If you want to be on a journey with us, please come along.”

In “Nothing Else Matters,” both as an artist and a romantic partner, Hetfield is asking the listener to meet him halfway. The song’s enduring popularity suggests we’ve been more than willing to do just that.