Negotiating the Art and the Artist From My Archives: Megadeth’s Dystopia

Another one to whet reader appetites. This one was written in January after the release of Megadeth’s Dystopia. I had been seeking a way to talk about this topic as well as heavy metal for a little while. I found it sitting in LAX.

Summer brought us the seeming toppling of two of comedy’s greats. Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, both rocked by sex scandals very different in their details, yet seemingly similar in the wide attention it brought. But the after effects were very different.

With Bill Cosby, it’s functionally ruined his career. Any chance that he once had of the comeback that he was cultivating is gone, and it seems as though America’s father will end his career as a pariah among the very generation he helped to create. The bargain bins are filled with seasons of The Cosby Show.

But with Woody Allen, it seems to have had little to no effect. His steady career continued unabated, minus a statement or two that he had to release.

While we of course can’t discount mitigating factors in the two cases, race and repetition chiefly among them, I want to argue that the chief difference among them is the relationship of the art to the artist. To put it simply, Bill Cosby’s work relied chiefly on the moral authority that he brought to that role. He was America’s Dad.

Woody Allen, however, didn’t. His failings were well-documented on screen and there was never any requirement that you admired him in order to admire what he did.

This leads to one of the most important questions in criticism: How do we negotiate between who the artist is and what the art is? Wherein do personal matters, both in the critic and in the artist, enter into the conversation of how we evaluate the art?

This recently came to my mind thanks to the recent release of Megadeth’s Dystopia.

Alongside Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer, Megadeth was one of the bands responsible for bringing thrash metal into the world, a genre of heavy metal infused with tight, technical riffing and the anger and speed of punk music, formed in response to the popular culture of hair metal in the ‘80s. They were also arguably the best, a band that, in albums like Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying? and Rust In Peace, balanced political fury and technical genius through the absolute control of frontman Dave Mustaine.

Unfortunately, all titans fall, and Megadeth unfortunately hasn’t made a thing worth a damn in about a decade (more, if you’re less generous with United Abominations than I am). And Mustaine now attracts more attention now for his public demeanor that has turned from “biggest badass in the room” to “your uncle who won’t shut up at Christmas.”

Most of his public statements reveal that distanced from the anti-nuclear war and anti-Reagan days of the 80s, Mustaine has turned towards a largely conspiratorial and ugly conservatism, spending most of his time slamming liberal policies and politicians in a way reminiscent of Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin rather than George Will.

But with the release of Dystopia, Megadeth had made their first thing worth a damn in about a decade. Thanks to the addition of Brazilian guitar virtuoso Kiki Loureio and Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler, the band feels infused with a vital, punishing, younger energy. And it seems to have revitalized Mustaine, who seems awake and angry for the first time in years, his signature snarl ripping through song by song.

Take album opener “The Threat is Real.” A haunting, Phyrgian mode intro leads into an intense riff that is broken by Mustaine’s furious firey snarl. And then you hear what he’s saying:

Justified obliteration, no one cares anymore/The Messiah or mass murderer/No controlling who comes through the door/A culture made of cover ups/Where leprosy touch their flesh

There’s no need for great interpretive skills to understand what Mustaine is saying here. It’s a song about his belief that our immigration policy and refugee policy will destroy our country from the inside out, allowing terrorists in. It’s a sentiment that’s xenophobic in its most charitable interpretation and speaks to the “World is out to get me” sentiment common in the paranoia of conspiratorial conservatism.

Now, understand, I don’t set out to bash conservatives here, or even people who hold these same sentiments. But understand too that I disagree with this, and I find the xenophobia distasteful within this song.

And that leads us into the most common negotiations between art and artist, which is either to ignore or to overstate it. If we like the music, if we like the work, then why worry about our disagreement with the sentiments carried within? Vice versa, if we are offended by it, why bother to engage with it and enjoy it?

This is a remarkably short-sighted way to look at art because it ignores the role that our engagement and the artist’s engagement matters.

I cannot ignore the sentiments Mustaine puts within Dystopia from his larger public discourse. Not simply because they repeat throughout the album, though they do that. Songs like “Death from Within,” “Post-American World,” and “The Emperor” all engage with that conspiratorial conservative way of thinking that I find personally distasteful, it becomes a framing element of the album. But because those sentiments are likely what has created the parts of the album that I did enjoy.

Dystopia is an on-fire, angry, blood-pumping-through-its-veins kind of album. Every inch of it is intense and alive. It becomes easy to understand that it is that conspiratorial thinking that has infused this new life into the album. The anger and hatred that he feels is what has allowed Mustaine’s vocals to have some vitality again, some life. Even the name itself speaks to a world view that becomes vital for understanding the quality of the album.

We often chastise older artists for having nothing to say anymore, stating that they’ve lost their anger, their struggle, their vitality. Understanding that his worldview is what has given him his fury back and made him feel young again becomes key to your enjoyment. Those sentiments I find distasteful are found very tasteful when they’re expressed in the form of a guitar riff or a drum.

This can begin to help us to understand the healthier and more important way to negotiate art and artist. We must first begin to understand that it is often the darkness within someone that creates the qualities that we enjoy, that we understand and empathize with. We act shocked when a tortured writer is discovered to have been a brute to those around him, or when a sexual icon rock god had deviances that make us uncomfortable to consider.

Yet we must know that it is those darknesses that find the truth in art, and often we cannot separate what we enjoy within a work from what we are disgusted by in an artist. And that we must understand how to reconcile those reactions. How to empathize and understand without approval.

We must understand that enjoyment of art is never approval of the artist. Roman Polanski is a brilliant director, but in his personal life is a monster and a criminal, and those things absolutely must exist beside each other in our minds. It is through that we can gain a fuller understanding of who creates and what it means to create.

With that idea, I will enjoy Dystopia. I will listen to it and marvel at the skill and fury with which it is exhibited. But I will understand that it comes from a place of darkness, a place that I cannot agree with or endorse. And as such, it will be an album that I always grapple with, engage with from a distance. But that’s what art asks. If it asked the easy questions, art absolutely wouldn’t have the value it does.