Metal’s Zenith: A Look Back at the MTV Metallica Icon Award Show


Metallica is an institution, and regardless of whether you’re the bitter curmudgeon wearing an “It Should Have Been Lars” shirt or the true-believer who preordered Hardwired on vinyl, you can deny neither the songwriting prowess of Golden Era Metallica or the unassailable legacy the band has crafted. Simply put, there is no bigger band in all of metal than Metallica. It was only right then that metal reached its high-water mark on May 3, 2003, the day that the most prestigious gatekeepers of metal culture handed the most prestigious award in all of metaldom to the most prestigious band on the planet. Join us as we take a look back at Metallica’s induction as an MTV Icon.

If you’ve never seen the single most important moment in television history in its entirety, I urge you to click this link and spend the next 92 minutes engaging in the most worthwhile activity of your life. For the sake of this article, though, we’re going to focus in on the individual performances of the legendary musicians gathered to pay tribute to the only band ever worth being labeled icon. Yes, the celebrity appearances from Lisa Marie Presley and Sean Penn lend credence to Metallica’s prodigious legacy within the realm of pop culture, but it is the metal with which we are concerned, so I won’t spend time detailing the hefty praise these celebrities paid the band.

The evening started with an absolutely electric performance by Sum 41. As the reigning champions of crossover punk, Sum 41 were the perfect choice to open the event, and their sumptuous medley of three classic Metallica songs was so pitch-perfect that you wouldn’t be blamed for believing it was the legends themselves onstage playing. All of the riffs in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Enter Sandman,” and “Master of Puppets” were played with utter conviction, and the band even had the decency to reduce each track to only its most quintessential segments so as not to eclipse the true Metallica’s own routine. It’s worth noting that just one year after this event, Sum 41 would go on to release the single most important thrash album of the 2000s not written by Metallica. If you’ve never listened to the glorious modern thrash masterpiece that is Chuck, you need to get caught up here.

Next, viewers were treated to what was perhaps the most intimate performance of the evening. Staind‘s Aaron Lewis led us into the Metallica inner sanctum with a plaintive, acoustic rendition of “Nothing Else Matters.” It’s evident from the raised lighters and Lewis’s perpetually closed eyes that this moment was an utter revelation for everyone in attendance. That Metallica’s mighty metal can be rendered in such wrought emotionality only indicates how truly powerful and provocative the legends are.

Attempting to follow Staind would make any man cower in his boots, so it was exceptionally prudent on MTV’s part to grant the privilege of performing “Fuel” to the single most important woman in heavy metal: Avril Lavigne. Prior to this moment, the now-esteemed metal subgenre of ladymetal had not yet come into existence, but in just 4 minutes Avril kicked the door wide open and established herself as the founding mother and chief minstrel within the burgeoning scene. It’s impossible to hear ladymetal giants today like Butcher Babies and Otep without hearing the genetic blueprint of Lavigne’s Icon performance. She poured the fuel, and that fire continues to burn brightly to this day.

The evening then took on a more jovial feel when Snoop Dogg, rap’s patron saint, took the mic to show his allegiance to the racially transcendent eternal brotherhood of Metallica. Black, white, gay, straight, Jew, Baha’i, all are welcome within the confines of Father Hetfield’s warm embrace. More importantly, though, Snoop Dogg demonstrated the power of Metallica’s riffs to transcend metal themselves. Previously to this night, rap and metal were still seen as bitter enemies, with only the odd outsider like Limp Bizkit even daring to mix the two. However, Snoop Dogg’s surprisingly faithful reinterpretation of “Sad But True” proved that riffs are for all men and women, and that all riffs are created equal by Metallica.

The mood would not remain so mirthful, though, as Korn soon took the stage to pay due respects to the war tragedy “One.” This song, perhaps more than any other, opened the world’s eyes to the horrors of war, and as such, only a dutiful, heartfelt performance could really demonstrate the power of the track. Thankfully, Korn’s Jonathan Davis, having honed his empathetic skills through years of exploring the emotional turmoil plaguing suburban America, was the perfect choice to show us the corruption lurking within the military industrial complex. Korn even went the extra mile to add a clanging, jangling bass to the mix; Metallica have never made an error, but at times you’ll hear the false simpering about the largely inaudible bass on …And Justice for All. We may never know how that album would fully sound with a richer bass sound, but Korn’s bottom-heavy assault showed us just how brutal war is with “One.”

The penultimate performance for the evening only served to reinforce all the glorious truths already revealed to fans throughout the spectacle. Limp Bizkit‘s spirited rendition of “Sanitarium” validated the universality of the riff and the brotherhood of metal for man and woman, rapper and rocker. The fact that the band was able to so thoroughly reveal the power of emotional metal while still proving Metallica’s relevance to the disenchanted white youths of the nation is nothing short of miraculous, but here we are. Miraculous is what Metallica did, do, and will continue to do, so it’s only right that Fred Durst, as the most important voice of his generation, was given the privilege of leading a chorus of “Leave me alone!” to show all those big government haters that metal will be bound by no principalities and powers. Miraculous, indeed.

No Metallica tribute would be complete without a performance by the legends themselves, and though it may be difficult to imagine without actually being in attendance, the short medley Metallica played at the end stands as their single most important performance to this day. Over approximately seven minutes, Metallica cemented their legacy as the greatest performers of all time, rendering all future concerts mere shadows of the glory they achieved.

So why bring this all up now, in December 2016? As you prepare your year-end lists, we at ToH wanted to remind you that you wouldn’t be here, debating the quality of modern metal, if not for Metallica. They are the porcelain icon unto which all modern metal bands bow, so as you reflect on how you cast your votes, make sure you too pay tribute to the legends. Nothing will ever shine as brightly for you here on afterward.

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