How Metal T-Shirts Became The Hottest Pop Culture Trend — And Why The Backlash Matters

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Who would have thought in a million years that Beyonce’s face would one day be superimposed into the metal band Venom’s classic logo? (See below) Those familiar with metal culture understand this juxtaposition is visual satire at its finest, even if there are corners of the metal community that find it appalling. But mashups like this aren’t the most prevalent form of the way the metal T-shirt logo has made its way into pop culture at large. The primary vehicle has been musicians themselves, with popular hip-hop artists donning metal T-shirts left and right, Kanye’s infamous lifting of the Metallica font for Yeezus, and even Justin Bieber’s Purpose tour apparel mimicking Pentagram.

Over the course of the last few years, metal tees from the big four bands — Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax — have become fashion staples in hip-hop and pop culture, crossing into the mainstream in a way that’s rare for what has traditionally been a niche, isolated genre. While the hip-hop community has collectively funneled towards the metal and rock world, at least when it comes to fashion, visibly donning merchandise from their most coveted innovators, the community itself has not been happy. Many diehard metal fans are left with a pressing question to the wearers of these beloved items: Do you even know a single song from these artists?

For a genre in which culture and garment are intrinsically bound, and given the concept of “integrity” is woven into the fabric of the metal, punk rock, the influx of mainstream attention has been unsettling. So, when those within the community they ask outsiders if they know the value of the shirt they’re wearing, and what it means to the culture it comes from, the question goes beyond music knowledge; these decriers are asking if consumers understand what the simple poly-blend T-shirt really means to a true fan of the band.

Much like the core hip-hop community disdains a young star who is irreverent toward the genre’s historical icons, this shift in respect is troublesome to many purist fans. The marketing and branding of metal as an entity has classically been subversive, and the people who embrace it are making very calculated decisions from a personal standpoint. But in the internet era of social share and celebrity approval, reaching the masses requires no nuance and no prior knowledge, just blanketed notoriety and full-scale presence. There’s less of a need to know the roots, and more of a call-to-action to look like thought-leaders through blatant imitation.

In many cases, it feels like mainstream fashion doesn’t care to respect the culture behind the shirt. Kanye West owns several deep-cut metal t-shirts, including a recent spotting in Megadeth gear, and Travis Scott donned one in a mainstream photo shoot. Even Bow Wow, notorious taker-of-Ls, has been photographed in several. Personally, I’m waiting for the day someone asks DJ Mustard if he rocks out to “Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter.” But let’s be real, the day Kanye samples “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” and actually puts the masses on to Megadeth’s classic metal is probably not coming anytime soon.

When Megadeth frontman and metal legend Dave Mustaine was asked last year about his feelings towards rappers wearing their tees, he skillfully skirted around the issue, saying: “I like it you know, if I don’t like someone wearing it I’ll keep it to myself.” It’s great to see a pioneer like Mustaine have such a graceful attitude about it. When products reach mass visibility, they becomes one hundred percent about the revenue stream and less about the cultural value of an item. The sort of weird reverse appropriation of these iconic metal images — that many metal fans see as highly sacred — has injected some of metal’s most seminal bands into modern mainstream consciousness, but sadly, not based on their musical merits.

With record sales and streams bringing in a fraction of artist revenue these days, merch sales have become a necessary focus for any artist or band trying to stay afloat. Gone are the days where guarantees can cover all costs and private jets are flying in for one-off performances… unless you’re on the level of a global superstar like Drake. Due to low overhead costs, basic T-shirt production has become the lifeblood for many artists. No matter what genre, T-shirts help stream revenue in a time where the commoditization of music is still ironing itself out. Heavy bands are in a particularly tough spot needing to endlessly tour, divvy earnings between several members and daily maintenance of a lot of unpredictable equipment. Sh*t ain’t easy man, and someone’s gotta pay for it. Some bands resist this necessary evil, others learn how to play the cards in their favor and in tandem, are able to create a new level of awareness for heavy music through clever design and branding.