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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.

Mark Riddick, who has been creating underground metal and death metal imagery for tees since the early ‘90s, was recently commissioned for work by Rihanna and Justin Bieber. The logos from metal bands have worked their way into the consciousness of millions of fans around the world, who would probably never worn a design of that nature had they not been attached to these other more mainstream and pop-centric artists. In a recent interview, Riddick reflected on the relevance of metal in current mainstream culture, despite the genre’s inability to produce the same monetary ends as hip-hop.

“In my perspective, heavy metal aesthetics in the mainstream reinforces the validity and importance of the visuals associated with extreme music,” he told Bandcamp. Riddick reinforced the interpretation of the “metal style” for those who didn’t grow up immersed in the community is a distillation of an attitude they hope to embody. “One of the many functions of art is to act as a bridge of communication, [this is] a pop artist’s attempt at expressing him or herself in a grittier or more aggressive fashion.” That very aggression is an alluring factor for those who solely visualize these designs as an expression of their inner personality.

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Like plenty of other sub-cultures, there are many unspoken rules connected to the heavy music scene. Basic unshakeable tenets include: Avoid wearing the shirt of the band you are going to see at a show, never wear your own band’s shirt and of course, know the music of the band whose shirt you don. Before the recent boom of these iconic metal shirts became so commonplace, wearing a shirt like this was a signal to others fans, who knew what that shirt signified; it represented a common ground for fans to connect and perhaps geek out over a favorite album, or it represented a treasured show you had personally attended. The shirts functioned as a language only those who knew it would understand, the kind of semiotic communication that is central to most niche communities. For many, it is a rite of passage and acknowledgement that the person wearing the shirt understands the history, catalog and meaning of the band.

There is a faction within the underground rock world who believe these reinterpreted Pentagram, Venom and classic underground metal shirts are egregious. Metal and heavy music fans value legitimacy above all, or being true as they say. Knowing the history of the product you’re wearing, and inherently evangelizing it by wearing it out in public, is to many, a sign of respect. It may seem over-the-top to align a garment with the nuances of a lifestyle, but for many who grew up in that environment, it does represent such. True fanatics thrive on undiscovered facts, songs, performances and friendships within their chosen sub-genres, so seeing those ideas and symbols exposed to the outside world is troubling for some metal fans.

Not everyone feels that way, however. Thrash metal band Power Trip have firm roots planted in the punk and hardcore scene, but they’ve also famously tapped into the current market for metal tees that appeal to many outside metal’s fervent, underground fanbase. Power Trip are known for their strong branding and put a fair amount of effort into working with developing artists, customizing designs for specific regions and show dates. These recently-popularized metal designs were birthed in Power Trip, who recently released their second album, Nightmare Logic, on the storied independent label Southern Lord. The band has been cruising the touring circuit for years, making a significant portion of their living off of selling T-shirts.

Frontman Riley Gale recognizes the widespread popularity of heavy metal imagery and how the images have infiltrated the heart of the mainstream. The mass consumption of metal-as-lifestyle has even touched America’s most basic of retail chains — Wal-Mart. “Literally, there are Slayer and Metallica shirts at Wal-Mart now,” Gale told me. “If I were someone who was ignorant to that whole world of music, I would probably think it was just a clothing brand too.” For a band like Power Trip, who make a living on the road while floundering in a sea of digital streaming partners that pay out pennies per stream, a universal T-shirt designs can be a financial blessing.

In a twist of cross metal and hip-hop appropriation, the band released a special edition “We Trippy Mane” Kool-Aid man shirt which was a nod to a Juicy J lyric and concept. “This shirt almost broke up the band,” Riley laughs. “But it’s literally one of our best selling T-shirts to date.”

The design was created by Martin Stewart, a guitar player for LA hardcore band Terror, who has toed the line between the metal and hip-hop realms for years, often helping the two cross-pollinate. The history of the hardcore scene, which was birthed in the gritty womb of NYC street culture, has always inherently been entwined with hip-hop based on shared proximity and counter-culture ideals. Perhaps mash-ups that flip the idea of appropriating metal imagery such as this one, are indicators that no matter what the genre, the appeal of the imagery outweighs the context.

“We have people who are more hip-hop and pop oriented who are now familiar with our band based off of our tee shirts,” Riley proudly declares, “A lot of it is based off of being able to see our brand through our shirts, you can draw someone in with the imagery and maybe they’ll get into the music.”
When a developing band like Power Trip is making a good chunk of their profits via merch avenues, it becomes important to view the merchandise as a vehicle to increase genre and cultural awareness despite the wearers knowledge. Gale laughs at the connection but is conscious to acknowledge that despite the complaints of many in the underground community. “[I’m] not going to b*tch about cultural appropriation when a basketball player wears a Slayer tee,” he said.

And in an age age where discovery is available at the touch of a button, anyone can immerse themselves into a crash educational course on a logo or band whose merch they choose to wear. Gale even jokingly noted that “with an afternoon and an internet connection, someone can become an expert in thrash metal in a day.” So if you want to wear a metal T-shirt, give the garment its due respect; you may not need to be the speaking authority on any artist, but if you can put the effort to purchase and wear a band’s shirt, put a little time in to know the history.

Zeena Koda is a comedic writer and life-long music junkie living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter + Instagram @zeenakoda and on BoxxTalk.com.

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