I've developed a new YouTube/Tik Tok obsession, music reaction content. Whether it's Vocal Coaches reacting to the songs of my youth or Millennials and Gen-Z hearing a song I have loved for years for the first time and sharing their deeply emotional, intellectual, and honest reactions, I cannot get enough. I started with watching people react to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, a rollercoaster of a song and I became hooked on how I know what they are about to experience and they don't and imagining how they will react.
In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, it was watching the joy, confusion, and excitement as Queen, led by Freddie Mercury, unfurls this incredibly wild ride of a song. Then I found people reacting to Metallica's One and the fun and excitement evolved to encompass deeper and more emotional trajectories. If you've never seen the video for One by Metallica, first of all, watch it, film your reaction and send it to me, but secondly, it's the story of a soldier in World War 1 who loses his arms, legs, and senses, except for pain.
Heavy Metal, of the kind Metallica has pioneered, is uniquely qualified to communicate the emotions at play in a story like this. The pain, frustration, and anguish in this story, underscored first by an almost serene and gentle Metallica, slowly comes to the fore and gives way to the power that Metallica have long been known for. As fear and pain grow into rage, the metal of Metallica becomes a howl of rage that should accompany any reaction to the death and destruction of war. I have to go into more depth now so, please, watch the video before proceeding... film your reaction and send it to me.
In one of the most unique marriages of movies and music in history, Metallica adapted a movie to their song. Having purchased the rights to the 1971 anti-war movie Johnny Got His Gun, Metallica, inspired by that film's story, cuts scenes from the movie into the song One which features Hetfield's vocals providing a secondary inner monologue to the protagonist of the movie, Joe Bonham, eerily and remarkably played by Timothy Bottoms, future star of, of all things, That's My Bush.
In Johnny Got His Gun, Bottoms plays a soldier who is blown up in World War 1. Doctors keep Johnny alive using machines but he's merely a prison for his own anguished mind. He's lost everything, arms legs, his face is covered in a box-like mask. Bottoms, in a voiceover only we can hear, is reckoning with a horrific new reality, the only thing he can feel is pain and the anguish of being unable to tell anyone. It's one of the most powerful renderings of the futility and horror of war you can imagine and Metallica's powerhouse song only underlines that power as the band brings a melancholic, tortured, and fiery life to this anguished character.
I can't watch the video for One without crying. The power of the emotion from the song and the story being told in this haunting. Johnny's otherworldly voiceover hits me so hard. The line that gets me every time comes from Hetfield however, it's the lyric "Nothing is real but pain now." That line is ferocious, the impact is visceral. And that it is followed by this intense key change to the chorus, which rises to a near scream:
HOLD MY BREATH AS I WISH FOR DEATH, OH PLEASE GOD WAKE ME!
As Joe Bonham grapples alone in his mind with the pain and terror, Metallica gains power, slows, and gains power again, the marriage of guitars and drums increasing in intensity to match the growing intensity of the story. As Joe grows more desperate to reach someone, anyone, Metallica matches the intensity with gut-wrenching guitar symphony. The guitars leave just enough room for us to hear Joe crying out for his father. A man, a soldier, reduced to the longing and pain of childhood when the only comfort in the world might come from a mother or a father or an equivalent caregiver, it's heart rending, bleak and yet beautiful.
And at 4:41 of of this 7 minute 44 second music video, Metallica resumes being the Metallica we know, that passionate, angry, fire comes forth. Lars Ulrich on drums pounds away in a manner so similar to the sounds of battlefield gunfire it's jarring. The chaotic riffs of Kirk Hamett standing in for the screams of men being hit by round after round of gunfire, and Jason Newstead's bass takes on the sound of an unrelenting tank. And we aren't even at the most powerful moment of the video yet.
In the movie, in a last ditch effort to communicate, Joe Bonham recalls the time as a kid that his father, played by Jason Robards, taught him Morse Code. Morse Code is a form of rudimentary communication involving tapping out a series of dots, dashes, and other symbols that stand in for words or letters. It's a way of speaking in code and if you don't know the code, you won't be able to decode the message.
Having no arms, legs, or voice, Joe uses his head to nod out an S.O.S, shorthand for Save Our Ship but taken to mean, in non-ship contexts, Help. As this first message is decoded, Hetfield comes in with a howl of anguish and fury acting as Joe's voice:
In a brilliant staccato rhythm:
Landmine has taken my sight
Taken my speech
Taken my hearing
Taken my arms
Taken my legs
Taken my soul
Left me with life in hell
This is followed by another emotional punch to the gut as Joe's morse code taps out a new message interpreted as 'Kill Me.' The character providing the interpretation, choked with the emotion of the moment, tears in his eyes says, 'Kill Me. Over and over again. Kill Me.' The song then transitions to an angry speed metal, familiar to Metallica fans from years back, early in their career. Where that music could be dismissed as the angry yowls of attention starved young men, this is different. This is righteous, angry rage at a world that could be so cruel to one of its own, so willing to allow someone to suffer needlessly.
It's one of the most overtly anti-war sentiments ever expressed in music. Metallica is aiming an accusatory thrash session at the world and demanding that attention be paid to the intense suffering of those who put their lives on the line as soldiers. The power of this moment can't be understated. Kirk Hammett once again comes to the fore and a traditional, high pitched solo, is now a scream of agony underwritten by Hetfield and Newstead's intense rhythm. And then there is Lars whose monstrous pounding is like having your heart beat in your brain, if your heart were just stung with adrenaline.
The growing intensity of the music matches the growing intensity of the emotions at play in the story being told between the lyrics and the movie. It's incredibly powerful, deeply emotional, and a cathartic exhaustion is only beginning to set in as the song winds down and our protagonist is left to mutter in his prison of a body, 'S.O.S.' in a fading, haunting, terror. But if you think Metallica is done, they are not. The video has one last trick up it's sleeve, one last angry thumb in the eye to the bourgeois so-called leaders on the home front who have no compunction about sending other people's kids to die for their cause.
As the song ends on an abrupt note, we see one last scene from the movie, a plump man toasting to the dead and singing the wartime anthem, Keep the Home fires Burning. The implication is an angry, dark, and biting, "Easy for him to say." The coda to One, for me, brings to mind our modern cliched dismissing of tragedy 'Thoughts and Prayers.' One, the song, ends on a pitch black note of bleak, accusatory irony. This is a note that I believe most first time viewers miss, probably because they are busy catching their breath and regaining their bearings from the incredibly powerful work of art they have just seen for the first time.
The bitter aftertaste of One is fully intended. You should be bitter, we all should. We all sanction such cruelty when we allow others to enact it on our behalf. That this sentiment comes from the most macho of music genres is also another brilliant aspect of One. The manly masculine men 0f Metal are not supposed to have emotions. They are supposed to plow ahead unheeding of consequence, oblivious to pain. Choked with rage? Of course, but a more animal-like and unfocused rage.
The rage at the core of One is not unfocused. It's deeply intended. The meaning isn't subtle. F### your Wars. Fight them yourselves you cowards. F### the Home Fires, burning or otherwise, and especially today, in our modern context, 'F### your 'Thoughts and Prayers." Indeed, One has only grown in impact since it was released in 1988 and went on to win Grammy's and other such awards, busting through the boundaries placed around the metal genre.
As new generations of listeners discover One and Metallica, One grows in strength and impact. That doesn't happen with every song or music video. Often, when we look back on things we loved in our youth we see them diminished by time. We lose sight of the appeal beyond the nostalgia for our own youth. But not One. Even Metallica has receded over time, hitting and missing with each subsequent new piece of music. But, no matter where their legacy stands at any given time in their history, nothing can diminish One.
This is a transcendent work of art. It's a generational work, undeniable to anyone who encounters it. Like the masterworks hanging in art gallerys or the movies placed on prestigious lists by the high minded who still see film as an artform over entertainment, One transcends its genre, it transcends its cultural assignment. It's the kind of work that will stand for ages. It's the pained cry of generations who've witnessed horrors enacted upon them and others and demand the end to such horror, even if it means crying empty into their own shell of a being.
Joe Bonham is all of us who are tormented by the idea of suffering, who anguish knowing that others are in pain and who feel cut off from a world where others continue on as if they are oblivious to the suffering of others. Metallica is our solace, they let us know we are not alone in our rage and despair. The pounding, angry, sweaty rhythm becomes a form of catharsis, a reminder that you aren't the only one who feels helpless and enraged in the face of callous indifference.
So... yeah.... One by Metallica is the Greatest Music Video if All Time.