Conceptual metaphors in “St. Anger” by Metallica

Hello there! This is yet another unexpected and even unplanned post. This month I am presenting a song from a highly controversial record by Metallica. The post features an overview of “St. Anger” (taken from “St. Anger” LP, 2003 by Metallica). Some weeks ago, I spent a couple of days discussing this song with a colleague of mine from Poland. In the course of the correspondence, I figured out that there were already analyses of metaphors in “St. Anger” on the Internet. However, as far as I was concerned they all were so weak, that I just made up my mind to publish my own insights into this text (this is, of course, not a claim that my writing is absolutely correct, understand me right, please). Check that out:

  1. Saint Anger ’round my neck
  2. Saint Anger ’round my neck
  3. He never gets respect
  4. Saint Anger ’round my neck
  5. You flush it out, You flush it out
  6. Saint Anger ’round my neck
  7. You flush it out, You flush it out
  8. He never gets respect
  9. Fuck it all and no regrets
  10. I hit the lights on these dark sets
  11. I need a voice to let myself
  12. To let myself go free
  13. Fuck it all and fuckin’ no regrets
  14. I hit the lights on these dark sets
  15. Medallion noose, I hang myself
  16. Saint Anger ’round my neck
  17. I feel my world shake
  18. Like an earth quake
  19. Hard to see clear
  20. Is it me? Is it fear?
  21. I’m madly in anger with you
  22. And I want my anger to be healthy
  23. And I want my anger just for me
  24. And I need my anger not to control me
  25. And I want my anger to be me
  26. And I need to set my anger free

Before I set out, however, there are a couple of issues to make clear. First, it is not a secret that this song is about James Hetfield’s battle with his anger problems and alcohol addiction (James is Metallica’s founder, vocalist/guitarist and lyricist). Hetfield even spent several months in a rehab during the recording sessions. This text is not an abstract piece of writing, but rather a personal statement or reflection on personality problems (uncontrollable anger and subsequent alcohol addiction). Maybe, it has much more to it than I can see or find out, but I will just leave it there. Second, I will present you my personal view of the text, based on those conceptual metaphors I see in it. That is, I – as a reader – construct my understanding of the text under analysis, having some conceptual tools at my disposal and the background knowledge of the issue. Third, even the song title itself suggests that the text idea revolves around the concept and feeling of anger. It would probably come handy to read a couple of articles on that by Lakoff and Kövecses (they both conducted specific studies of anger metaphors), but I am not going to do that on purpose. Let it be a challenge for me.

Never gets respect

  1. Saint Anger ’round my neck
  2. Saint Anger ’round my neck
  3. He never gets respect
  4. Saint Anger ’round my neck

Before you reached this place in the article, have you had a thought about why “SAINT” anger? Does the combination of two lexemes sound strange to you? My initial guess was that Saint Anger must be an oxymoron. Oxymoron is a figure of speech; it combines contradictory, opposed things, like when saying “cold fire”, “living death” etc. I abandoned this hypothesis, when I realized that it was not a simple juxtaposition of the meanings that was presented to the listener/reader (‘saving killer’), but the entire new concept was crafted and introduced into the song’s world. I believe this is a blend.

Both concepts (Saint & anger) evoke the frame of Christianity. Saints are saviors in Christianity and anger is a sin (thus, an opposition to a savior – a killer). Saint Anger must be a concept of a false saint. I think it shows the protagonist’s false (ex)-view of anger as a saving force. Brilliant. How do we arrive at this meaning? That is where the blended spaces do their job.

Input 1 – saint Input 2 – anger
Human Feeling (personified, i.e. conceptualized as a human; check the argumentation below)
Inherently good Inherently evil
Savior Killer

Blended space: disguised murderer (like ‘wolf in sheep clothing’?). “Saint Anger round my neck – he never gets respect” line seems to be a personification of anger (conceptualizing it as a human being) to me for two reasons:

  • proform ”he” is anaphoric to “Saint Anger”;
  • based on the Christian background of the utterance, I suppose “Saint Anger” is a concept of a false saint, which was argued above. Pay attention to the fact that both words in this NP are capitalized, as if referred to a person: title “St.” and name “Anger” (in the title of the album and song).

Then comes “round my neck” part. There are good reasons to claim that the opening verse is about anger, choking the protagonist (like one person choking another, grabbing by the throat). Hence, his master – the protagonist – does not respect him (anger – “He never gets respect” in line 2).

Why “round my neck” and why choking? Supposedly, the reason is a very basic physical experience. When you become extremely angry, what you often experience is that peculiar “pressing” feeling right in the area of your neck/throat. In that part of the world where I come from, we even have an expression for that: “Anger is strangling me (or choking my throat)” (ed. translated literally). This experience, by the way, gave birth to a well-known metaphor: ANGRY PERSON IS A PRESSURIZED CONTAINER, although positioning anger in the throat (or somewhere else within a body) is a cultural thing, prone to variation. What Hetfield did here is fascinating: he elaborated (consciously or not – who cares?) the pressurized container metaphor by taking his own feeling of anger out of himself, distancing it and conceptualizing it as his secret enemy: a saint from outside, but a killer inside, eventually strangling him.

Concerning “he never gets respect” in line 2. This means – obviously! – not to be respected. I will be honest I am not sure if “get something abstract” expressions are qualified as metaphors at all. This is a colloquial way of saying things, changing the semantic roles of the participants in an expression. Instead of “He is never respected” (by me: I am an actor, he is an experiencer), a person may say: “He never gets respect” (“from me” part is implied, though omitted). This move shifts the roles and the focus of attention in the expression (now HE – the former experiencer – becomes the actor and the rest is the theme). It means, HE did not deserve, did not work well enough, to earn the protagonist’s respect. The main hero is out of the focus and “not guilty” in this context, because it is not he, who does not respect, but anger, who does not earn respect. A question to a reader: can this type of expression be classified as an ontological metaphor (ABSTRACT ENTITY IS A PHYSICAL OBJECT), where “respect” is an object? I have seen people stating that. But I did not like it.

  1. You flush it out, You flush it out
  2. Saint Anger ’round my neck
  3. You flush it out, You flush it out
  4. He never gets respect

The only line, which is of interest for us in this stanza, is “you flush it out’. I presume this is another reference to protagonist’s anger; note how differently it is conceptualized though! Here anger is no more a human, but an object in a human (= protagonist), which is flushed out. Flushing something out of something presupposes the presence of some sort of a vessel and an object. Thus, the line features a composition of two metaphors: A HUMAN BODY IS A CONTAINER and the ontological metaphor for anger (objectification – “it”), which is flushed out of this container.

I am taking a short break right at this place to suggest what is happening right now, based on the text and the background knowledge. Arguably, James’ anger was for a long time a way for him to cope with the painful experiences in his life (‘saving’ Saint Anger). With time he started to suffer repeatedly from his destructive anger attacks (St. Anger round my neck) and in order to combat the experience of this feeling (He never gets respect) he used booze as a medication (You flushed it out). When I come over pieces like this one, it is a great pleasure for me to observe how an author’s genius is designing a seemingly simple text in order to put across a deep personal message. Thinking of anger as of a saving path, then suffering from your own anger and seeing it as your enemy, who is literally confronting and strangling you, then attempting to wash it out of yourself, and finally expressing it all in eight primitive lines – this is great.

No regrets (refrain starts)

  1. Fuck it all and no regrets
  2. I hit the lights on these dark sets
  3. I need a voice to let myself
  4. To let myself go free
  5. Fuck it all and fuckin’ no regrets
  6. I hit the lights on these dark sets
  7. Medallion noose, I hang myself
  8. Saint Anger ’round my neck

Line 10 “I hit the lights on these dark sets” is not (really) a metaphor, but it is still worth attention. The only lexeme in the line, which may be argued as a metaphorical one, is “dark” in “on these dark sets”, if we agree that “dark” is not used here literally.

Indeed, “I hit the lights” clause means simply playing the song “Hit the lights” (from the debut “Kill’em All” LP, 1983). Here, the title of the song is used for the process of playing that song, which may be claimed to be a case of metonymy. On the other hand, if we imagine that the song “Hit the lights” stands here for the entire album “Kill’em all”, than it is an instance of synecdoche (part for the whole).

The PP “… on these dark sets” means simply “at the gigs”. “The set” (list of songs to be played) in music discourse stands for a “live show”. That is why the whole line is not metaphorical. I guess, it simply means “I played ‘Kill’em All’ at those dark concerts”. Now let us speculate about the word “dark”. It may, actually, be used metaphorically as in “Those were dark days for me”. Apparently, Hetfield is using “dark” here in this very sense, because in retrospect those days were definitely not good for him, when it comes to his mental state. Hence, I believe the PP “… on these dark sets” contains a metaphor LIGHT IS GOOD, DARK IS EVIL. The metaphor itself is constructed on a quite banal everyday experience. Light is what is needed for life and growth of any living organism on the Earth. The light of the Sun brings also the life-sustaining warmth. Daytime is also the time when almost everyone is most active and productive. Dark stands in the opposition to that.

The lines “I need a voice to let myself, to let myself go free” (11-12) contain one metaphor: SELF CONTROL IS OBJECT POSSESSION. It is the same metaphor, which was explained in the previous post on this blog, when commenting on “let yourself go” in “Caught somewhere in time” by Iron Maiden. The subject (a person) possesses the self (physical object) and both are viewed as if two independent entities: a controller and a controlled.

Another tricky case meets the reader/listener, when moving on to the end of refrain: “Medallion noose, I hang myself” (line 15). Medallion is a medal, a trophy, presented to a winner of a contest or to somebody, who distinguished himself/herself in some sort of activity. It is hanged on the neck. Noose is a loop on a rope, used for committing suicide by hanging yourself. What kind of phenomenon is this? Investigating this line, I started with three possible explanations, narrowing the focus down to the most appropriate one. Below I offer all three of them:

  • Medallion noose” may be regarded as a juxtaposition of the contradictory concepts, with “medallion” being the celebration of a victory/achievement and “noose” being a symbol of a defeat. Oxymoron was the first thing, which occurred to me, but I refuted this hypothesis later.
  • Image metaphor (image-image overlay). I did not consider this version seriously and abandoned it. This utterance cannot be an image metaphor, in my opinion, because image metaphors construct meaning on the visual analogies. In case of “Medallion noose”, the visual analogies do not contribute to construction of the utterance meaning. This is done, on the contrary, by the concepts behind ‘medallion’ and ‘noose’: what these things are, what they are used for and what the concept of ‘medallion noose’ may mean.
  • I favor this explanation for an obvious reason. We all, probably, have knowledge of the concepts of ‘medallion’ and ‘noose’. In the case in focus, however, both rather opposite incompatible concepts are fused together to work out new meaning. I came up with the following schematic explanation:
Input 1 – medallion Input 2 – noose
Thingy on a rope Rope
To be hang on the neck To be hang on the neck
Reward Punishment
Winner Loser
Celebration Mourning
Happiness Tragedy
Life Death

Blended space: killing reward (the protagonist rewards himself with what kills him, thus committing suicide: ‘… I hang myself’). Observe how this case resonates with ‘Saint Anger’.

Madly in anger with you

  1. I feel my world shake
  2. Like an earth quake
  3. Hard to see clear
  4. Is it me? Is it fear?
  5. I’m madly in anger with you

The last chunks of the text are rich in metaphors, but only one of them is a thought-provoking case. Line 17 tells us “I feel my world shake”. I have come up with the explanation via the MIND IS A BODY metaphor and I am ready to justify my choice. Any talking about ‘my world’ or ‘my inner world’ necessarily involves the mind. As I see it, when saying ‘my world’ what is usually meant is a conception/understanding of the reality by a person in question. Similarly, in case of ‘my inner world’, what we deal with is simply interplay of feelings. Therefore, in any case, the former and the latter are the products of the mind as the mind itself is the product of the brain (the mind is what the brain does). In the scheme ‘sensation-perception-conception’, the mind and ‘inner world’ take together the last constituent. Because the latter is the projection of the former, they form a kind of cause-effect metonymic relation. This relation may even be hypothetically extended in the following way: mind à brain à body. Finally, a normal physical bodily reaction to fear (line 20) comes into play – trembling. I believe that is how the mind may be conceptualized as a body. I see a metonymic bond in this whole case; however, I am convinced that the line is metaphorical, because of the very vague and weak bonds among the ‘polar’ elements in this scheme: body à inner world. Maybe, you can offer another – more tenable – reasoning. You are welcome to do that!

Line 19 – “Hard to see clear” – is a dubious case. It may be interpreted literally without violating the song topic in any way, but it may also be seen as a realization of the KNOWING IS SEEING metaphor. This is one the primary metaphors, grounded into the everyday experience of every child, starting to explore the world: getting to know something through visual contact. You can think of many examples, where this very metaphor is employed: I see what you mean; I have a clear vision of the problem etc. In this sense, the line would simply mean the following: “I do not know for sure”.

Another metaphor underlines line 21 (“I’m madly in anger with you”). Here it gets interesting. If we follow our way of reasoning, this line would mean that the protagonist is angry (mad) at his own (personified) anger. Here, the pronoun “you” is our personified anger and “in anger” is a mental state of being angry, mad. This makes sense in the context of the song. Two metaphors are put to work here: personification of anger (“you”), as throughout the entire song, and the STATES ARE LOCATIONS metaphor: anger is a mental state and it is conceptualized as a location, bounded region. This opens the way to saying “in anger. Simply put, the line says ‘I am angry at my own anger’.

When this assumption is rejected, there is yet another possible explanation of the line, however it seems quite improbable to me. Pronoun “you” at the end of the utterance may carry reciprocal meaning and point to the protagonist himself, as if saying ‘I am madly in anger with myself’. As I have pointed out, this is highly unrealistic scenario. With only two acting characters in this song – the protagonist and the antagonist (personified anger) – I suppose that pronoun “you” in line 22 is a reference to the antagonist.

Coda

  1. And I want my anger to be healthy
  2. And I want my anger just for me
  3. And I need my anger not to control me
  4. And I want my anger to be me
  5. And I need to set my anger free

As if summing up the entire analysis above, Hetfield finishes the text with five lines, each juxtaposing and personifying his own anger. One metaphor for the entire stanza. I do not think there is a need for any detailed inquiry into any of these lines, as they seem rather straightforward to me. However, if you still have questions, e.g. why healthy anger in line 22 means good-natured anger, feel free to contact me (hint: there are several metaphors of morality at work here!).

Summing up, my vision of the track is the following: St. Anger is a song about James and his anger, which he could not control; it is evil (unhealthy!) anger. It was summoned to cope with the life issues, but it betrayed James in the end: he realized that his anger was killing him after James drowned in alcohol to soothe the anger. In the song, James conceptualizes his anger as his second, but evil, self, which he does not favor and wants to get rid of. Hence, he distances himself from it by personifying his anger as a secret, hypocritical enemy. This is the very metaphor, on which the entire song is built.

Like it or not, Metallica has always been and probably will always be the face of metal. One of the former friends of mine (I believe the biggest metal CD collector in Ukraine, a walking metal encyclopedia) told me once that Metallica’s first three albums were the best metal ever recorded in the history of music. I humbly agreed. Finally, to put a period in this post I really want to share with you the fact that I am a proud owner of the Ukrainian edition of “St. Anger”. However bad this LP may be for someone out there, I must confess I always enjoyed this dirty sounding, sololess, and with cans-instead-of drums album.

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About Andriy Karamazov


6 responses to “Conceptual metaphors in “St. Anger” by Metallica

  • rosidururo

    Hey dude, duro here (we met during the language-trainer interview near Schwedenplatz). Love your ideas man, sounds really awesome to have the privilege to write ones thesis about such kind of stuff (metaphor AND metal, holy shit). I personally really enjoy Lakoff’s concepts, I’ve been checking out some of his lectures on youtube.

    Since you are apparently more of a thrash-metalhead, maybe you haven’t come across this here (an interpretation of Tool’s Lateralus): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wS7CZIJVxFY

    Keep up the great work. See you maybe at the department.

    d

    Like

  • Andriy Karamazov

    Hello! Thank you for your good comment.
    You did not get me right: this is more of a hobby for me now. As for my MA thesis, I am conducting a comparative study of the morality metaphors in American and Russian presidential discourses.

    I will check your link, thanx!

    Like

  • Jon W

    I like your analysis quite a lot. I saw some less than stellar interpretations before coming across yours. Still, I see this song a bit differently than you. While it’s exploring the destructive nature of anger, I don’t see it as directly about his relationship with anger. Rather, I see it as a relationship between his anger and other people.

    It doesn’t fit as neatly together as your interpretation, but I don’t think it has to for it to make sense. I think the disjointedness of some of it flows with the disjointed feelings the speaker has about his anger.

    “St Anger ’round my neck”:

    I agree that it also represents the choking feeling of anger, but I think it serves a dual purpose, which lines up with later lyris.

    Similar to what you came up with, the blended murderer concept. But I see the “Saint” aspect of it differently. Saints represent righteousness, and anger is not necessarily a sin; inexplicable anger, rage, is a sin. Anger can be righteous when it is for the right reasons: for example, being angry that a child was murdered is an acceptable form of anger (and the list goes on, it’s not a binary matter). But, in the speaker’s case, St. Anger is not so much of a saint; he’s choking the speaker to death because he’s boundless.

    “He never gets respect”:
    Anger is a secondary emotion expressed when needs and expectations are not met. It is often used to control a situation or conversation, to get the other party to listen to you or do as you say. It’s effective, but the long term effect is negative. The angry person may get what they seek in that moment, but they drive wedges between themselves and others.

    “You flush it out”:
    This is a very simple line, to me. You flush the anger out to relieve the pressure around your neck.

    “Fuck it all and no regrets/I hit the lights on these dark sets”:
    More than an homage to Hit the Lights and Damage Inc
    [From Damange Inc: Fuck it all and fucking no regrets/Never happy endings on these dark sets]

    Hitting the lights is starting the show on the previously dark stage. He’s using music and performances to flush his anger, but the next lines explain the problems with this approach.

    “Medallion noose, I’ll hang myself”:
    Medallions are the awards and praise he has received. He’s a raging alcoholic, and he’s adored for it. He may be destroying personal relationships, but he gets on stage and the crowd loves him. How can he be wrong if his anger has brought these good things to him? He’s hanging himself when he accepts the crowds’ praise.

    “I feel my world shake like an earthquake”:
    I think the simplest explanation fits best here: he’s talking about the rage building from the ground up, causing him to shake.

    “Hard to see clear/Is it me? Is it fear?”:
    “Blind with rage.” He loses focus when he’s angry, etc. But the following lines are exploring the reasons for his anger. Is there something wrong with him? Is he afraid of something (like losing control of a situation, like not being respected, etc.)? Why is he so angry?

    “I’m madly in anger with you”:
    I think this is one of the most interesting lines in the song, and there are many ways to take it. It’s certainly meant as a play on “I’m madly in love with you,” but it’s not meant to be taken in a similar manner. The speaker isn’t passionately angry with someone; if that were the case, it would be hatred, but he doesn’t hate the person with whom he is speaking. I think that “madly” in this case is used as the British use the word “mad” to mean “insane.” He’s out of his mind with anger, insanely angry, with you. But it’s not because he’s insane, it’s just that the concept of being angry in that moment is unjustifiable, so it’s insane that he would be so angry. Thus “I’m unjustifiably angry with you.” That ties in with the earlier statements I made about this being a song that discusses the speaker’s misappropriation of anger.

    This ties in well with the final stanza, “I want my anger to be healthy/I want my anger just for me/And I need my anger not to control me/And I want my anger to be me/And I need to set my anger free”:

    I think the only interesting part of this is the duality in the line “And I want my anger to be me” representing the duality of being. His anger isn’t him in the past, it’s unrighteous anger that he feels because he doesn’t understand himself. He wants his anger to be righteous anger that he understands. By the end of the song, he realizes that anger isn’t always bad. Anger is completely fine and rational when it’s appropriately applied to a situation. One must ask oneself if they are okay living in a world where an expectation of theirs is not met. Thus, when one’s expectations are reasonable, and so tightly held that they cannot live without them, it’s okay to be angry, but it must be expressed in a healthy way. One cannot allow one’s anger to take over their life, and neither can one entirely suppress their anger.

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  • Andriy Karamazov

    Hi, Jon! Really, huge thanx for taking time and writing the comment. It is very nice to know that there are people who not only read this all, but also do it thinking the matter over.

    Yes, your vision of the song is better than mine and a bit different; your ‘level of detail’ is much better I would say. You also pointed out the reference to Damage Inc., which I missed (shame on me). I always encourage this sort of commentary and dialoge, because the views on the texts differ from person to person and this is great.

    I would like to point out, however, that I expressed my views on the lyrics based on the metaphors I could identify in them. And because we put into the metaphors interpretation always something personal (cultural, contextual, personal shortcomings), the stuff I publish here inevitably contains my own vies to some extent 🙂 So, don’t take it as the ultimate truth.

    Again, thanx for reading and hope to see you around!

    Like

  • Ethan Walker

    Very good analysis. I especially liked the concept of St. Anger as a false saint, I thought the same thing. The simple line “St. Anger ’round my neck” always makes me think of the various Saint medallions Catholics used to wear a lot in the USA. For protection I think. So to me, it refers to an imaginary (?) medallion of Saint Anger, which also might hang the protagonist (around the neck, of course) if the anger is not controlled. That is, a violent crime might be committed in anger and our subject would face an extreme penalty of some type.

    My take on lines 9 thru 16 is slightly different.

    Fuck it all and no regrets
    I hit the lights on these dark sets

    To me, this refers to movie sets. Follow me here, it’s kind of abstract. The author is contemplating suicide; fuck it all, I’m done with life. I need to let myself go free (from living with all this anger and pain). The “dark sets” are his life, a series of dark and unpleasant “scenes” in the film of his life. One “set” might be his home life, another, the stage or backstage, etc. “Hit the lights” means turning something on or off (USA slang). The author is going to “turn off” all of his hate, anger and dark experiences by killing himself, and take his anger with him, like a hostage.

    Medallion noose, I hang myself
    Saint Anger ’round my neck

    He’s given up, his hate is going to destroy him, and he lets it.

    I thought this line was kind of weak: “I’m madly in anger with you ” A play on “madly in love with you”, whatever. Lines 22-26 sound like goals set in therapy sessions, honestly.

    I think it is a great song, one of Metallica’s best IMO. But behind most of Master Of Puppets. Really great lyrics are meaningful to a wide variety of people. They may interpret them differently than the author intended, but it doesn’t matter, as long as they can relate the lyrics to their experiences/feelings.

    Like

  • Andriy Karamazov

    Thank you! And thanks for providing your own point of view. I like to listen to what others see in the lyrics. Totally agree with you on your last point. This is why we all love the same stuff – we relate it to ourselves through our own experiences and visions of the world and see different things which resonates with us.

    Like

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