The analysis of conceptual metaphors in “Master of Puppets” by Metallica

Hi there! My name is Andriy and Digging metalaphor is back. Not sure for how long however.

Believe me or not, the most popular post on this blog is “St. Anger” by Metallica. So, here is another piece of Californian thrash metal for you – “Master of Puppets” (from the “Master of Puppets” LP, 1986 by Metallica). Neither the band, nor the album needs any introduction. Let’s go straight to the lyrics:

Verse 1

  1. End of passion play, crumbling away
  2. I’m your source of self-destruction
  3. Veins that pump with fear, sucking darkest clear
  4. Leading on your death’s construction

Chorus intro:

  1. Taste me, you will see
  2. More is all you need
  3. Dedicated to
  4. How I’m killing you
  5. Come crawling faster (faster)
  6. Obey your master (master)
  7. Your life burns faster (faster)
  8. Obey your Master! Master!


  1. Master of Puppets, I’m pulling your strings
  2. Twisting your mind, smashing your dreams
  3. Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing
  4. Just call my name, ‘cause I’ll hear you scream
  5. Master! Master!
  6. Just call my name, ‘cause I’ll hear you scream
  7. Master! Master!

Verse 2

  1. Needlework the way, never you betray
  2. Life of death becoming clearer
  3. Pain monopoly, ritual misery
  4. Chop your breakfast on a mirror

Chorus intro + Chorus (x1)

  1. Master! Master! Where’s the dreams that I’ve been after?
  2. Master! Master! You promised only lies
  3. Laughter! Laughter! All I hear and see is laughter
  4. Laughter! Laughter! Laughing at my cries
  5. Fix me!

Verse 3

  1. Hell is worth all that, natural habitat
  2. Just a rhyme without a reason
  3. Never-ending maze, drift on numbered days
  4. Now your life is out of season.
  1. I will occupy
  2. I will help you die
  3. I will run through you
  4. Now I rule you too

Life Is a Play

As you have probably figured it out, this is a song about drug addiction. It is a rather straightforward, simple text: there are no deep or fancy metaphors here to enjoy. The lyrics are structured by the megametaphor LIFE IS A PLAY (megametaphor in our case is a device which binds all other metaphors in this song to create a coherent picture; we can think about it as a metaphor which structures the entire narrative). We come across the LIFE IS A PLAY metaphor in the song title (Master of Puppets) and in the following expressions (excluding repetitions throughout the song and single references to Master):

  1. Line 1: End of passion play, crumbling away
  2. Lines 10 and 12: Obey your Master!
  3. Line 13: Master of Puppets, I’m pulling your strings
  4. Line 28: Fix me!
  5. Line 30: Just a rhyme without a reason
  6. Line 32: Now your life is out of season.

Let’s take a deeper look at this metaphor and at the expressions I picked up to illustrate it. In its basic, neutral version LIFE IS A PLAY allows for conceptualization of a span of life (metaphorical target domain) in terms of a theatrical play (experiential source domain). Recall the famous words of Shakespeare: All the world is a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts. The inner structure of this metaphor can be presented in the following way:

  • A living human being is an actor
  • People he/she interacts with are the fellow actors
  • A person’s behavior is a way he/she acts
  • A person’s natural habitat is a stage etc.

These are the basic, skeletal mappings of the metaphor. Depending on the context of use, it may be filled with new details and extended as in case of “Master of Puppets”. It may also be applied to reason about the entire life as well as to talk about certain life periods or even singular experiences (e.g. I played the fool at the conference).

In “Master of Puppets” the LIFE IS A PLAY metaphor is extended in a very specific way. It conceptualizes a life of a drug addict as a play in a puppet theater. Here, a drug addict fills the slot of a puppet in a theater. A stage is his/her habitat. Because a puppet cannot move on its own a new slot appears to be filled: a puppet master, a human who pulls the strings to make the puppets move and imitate real life. A puppet master is usually hidden, so that the picture of a simulated reality looks more natural. In the song, the slot of a puppet master is filled by drugs. What do we get in the end? A puppet master stages a play. He/she uses a number of puppets for the purpose. Puppets cannot act on their own. The puppet master knows the script and pulls the strings of the puppets to make them move according to his/her will. Puppets have their ‘life span’ – a season. That is, their play is staged for a number of times during certain period. Then, as the season ends the repertoire changes and the old puppets are dismissed to be substituted by the new ones, portraying new characters. This is the logic of the source domain of (PUPPET) PLAY in our metaphor. When mapped onto the target domain of LIFE (OF A DRUG-ADDICT), we get the following correspondences and entailments:

  • Becoming addicted, a person (PUPPET) loses his/her identity and will; the actions (PLAY) are guided solely by drugs (MASTER): e.g. Master of Puppets; Obey your Master;
  • Any drug addiction process has the same passing stages (PLAY SCRIPT);
  • Drugs rule the minds of the addicts, governing their behavior (PULLING STRINGS): e.g. Master of Puppets, I’m pulling your strings…;
  • As puppets cannot act, do or change anything without their master, so cannot addicts without drugs: e.g. Fix me!
  • Habitat of a drug addict is a stage of a puppet theater;
  • The length of his/her life is the length of the theatrical season. The latter is usually short; so is a life of an addict: e.g. Now your life is out of season;
  • The death of an addict is the dismissal of a puppet at the end of the season.

We can also hypothesize that, even as a viewer, such a play is nothing to enjoy: the play is an ultimate tragedy without any sense, as a life of an addict is (e.g. End of passion play, crumbling away; Just a rhyme without a reason).

In a nutshell, this very metaphor pretty much explains the entire song. The last thing to point out in this respect is the main feature of the “Master of puppets” metaphor. According to the logic of the LIFE OF AN ADDICT IS A PUPPET PLAY metaphor, a puppet is an object. In Metallica’s text, however, only the inability of the puppets to act, move, and reasonably think (source domain of the metaphor) is mapped onto the life of the addicts (target domain). The addicts themselves are not objectified: they are ‘living puppets’ (e.g. Veins that pump with fear… etc.), who are able to feel (e.g. Hell is worth all that…) and speak (e.g. Master! Master! Where those dreams that I’ve been after? … You promised only lies!… All I hear and see is laughter! … Laughing at my cries!), but not to act or reason anymore. Moreover, it is emphasized at the beginning of the song that the addicts – ‘living puppets’ – are the ones who actually put themselves in the drug yoke (e.g. I’m your source of self-destruction). ‘Puppets’ are not forced to their ‘roles’ by the evil ‘Master’ – they take the roles themselves.

Interestingly, the Master of Puppets metaphor is also reproduced visually on the front cover of the album. Check it out.

Other metaphors

Apart from the LIFE IS A PLAY case, there are several other metaphors in the song as well. These are rather conventional, for instance, KNOWING IS SEEING, LIFE IS A FLAME, LIFE IS A JOURNEY, among others. In my previous posts, I discussed all of these metaphors at least once, therefore I am not going to spend a lot of time here, explaining them again.

The KNOWING IS SEEING metaphor appears in lines 5 (Taste me, you will see), 15 (Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing), and 21 (Life of death becoming clearer). This is one of the so-called primary metaphors: a basic metaphor, acquired by a child at a very early age. Since a child obtains most of the information through vision, a strong correlation between visual experience and knowledge develops in the brain and creates a persisting metaphor, easily traceable in language: I see what you mean; the concept of metaphor is not clear to me etc.

LIFE IS A FLAME is the metaphor behind line 11 – Your life burns faster. There are many possible ways to talk about life, with FLAME being one of them. It is also a relatively simple metaphor with strong experiential grounding. Living organisms, like humans, are warm and generate heat when alive. When a body dies, it becomes cold. Indeed, there are metaphors such as LIFE IS HEAT/DEATH IS COLD, LIFE IS A FIRE, LIFE IS A DAY etc., all of which revolve around the concept of warmth. The metaphor of LIFE AS A FLAME belongs to the same category, of course, as any flame emits heat. The logic of this metaphor is simple: waxing of a flame is birth, burning is a life cycle, and waning of a flame is death. Thus, “Your life burns faster” means forthcoming death.

The LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor can be seen in line 31 – Never-ending maze, drift on numbered days. This is the last metaphor we are going to discuss. LIFE IS A JOURNEY is ubiquitous. It appears in every post of mine, proving just how normal it is for us to reason about life in terms of a travel. This metaphor is one of the specific cases of the generic metaphor LONG PURPOSEFUL ACTIVITIES ARE JOURNEYS. The basis for such a correlation is the perception of duration and change both when travelling and when being engaged in something lasting over a longer period of time. By this metaphor, life is a trip, a person leading their life is a traveler, a course of life is a path of a traveler, life difficulties are impediments to motion, points in time are landmarks etc. The metaphor does not specify what kind of ‘travel’ a life is, which gives a user a chance to elaborate it in any specific context, like in line 31, where life of an addict is shown as a never-ending maze. The entailment to such a conceptualization must be that not only is there no escape from the hardship you are in (never-ending), but it is also impossible to see where exactly to go and how long you can last (maze).

The “drift on numbered days” part also presumes the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor. In this case a life of an addict is conceptualized differently from what we have seen above. An addict is ruled by a drug: he/she is weak-willed and powerless. An addict cannot ‘go’ through life on their own – only ‘drift’, that is being carried away by the power, exerting influence on him/her. The course of life is the path of drifting by the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor. Days (points in time) are landmarks on the path of drifting. The path (life) is very short – days of the journey are numbered, meaning that few are left.

That’s it. I hope this was an easy read for you and you liked it. Check out the link to the album below to listen to one of the greatest metal works ever. See you around in April-May. Take care, Andriy.







About Andriy Karamazov

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