“You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!” –Walter White, Breaking Bad
Three-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston has kept us on edge for six seasons as the show’s main protagonist-turned-antagonist, Walter White. He’s one of the most complex characters to ever grace the small screen, sharpened by Cranston’s arduous demeanor and yet also softened by writer Vince Gilligan’s knack for wit. What started as a gimmick — high school chemistry teacher gone meth dealer — has evolved into a seasonal existential dilemma for viewers, who are all forced to ask themselves, “Was he right or was he wrong?”
That troubling facet to Breaking Bad is what makes the show so alluring and perplexing and disparate. It’s become more than just entertainment; instead, it’s an intricate study of morality, right or wrong, good and evil. In light of this broad (and vastly subjective) discussion, we decided to frame similar conundrums in pop culture, the artists who have also chosen the path of much resistance. In short, the musicians that became our favorite villains.
For this particular list, we eschewed names involved in actual violent crimes. So, if you’re wondering why we didn’t add Gary Glitter or Nick Oliveri or Phil Spector — well, there’s your answer.
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Hero’s Rise: For years, the prodigal producer for Roc-A-Fella Records, responsible for Jay Z’s flawless The Blueprint, fought labels and big men for his own voice to be heard, a personal triumph he tackled with 2004’s equally flawless The College Dropout. Digressing on personalized themes of family, religion, identity, and materialism, West not only swept up critics and fans, but professors and administrators who hailed his work as a relief from the more gangster-affiliated hip-hop par for course.
Fall to Villainy: Bits of his own ego surfaced on his follow-up, 2005’s Late Registration, and gathered steam on 2007’s Graduation and parts of 2008’s dystopian 808s & Heartbreak. A year later, West went AWOL at MTV’s Video Music Awards, where he infamously snatched away an award from Taylor Swift, turning a whole nation against him. The incident inspired the rapper to assume the villain on his magnum opus, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Redemption: By achieving perfection through darkness, West defined the term “evil genius.” Given Fantasy, 2011’s Watch the Throne, and this year’s Yeezus, there’s been no better time to turn to the dark side.
Hero’s Rise: Lars Ulrich gave up everything he knew in the name of music. The son of a Danish tennis pro, he was supposed to follow the same privileged path, but instead denounced athletics to pursue a career as a drummer. He founded Metallica at the young age of 17, leading the band’s meteoric rise with his pioneering speed-thrash drumming. It served as the serpentine backbone on their first four albums: Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and …And Justice For All.
Fall to Villainy: Many fans scoffed at Ulrich’s shift in drumming style, which slowed down significantly on Metallica and continued to simplify on subsequent releases. But that didn’t make him a villain. Neither did his cropped hair or art-house pretensions on Load. No, Lars Ulrich’s fall from grace can be traced back to one single event: his 2000 crusade against Napster. Although he’s since repented, the memory of a millionaire musician/art collector setting his sights on a—let’s face it, revolutionary—grassroots music service and over 300,000 music fans remains especially icky. St. Anger only made matters worse.
Redemption: As awesomely cringe-inducing as Some Kind of Monster was, it also humanized Ulrich, lifting Darth Vader’s sleek mask to show the crusty, hobbled dude underneath, or, in this case, the drummer’s own neuroses and insecurities. Death Magnetic also put him back in fans’ good graces by simply being the best Metallica album since their self-titled record. But then came—good Christ—Lulu. We’ll see what the future brings.
Hero’s Rise: As implausible as it might seem in 2013, there was a time when Limp Bizkit’s thuggish nu-metal was absolutely inescapable. And right smack dab in the middle of it was Fred Durst, backward red Yankees cap and all. The higher the band’s profile rose, the higher Durst’s did, and the singer relished his role as a figurehead of the rap metal genre.
Fall to Villainy: Over time, Durst got his hand caught in a number of tough spots. There was his claims of having hooked up with Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, which were both quickly and publicly refuted. Years prior, everyone pointed fingers at him for helping spur on the riots behind the Woodstock ’99 debacle. That’s bad, right?
Redemption: The singer tried to make a fresh start for himself apart from Limp Bizkit with his own TV sitcom that never got picked up in 2011. The title? Douchebag. How perfect.
Hero’s Rise: By no means a hero worth championing, Justin Bieber nonetheless made a name for himself by winning the hearts of children and teenagers across the world, slapping his brand on lunch boxes, gaudy posters, pins, toothbrushes, etc. He woke up one day as a walking piece of merchandise, with a perfect bowl cut and the biggest sneakers a kid can buy. He’s what foreigners might call “spoiled American youth.”
Fall to Villainy: Where to start; it’s almost a Mad Libs of misdemeanors at this point. In an attempt to ditch his pretty boy pop persona, Bieber made obscene gestures to paparazzi, drove over 100 mph in the San Fernando Valley, threatened paparazzi, wished Anne Frank was a “belieber” in Amsterdam, walked around shirtless in an airport, pissed off Chicago Blackhawks fans following their Stanley Cup win, apologized for slamming former President Bill Clinton (he was six when Bill left office, mind you), and avoided a couple of drug charges.
Redemption: Not likely. Sorry Mark Wahlberg, this kid’s a little brat.
How bad? We’ll let Charlamagne handle this one.
Hero’s Rise: M.I.A. seemed to be that rare beast: a singer-songwriter who seamlessly mashed genres with kaleidoscopic fashion and dangerous yet informed politics. Her first two albums were diamond front to back, and her personal life was shrouded in just enough mystery to back up her claims of being surveilled by both the US and Sri Lankan governments.
Fall to Villainy: As Pitchfork pointed out in their review of ///Y/, M.I.A.’s first mediocre album coincided with a string of embarrassing publicity. A detailed New York Times profile exposed her politics as being more provocative than educated, made even more hypocritical by her obsession with material possessions. The performer showed her own childishness by posting the writer’s number on Twitter. Then there was that “Born Free” video. Its worst offense wasn’t the ginger genocide; it was using such a lame and heavy handed metaphor.
Redemption: Possibly. She’s definitely talented. If she releases another killer album and stays quiet, she may gain back some good will and musical credibility.
Hero’s Rise: The volatile lead singer of Guns N’ Roses glued heads to FM radio in the late ’80s with his raspy howl on multi-platinum hit singles “Sweet Child of Mine”, “Welcome to the Jungle”, and “Paradise City”. He became such an iconic presence within the Los Angeles outfit that he graced Rolling Stone‘s cover alone and was later called “the finest hard rock singer” by MTV host Kurt Loder. At one point, he dated and was engaged to Victoria’s Secret supermodel Stephanie Seymour.
Fall to Villainy: Rose’s career took a turn for the worst in the early ’90s, between accusations of racist and homophobic slurs on G N’R Lies track “One in a Million” and his abusive and incorrigible behavior onstage and behind the scenes. He became the J.D. Salinger of hard rock, when he spent most of the ’90s and aughts as a recluse, firing band members left and right whilst at work on the long-awaited and eventually forgotten Chinese Democracy. Somewhere in there he attempted to pull off dreadlocks — possibly influenced by his love for reggae.
Redemption: Not likely. Guns N’ Roses now serves as a nostalgic Vegas act, and lately Rose has even been caught walking around with a cane. Though, there’s been no confirmation about any urine-filled mason jars sitting around his house.
Hero’s Rise: When Disney champions your name, you’re not just a hero, you’re an enigma. And that’s exactly what her role as Hannah Montana did throughout the aughts. Six Top 10 hits, four RIAA-certified albums, an appearance in Forces’ Celebrity 100, and the record for “Most Charted Teenager” in the Guiness World Records says more about her influence than that of her talent. Movies, albums, toys, and video games — she’s done it all.
Fall to Villainy: Starting in 2009, Miley begun to ditch her cookie-cutter image, releasing Hot 100 staples like “Party in the U.S.A” and albums with names like Can’t Be Tamed. This year, she’s completely abandoned her past, taking a far more sexually charged approach to her music — specifically the VEVO-defying video for “We Can’t Stop”. This doesn’t necessarily make her a villain to us, but to the mothers that spent hard-earned money on good ol’ Montana…? Also, did everyone so quickly forget that time she threatened to ruin Radiohead? How’s that going, Miley, by the way?
Redemption: She can start by not playing her bad girl persona so aggressively. Simmer down. It’ll all be okay.
Hero’s Rise: With his tucked in shirts and penchant for blazers, Greg Ginn looked more the part of a college professor than a punk rocker. But as the primary songwriter/guitarist for Black Flag and head of SST Records, Ginn was for all intents and purposes the de facto figurehead of underground music through much of the 1980s. Not only did he help define hardcore’s sound with Black Flag, but he helped cultivate the DIY ethos that still defines indie subculture today.
Fall to Villainy: His influence is pretty incalculable, but Ginn has long been pegged as a guy known to ruffle feathers and burn bridges. There have been tales of his mistreatment of bands during SST’s heyday, and he’s had more than a few rifts with his former Black Flag co-horts. Just recently, he filed suit against his former bandmates in FLAG, as well as former singer Henry Rollins, for alleged copyright infringement and misuse of the Black Flag name and logo.
Redemption: Depends. How about cutting the legal bullshit and bringing everyone together for one giant Black Flag super group? FLAG Flag, anyone?
Hero’s Rise: From the coffeehouse circuit to sessions with Herbie Hancock and Eric Clapton, the singer/songwriter used his considerable guitar and songwriting prowess to craft palatable pop rock inflected with blues, jazz, and contemporary soul. Unabated sing-alongs like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters” solidified his spot in the hearts of teen girls, adult contemporary fans, and leering frat dudes fed up with Dave Matthews after that port-o-pottie disaster.
Fall to Villainy: He put the too much in TMI during interviews with Rolling Stone and Playboy in 2010, revealing private details of sexy times with ex-girlfriend Jessica Simpson and bashing Taylor Swift for allegedly writing “Dear John” about their romance. In the same Playboy interview, he performed his Grand Fuck Up by describing his dick as a white supremacist and making some other racist remarks, which he apologized for the following night during a tearful “Gravity” guitar solo at a Nashville show.
Redemption: He put his misogynist tail between his legs and retreated to Paradise Valley, Montana, where he spent the next two years in literal silence — not offending anyone (intentionally) because he’s on post-surgery vocal rest. The interim inspired Paradise Valley, his album coming out August 13, which, after a two-year musical hiatus, suggests he might get his life back on track.
Hero’s Rise: The Hole singer-songwriter and widow to the late Kurt Cobain rose to fame with one of the better debut albums of the era, 1991’s Pretty on the Inside. Produced by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, the album brought recognition to the group for its coarse lyricism and rugged vocals. Yet it wasn’t until its multi-platinum follow-up, Live Through This, that the group received widespread acclaim, even allegedly inspiring a third-wave feminist consciousness.
Fall to Villainy: It’s always been easy to hate Love. Her tumultuous, antagonistic personality is her reigning trait, as she slams critics, fans, and fellow musicians (including her own bandmates). A “Who Killed Kurt?” conspiracy continues to haunt and/or draw skepticism from fans and certain circles. Her longtime struggles with drug and alcohol have lead to legal impositions for Frances Bean Cobain and the worst headlines possible. And in 2009, she reunited, toured, and released an album as Hole without any of its original members. It didn’t go well.
Redemption: In the late ’90s, a brief acting stint turned a new leaf for Love, as her performance in 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt nabbed her a Golden Globe nomination. It wasn’t a bad period, but it remains just one rise in a career of peaks and valleys. Decades later, she’s the villain we love to hate and hate to love.