Recently, my boyfriend and I started playing the Korn station on Pandora during road trips. It began as a joke, poking fun at our youth while cruising the highways. But then we started listening to the station unironically and with fascination. In fact, we have racked up over 13 hours of KoRn radio time. We giggle with embarrassment when we hear Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit sing, “It’s just one of the days when you don’t wanna wake up. Everything is fucked. Everybody sux. You don’t really know why but you want to justify rippin’ someone’s head off.” We note every time Jonathan Davis of Korn refers to himself as insane. It seemed normal to me when I was an angry teen but in retrospect songs performed by full grown adults is interesting.
I spoke to Michael Newbold Smith, who has worked as a music journalist for Outburn Magazine and MetalUnderground.com. He grew up reading metal magazines and calls himself a metal fan for life. Like me, 33-year-old Smith has been in a nostalgic nu-metal bender for the past year.
He was 15 years old in 1999, when nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit were at their peak.
Smith admitted that some of the histrionics and melodramatics in the music seem dated upon listening to them now.
“They do, in the sense that you know when they came out and they define that time period back then and most uncomfortably they define how you felt back then,” he said. “Every now and then I’ll be listening to one of the old Korn albums or Slipknot albums and I will hear something and I’ll just cringe. It’s just so over the top.”
He mentioned that Jonathan Davis’ improvised screaming and rambling and straight “going out of his mind” (as Smith put it) is a mid to late 90s style. He said that nobody does that anymore. But, Smith said he hates to call it dated and pass judgement on it because he still enjoys listening to it musically.
“Corey Taylor [of Slipknot] sounded like he was about to crack up or commit suicide. His lyrics were just so psycho-dramatic and over the top but it’s still very cathartic and you have to let it flow through you and understand the context and embrace it that way and it will be great,” said Smith. He said nowadays that kind of direct cathartic angst is expressed in a much more refined manner.
“The genre burned itself out fairly quickly because there is only so far you can take it,” he said. “The movement just couldn’t last in perpetuity. But, the musical developments that occurred during that movement, a lot of that stuff has stuck around. And it’s gotten absorbed into the overall metal genre.”
The sub-genre was particularly appealing to teens and those who felt disenfranchised It is also particularly appealing to those of lower socioeconomic class according to an article on the US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health.
“Youth-oriented and rebellious music such as heavy metal, rap, and reggae may likewise attract listeners from lower SES backgrounds,” the article stated. Heavy metal music in general is also more appealing to males, according to a thesis paper written for Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Smith feels that nu-metal was serving the same purpose that genres like thrash did in the early and mid-80s.
“It (thrash) was the meanest, fastest, darkest, heaviest stuff you could find.” He said that many songs were about death. For example, ‘Fight Fire with Fire’ from Metallica’s Ride The Lightning album is all about the nuclear standoff going on in the 1980s and the album’s title song ‘Ride the Lightning’ is about being fried by the electric chair. Smith said that music captured emotions and frustrations from that decade.
Basically, nu-metal performed the same function for the era it existed in. But unlike other metal music, including thrash, nu-metal focuses more on the interior rather than exterior. Instead of taking on social issues like nuclear war, generally speaking nu-metal focuses on mental illness and emotional turmoil.
“The reputation that nu-metal has certainly revolves around interior issues and I think honestly i think that what attracted young kids and teens to nu-metal was that it was very emotionally cathartic because it was very direct,” said Smith. “When Korn came along they were singing stuff that nobody else was. They were blazing a trail. The way that Jonathan Davis spoke about his twisted thoughts and emotions and his mental inner torture was very direct, very literal and cathartic, encouraging the soul and just vomiting it all out there.”
Maybe that had something to do with nu-metal arriving on the cusp of grunge, which had the emotions and sadness but no anger.
“It was missing the edge. It was missing the aggression that a lot of kids at that age feel.”
Smith said that edge is needed for teens and grunge missed the mark on that. When nu-metal came along it took some of that grunge elements and also some of that thrash and death metal aggression.
“It was more of a bouncier, groovier sound and that came from industrial music and hip hop. It was a blend. You could say maybe that nu-metal succeeded in capturing those young hearts and minds where grunge could only succeed so far. Nu-metal comes along to pick up the slack. That’s my suspicion of why it unfolded it that way.”
Many young people related to it because it gave an outlet to get the rage out. Nu-metal’s peak featured men who had often issues with their parental figures. In Disturbed’s 2000 hit ‘Down With The Sickness,’ the vocalist says:
“No mommy, don’t do it again
Don’t do it again
I’ll be a good boy
I’ll be a good boy, I promise
No mommy don’t hit me
Why did you have to hit me like that, mommy?
Don’t do it, you’re hurting me
Why did you have to be such a bitch
Why don’t you,
Why don’t you just fuck off and die”
Despite the rage of the nu-metal era, the United States was in a pretty good spot, politically. There was some domestic terrorism and America’s involvement in the Bosnian war but overall things were a lot calmer than they are now. Politically, there’s a lot of polarization now so one would think angrier music would be mainstream. My guess is that right now people just want a nicer, softer, kind of escapism. Smith agrees in the sense that within mainstream music right now there doesn’t appear to be anything as angsty as nu-metal.
“In terms of the music itself, in particular the metal genre, music has gotten very over the top and cathartic and heavy within the genre but the genre has not expanded in the sense of going mainstream,” he said. “There has not been an upsurge of mainstream recognition of metal in light of the polarized, angsty, angry climate that we had for the last number of years and today. That hasn’t occurred. I think it is curious. I don’t have any easy answers.”
He said that when the nu-metal era was going strong, during the late 90s and early 2000s, it was a different time for many reasons. Smith suspects that the global atmosphere has played a big role.
“It goes back to 9/11. 9/10 was the last day of peace in so many ways. It kicked off this whole avalanche that has not stopped on so many different levels,” said Smith. “I’m just speculating, but I would say that those folks in the subsequent time period where things globally politically economically gotten more precarious and shaky and angsty and angry and scary in a lot of ways, have maybe retreated back to their corners and sought their entertainment and escapism in more comforting ways rather than doing the crossover thing and picking up an album full of loud guitars and shouting.”
Besides political reasons, there were less albums available to the general public: people are no longer cross-over fans like they used to be.
“During the new metal era, it was still very possible, and even kind of common, to have crossover appeal to other fan bases,” he said. “Other folks may not be hardcore metal fans but for whatever reason there were bands that had this crossover appeal and they got the mainstream crossover success that way. ”
He said the crossover appeal has almost disappeared.
“Now you have the polarization not just in the political climate but in the music as well.”
Every genre of music is more specialized now than they were in the days of nu-metal. People who were not t die-hard metal fans would still own copies of Metallica’s Black Album, Korn’s Follow the Leader, maybe even a Pantera album or two.
There were less choices and less platforms for which to access music.
“Now, there’s not many casual crossover fans, someone that’s not a metal head but likes some songs and bands enough to buy an album or two and propel those bands to mainstream success,” said Smith.
[Image: Alexandre Cardoso]