Part 9: 1998: You’re either with Korn and Limp Bizkit, or you’re against them
More Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation?
“Dude, I have no problem with being pop. Pop means pop-u-lar, which is cool with me.”—Fred Durst, from the August 1999 issue of Spin
“You talk about stuff you don’t understand. If you never had feelings like rage or hate or something, why the hell do you go to a Korn concert?!?”—Anonymous Korn fan, in an e-mail written in response to a Korn concert review I wrote in 2002
This year, people born in the year 1985 will turn 26 years old. They will get married, have kids, buy houses, and do all the other roots-planting stuff that people do when their 20s are 60 percent over. (They might also go out drinking a lot.) They will find it strange that their 10-year high school reunions are only two years away. (Though only in a marking-time sense; they won’t actually attend their reunions, because Facebook has turned high-school reunions into conventions of old-timey 20th-century life.) They will feel a strong twinge of nostalgia for the early ’00s, and trade lines from Napoleon Dynamite and Anchorman like their bosses at work drop references to—excuse them if they get these titles wrong—Ghostbusters and Caddyshack.
They are all grown up, but I’ll never see them that way. To me, anyone born the year that Back To The Future came out will always be The People That Are Too Young. I’m not sure when I decided that Michael J. Fox’s entrée to movie stardom was my personal Mendoza line for parsing out the generations. I acknowledge the inherent unreasonableness of my “Back To The Future Rule,” but I’ve been following it too long to stop now. I’m constitutionally unable to take people raised on Stars Wars prequels, Degrassi: The Next Generation, and MTV reality shows seriously, seeing as how they’ve been deprived of the bedrock values and education that you get from the original Star Wars films, the original Degrassi Junior High, and music videos—that’s right, music videos—on MTV.
It makes sense that I felt divorced from mainstream rock in 1998; it was the year that the children of 1985 turned 13. The radio belonged to them now, and they quickly re-made it in their own, utterly foreign image. Not that they didn’t have help; the bands that came along when I was 13 and changed the radio in my image had exited the center stage of pop culture. Nirvana and Soundgarden were finished, Smashing Pumpkins and Alice In Chains were well on their way to being finished, and Pearl Jam no longer seemed interested in sounding young anymore.
Grunge wasn’t just dead; its body was being chopped up so close friends and relatives couldn’t identify it. For the next several years, a new wave of bands systematically wiped away the gains alternative rock had made in the early ’90s. Grunge was consumed by a new beast, and vomited back up with the most rank, least edible chunks of metal and hip-hop. Whether it was called nü-metal or rap-rock (or far worse epithets by those that couldn’t fathom the ugly blitzkrieg of belching fury suddenly coming at them from the fleet of bright yellow muscle cars rapidly taking over Main Street in every American town), this was music that took the sludge and the self-pity of early-’90s rock and turned it into something leaner, meaner, and nefariously empowering.
Nü-metal became the overture for what was about to come down in the ’00s, its inarticulate roar simulating the jet engines of George W. Bush’s America firing up and incinerating the grungy Clinton ’90s. Political correctness was the new establishment, and dismantling it became the first item on rock’s to-do list. Treating women like “bitches” and gays like “faggots” in song lyrics was now an acceptable form of rebellion, not to mention an easy way to get a rise out of bleeding-heart squares. Making money—and flaunting it—was okay again. Nü-metal beat grunge at its own game; you could feel sorry for yourself without worrying about other people. In fact, other people were the problem. It was the perfect state of mind for the American teenager bored with the comfort and affluence of the late ’90s, and resentful of bands pushing them to Rock The Vote and support Amnesty International. Soon, everybody wanted what nü-metal was selling, in all its various guises.
Grunge was just so weak and emotional; the new music, in contrast, was heavy and powerful. Grunge was “I feel your pain” music, siding with all the losers and rejects seeking protection from bullies real or imagined; the new music convinced the losers and rejects that they were the bullies, and it was high time they found somebody weaker to fuck up for a change. Grunge reminded us that, deep down, we’re all victims of a cruel and unjust world, and this vulnerability unites us; there was only one victim in the new music, and that was the listener, who was beset on all sides by abusive parents, mocking teachers, needy girlfriends, and all the uncaring and privileged kids at school, who never, ever had it as bad as you; even worse, those fucking bitches thought they were better than you. Fuck that shit, man! Give me something to break! How ’bout your fucking face?
In grunge, irony was used as a weapon by romantics who feared that nothing mattered anymore; the new music wasn’t ironic, it wasn’t romantic, it knew nothing mattered anymore, and it told you this over and over again until you no longer cared. Once that happened, you were master of your own universe.
The figurehead of nü-metal was Korn, a band from Bakersfield, California that formed in 1993 and ended up influencing scores of like-minded groups with its self-titled debut released the following year. In contrast with the grunge bands that were still in vogue at the time, Korn stood outside the continuum of classic-rock and punk tradition. “I’ve never owned a Beatles album. I’ve never even listened to one,” Korn bassist Fieldy later told Chuck Klosterman in Fargo Rock City. “The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin—those bands haven’t influenced us in any way. Nobody in this band ever listened to that stuff. Our musical history starts with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and early Faith No More. As a band, that’s where we begin.”
Korn songs eschewed guitar solos, discernable choruses, even melodies—instead they were built on syncopated hip-hop beats, atonal “riffs” that sounded like surly fax machines, and frontman Jonathan Davis’ half-rapped, have-bleated vocals. You didn’t have to be ignorant of rock history in order to appreciate it, but it definitely helped to be free of preconceived notions of what “good” music was supposed to sound like if you wanted to be a Korn fan.
It took a long time for rock radio to accept Korn as grunge peaked in the mid-’90s and then started petering out over the next couple of years. But like the triumphant protagonists in all true grassroots success stories, Korn prevailed because it understood its audience better than the middlemen. The band’s second record, 1996’s Life Is Peachy, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard chart, and went on to go double-platinum, in spite of nonexistent promotional support from mainstream outlets. The following year, Korn co-headlined Lollapalooza with Tool, its highest-profile tour yet. At this point, the fact that the traditional media was still mostly ignoring Korn actually played to the band’s advantage, since it caused fans—who similarly felt dismissed and despised by their peers—to relate to their heroes even more intensely.
When Korn began work on 1998’s Follow The Leader, it deftly set about ensuring that the record would be the band’s first No. 1 release by exhibiting the smarts and calculation of an experienced politician running for public office. Even the album title sounded like a campaign slogan—a real winner for a dystopian, totalitarian subculture run by thugs in Adidas tracksuits. Unlike the grunge bands that flamed out almost immediately after becoming famous, usually because they couldn’t figure out whether to embrace or eviscerate their newfound audiences, Korn understood that communicating effectively with your followers was the key to longevity. The band proceeded on two fronts, one technological and the other traditional. First, Korn gave fans regular behind-the-scenes glimpses at the making of Follow The Leader via its Korn TV website, a cutting-edge idea at the time. Then, once the record was finished, the band chartered a jet and held fan conferences all over the U.S. to promote its upcoming opus, pressing the flesh and kissing all the horribly deformed babies in the Korn klan.
As Karl Rove proved a few years later on a grander scale, Korn showed that you didn’t need the media when you had the wherewithal to control your own message. Sure enough, when Follow The Leader was released on Aug. 18, 1998, it ended up selling about 268,000 copies in its first week. Korn was now the No. 1 band in the land. But what exactly was Korn’s message? In a Spin profile that November, Korn was depicted as a deeply schizophrenic unit. Its members enjoyed the spoils of success but bent over backward to show how miserable they still were. The latter mostly came courtesy of Davis, a battering ram of angst who had grown up from a frail and asthmatic child. (He claimed in Spin that he was hospitalized every month from ages 3 to 10.) The Spin story opens backstage at a Japanese music festival, where Davis rails about how “we get no fucking love at all” from the other bands on the bill, immediately establishing Korn’s “renegade” cred. Later, Davis takes Spin’s Neil Strauss back home to Bakersfield. “Everywhere I used to go is either torn down or destroyed,” he says. “No wonder I’m so messed up.” Part of me thinks this is a pretty weird thing to say; it’s not clear whether Davis is self-consciously trying to separate himself from his past or if he’s just needlessly reveling in it. The other part of me thinks Davis is a genius, because his worldview is exactly the same as the teenaged Korn fans who must’ve pored over this story like it was the (Wish I Was) Dead Sea Scrolls. I’m sure they all hated their hometowns, too.
For Davis and his followers, rock stardom was like big government—an institution worthy of scorn and suspicion, even hatred, but also the nexus of power; and, ultimately, who doesn’t want to be in power? As for the rest of Korn, Strauss observes a band meeting where four out of five members vote to edit out the noisy part in the middle of Korn’s next single “Freak On A Leash”—I mean the really noisy part—in order to make the song more palatable for radio. Davis is the lone holdout; Fieldy drowns out his protests by chanting, “I want a bigger house!” No wonder Davis is so messed up.
In some ways, Davis was very much a rock star in the grunge tradition. He told Strauss that the song “Reclaim My Place” was “about how I thought I’d become a rock star and not get picked on anymore. But my band still calls me a fag … And I kind of am—except for the dick part.” He wasn’t joking; Davis really was subjected to homophobic taunts as a teen. Another Korn song, “Faget,” reflected on Davis’ youth as a fan of groups like The Cure and Duran Duran, a period of his life when he used to hang out in gay bars.
Don’t worry, bro, Davis is totally not gay. And he made sure not to be overly empathetic toward gay people in Korn songs. One of the more controversial tracks on Follow The Leader was “All In The Family,” a collaboration with the singer of a band that closely mimicked Korn’s style and sound, Limp Bizkit. But in terms of personality and stage presence, Fred Durst was his own man, projecting a solidly jockish image with his backward baseball caps and perpetually vacant facial expressions. Durst brought out the asshole in Davis on “All In The Family,” a joke song where the singers took turns insulting each with escalating degrees of anger and general doltishness. Durst called Davis a “little fairy” blowing on his “fag pipes”—Davis often played bagpipes on stage—Davis called Durst a “little faggot ho,” and they screamed “I hate you!” at each other in the chorus. “All In The Family” is so moronic that it’s almost not offensive; who would ever take these dopes seriously enough to get worked up over such obvious garbage?
Actually, lots of people did take Jonathan Davis and Fred Durst seriously, particularly young males, the one segment of the population that can always be counted on to toss around anti-gay language with impunity. When Lorraine Ali of Rolling Stone pressed Durst on the “pretty homophobic” lyrics of “All In The Family,” he slipped the noose and turned the question around as another example of outsiders not getting what these bands were really about. “We were just poking fun at each other,” he told Ali. “We didn’t mean it in any homophobic way. But, of course, it’s another reason to not like this obnoxious band, this guy who starts riots at shows, stage dives, pulls chicks on stage, tells promoters to kiss his ass. You gotta hate this guy. Well, I hope it turns into the guy you love to hate.”
Durst was right. His audience got it. And what was “it”? Anything Durst said “it” was. He could use homophobic language by claiming he wasn’t being homophobic, and not only not apologize, but pass himself as the persecuted one. Korn and Limp Bizkit succeeded in making any criticism of their bands personal for their fans; if you fucked with Davis and Durst, you fucked with millions of kids with aggressive inferiority complexes. Limp Bizkit proved to be especially adept at having it both ways, with Durst playing the outlaw while working the system like a world-class con artist.
Durst was at his best in 2000, when Limp Bizkit’s third record, Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water, sold more than 1 million copies in its first week, shattering the previous opening week record held by Pearl Jam for 1993’s Vs. The album had been helped that summer by a free concert tour sponsored by Napster, where the band previewed many of Starfish’s tracks for a captive and appreciative audience. Just as Korn had gone to No. 1 with Follow The Leader thanks to some good old-fashioned populist promotional efforts, Limp Bizkit put itself in a position to sell boatloads of records by aligning itself with a company that was costing the music industry tens of millions of dollars in lost sales. “We couldn’t care less about the older generation’s need to keep doing business as usual,” Durst said in a press conference. “Who cares who’s suing who? We’re doing a free tour. That’s all that matters to me.”
Three years earlier, Durst had a much different attitude when it came to business as usual. In an attempt to break Limp Bizkit’s 1997 debut, Three Dollar Bill, Yall$, the band’s label, Flip/Interscope, paid a radio station in Portland, Oregon about $5,000 to play the song “Counterfeit” 50 times. The transaction was officially regarded as “advertising,” but it smelled like payola when it was reported on the front page of the New York Times in March ’98. Most bands would’ve been embarrassed to be associated with such stereotypically sleazy record-industry shenanigans. But not Durst, who instead kept his eyes fixed on the big picture. “The name Limp Bizkit got on MTV; it got in the paper. Even after the [paid radio] time expired, we stayed at No. 1,” he told Rolling Stone.
Calling out Limp Bizkit for benefiting from payola would mean—to paraphrase something Columbia University School Of Journalism professor Dick Wald recently said about Fox News president Roger Ailes in Esquire—fighting them on territory they’d left behind. We’re not talking about Fugazi here. Of course Limp Bizkit’s career was goosed by a little dirty money under the table; let’s hope more serious laws weren’t also broken for the cause. Besides, “Counterfeit” didn’t end up being Limp Bizkit’s breakout song anyway.
Instead, Limp Bizkit introduced its ’tude-heavy, in-your-face style of aggro-rock to a mass audience via a smirky, decidedly non-badass cover of George Michael’s “Faith.” Far from being the first band to utilize the “goofy hard-rock remake of a pop song” formula as an easy shortcut to the charts, Limp Bizkit was among the most successful, even as Durst did his best to mangle his vocals with endless, “I’m not taking this gay shit seriously”-style mugging. In the end, George Michael’s sturdy songcraft won out over Limp Bizkit’s aimless incompetence, and Durst had his first hit.
The video for “Faith” was released to MTV on Nov. 20, 1998, and pretty soon it was everywhere, confirming that nü-metal was finally flushing out the last remnants of dying alternative music out of mainstream rock. But by then I didn’t care. The late ’90s were a horrible time for rock music on the radio and MTV, but a veritable gold mine if you looked just a little left of center. This was a time of classic albums like Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On, Elliott Smith’s Either/Or and XO, Air’s Moon Safari, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Wilco’s Summerteeth, and Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, not to mention popular-ish stuff like Radiohead’s OK Computer and Beck’s Odelay and Mutations. Then there was classic rock, which I had loved ever since I was a little kid sitting in the backseat of my dad’s car, before I knew who any of the bands were. Everybody else could have Fred Durst; I was too busy obsessing over The Who, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, and Bob Dylan. Oh my god, Bob Dylan—you were my rage against the machine, leading those furious Hawks on side two of the so-called “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg and serving up a perfectly stirred cocktail of anger, sorrow, humor, courage, and sensitivity. It was the same mix I loved in the rock ’n’ roll that had originally moved me, and that I was no longer hearing.
I wasn’t 13 anymore, and the world had changed a lot since 1990. I was no longer stuck with just one record store, MTV, and the radio when it came to seeking out new music. Finding stuff that I liked was easier, but also lonelier. Good music never stopped being made, but the belief that music could connect you to millions of strangers in a very tangible, even transformative way was gone and probably wasn’t coming back.
Over time, I came to think of grunge as being “very ’90s.” After a while, it was just this passé thing I made fun of in order to make people think I was never silly enough to treat it seriously. But deep down, I couldn't forgive Korn, Limp Bizkit, Creed, Godsmack, and all the rest for what they did to the Alternative Nation. Little did I know that I'd be handed the opportunity to get revenge on one of them. After all, I was from the grunge generation, so it was part of my makeup to expect bad things to happen, and accept it with a disinterested shrug and a semi-obscure pop-culture reference delivered with wry resignation. Revenge was something nü-metal kids cared about. That changed in 2002, when I was working as an arts and entertainment reporter for my hometown newspaper The Post-Crescent and was assigned a review of a Korn concert at Green Bay’s Brown County Arena.
Finally, a chance to climb into the belly of the beast and stick it with my all-powerful verbal swords. Sure, I went into the concert with the utmost journalistic ethics, prepared to act as an impartial chronicler of the evening’s events. (Did I mention Puddle Of Mudd was opening?) But no matter how hard I tried to give Korn a fair shake—which, truth be told, probably wasn’t that hard—my personal grudge against the band had turned into an unstoppable Anton Chigurh rampaging across the terrain with nothing but bloody murder on its mind.
After a four-hour journey down a long, twisted path across the nü-metal wasteland, where I smelled the sweat of angry young warriors and heard the primal cry of their tribal “Show me your tits!” chants, I returned to the Post-Crescent’s office and proceeded to write the most vindictive and mean-spirited review of my life. It was my intent to do harm; every blow was low, every shot was cheap. I wanted my words to reduce Korn to a pile of smoldering rubble. (Hurting their feelings was fine, too.) An hour later, I turned in my review, and started anxiously awaiting the response.
Nü-metal band Korn offers its listeners an earful of pain
GREEN BAY—A concert broke out Friday night during a brawl hosted by Korn at the Brown County Arena.
The nü-metal band “treated” about 4,000 fans to 90 minutes of anti-anthems like “Freak on a Leash,” “Got the Life,” “Faget,” and “Dead Bodies Everywhere,” but the music was beside the point. Korn’s bludgeoning brand of rock is an all-out assault on an audience assaulting itself. It’s entertainment as pain, where you pay someone to make you feel crummy so you can take it out on your fellow audience members.
How do you describe a Korn concert experience? Imagine a fleet of 747s doing a fly-by a dozen feet over your head while a chainsaw buzzes slowly through your skull, and you have a decent approximation.
If success here is judged by the severity of your headache as you finally, mercifully, walk out alive, then this show is one for the ages. In fact, Korn could go down as one of the worst sounding shows in the history of the soon-to-be-semi-retired Brown County Arena. Congratulations, boys! And please, pass the Extra Strength Tylenol!
Korn has undeniably connected with a segment of today’s youth culture. Front man Jonathan Davis and his dreadlocked band mates held the audience in the palms of their hands as soon as they walked on stage.
If only the band could use that power for something other than encouraging a violent mob mentality (which contradicts the nonconformist rhetoric of Davis’ lyrics). Watching hordes of beefy young men insanely pound the testosterone out of each other on the arena floor (some to the point of physical collapse) was a disturbing sight, like a battle scene out of Braveheart re-imagined by Roger Waters.
Also disconcerting was the overwhelming level of stupid maleness that rippled through the crowd between Korn and opener Puddle of Mudd, when hundreds of overheated mooks aggressively implored their female counterparts to expose themselves. It’s hard to say what was more pathetic: That no guys stepped in to stop it, or that so many gals obliged.
There was a silver lining to Friday’s show: The turnout was about half of what Korn drew at the arena in 2000. Nü-metal is played out. People are starting to look elsewhere. When its day is done, and that day is hopefully coming soon, Korn will really have something to be angry about.
A couple of words about my review: Yeah, I know it sounds stilted. And maybe a little stodgy. (Okay, really stodgy. I’m not sure anybody under the age 75 should ever refer to women as “gals,” unless you’re trying to fit in at the VFW.) But, hey, how about that line about the 747s? I was pretty proud of that one. Hopefully, you were laughing so hard that you skipped the part about the Extra Strength Tylenol.
Questionable writing aside, the review did its job in spectacular fashion: Korn fans were pissed. The next day, expletive-filled screeds filled my e-mail inbox at the rate of one every 10 minutes. A local radio station made me a topic of very heated discussion on its message board. I stopped answering my phone, because I knew clenched fists and F-bombs were waiting to pummel me. My editor considered calling the police after one reader said he was going to “slit ur fucking goddam face to peaces!!!!!!!” but I talked him out of it, since the guy said he was from California.
How bad was the response? Here’s just a small taste:
OI U fucker!!!!u think koRn are so bad and crap rite. they caouse us so called troubled kids to hurt and kill well u know u r just another victim of society if u ever acctually listend to the lrycs u will understand. us koRn fans have trouble dealing with bullies and family shit and koRn are like an anti deprecent just when u think no one is listening to u u put on some koRn and u realise ur not alone. we dont kick the shit outa each other at gigs if u were acctually a person who listend there are un written ruls to a mosh so fuck ur judgement u r just as bad as the bullies that break my nose an shit u fucking preppy posh asshole fuck you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
You must be gay. You’re threatened by women taking there tops off. I bet if they were guys, you would’ve applauded and drooled. Fuckin idiot
You are nothing. And I don’t usually say this to people, but you should go in a dark hole and rot and die. You don’t belong where humans are because you are just going to rip the shit out of some other band so that you can get more hate mail and get this shit all over again.
personally i consider hip hop to be one of the biggest menaces for the society. it represents decadence. nü-metal will never die as long as there are people like you in this goddam world !!! stupid, horny little bastards like you make this youth angry, can’t you understand that?
(I don’t get that last one, either.)
In the end, I got 60 hate e-mails and about a dozen phone calls. I ended up compiling the messages in a book I gave to friends entitled Dear Faggot, the most common salutation I received from Korn fans. The book was a hit, and my friends still ask me from time to time to retell my Korn story. It is the “Free Bird” of my work-related anecdotes.
But here’s the thing: Over the years, I’ve stopped being the protagonist in this story. It’s clear to me now that I was the antagonist all along. I’m the bad guy that got his comeuppance. I was criticizing something I didn’t understand; this music didn’t communicate with me because it wasn’t supposed to communicate with me.
I’ll never get Korn and Limp Bizkit. I’ll always consider nü-metal a symptom of the nihilism, self-absorption, and arrogance percolating in American culture in the late ’90s, before it flowered into something really ugly a few years later. I find nothing inspiring about this music. I feel that I am right about this. But I suspect this opinion is meaningless, because I’m just playing the role nü-metal wanted me to play. I was the adult now. The '90s were almost over and they put me right back where I started, on the outside looking in.
What Happened Next? It’s the electrifying conclusion of Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation! Woodstock ’99 is remembered as the Altamont of the '90s; I'll wade through the detritus and try to figure out what one of rock's biggest disasters says about the decade that spawned it.