Was It Really All Just For the Nookie? A Rational Explanation of Nu-Metal
Who among us has never had their tender heart put in a blender?
Nu-metal -- that regrettable, windbreaker-adorned, late-‘90s chapter in the storied book of heavy metal -- has always been (even at the time) potentially the most reviled musical genre since disco. Was it the rampant testosterone and misogyny? Was it the embarrassing attempts at rapping by white kids from suburban Jacksonville? Or was it that nu-metal provided an all too accurate reflection of society -- one of festering inequality of social classes, lingering racial tension and the once almighty record industry’s Machiavellian efforts to conceal a changing technological and ideological landscape?
Probably one of the first two.
The formula was simple.
Although there were certainly exceptions, nu-metal was embraced by the sweaty middle class masses not in spite of but because of its distinct lack of substance. The formula was simple: Combine bass-thumping metal with squealing guitar, uncomfortable lyrics and an urban hip-hop influence with good old-fashioned, manufactured teenage angst.
For a quintessential example, this is Vanilla Ice’s obligatory nu-metal reworking of ‘Ice Ice Baby' produced by Ross Robinson (the Phil Spector of nu-metal):
Although Aerosmith and Run DMC collaborated on a rap-rock remake of 'Walk This Way' in 1986, the origins of nu-metal are typically traced back to Anthrax and their 1987 song, 'I'm the Man.' Originally intended to serve as an over-the-top parody of the Beastie Boys and the ongoing infusion of rock and hip-hop, it wound up creating a viable template for countless bands to follow.
Still, it took until 1994 and the release of the self-titled debut album by SoCal-based Korn for nu-metal to surface in its most recognizable form. While frontman Jonathan Davis did far more singing, growling and screaming than rapping, the underlying hip-hop aesthetic was apparent in the band's clothes; Davis' syncopated, often spoken vocals; and the obvious emphasis on bass which owed as much to the likes of experimental alternative outfits like Primus as it did Public Enemy.
But perhaps the most important element Korn added to the mix was Davis' unrestrained confessional lyricism ('Daddy' was about Davis being molested when he was 12) which turned him into a sort of hyper-emotional man-child that established a hallmark of nu-metal: exposing emotional vulnerabilities in the lyrics while compensating with an overwhelming amount of masculinity in the music.
However, Korn -- despite being credited (or blamed, depending on who you ask) for the advent of nu-metal -- have always managed to hang onto at least a shred of credibility due to the band's firm roots in dyed-in-the-wool metal that inspired the likes of still-beloved nu-metal survivors like Slipknot and System of a Down, both of whom morphed into legitimately evocative metal legends.
No, the true poster boys for nu-metal came three years after Korn hit the mainstream, emerging out of Florida with a frontman who epitomized stereotypical mall thugs everywhere and equipped with another widely embraced aspect of nu-metal: an unexpected '80s cover song. In 1997, Limp Bizkit -- who signed their first record deal after opening for Korn -- released 'Counterfeit' as the first single from their debut, 'Three Dollar Bill, Y'all,' but it was their schizophrenic version of George Michael's 'Faith' that made them household shames. (For more nu-metal covers, see also: Orgy's 'Blue Monday,' Alien Ant Farm's 'Smooth Criminal,' Coal Chamber's 'Shock the Monkey' and myriad others.)
After that, the next three years or so essentially belonged to nu-metal while Korn and Limp Bizkit opened the door for a seemingly endless parade of bands embracing the aesthetic in one way or another. Some would eventually go on to transcend the genre (Deftones, Linkin Park) but most (Disturbed, Papa Roach, Drowning Pool, Dope, Adema, etc.) provided little more than lowest common denominator radio fodder that, at its best, inspired more quasi-talented musicians to pick up an instrument and see if they could do it themselves.
Maybe all of the genre's excess and theatrics were a necessary reaction to the demise of grunge.
Still, that's not the only residual effect nu-metal had on the music landscape. Maybe all of the genre's excess and theatrics were a necessary reaction to the demise of grunge -- a scene synonymous with shunning the spotlight. Without nu-metal, the world would've jumped straight from Alice In Chains and Soundgarden into the rock likes of Creed, Nickelback and Three Doors Down -- and that's an even more jarring transition than the one nu-metal provided. One could also argue that while, yes, the rapping in the vast majority of nu-metal songs that employed it was so horrible it cheapened legitimate rap by association, the movement exposed new musical genres to huge portions of listeners who never would've listened to hip-hop, funk or industrial music otherwise.
It all also eventually led to the rise of metalcore (which swapped out rap influence with hardcore), and that's a genre that's since splintered into nearly every sect of popular metal that exists today. Consider also that nu-metal also popularized the idea of featuring two vocalists (it used to be one singer and one rapper, now it's one singer providing "clean" vocals and one screamer) and also expanded on grunge's loud-quiet-loud dynamic to allow for metal songs to start, stop and completely redefine themselves right in the middle. After all, is there really so much separating Limp Bizkit from hugely popular current bands like Emmure? (The below video has language that's NSFW.)
It's certainly possible that we've all been a little too hard on nu-metal.
While many like Korn and the gang have continued on during the past decade -- albeit with considerably less widespread appeal -- most nu-metal outfits that have withstood the backlash did so by distancing themselves from the trappings of the '90s.
Nobody's saying we should be handing out lifetime achievement awards to Powerman 5000, but it's certainly possible that we've all been a little too hard on nu-metal. Like any genre, it had its share of winners and losers. But remove it from our collective consciousness entirely and I'll bet a part of your brain that's been dormant since 2000 will immediately send you an impulse to ask someone to give you something to break -- and you'd never know why.