Was nu metal actually as bad as all the jokes would have us believe?
Admittedly, its purveyors did look funny. I mean, the lead singers/emcees often wore white-boy dreads, which at best resembled a fallen crown of hair on the head of a boy prince whose father would never let him rule. “Every nu-metal band has to have a bald member and somebody with dreadlocks,” Paul Gargano, executive editor of Metal Edge noted back in 2002. “It’s in the rulebook. A memo went out somewhere.” There were also a lot of crazy masks and face paint (particularly covering the visage of Wes Borland, arguably the most talented musician among the bunch). Such mute facelessness gave the proceedings a dark allure and a carnivalesque feel, along with an undeniable level of camp.
As for the music itself, it mostly gets written off as “the worst genre of all time” and dismissed as “white boys who can’t rap, so they play metal and scream dumb rhymes.” Or maybe more scathing still, it’s considered the soundtrack for entitled white guys who fancied themselves the stars of their own coming-of-age movies, like a playlist of suburban self-pity, but set to a funky bassline.
Yet, if you look at the bands more closely, there was far more diversity than these punchlines would suggest. For instance, I don’t think System of a Down would call themselves white boys. I know Lajon Witherspoon, the lead singer of Sevendust, doesn’t. And I doubt Chino Moreno, lead singer of the Deftones, would. Nor would Mike Shinoda, emcee of Linkin Park. In fact, Shinoda explicitly pointed this out in a 2015 NME interview: “We never held the flag for nu metal — it was associated with frat rock. Arrogant, misogynistic and full of testosterone; we were reacting against that.”
That’s fair. But what if it’s also wrong? Not Shinoda’s opinion necessarily, but this accepted description of nu metal. What if it’s just a lazy cultural stereotype, but one that had legs because it was so much fun to laugh at all the chain wallets?
Going one step further, what if all the easy nu-metal jokes miss the truth that it started out as a criticism of inherited modes of masculinity?
Wouldn’t that be wild — if nu metal was right all along, but we missed it because we mostly fixated on goofing on Fred Durst? If you look at our culture today, young men are just as angry as they were in the late 1990s/early aughts. They’re just as likely to want to break shit. Maybe even more so. Certainly, there’s no shortage of male anger born of neglect and unaddressed emotions. In that regard, I think it’s fair to say that nu metal tried to warn us about male rage, but instead of listening, we laughed at their masks.
All of which is to say, perhaps nu metal deserves some reconsideration. Not for its campy qualities, not for its outrageous moments, but rather for what it had to say, and for the permission it gave its fans to feel things.
To conduct a proper reappraisal, I convened a roundtable of the following five nu-metal experts (appropriately socially-distanced, and executed over numerous emails and phone calls):
- Ross Robinson: Super-producer and “Godfather of Nu Metal”
- Kim Kelly: Journalist and labor activist
- Kevin Nguyen: Features editor at The Verge and novelist
- Luke O’Neil: Author and frontman of the band No Hope / No Harm
- Magdalene Taylor: MEL’s resident nu-metal expert
Then, I presented them with a heretofore unfathomable notion: In hindsight, was nu metal actually meaningful and good, especially as it pertained to masculine aggression?
Let’s start with the name of the genre — nu metal. Many of its bands hated it. What are your thoughts?Kelly: It’s a pretty goofy, clunky name, especially given the widespread disagreement over whether or not to include an umlaut or a hyphen. Not unlike rap-rock, its closely related spiritual predecessor, nu metal has a sort of off-brand, welded-together feel that reflects its existence at an extremely specific point in time, at a somewhat cursed crossroads between multiple genres that didn’t always fit very well. It also rapidly acquired such a stigma that it makes sense that some bands rejected the moniker, which for a while was used as a broad blanket term for “yelling music you might catch on TRL” and lumped together bands with quite disparate sounds. But I dare you to tell me with a straight face that System of a Down, Kittie, CKY and Powerman 5000 are all the same genre.
O’Neil: Most bands that get placed into whatever the new genre of the moment is tend to try to distance themselves from the name. This was always true, and it’s still true to an extent with emo bands, which has always been my favorite genre. Artists are usually not reliable judges of their own work, or where it stands in the bigger picture.
Taylor: Considering the era, analyzing nu metal as a response to grunge and then the previous incarnations of metal that happened before, then, yeah, it does feel “new” to me. In general, genre is loose. It doesn’t mean that much, anyway. You can hear influences of it elsewhere, for sure, but there isn’t a genre of metal that feels quite as funk-influenced. In that sense, it’s not “nu” at all. In fact, it’s as early rock as it gets. Maybe that’s why the “nu” works, as it suggests a secondary type of new-ness.
In terms of the music, what does nu metal sound like? How do you know it when you hear it? Which bands would you say epitomize the best of nu metal, and which bands epitomizes the worst of it?
Kelly: It’s hard to say, since the actual sonic tenets of the genre are so loose and cover so much ground. As for bands who aged well — System of a Down, Slipknot and Linkin Park (RIP Chester) have done well for themselves. As for the losers, just have a quick look at Trapt’s Twitter.
Robinson: The best is when you listen to them, and you get that incredible chill over your body. We know what that is; it’s life-altering. The worst is when somebody goes up there and just wears the clothes and has the look.
Taylor: Korn epitomizes nu metal in its purest, culturally influential form. Korn also seems to truly, earnestly embody that aforementioned “nu”-ness. Jonathan Davis wanted to make a fucking funk band. [Korn bassist] Fieldy has said that he never listened to The Beatles. I think Fieldy is also largely responsible for that molasses-thick style of bass downtuning. They were really just doing their damn thing. Davis’ confessional style and his style of scat singing made a mark as well as to what nu metal emotionally represented. It was a type of metal that utilized the stereotypes of aggressive masculinity and its mediums to express trauma and the abject.
Limp Bizkit obviously epitomizes the worst kind of nu metal for a lot of people — but I really like it for what it is. For me, they represent the more fun, “fuck you,” stupid type of nu metal rock/rap.
Ross, you produced Korn’s first album, which became the blueprint for nu-metal’s sound. How did you and the band conceive of it. That is, what did you guys set out to record, since nu metal didn’t exist yet?Robinson: On the first Korn record, I had no idea what I was fucking doing. But I knew I wanted to build a pyramid — something that would last and last and last. To do that takes letting go, and humility. If somebody is freaking out and they’re getting in their heads and all that, the thing is to be the example and to say, “If you see me freaking out, then you have the permission to freak out. But if you see me acting like everything’s okay… Just let me be the barometer of freak out or cool.”
And so, I had to do a lot of fucking work to hold that space when people were being vulnerable. It’s a scary thing to do, man. It’s pretty traumatic. We’d go so deep and get so vulnerable that a lot of times I didn’t hear from dudes ever again. [Laughs]
You said Korn was the first metal band that wanted to truly show real emotions above wanting to look or sound cool.
Robinson: I think if they went into a studio and it was a sterile environment — or it was like a Mötley Crüe environment — the records wouldn’t have had that same vulnerable push. We were there to tell stories. And to feel deeply. Not to “Make sure it’s in tune correctly,” and all that stuff. That doesn’t have anything to do with unleashing vulnerable fury.
Looking back, it’s easy to make fun of nu metal. But was the genre any sillier than Hair Metal, or even Death Metal? Were nu-metal bands unfairly maligned?
O’Neil: I think so. I tend to frame most of my music experience through the lens of emo, which was also always considered this big joke by people who weren’t paying attention. What we’re talking about when we talk about nu metal and emo are the obviously corny, melodramatic outliers that end up standing for the whole genre. It’s a shorthand to be dismissive. I hate that shit. I hate jokes about Nickelback because it’s just so lazy and hacky. I feel the same about Limp Bizkit to an extent. They were never a favorite of mine, but they were obviously doing something that resonated with a lot of people.
Maybe it’s just that I’m older now and don’t feel the need to define my personality by my music consumption, but even more so than that, I don’t feel the need to define my personality by the music I exclude. That is a big part of finding your identity when you’re young. “I like this” is key, but so is, “I don’t like this.” It’s all just people trying to find where they belong, and a lot of that is being a dick to the things you think being a dick to will make others think you’re cool.
Robinson: People want to knock nu metal down to feel good about themselves — “I exist because you suck over there.” It’s kind of like the way I see the politics of our president — he has an identity because he has enemies. It’s the haters who give him value.
Taylor: It definitely wasn’t any sillier, and to think so is pretentious. Nu metal — like many genres of metal — is fully embodied in a working-class experience. But nu metal is particularly honest about this class experience. It was definitely embodied in its whiteness, too, maybe more so than other metal genres. Because nu metal seemed more willing to admit what it was taking from Black culture. From an idealized perception at least, it seemed as though it took from Black culture and musical influence without trying to pretend it was something totally different. This is what I like about Korn and Limp Bizkit — they presented themselves as white trash, borrowing from other influences, and didn’t try to be any loftier than that.
Nguyen: All popular stuff is made fun of eventually, right? In reconsidering nu metal, what’s sort of interesting about nearly every nu-metal song is that they’re all attempts at being good pop songs, buried under the veneer of guitars, some rap-rock and angst-y lyrics. Because how many nu-metal songs deviate from a traditional pop structure for songs — besides some of System of a Down’s songs? It’s funny, the ones that actually hold up, I don’t think anyone’s like, “This song is more emotional and meaningful than the others.” It’s like some of them just have better hooks.
Kelly: Nu metal’s most useful function was as a gateway to other, arguably more complex or cerebral kinds of aggressive music. Some of the kids I grew up with took nu metal and branched off into hip hop; others got into industrial; still others got deeper into extreme metal (and some of them have stuck with nu metal).
Nu metal’s status as a transitional genre has meant that it hasn’t been afforded much respect. In addition, I believe that the fact that nu metal was noticeably more diverse than much of the mainstream rock or heavy metal bands of the era was a contributing factor to the way it was dismissed and denigrated. There were a significant number of people of color, queer folks and women involved in the genre’s heyday (see Sevendust, Coal Chamber, P.O.D., Flyleaf, Kittie, Straight Line Stitch, Otep, Fear Factory, hed PE, Spineshank, Ill Nino, etc.).
So for a subculture as overwhelmingly white, male, cis, straight and drenched in toxic masculinity as mainstream hard rock/metal was in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the relative diversity on stage gave close-minded types yet another excuse to discount nu metal’s impact. This has been a working theory of mine for a long time, augmented by my own experiences as, first, a teenage girl and, then, a young woman in the heavy metal scene. The gatekeepers felt threatened by this new wave of Black and brown and female and queer voices, and pushed back.
How would you respond to those who say, “Nu metal is just white guys who can’t rap, so instead they shout”?
Kelly: I think a lot of people who were actually listening to the music and paying attention to this weird, disjointed scene realized that it wasn’t just white guys who hated their dads and grew terrible facial hair; there was some legitimately revolutionary shit happening. It was just buried under unfortunate distortion choices, awkward rapping and dubious samples.
Nguyen: It’s obviously influenced by hip hop, but it was never really trying to imitate hip hop. Most of these guys weren’t out there trying to improve their flow or their freestyle or anything like that. There are, as with all music, lightly appropriated things, but it was never the intention that nu metal would replace hip hop or try to be like hip hop. It barely resembles it.
Taylor: Again, nu metal was attempting to draw from funk and disco. With that interpretation, nu metal is actually incredibly innovative. It doesn’t sound like fucking anything else, which seems rare and honorable to me. Maybe sub-culturally it didn’t reach the level of punk, but it had a far greater impact on the larger culture. They don’t play Black Flag on rock stations. They do, however, play Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, System of a Down and all the others.
Kelly: There was definitely a punk element to what a lot of these bands were trying to do. They had that same anger. They had that same disillusionment with mainstream society. They had that same “fuck you, I’m going to dress as weird and be as loud and confrontational as I can to show that I’m not like you” vibe. But they steered clear of politics, and instead, they accessed a deeper well of emotion, showing a more vulnerable aspect of the more aggressive package. A lot of these songwriters and lyricists were absolutely miserable, using the music to process their own trauma or abuse or trying to make something that resonated with other depressed, lonely kids who felt like outsiders. There was a real earnestness to what was being presented, but it was still often bundled with this over-the-top machismo, so the message was left muddled.
A solid example of nu metal’s push for “real earnestness” is Korn’s “Faget,” which discusses homophobic bullying and toxic stereotypes. Ross, what was it like recording that track?
Robinson: That was the band’s closer whenever they played live before they got signed. And it would always just slay. Honestly, I don’t think we captured it as well as I remember the shows being. It’s one of those things where I’d like to go back in time and redo it. It feels a little held back somehow. Maybe it was the day. It’s still great, but I do remember there being much more emotion and emotional pull. “Daddy” is always the king for me. I love that song.
Was it difficult to help Jonathan get to the place of emotional rawness that he reaches at the end of that song? He’s sobbing by the end of the track.
Robinson: All I did was I went into the vocal booth and said, “You know what to do, right?” That was it. There was no holdback. I looked him in the eye and probably held his arms or something, and said, “You know what to do, right?” And he said, “Mm-hmm.” I don’t think either of us has recorded anything as badass since.
Did you get chills when it was being recorded?
Robinson: Oh, dude. Everybody’s fucking faces were full of tears; it just slayed everybody. Best thing to happen for all of us. It’s the foundation of that band, man. That one song right there. For metal to have something like that in it, for the first time in history is like… You can’t fuck with it. It’s the forbidden zone. And they went there. All of them.
If every genre of rock has something to say and prove, what did nu metal have to say and prove?
O’Neil: It obviously gave voice to a segment of the population whose alienation wasn’t being well served. There’s a lot of class shit behind the way nu metal was maligned. A lot of the jokes about it were about the déclassé taste of poorer or working people who weren’t sophisticated enough to like the proper type of music like fucking Radiohead or whatever college kids were into when it was around.
Nguyen: It’s interesting, we talk mostly disparagingly about male rage, but there’s something meaningful there. It’s like dudes do have feelings, right? Even if nu metal was mostly a reaction to boy bands, there was this unspoken majority of white men who were mad, too. And maybe that’s what happened in the election two years ago. The culture tends to somehow ignore this large swath of the population. Then it gets angry, and it’s like, “Yeah, even if you think their opinions are shitty or their rage is a form of entitlement, it still exists — and they still exist.”
Robinson: The dudes weren’t angry all the time. Not at all. There was so much laughter. But, musically, whatever my influence on the band was, issues were coming up, and they’d hurt. And they didn’t feel good. I wanted people to expose those issues. I wanted to feel my issues come up. That way I didn’t have to fucking suffer anymore. I always felt like it was a ministry of healing, through the band, or through whatever I was working on. That was the main focus for us: Healing, and recovery from mental suffering. It wasn’t about, “Oh, let’s be like, ‘We’re angry together.’” Not at all. It was more, “Let’s heal, so we can get through this stuff and not suffer anymore.”
Kelly: As a musical entity, nu metal definitely had more misses than hits, but as a cultural phenomenon, it’s a fascinating time capsule of such a specific cultural moment. The late 1990s and early 2000s were a bizarre time to be a certain kind of teenager. Hot Topic mall goths ruled the food court, UFO pants were all the rage, dyeing your hair with Kool-Aid was cool and piercing your ears with safety pins during history class was the height of adolescent badassery.
Nu metal offered a primal, angsty scream that resonated incredibly deeply with a generation of oddballs. And now that a lot of us have grown up and consigned our black lipstick and fishnet shirts to the dustbin of history, its enduring impact and continuing, unexpected relevance within the greater history of aggressive rock music offers a rich field of study.