Now I know y’all be lovin’ this shit right here
— Limp Bizkit, “Rollin’ (Air Raid Vehicle)”
When I was eight, my friends and I all got a bunch of crappy instruments and started a band — if memory serves, we initially called ourselves the Tongue Twisters but over the next few years, we’d change the band’s name countless times, even add the occasional member here and there. My friend’s parents were really cool, so naturally they let us practice in their basement. We were falling in love with music, but that didn’t mean we knew how to play it. We were just in that basement fiddling around and making a racket. It was like the Charlie Brown Christmas play before the Peanuts gang got their shit together.
Bulldozing through the last years of elementary school and into junior high, my friends and I started to actually “write” music together and, for what it’s worth, some guitar lessons helped us rein in our energy enough to actually nail down a few numbers. Soon, music became my identity. I was merely a prism through which music was being beamed; as I moved through space, the shape of the music changed accordingly.
Anyhow, besides a Los Lobos Earth Day thing that I wound up at when I was seven or eight, my friends and I still hadn’t been to an honest-to-goodness live rock concert until November 7, 1998, when we somehow managed to convince my friends’ parents to take us to see Korn at the Tsongas Center at UMass in Lowell. That show opened the door to a new world that would put us at odds with adults for at least the next year.
The Korn concert was absolutely insane. It was nothing like Los Lobos. I hardly remember the band even being on stage. There was all this dystopian, sci-fi shit going on, like steam shooting from pipes and black light-sensitive fabrics popping off, while strobe lights flashed out of control. What really sent my friends’ mom over the edge was the porno. As I remember it, there was outrageous pornography everywhere (or at least on the backdrop as the band played) and we were barely teenagers (and access to that sort of thing wasn’t what it is today). Having known the band from their songs on the radio, I can remember that the “edginess” of the music took on an entirely new dimension during the live show. This crudely spectacular, coincidental Bildungsroman was downright revelatory for a group of young boys; it shocked my friends’ mom into a kind of stoic madness, her mouth agape and her head just kind of rocking back and forth.
This was a major win for us kids. We weren’t trying to be malicious or anything and, to be fair, my friends’ mom and dad never used the Korn experience as an opportunity to censor the music we consumed, but it effectively marked the moment when they simply could not comprehend something that was perfectly clear to us.
My friends and I would still have band practice at their house, but we started to emulate Korn more and more. We had the same old crappy guitars, but at some point I tried to augment mine by putting a bass string on it to mimic the seven-string guitar sound popularized by Munky and Head, Korn’s distinctive guitarists. Full disclosure: I did eventually get an actual seven-string guitar once nü metal became popular enough in the mainstream to warrant the sale of the instrument at Guitar Center. This video gives a pretty concise idea of where the Korn guitarists were coming from during the halcyon days of the band.
At any rate, we took over the basement entirely as our own (except for the washer and dryer) and made it look and feel like a live show was always happening. We repurposed Halloween decorations, invested in fog machines, strobe lights and lava lamps — crap you could get at Spencer’s Gifts. We spent as much time making the basement look like a stage as we did using it as a stage. Our hope at the time was for a producer or industry bigwig to drive by the house one day, hear us wailing away and sign us immediately, but of course our best hope was performing at the eighth grade talent show.
The talent show was just before Christmas vacation, and we decided to play Korn’s “Blind” and Limp Bizkit’s cover of the George Michael song “Faith” — the Limp Bizkit thing was mostly an appeal to the judges, because we knew no one in their right mind was going to vote us as the best performance at the talent show solely based on our ability to imitate Korn. Everything seemed to be in our favor: Our competition consisted of one girl re-enacting that Britney Spears video where she’s on Mars, and some jock-type bros lip-syncing to an N’Sync song — “Bye Bye Bye,” I think it was — so we were the only actually live musical act. And some of the N’Sync dudes even wanted to participate in our Limp Bizkit cover because that shit was huge at the time, even in the bro community.
In fact, Limp Bizkit’s popularity was soaring in general as the millennium came to a close and nü metal was experiencing its real commercial peak. Freaks and weirdos listened to Korn and more conceptually aggressive acts like Slipknot, Mudvayne and Mushroomhead, but Limp Bizkit managed to petition directly to the everyman, so much so that their greatest musical asset, the showboating, exhibitionist nü metal diplomat Wes Borland, functioned as barely more than the glittery bobble-head doll affixed to Durst & Co.’s otherwise conventional sedan of rap-rock. While Marilyn Manson and Tool’s Maynard James Keenan were competing for the honor of being the one who “actually” removed some ribs so they could fellate themselves (if you chose to believe the Teenager Rumor Mill), Limp Bizkit was blowing up a crappy old boat in Cancun during MTV’s Spring Break fashion show thing, which, unlike sucking your own dick, could appeal to the masses, and did. Limp Bizkit’s juvenile displays and general aesthetic invited increased scrutiny of the edgier acts while establishing themselves as hard rock’s kinda bad good ol’ boys.
We won the eighth grade talent show, and I can still remember feeling proud walking through the halls afterwards as the last few days of the twentieth century faded away. It was as if my friends and I had made a winning argument for the nü metal genre in the tiny universe we occupied as losers most other days. It turned out to be the only time I would ever play nü metal in front of a live audience.
From its most cartoonish characteristics to its most genuinely frightening, nü metal’s constitution relied on a conceptual diagnosis of mankind as ugly, selfish and cruel. Bands under the nü metal umbrella accepted a harsh duality by simultaneously embodying the bleak reality they painted in their music, while assuming the unlikely role of leaders of a force rallying against their oppressors — basically any person that might have made you into the freak you’d become. Nü metal was a scarlet letter and a badge of honor all the same.
I like to think that there’s an alternate universe where, if the apocalyptic computer-meltdown scenario that was predicted for Y2K had actually happened, nü metal would have expanded from musical genre to political party. On the actual New Year’s Eve, when the world was supposed to end, I had no understanding of the depths of my musical ignorance. I had latched onto a sub-genre that spoke to and through me, and for that I was kind of numbly grateful — but no more grateful than someone who’d been stockpiling canned goods and filtered water for the impending apocalypse might have been after that whole thing didn’t pan out. I guess they’d have their rations and I’d have my nylon Sam Goody CD case with nü metal CDs in it, tucked behind their jackets, ready to be played, I guess, whenever. Shrug-worthy; neither here nor there.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Woodstock ’99. Woodstock ’99 was kind of like Jurassic Park: in theory, from a marketing perspective, it was a fantastic idea, but a terrible one in execution. Born of arrogance and without enough attention paid to what could possibly go wrong, everyone outside of the general public only saw dollar signs flashing before their eyes. In the words of John Hammond, the promoters of the festival “spared no expense” in cultivating a Woodstock facsimile, but with all the modern creature comforts of the time. A brief digression: an acquaintance of mine was at Woodstock ’99 and he told me that there was actually a fully stocked and operational hardware store set up on site, presumably for festival-goers’ convenience in case they’d forgotten to pack some crucial hardware for setting up camp. But no one took into consideration the possibility that someone might loot a chainsaw if shit got crazy. But looted a chainsaw was and shit indeed got crazy — most notably during Limp Bizkit’s performance of their song “Break Stuff,” when a whole lot of people… broke stuff. If the anti-MTV, Tipper Gore-praising parents of incorrigible youth needed a new slide for their PowerPoint presentation about how fucked-up the kids are these days, they sure got one out of Limp Bizkit’s performance at Woodstock ’99.
A lot of wind got taken out of nü metal’s sails after that, because here was a band inciting riots with no clear message besides “break stuff.” Suddenly it became clear that, yeah, you’re right, to be a Limp Bizkit fan also meant being a total dickhead. And, for better or worse, that sentiment spread to other bands that were associated with Limp Bizkit. For me, this was a meaningful moment.
As junior high school and the 20th century came to an end, so did my interest in nü metal. The genre no longer held any kind of real significance for me and instead seemed cartoonish and laughable. I was no longer dazzled by the musicians, whom I had once thought were virtuosic, and I was embarrassed to have so blindly endorsed something that was revealing itself to be less and less legitimate to many people. I think I traded my seven-string guitar for a Sega Dreamcast and I agonized over amassing so much corny shit from Spencer’s Gifts. If Y2K’s lackluster beginning was something like pulling back the curtain on the pitiful Wizard of Oz, then suddenly nü metal was like a minor concussion sustained during a tornado.
Finally, the whole damn culture became so unrecognizable and scorned that its members either attempted to ride out their careers in the mainstream, virtually castrated and forced to alter themselves to keep up with changing tastes, or to retreat into the shadows from whence they came.
When I stopped listening to nü metal, I tried to ignore the fact that I’d ever liked it. But having created a void, I became determined to fill it. It was like the first of many awkward breakups that would decrease in intensity as I had more new experiences and continued to understand myself better. My expectations changed as I got into and grew out of certain bands and genres, and being let down and starting fresh became a familiar cycle until a certain point when the void spilled over. Once you’re certifiably obsessed with music, it doesn’t really matter where your journey began.
Along my pivotal voyage, my older brother introduced me to NOFX’s 1995 I Heard They Suck Live! And, whether he knew it or not, my brother provided me with a scent to track and changed my life forever, again.
On September 6, 2001, Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin'” famously won the award for Best Rock Video at the MTV Video Music Awards. In the video, Durst and his cronies hump the air and flail around in their trademark goofy-ass way on top of the south tower of the World Trade Center. For the few days between receiving the coveted “Moonman” award and, you know, 9/11, Limp Bizkit owned a bit of cultural significance there, however inextricably unfortunate.
For me, Limp Bizkit’s VMA award has become a watershed moment. The internet has functioned as a kind of Pet Semetary for the sort of shit that used to run its course and die away. Because the same barometers no longer exist to determine what is the best, anything can be the best. It’s precisely that sort of fertile cultural landscape that allows for nü metal-esque anomalies to exist in the first place. As such, it allows for weird kids like me to find something they feel belongs to them. I don’t spend too much time arguing the merits of nü metal to people who missed the craze because, frankly, I don’t think it has many merits. So I’m not a nü metal apologist but it is interesting to talk to other musician friends who were similarly affected by the impact it had on the mainstream. For what it’s worth, I think that nü metal provided a lookout point for curious kids getting into music, and that investigating some of its key players under a microscope actually provides a pretty interesting understanding of the apparatus that allows certain bands to be considered mainstream, while leaving what’s left over to divide and build other communities.
It’s funny to imagine the Slipknot or Korn guys starting out in a garage or a basement, touring in a shitty van, without any sort of record label pressure or audience to please and working their way up to selling multi-platinum records and packing out arena shows, but that’s exactly what they did, and that fact had a massive effect on my friends and me: Korn inspired us to make music. There was the implication that anyone could do it, that music didn’t have to sound nice to be popular, and with that foundation to build from, it was conclusively impossible not to become a better musician and rabidly seek out new forms of inspiration. Maybe not the most ideal building blocks but eventually I got into the Velvet Underground, didn’t I?