A great man once sang, “Pain and rage and fear I feel!” That man was Jonathan Davis of Korn, on the band’s second album, Life Is Peachy, released 20 years ago this week. Life Is Peachy would eventually go double platinum, helping lead nü-metal’s charge up the charts. How has the soundtrack to so much teen angst aged? Remarkably well, actually.
Well — some aspects more than others. Sometimes, when the world seems horrible and you hate yourself, the only thing to do is listen to nü-metal. With its cathartic, bone-grinding riffs, and lyrics so dark they’re sometimes very silly, nü-metal is still fun to listen to. Now that it has lost its status as music’s top scary youth culture boogeyman (to EDM), it’s interesting to go back and consider nü-metal as music for the ages.
Korn lead singer Jonathan Davis’s dad was a keyboardist who played for Bakersfield country legend Buck Owens and Los Angeles king weirdo Frank Zappa. Formed out of the ashes of two Bakersfield bands — SexArt and L.A.P.D. (originally Love And Peace Dude, later Laughing As People Die) — Korn arrived in 1993 into the burgeoning “alternative metal” scene, which would morph into “nü-metal” the way “college rock” became “alternative rock.” With aspects of thrash and goth, the ascent of nü-metal ran tandem with rap-rock. While the narrative has become that hair metal was extinguished by grunge — Mötley Crüe by Nirvana — you could just as easily say that hair metal lost its edge in the late ’80s to rap. Who could possibly still think Mötley Crüe was dangerous or subversive in a world where you could listen to Public Enemy and Ice-T? The movement to grunge was a stylistic shift, but, groups like Hole and Smashing Pumpkins aside, the mainstream rock landscape remained almost exclusively white and dominated by all-male bands.
Nü-metal filled a weird spot for kids who were alienated but not interested in the cooler kind of alienation offered by alternative music. Claiming blue-collar roots as foundation, like L.A. punk, it opened up for whoever identified with its message of anger. Korn explored a lot of the same topics as Nirvana — feeling like an outsider, rejecting a deeply ingrained culture of toxic masculinity, being sad that your parents hate each other, being sad that adults are full of shit. They absorbed some of the glam aspects of hair metal, too — the long hair and nail polish; the idea of wearing eyeliner not to be beautiful like hair metal's male vixens, but as a shield of separation from the world, like goths.
Prior to Korn, the Bakersfield sound had been defined by Merle Haggard (technically born in nearby Oildale) and Buck Owens, whose Crystal Palace in Bakersfield was the Californian equivalent of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. One of Merle’s biggest hits, “Okie from Muskogee,” is a paean to authority: anti-LSD, anti–long hair on men, anti-anti-war. Released in 1969, it spoke to the so-called “silent majority” that elected Nixon; while it speaks of being an “Okie” from Oklahoma, it could just as easily have been speaking for the California conservatives in places like Bakersfield and Orange County. While California generally votes blue and has a public reputation as a socially and politically liberal place, It is also a hotbed of conservatism, the cradle of both Nixon and Reagan. Haggard later said he sometimes wished he’d never written the song because most people didn’t understand that it was satire.
Life Is Peachy opens with “Twist,” which consists of about a minute of Jonathan Davis’s trademark guttural scatting and the sole lyric: “twist.” Every song is anchored by the genuinely sick bass playing of Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu (nicknamed for Garfield the Cat), who cites fellow California bass-slappers like Flea and Les Claypool as influences. Just as Flea adds depth to the sometimes very goofy Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fieldy ensures that Korn never gets too silly and always has an extremely tight groove. And while guitars always crunch and chug, rap-rock and nü-metal encouraged something of a less guitar-centric hierarchy of instruments in rock bands. It was the “rap” element that led to experimenting with less traditional rock instruments like turntables and allowed sometimes backgrounded instruments like bass, drums, and synths — and, in Korn's case, bagpipes — to take center stage. Davis’s vocals work toward being instrumental, too: His guttural scatting and scary whispering are products of a beautiful voice that he uses like a prepared piano.
Because it was a movement born of California, nü-metal produced rock stars that reflected the Golden State's diversity — like Mexican-Asian-American Deftones vocalist and guitarist Chino Moreno (Sacramento), Linkin Park’s Japanese-American rapper Mike Shinoda (Agoura Hills), and P.O.D.’s Mexican-Italian-Hawaiian-Chamorro frontman Sonny Sandoval. System of a Down’s prog-metal deals directly with the toll of the Armenian genocide on the band’s Armenian-American families. And because the makeup of these bands was relatively diverse, it contributed to the idea that suburban alienation was never just for white boys. Many of these California suburbs and towns were built as outposts for white flight, places that diversified despite themselves, against the will of racist city planning, after California outlawed anti-miscegenation laws in 1948. On Life Is Peachy Korn briefly cover War’s “Lowrider,” and Chino Moreno does Ice Cube’s verses on a nü-metalish cover of “Wicked.” These covers are the best argument for nü-metal being a meeting point of eclectic influences, experimenting with putting genres and sounds together for the first time the way the multi-ethnic members of Long Beach’s War did when they combined Latin funk, jazz, rock, and reggae.
Korn created a male version of kinderwhore, going deep into the perversion of childhood icons and the tragedy of puberty. The band’s imagery often show kids in some kind of adult or creepy situation, like the cover of Life Is Peachy, which depicts a boy looking in the mirror and seeing a large looming phantom self. This is an album that has a song called “Mr. Rogers,” about Davis’s loss of faith when he found out that PBS mainstay Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had lied to him about the fundamental nature of humanity. The album’s best song and biggest single, “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” is an evergreen teenage anthem about how miserable it is to be horny all the time, its guitars ringing like sirens as its drums hump a hole in the grass. Davis sings the “All day I dream about sex” chorus, another playground reference to the title’s made-up acronym. It proves what a tightly rhythmic band Korn can be at their best. The goth video for that song helped turn Korn into MTV stars, a tradition that continued in 1998 when Total Request Live began and it turned out that nü-metal fans are the only other fanbase with as much time to call in and vote every day as pop music stans.
On Life Is Peachy, Korn continue a tradition begun with a song called “Faget” on their 1994 self-titled album: Jonathan Davis sings gay slurs about himself in the voice of his childhood bullies. On “Swallow,” he sings, “Punk ass sissy, I’m a freak.” There’s a purposely ridiculous song called “Kunts!” that they wrote with the idea that kids fucking love songs where you curse a lot. The lyrics start with “Fuck you titty sucking two balled bitch with a fat green clit” and go from there. It’s too stupid to be truly offensive, but there’s a difference between the nonsensical Chili Peppers–esque free-association of a song like “Kunts!” and the intense internalized homophobia of a song like “Faget,” which starts with Davis screaming “HIV!” (supposedly a playground taunt he endured) and ends with him screaming “You motherfucking queers!”
And this is the uncomfortable crux of nü-metal: Songs about feeling marginalized, which use words like “faggot,” “queer,” and “sissy,” always sound weird when you hear a room full of straight guys, even alienated ones, chanting them. On the one hand, you want to congratulate them for realizing that gender roles oppress men as much as women. But straight dudes, even a bullied straight dude who was called these names for years, cannot reclaim or repurpose these gay slurs, no matter their intentions. No matter how many times Eminem tells us he didn’t actually hate gay people or women, he hasn’t stopped using gay slurs in a derogatory way or rapping about beating up women. There’s only so long you can blame teen-boy socialization before you’re just a hateful adult reinforcing crusty old belief systems. Davis says he wrote “Faget” about how he got called gay in school for liking Duran Duran, and while he's publicly endorsed his belief in gay marriage, Korn still also performs “Faget” live, most recently during a fall 2015 tour where they played their debut album through in its entirety.
Though Korn were seemingly anti-establishment, they were also responsible for bringing forth the angry-white-bro face of nü-metal, Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst. If Korn were the nü-metal Beatles, Limp Bizkit were its Stones. (Linkin Park are The Who, the Deftones are The Kinks, Incubus are its Zombies; I could keep going ...) Nü-metal peaked in 1998 and 1999 with the creation of the Family Values tour, which starred Korn, Limp Bizkit, Ice Cube, Orgy, and Rammstein. It flamed out dramatically, also in 1999, with Woodstock ’99 — the nü-metal Altamont — which devolved into a nightmare of sexual assault and arson, the controlled chaos of a music festival spinning out of gear into hell. Limp Bizkit’s headlining performance encouraged an amped crowd to agitate, and when things boiled over into horror, it felt markedly like the end of a particular era. By the time Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water came out in 2000, it was all over. And after 9/11, nü-metal felt like a relic of an ancient, paradoxically more innocent time.
Eventually, rap-rock was reincarnated yet again as electroclash, a hipster version that tried to mix 808s with guitars, and rock returned to its white pretty-boy cave with guitar-centric bands like The Strokes. Pants got tighter, coke and dancing became our newest hobbies, and life went on. But none of that changes the fact that there was a moment 20 years ago where nü-metal sounded fresh and interesting and vital, and Life Is Peachy is the apex of that moment. Maybe it’s time to consider the legacy that Korn, and nü-metal, left behind. Are you ready?