Is the demonisation of nu metal justified?
Confessions of an ex-teenage nu metal fan, questioning the legacy of the genre in the wake of the HBO documentary, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage.
As an indie rock fan, I need to hold my hands up and confess to my historical musical fandom crimes.
Between the ages of 13 and 15 (2000-2002), I was a Kerrang buying, nu metal obsessed, mosher kid. I wore black, baggy clothes and dreamt of having enough money to afford a red New York Yankees cap so I could copy my hero; Fred Durst.
Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest (did I mention I was a young teenager?!).
When I say I was obsessed, that word probably doesn't do it justice. Nowadays I look back with a mixture of cringe and self-mockery, but for a couple of years, I couldn't get enough of the whole nu metal scene.
On a week-long school trip to the Scottish Highlands in May 2002, I was inseparable from my CD collection and portable CD player (the sad days long before iPods and having thousands of songs on the tip of your finger...), endlessly listening to Papa Roach, Linkin Park and, of course, Significant Other-era Limp Bizkit (I'd overplayed Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water to death by this point and was in search of a new high...).
My 50-year-old Geography teacher (a curly-haired, brown-bearded Scottish man with a cynical attitude towards youth culture) noticed my friend and I were being particularly distant and anti-social on said trip, which included the teenage joys of hill-walking, geology and canoeing.
Halfway through the educational voyage, he decided to make an enemy of me by confiscating my CD player, promising to return it within 24 hours. In an act of rebellion (the noise of the louder and more self-entitled members of my school year had taken its toll by this point), I nervously marched to his room that evening and boldly demanded my property be returned.
To my surprise, he gave it back. I took that as a small victory even if there appeared a certain "you'll pay for this" look in his eyes during the handover (he later made me empty a manmade toilet on an overnight hike in exchange for a Mars Bar, but I don't want to talk about it...). My pride and joy had been returned to my possession and I could, again, escape the world around me and lose myself to the sounds of my favourite bands. Soon, though, my enthusiasm was to be tempered.
My teacher told me he was worried about the lyrical contents of the record and, in some kind of veiled threat of intervention, was going to have a word with my parents (*gulp*). Confused and more than a little worried at that reaction, it was at this point I realised I'd left my copy of Slipknot's second album Iowa in the player.
Slipknot at Roskilde Festival, 2013
He revealed that he'd stumbled onto a track called 'Everything Ends', hearing an angry Corey Taylor darkly yell throughout the track "You are wrong, f*cked, and overrated / I think I'm going to be sick and it's your fault / this is the end of everything / you are the end of everything". It suddenly all made sense, he probably thought I was being brainwashed, disaffected and about to commit some kind of atrocity as a way of revenge.
Thankfully words were never shared with my parents, but his reaction to the music stuck with me. What felt like normal music for teenagers to like at the time was being viewed as some kind of twisted and corrupting influence by the older generations. It's also funny that Slipknot are widely regarded as one of the most credible bands from that era, whose last album (2019's We Are Not Your Kind) received five-star ratings from publications like NME, Kerrang and The Independent! But anyway, I digress.
Despite Slipknot coming out of that era largely unscathed, other bands haven't done quite so well two decades on. On 29 July, HBO released a documentary about Woodstock 99, a festival which, 20 years later, to many, has come to define the worst in nu metal and act as a watershed moment for its blatant sexism, white privilege and uncultured, riotous behaviour.
I'd be lying if I said I knew much about this iconic festival at the time, only ever hearing snippets of information about how crazy American festivals could get. I, therefore, watched the trailer was a mixture of horror and excitement.
And what an interesting watch the film was. Amongst the bands most vilified in the documentary were Limp Bizkit. During their set, introducing 'Break Stuff', from their 1999 album Significant Other, frontman Fred Durst announced to the already boisterous crowd "how many people here woke up one morning and just decided it wasn't one of those days and you're going to break some sh*t ...well this one of them days, yo!".
Unsurprisingly, as the song ploughed along, the audience gradually started to collectively lose their sh*t. At the midway point in the song, the red-capped singer/rapper addressed the crowd again:
"It's time to reach deep down inside and take all that negative energy...and let that shit out of your fucking system. You got girl problems, you got boy problems, you got parent problems, you got boss problems, you got job problems, you got a problem with me, you got a problem with yourself...it's time to take all that negative energy and put it the f*ck out!".
As the climax of the song kicks in, inspired by Durst's gee-up, the crowd go absolutely tonto, with a sea of moshpits, crowd surfers and chunks of torn off plywood being thrown around.
It would later emerge that there was a number of sexual assaults and rapes that took place during and after this set, whilst the following day saw the festival end in fire-raising and riots. Add to that the three deaths caused as a result of heat exhaustion, the festival was later defined as an era-defining disaster. It was more on par with Altamont than Woodstock 1969
Blame would be placed on the foot of Fred Durst by both the organisers and sections of the media. He was seen as an easy target for such criminality, many going as far as suggesting his onstage antics encouraged some young men to act out a certain brand of toxic masculinity.
It was claimed that what was perhaps bravado to him, unfortunately, had horrendous consequences to others. It was also claimed that organisers had warned him of the crowd trouble during the set and yet he did little to calm them down (which the band, of course, denies).
Festival promoter John Scher even now still holds Fred Durst responsible for the mayhem that ensued, describing him as a "moron" and an "a**hole", saying "he was out of his mind...he was completely out of his mind."
Having watched the set, my inclination is to edge blame onto the seemingly terrible planning and greed of the organisers ($4 dollars for a bottle of water in temperatures approaching 38 degrees, poor sanitation, festival-goers caged into a military base etc.) than a performer whom they would've expected a raucous performance from. Having said that, Fred Durst didn't exactly cover himself with glory either and did appear ignorant to the crowd problems.
Nu metal arrives in the UK
With a nu metal storm brewing in 1999 in America, it would take the UK a year or two to catch up. By the new Millenium, such bands were gaining unimaginable levels of popularity over here.
Today, it's hard to imagine just how big nu metal was for kids like me growing up in the UK in the early 2000s. However, for a couple of years at least, it took on a real stranglehold on youth culture at the time. With the Britpop bubble burst and the void being filled by tamer British bands like Coldplay, Starsailor and Travis, many teenagers turned to a heavier form of alternative rock from America.
The music was enjoyable, rebellious and juxtaposed to the sanitised pop ballads (*ahem* Westlife) that you couldn't escape from on channels like MTV and on shows like BBC's Top of the Pops. The unsubtle anger of such bands seemed to resonate with so many, engaging outcasted teenagers in a capitalist world that strived for perfection. Though, ironically, the genre would soon become part of the mainstream itself.
The popularity of this is shown in the UK End of Year Chart Top 100 albums for 2001 list which featured Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory (13), Limp Bizkit's Chocolate Starfish... (21) and Significant Other (85), Staind's Break the Cycle (58), Papa Roach's Infest (59) and Alien Ant Farm's Anthology (85), amongst the most popular albums of that year.
Nu metal provided heroes for these kids and anthems for the disaffected youth. Favourites like 'Chop Suey' by System of a Down, 'Numb' by Linkin Park and 'Freak on a Leash' by Korn, still go down as brilliant alternative rock songs. Judging by the music playing selections, many heavy rock clubs around the country, like The Cathouse in Glasgow and Opium in Edinburgh, still regard this time as a golden age of rock music.
Limp Bizkit; an uncomfortable listen in 2021
Unfortunately, to many others, nu metal is often defined by one band and one band alone; the abovementioned Limp Bizkit. Whilst listening to the Florida band may have been a lot of fun at the time, there's a lot to their lyricism that is simply problematic in 2021.
Listening again to some of their songs which were favourites of mine at the time, like 'Nookie' ("I did it all for the nookie, the nookie, so you can take that cookie and shove it up your..."), 'Hot Dog' ("If I say f*ck two more times, that's 46 f*cks in this f*cked up rhyme") and 'Livin' It Up' ("I'm just a crazy motherf*cker, livin' it up, not giving a f*ck, livin' life in the fast lane"), you can't help but cringe at the immaturity and misogyny on show.
Performer Moby, speaking in the Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage documentary, decided the entire genre of nu metal was worthy of his full scorn.
"When white people have embraced hip hop, they've ignored the funk, they've ignored the R&B, they've ignored the subtlety, and they've embraced homophobia and misogyny...nu metal embraced the troglodyte element"
Ouch, tell us what you really think there, Moby!
Whilst, he may have a point in the case of Kid Rock and elements of Limp Bizkit, the 90s was a particularly angry time in hip hop itself (an era still lauded as a golden age for the genre). With gangster rap, violent feuds, misogyny and aggression playing out in the rap world, it's difficult to place all blame on nu metal...I mean it didn't exactly exist in a vacuum.
For example, Dr Dre's 1992 single 'Nuthin' But A "G" Thang' is still held up as one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time, despite lyrics like "And if you b*tches talk shit, I'll have to put the smack down". And if you were to trawl through the work of 90s icons like Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G, you'll find countless homophobic and sexist references.
I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the 90s was a particularly aggressive time in music, which doesn't excuse it, rather it places nu metal into context rather than suggesting the anger came from nowhere. Can we give 90s hip hop a pass and berate nu metal at the same time for similar crimes though?
In defence of nu metal
Since the release of Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage, there's been a lot of discussion and revisionism around nu metal, most of which has been exceedingly uncomplimentary.
New York Times journalist Wesley Morris, near the end of the documentary, took swipe at nu metal fans in general. He cynically declared, "I don't know if it's possible to get that collection of people together in 2021 without it being a cause for concern".
However, I can't help but feel there's been an over critique, viewing it through the more politically correct lens of 2021. Granted, listening to a lot of the music today does feel out of place in today's day and age, particularly the over the top anger and sub-standard rapping.
And yet I still feel strangely defensive of many of the sweeping generalisations that have been made about it of late. The music was an escape for a sizeable crowd of teenagers who felt alienated, confused and rejected. Plus, a lot of these lyrical criticisms are aimed more at Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock and don't necessarily apply to other big nu metal bands of that time like Linkin Park, Korn and System of a Down.
It was my first love of rock music, acting as a gateway to the indie rock bands I love today. By 2003, I grew up and abandoned the heavier music and began to get into a new garage rock movement of bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes and Franz Ferdinand. Aside from the odd moment of nostalgia, I've barely looked back since.
Nu metal has aged terribly and I'm delighted the genre no longer has a significant cultural placement in today's society. However, was the entire movement as sinister as is often made out? I like to think not.
I bet there are more than a few indie fans who loved nu metal back in the day, but are too scared to say it. Don't worry, your secret is safe with me.