I don’t like the idea of “guilty pleasures” when it comes to art. If someone likes a song, that person probably has a good reason for it, despite the biases of his or her peers. Perhaps these biases just obscure those reasons and could be uncovered with some careful investigation. In my case, I want to salvage an entire musical genre from ridicule: nu-metal.
Unfortunately, some barriers prevent listeners from understanding nu-metal bands apart from the identity that genre label has given them — picture a bone-headed suburban white kid sporting a backwards baseball cap. What used to be a descriptor for a specific strain of alternative metal turned into a ghetto for every band that a) plays extremely heavy yet radio-friendly music and b) sucks. Because the genre came to be defined by its lack of quality, many “serious” music fans have missed out on what it has to offer.
Some auditory hallmarks of nu-metal are seven-string guitars (meaning lower notes than usual), horror-film inspired atmospherics, funk bass-playing and hip-hop drumming. Lyrics often deal with emotional issues in a direct and conversational tone, avoiding hidden meanings or pretentious turns of phrase. Subject matter includes feelings of inferiority, abandonment, jealousy and paranoia. This lyrical intimacy, coupled with primal rhythms and spooky ambiance, gives rage a powerful musical vehicle.
Korn, the pioneer of the genre, crafted dozens of enthralling songs, among them “B.B.K.” The bass guitar has been mixed to sound like rattling bones, nearly devoid of mid-range tones. Meanwhile, the atonal guitar line is contrasted with blasts of white noise, making for an unsettling soundscape colored with terror and loss. Sonic juxtapositions map trajectories of emotional turmoil, sudden and lurching. Frontman Jonathon Davis sings, “Life sometimes pisses me off / It’s never a good trip for me / Every time I reach for love / It’s taken away.” The lyrics are raw and elemental, like pages from a diary. Sometimes, a straightforward approach can better serve a bitter tirade.
Influenced in equal part by Korn and the death metal genre, Mudvayne sought a middle ground between “nu” and “old” metal. In their breakout single “Dig,” the bass takes center stage over the guitar grind, popping chords that sound like the chimes of a possessed grandfather clock. Here the lyrics take the rage route, decrying the music industry: “I struggle in violated space / Sell out motherfuckers in the biz that try to fuck me / Hang from their T’s rated P.G. insight / I ain’t sellin’ my soul when there’s nothing to buy.” Frantic and explosive, the instrumental mayhem adds unique textural dimension to his rant.
In a less-serious vein, Limp Bizkit used the nu-metal sound as a way to spin testosterone fueled fantasies into snarky white-boy rap. Oddly, audiences took frontman Fred Durst more seriously than he wanted, failing to see the intentional silliness in many of his songs. “Break Stuff” was the prime example, a tall tale about a bad day made better with wanton destruction. Using a tight hip-hop beat and the bare minimum of power chords necessary to get the message across, its simplicity serves the joke well. If anything proves the tongue-in-cheek nature of the song, it’s the bridge, where Durst claims to “pack a chainsaw.” Both parody and accidental archetype, “Break Stuff” became the blueprint for countless inferior (and deadly serious) songs like Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer.”
Korn or Limp Bizkit weren’t musical geniuses. They merely found an aesthetic that was perfect for adolescent catharsis. Their utter lack of pretension was taken as stupidity rather than clarity of expression. The problem is that this faux-movement got co-opted by less creative bands and turned into soulless schlock. Even so, we shouldn’t abandon the sounds that were created within. Mixing hip hop with rock doesn’t have to be tacky; seven-string guitars can work well in any genre; and anger is an emotion we all need to cope with. Daring musicians should repurpose these sounds and ideas rather than banishing them to obscurity. nu-metal may have died, but it doesn’t have to be a lost cause.