Editorial: Nu-Metal is Back! Let’s Not Act Like That’s a Good Thing
I’ve noticed that people have been self-identifying as “goth” a lot more these days. They have an obsession with death and wear a lot of black, and suddenly they’re “goth as fuck.” But this seems to remember a selective portion of what goth was, a portion that, during the genre’s heyday, never really called itself “goth.” Let’s not forget that goth was also annoying antisocial teens in oversized Marilyn Manson shirts and Tripp NYC pants who adopted suicidal angst to make up for their boring lives. It was Hot Topic. Let’s not rewrite history and pretend like the people now championing goth weren’t desperately distinguishing themselves from it in 1999.
Similarly, there have lately been a number of music press organizations talking about how nu-metal is back, and celebrating the genre as a cultural landmark. Sure, maybe nu-metal is back, and is old enough to be remembered fondly–but remembering it fondly is straight-up lying to yourself. Let’s never forget that nu-metal was primarily an annoying embarrassment that nearly ruined metal, and one which all your favorite bands fled from and decried the minute it became popular.
The first time I saw the term “nu-metal” being swung around for the sake of retro cred was in 2014 in this Noisey article titled ‘The Nu-Metal Revival Is Real.’ A quick listen to the bands spearheading this revival showed me that the article displayed a limited understanding of nu-metal, which it seemed to define as “music that has big kinetic riffs and reminds one of the Deftones.” All of these examples of the nu-metal revival had post-hardcore and screamo influences, and sounded similar to early 2000s scene kid bands like Mindless Self Indulgence or Reggie & The Full Effect. None of them sounded like Static-X or Crazy Town. But hey, nu-metal, being one of the ultimate genre titles to sneer at, has a lot more article headline sting to it, so that’s what these bands were called.
Noisey aren’t the only ones who have suddenly decided that nu-metal is to be celebrated. Metal Hammer released an issue telling the “loco story” of nu-metal (that’s the cover to the right), while Rock Feed recently posted a piece about the genre’s triumphant return. Unlike that of Noisey, though, these examinations of the genre seem inherently tied to nostalgia for the music rather than trying to rewrite what nu-metal was.
But even they excuse the genre’s flaws–Rock Feed seems to castigate Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda for describing the genre as “arrogant, misogynistic, and full of testosterone,” even though we all know that’s exactly what it was. Because of its mixture of metal’s unwarranted aggression and hip-hop’s obnoxious bravado, nu-metal became the rally cry of the angsty jock. Its anthem was a song named “Break Stuff.” This music was heavily adopted by people who casually used the word “faggot” because they didn’t understand the irony behind Jonathan Davis’ lyrics (Guys, he was being called a faggot! By dudes like you!).
Shinoda’s dismissal of the genre makes another important point: even nu-metal bands weren’t big fans of nu-metal. Like any genre of metal, nu-metal incorporated a wide variety of sounds; it sort of seems like the genre’s true uniting factor was how hard your spiked hair/ball chain necklace game was. Bands like System of a Down, Coal Chamber, and Slipknot all fell under the label of nu-metal even though they didn’t make traditional rap-rock. But those bands did whatever they could to shake off that label’s shackles. Coal Chamber went full-on goth with 2002’s Dark Days, System of a Down became the world’s biggest prog band, and Slipknot released 2001’s Iowa, an album seemingly determined to let the world know that they’d been listening to Deicide and worshipping Satan. (Notice how the Metal Hammer cover only features Slipknot members in their outfits from the debut album? That’s because by album two, they were dressed like Michael Myers had joined the SS.)
The rose-tinted glassed through which nu-metal is recalled today points to a bigger issue: unoriginality in music. We’ve recycled everything else, and now we’re scraping the bottom of metal’s cultural barrel. Remember how fast everyone got tired of the thrash revival? One day, everyone was talking about how thrash was back, and they were buying blue denim vests and wide-brim caps, and they were saying that they’d always been into Exodus. Then Revolver covered Municipal Waste, and suddenly those same people was complaining about the trendy thrash revival. And that was thrash, metal’s coolest genre! Now we’re supposed to look at Limp Bizkit’s “classic” material and pretend we were always down? Come on, it’s okay to admit that this was a stepping stone to better music, and though it can occasionally be remembered fondly it’s generally best forgotten.
Because here’s the thing: I’m not just a spokesman, I’m also a member. I was a nu-metal kid. I got into metal in 1998, so you bet your ass I wore too many safety pins and rocked facepaint to concerts. I scribbled “Fuck Da Police” on a pair of JNCOs I owned (of course, I did this in the computer lab of my nice-ass New York City private school, which, when you think about, is the ultimate metaphor for nu-metal). I bought Issues the day it came out, and still uphold that “Let’s Get This Party Started” is a painfully underrated song. I even wrote a humor piece about it, in which I acknowledge that yeah, the genre had some redeeming values — its tech-savviness, its reckless abandon, its celebration of sexuality, its dedication to that hard gut-punching kick.
But my nu-metal memories are decent at best. Mostly I remember tough people trying to act like they knew anything about Biggie and getting ugly piercings. I remember meeting some of my favorite musicians and getting the rock star attitude from them even though their T-shirts proclaimed they weren’t about the money. I remember so many people fucking their lives up with shitty drugs in an attempt to project this Hollywood sort of vibe. I remember me and my friends looking in the mirror one day and realizing that this shit sucked. Like hair metal fans before us, we’d rebelled the easiest way we knew how, and then we grew up and were happy to see it go.
Nu-metal died the same way hair metal did, by becoming so big that it became a caricature of itself. Today, nu-metal fans might want to play the counterculture game — and hey, if you’re a holdout who found your niche and never abandoned it, more power to you, I respect that — but hindsight is always 20/20. Nu-metal was gigantic; Fred Durst was featured on that cover of “What’s Going On” that came out after 9/11 because he was a huge cultural force at the time (though notice that somehow his verse is worse than Ja Rule’s).
Plenty of bands who are now too broke to put out an album had every chance in the world to save tons of money and plan ahead (looking at you, Orgy). The problem was that nu-metal had a real Fuck The World philosophy, which always feels cool while you’re on top of the world, but trying to maintain that as everyone moves on to Avenged Sevenfold is hard. As tough as it is to admit it, when you’re part of a booming fad you’ve got to take a moment to wonder what happens when everyone decides at once that your music blows.
Because make no mistake, that shit blows. Watered-down rap mixed with watered-down metal with a light coating of watered-down goth-industrial? Don’t talk to me like an asshole, guys, I was there. Yeah, it’s fun to remember being a teenager, and jamming out to “Chop Suey!” will always be a good time, but let’s not lie to ourselves that nu-metal was one of metal’s great triumphs that just fell by the wayside due to the mainstream not being ready for it. The mainstream loved nu-metal. It was a massive corporate moneymaker. And that’s because it was unoriginal and easily swallowed. Which is why it was the fucking worst.