By Clayton Ambrose
Every music listener has a certain genre of music to which they pay gratitude as a catalyst for their life-long love of the art form. If you ask any fan of music who was born in the early to mid-90’s about their musical origins, a good portion of them might respond, with nostalgia-filled glee, by relating some sort of anecdote about seeing a YouTube video where Naruto characters fight over a Linkin Park song, or hearing a Korn song from a sibling or a parent. In these cases, the common denominator is the genre known as nu-metal. Although this music seems to hold a dear place in many a 20-something’s heart, the songs and aesthetics that once fostered a generation of music fanatics are looked upon with embarrassment rather than appreciation. I assert that this is a mistake and an injustice. While some of the products of the genre can definitely be considered cringe-worthy, the artists and the consumers of the movement are infused with so much creative passion and genuine infatuation with music that I think it’s time that we reconsider our conceptions about this style of music that has provided so many listeners with a place to belong.
First, nu metal must be defined before one can talk about it in the sense of a greater picture. The genre is essentially an offshoot of alternative metal (bands like Soundgarden, Faith No More, etc.) that is characterized by its implementation of other genres into its primary metal sound, the most successful formula of which being the fusion of metal and hip-hop, as seen by bands like Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit. The genre found immense mainstream popularity in the wake of the grunge explosion of the nineties, after superstar acts like Nirvana made aggressive and, well, grungy music more palatable for the general public. The late 90’s saw bands like Slipknot and Korn rise to fame while the genre continued to grow in the early 2000’s with acts like System of a Down, perhaps reaching its commercial peak with Linkin Park’s diamond-certified 2003 album, Hybrid Theory. However, with the expedited success came market oversaturation, and nu metal would eventually peter off and become virtually invisible by the time the mid-to-late 2000’s came to be. Much of the lyrics of the genre pertain to themes of social alienation, reflection on pain felt by the narrator, or a general idea of frustration and angst that can be traced back to their grunge predecessors. Naturally, this type of music attracted a certain demographic of young listeners who too felt shunned by mainstream society. These fanbases eventually evolved into fiercely dedicated communities, even going as far as to adopt the moniker of “maggots” in the case of fans of Slipknot, akin to the “KISS Army” and “Deadheads” in relation to Kiss and The Grateful Dead, respectively.
I see the music itself as misunderstood by most, perhaps from a lack of any meaningful time spent exploring it. It’s easy to dismiss the bands as one note and bland, but the genre is much more diverse and unique than one might expect. System of a Down, one of the premier acts to come out of nu-metal, makes music that is as unpredictable as it is fantastic, while also breaking the mold with the biting political commentary included with their off-the-wall musical style. Even bands like Limp Bizkit, who draw understandable criticism, make music that is at the very least unique and energetic which is more than some artists can say for their entire careers. One of the pinnacles of the genre is Slipknot’s self-titled 1999 debut, which serves as a prime example of the conventions of nu-metal as a whole. After a short intro, the album puts the pedal to the metal and keeps it there, unleashing a flurry of some of the heaviest instrumentals in metal while drawing unlikely inspiration from hip-hop music with its inclusion of turntables into the mix along with Corey Taylor’s fluctuation between lung-bursting screams and rap music rhythms in his vocals.
So, given the qualities of the genre, why is it subject to so much ire? Just from observing reactions and opinions on the music, it would seem that nu metal are rejects among rejects, with listeners of more “underground” genres like indie rock partaking in a good amount of music snobbery not just towards the music itself, but towards the listeners as well. Now, I am not insinuating that you must like nu-metal against your instincts or taste, but much of the criticisms levied at the genre seem to surface-level insults and mockery rather than a genuine critique of the music. This could possibly be attributed to certain aesthetics associated with the genre’s listeners that may have hung around post-adolescence. The people you probably remember listening to nu-metal as a youth were your high school classmates who were less than presentable compared to the teenage standard of acceptable appearances, which means greasy hair, baggy clothes, maybe one too many zippers on their jeans; outcasts, in other words. A good amount of those younger listeners even eventually grow up to look back upon this musical phase and cringe, associating the music with the awkward and angry teenager that once related to it.
As a group of music lovers who strive against the status quo as wayward sons and daughters of popular music culture, you would think that nu-metal fans and the greater indie music macrocosm would find commonality and potential comradery, but this isn’t so. In my experience, there’s a superiority complex rife amongst those who associate with an “indie” label of some sort, much like the ill feelings they might have felt from participants of popular culture who criticized them for their taste. The nerds, in this situation, have become the jocks. This is a glaring double standard, and it’s used to position one group of listeners as “right” and another group of listeners as “wrong” for not behaving within the artificial parameters that makes obsessing over artists like Sufjan Stevens more acceptable than being a vocal, diehard fan of bands like Mudvayne or Disturbed.
This is not to say, however, that there’s really a commercial commonality between nu-metal and indie music, with the former finding much more mainstream success than the latter. This might make the music seem disingenuous; the way that they revel in their pain and inner turmoil for sold out stadium audiences gives off the appearance of a pandering shtick rather than a “true” display of emotion. However, this gatekeeper mentality doesn’t change the fact that their public display of angst is just as valid as a small time band baring their hearts in an unpopulated club. It’s only the settings that change, not the heart, and I see that as being the big picture problem most have with the genre as a whole. A lot of the ideas that nu-metal stands for should fall in line with just about anyone who’s ever felt dejected or misplaced by a society that didn’t approve of their art or feelings, but the superficial barrier exists. Again, this is not meant to shame anyone into liking music that you just do not and will not be into, but I believe it’s paramount for people reflect on the reasons for your opinions, because you might find those reasons to be more petty and nonsensical than you might have realized.
The music can definitely verge on off-puttingly corny and obnoxious, but overall I’ve found the genre to be full of ambitious and creative musicians who find ways to convert their raw emotions into songs that heal both the artist and the listener. Often we get so caught up in our musical cliques and our insistence on assigning objectivity to the subjective that we end up forgetting the reason why music, of this genre and others, continues to be such a strong binding force. Those meaningful vibrations provide the roof under which we gather to bond with like-minded individuals, regardless of their preferences. Nu-metal has created some of the strongest musical communities I’ve ever seen, and we shouldn’t discount their music or their fans based on self-imposed limitations on what is considered “good” and what is considered “bad”. Maybe one day in the future we’ll see a paradigm shift in opinion on the genre, but if not, it’s not an issue. The music reached who it needed to reach.