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Nu Metal Can't Be Back Because It Never Left

By James Field | Think Pieces | July 26, 2023 |

By James Field | Think Pieces | July 26, 2023 |


An interesting piece in Monday’s New York Times sent me on a journey back in time. “Are You Ready? Gen Z Is Bringing Nu Metal Back” is a shallow dive into the resurgence of nu metal thanks to the Tik-Tok kids discovering the music of their parents’ youth. Hot takes and covers of Slipknot, Disturbed, Linkin Park, and the other kings of nu metal are popular enough to surprise folks old enough to forget that teenage anger, angst, and exploration are universal.

Nu metal (hyphen optional) was certainly a product of its time, though not the only one. There was dramatic evolution in musical genres from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. We were raised on classic rock and 80s pop, hair metal, and nudie suit country. Two waves of boy bands had risen, NKOtB replaced by Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. Bubblegum pop was hugely popular, with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera controlling the airwaves. A new generation of country artists had taken over for the old guard and its popularity shot up as Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, and countless others popified country-western and traditional fans complained. As for rock, the heyday of grunge was replaced with navel-gazing alt bands like Everclear and Live. Ska was doing its own thing off in the corner. Metal still existed, with big bands like Pantera, Metallica, Anthrax, and Black Sabbath hammering out their rage in front of sold-out crowds. But the gatekeeping was significant. Trying to enter the genre without an encyclopedic knowledge of Metallica albums felt like diving into a shark tank, particularly for women and people of color.

But by the mid-to-late 1990s, audiences were looking for something different, which meant music labels were too. New rock bands like Korn, considered by many to be the first true nu metal band, picked up the brash metallic crunch of industrial music, and themes of alienation and angst in what felt like a direct rejection of pop’s vacuity. Classic metal guitar riffs made a solid foundation for vocalists who mixed the growls and screams of traditional metal with lyrics their audiences could actually understand. It adapted the rap-rock style of bands like Faith No More and RHCP. Some bands like Slipknot and Mudvayne matched the shock rock style of White Zombie and Alice Cooper to their own vibe. In the same way OG rock & roll borrowed heavily from blues and Black culture, nu metal sampled heavily from hip-hop beats and lyrical styles. But artists were more open about their inspiration from different genres. It was a trend highlighted by Aerosmith’s 1986 collaboration with Run D.M.C. on “Walk This Way” and, in 2004, culminated in the greatest musical mash-up of all time.

It’s not a coincidence that nu metal’s meteoric rise coincided with peer-to-peer file sharing. Suddenly, high school and college students could discover their favorite tunes without relying on access to live performances, radio-friendly tracks, or corporate music stores. Like Tik-Tok now, it democratized access. B-sides and live shows were as common as album tracks. And even as lyrics dealt with heavy subjects like self-harm, bullying, and toxic relationships, the music energized the body and mind. It was an expression of anxiety and depression as anger that gave late Gen X and early millennials an opportunity to work out their aggression surrounded by like-minded people. Nu metal audiences screamed out our anger even when we didn’t know what we were mad at, which was often. I was an early and enthusiastic fan of the genre. After a lifetime of listening to my parents’ choices — 70s rock and classic country — here finally was music as pissed off as I was. I spent hours in the car every week with David Draiman’s guttural howl on ‘Stupify’ and Taproot’s ‘Poem’ permanently damaging my eardrums. The guitar licks weren’t as always as complicated as Tom Morello’s work - despite Rage Against the Machine’s frequent mischaracterization as nu metal - and the lyrics maybe weren’t as deep as Eddie Vedders, but screaming them out still cleansed the mind. At live shows, the mosh pits were full and people there took care of each other. Although the audience and artists were still primarily young white people, it wasn’t a monochromatic genre thanks to Sevendust’s Lajon Witherspoon, Deftone’s Chino Moreno, Nonpoint’s Elias Soriano, Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, and other artists. Times were good.

But like so many great things, nu metal was a victim of its own success and corporate greed. The first problem was the name: it’s dumb. Super dumb. It sounds like a rebranded soft drink. Fans and musicians loathed it with equal passion, partly because it was used with no regard for accuracy. As a label it was used to define Rage and System of a Down, but also bands like Limp Bizkit, P.O.D., and Creed, with which they shared virtually no characteristics apart from the occasional scream or hip-hop beat. Slipknot\Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor, and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington all talked publicly about how much they disliked the label, though their bands were instrumental in the genre’s evolution. Most of that dislike comes from nu metal’s reputation for male aggression, and not the fun kind that led to sweat-soaked spectators staggering from music clubs after a night of banging their heads. Nu metal became the home of the Douche-Bro, the frat guy who wore a backward red ballcap and worshiped Limp Bizkit and Five Finger Death Punch. If Crossfit took human form, this would be it. The attitude killed a lot of goodwill in the music community, because here came the jocks and bullies music lovers hoped to avoid altogether. Corporate bands featured pompous vocalists who thought they were God’s gift to the music industry. Mass marketability took over for musical talent, and one of nu metal’s key positives, that it was an accessible genre for new listeners became glutted with carbon-copy bands that all sounded the same. Nu metal started as a place for outsiders, but like country music’s current situation with suburbanites cosplaying as working-class, blue-collar heroes, the riff-raff became impossible to ignore.

And finally, there was a glut in the industry. Nu metal’s immense popularity among listeners — or at least what labels and music journalists decided what constituted nu metal — led to some truly bizarre business decisions. Crazy Town — the “Come come my lady/You’re my butterfly, sugar baby” guys — were added to Ozzfest. Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee formed Methods of Mayhem after his divorce from Pamela Lee, and the resulting trash fire made Kid Rock’s ‘Bawitdaba’ feel like Shakespearean prose. Speaking of nu metal’s mistakes: Kid Rock. The entire person. One of the most popular originators of nu metal, Drowning Pool, lost its lead singer to heart failure in 2002 (RIP Dave Williams), hired a new one (Jason ‘Gong’ Jones), then dumped him for SOiL lead vocalist Ryan McCombs. McCombs stayed with the band for 2 albums before returning to SOiL — who had hired Jason Jones in the interim — was replaced by Jason Moreno, and then went back to Drowning Pool several years ago. Over the last 2 decades, some performers dropped away while others leaned into the white boy aggression by becoming full-blown MAGA dorks (particularly Kid Rock and Chris Brown from Trapt). Nu metal radio plays were overwhelmed by new acts and supergroups like Velvet Revolver and Audioslave, followed by whatever Imagine Dragons and grandson are.

But the underlying factors that spawned nu metal remained, and bands kept producing new music. Every few years the big hitters would put out another album, either an evolution of their own sound (Slipknot, Disturbed, Papa Roach) or entirely new directions. Linkin Park is perhaps the most experimental group in the genre and was known for taking significant musical risks with each album. They continued selling out arenas until Chester Bennington’s tragic death in 2017, and their American and European tours were hugely popular. Nu metal bands continued playing festivals and touring for the past two decades and occasionally reminded fresh audiences exactly how cool metal can be.

Nu metal was born from the first generation to suffer school shootings and the meth crisis. We were — in my subjective view — the first generation where college was an expectation instead of a possibility, which was an added financial and emotional stress and led directly to millions of workers in jobs that are nowhere close to their field of study. It was the first American generation to deal with significant terrorism on US soil, and thanks to the Afghanistan and second Iraq wars we saw friends who signed up out of patriotism or financial support for college killed by IEDs or shipped home with injuries and PTSD. The environmental crisis was filtering into our collective consciousness. These are anxieties and fears our current batch of teens and young adults understand very well. They grew up with them. So it’s no surprise that a new batch of young, alienated musicians have made nu metal their own. Bands like Tetrarch, From Ashes to New, Death Blooms, and performers like Rina Sawayama and Hyro the Hero are giving new life to nu metal. My personal favorite is Bloodywood, an Indian metal band from New Delhi with a truly sick sound. Traditional instruments mixed with metal guitars, rap-rock lyrics, plenty of screaming, and a truly progressive message. I watched them perform at the Middle East Club in Boston in one of the best live shows I’ve experienced.

Nu metal’s staying power is a surprise to the gatekeepers and purists who thought it would die the same swift death as our short-lived interest in Gregorian chants and swing music. They were wrong. As a genre, it’s occasionally cheesy, and its performers are sometimes pompous, grandiose, or pricks. But it’s just another flavor of rock, and even the worst bands record the occasional banger — no one will ever record a better anthem for a bad day than Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff.” There are dozens of new, often independent artists out there screaming about society to explore. So get over your embarrassment and put your fist in the air. Nu metal is here to stay.

Image sources (in order of posting): Getty, Robin Little