Even at 16, the guy looked like middle management at Radio Shack. His hair was pederast red, his skin was albino white and punctuating the two was every nerd's special project: My First Mustache. Keith, with whom I shared third period art class, was a very nice guy, but he was also the kind of guy who might have been too nice. He might have married the first girl he slept with. He might have taken the fall for getting caught with a sheet of acid in college. But all this niceness, this middle-class low expectation, is tempered by one thing in my remembrance of him:
Keith Metzger was a full-on metalhead.
A hesher. A dude. A burnout. And he was the first smart metalhead I ever met. He was the first among us to eschew the brainy Rush for being something not very metal at all, and also the first to embrace the signpost of grunge in Soundgarden. (This was in the very late 1980s.) And even still, even after he had started to notice girls -- or, scratch that, notice something and turn ambiguously sexual -- he still loved Iron Maiden. At the end of each school day, like some weird Mister Rogers in reverse, he would hang up the jacket and tie our school required and put on his oversize acid-washed denim jacket, meticulously arranged with buttons of his favorite bands, and emblazoned on the back with a lurid, full-size patch of a Maiden album cover.
We let him run with it. Most of us in third period art, by then having moved on to more adult tastes in postmodern sensations like the Smiths or the Inspiral Carpets, secretly thought Keith's obsessions were beneath him -- kid stuff. But we also knew that there was no rule that said he couldn't indulge, either. One of the things the Jesuits tried to hammer into our heads day after day was tolerance, and in this rare instance of teenage civility, we practiced what they preached. He was not punched in the nuts; he was not Maced with shaving cream.
Thinking back on it now, I finally see what Keith saw in metal, what it had to offer him: drama and escape, the promise of unreality, of black-and-white good and evil and all the simplicity of human motivation that childhood seems to promise and never delivers. There were true bombast and emotion in the metal Keith listened to, his Walkman blaring it as he set up lighting rigs for the school's upcoming production of "Brigadoon." Keith's metal was of the Dennis DeYoung Styx variety -- a little Dungeons & Dragons, a little glam rock and also a little ... Fosse. He wanted what everyone wanted out of music back then: escape from the mundane fates he secretly knew would one day befall each and every one of us.
And, yes, back then, in the late '80s, metal was strictly for nerds or trash, and often did the twain meet, and to paraphrase Spinal Tap, oh, how they danced. This was before nü metal, before the mooks took over with a thunderous cry of "Nerds!!!" and threw the Keith Metzgers of the world, the Dave Mustaines, the Rush fans out of the game, against the wall and into the nearest Creed or Matchbox 20 show.
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Since its inception, metal has maintained an uncomfortable coexistence of mooks and nerds. Even way back in the early '70s, when rock critic Lester Bangs coined the term to describe bands like Black Sabbath, there had always been an audience overlap between people who liked scumbag bands because they themselves were scumbags and people who liked scumbag bands because they offered the same comic-book elements of fantasy and escape that prog-rock bands like Yes did. Basically, if you were a white male disenchanted -- or, conversely, enchanted but didn't want to figure out why -- with the pansification of rock, with glam-era David Bowie on one end of the spectrum and sweet baby James Taylor on the other, metal had lots to offer.
As the '70s morphed into the '80s, though, metal eventually embraced a sort of sublimated pansy element to its pantheon of disguise, and this is what we called the era of the hair band. Hair bands -- the most notorious of which were Ratt and Poison and, the big daddy of them all, Guns N' Roses -- copped a look and sound from glam, but swore the makeup was only there because it got them more pussy. True metalheads saw right through this, though, and this is where the metal underground started in earnest, giving way to the atomic splits and microgenre branding that now characterizes almost every form of popular (and nonpopular) music today.
Death metal. Speed metal. Christian metal. All of these, each one a punk rock unto itself, were formed in reaction against something that was going on in the broader pop world of metal proper during the '80s. And with the push-and-pull broadening of metal's horizons, other elements were brought into the mix: punk, post-punk, hip-hop, goth, industrial and so on. All of this got to the point where, if you wanted to speak to the metal masses, if you wanted to make true metal for the people, your language had to speak to all these factions.
The first results of this was a band like Metallica, who worked their way from indie obscurity to become both the thinking man's metal band and music to date-rape and burn stuff to. It's easy to forget now, what with drummer Lars Ulrich turning himself into the ultimate cyber-narc with his cred-stripping Napster debacle, but Metallica really are the U2 of metal; they've seen it all, done it all and probably ruined themselves twice. Remove Metallica another rock generation or two, add the "renaissance metal" feel that was the rhetoric of grunge and you've got the first wave of nü metal: Rage Against the Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit.
First, a qualifier: What is nü metal? In reality, nü metal barely exists -- in fact, nothingness is a popular theme among nü metal bands. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if it chug-a-chugs with the big hairy guitars, makes a stop-starty sound over and over, yarls or does the ninth-grade Satan death scream (alternating with busting a Caucasoid rhyme from time to time) and has some wack DJ scratching and interjecting his best Chuck D "Yyyeah!" every so often, it's probably nü metal.
For some time after Kurt Cobain and before the Wu-Tang Clan, the metal world woke up with a massive headache from the sickly-sweet pop tendencies of grunge and realized that right under their noses, directly in their bright blue-light ray, not men but total fucking pussies were in their domain. And what's more, dude, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford was a fuckin' homo!
Enter nü metal, that genre of bands who have distilled their shared history and now wide-ranging influences into a white-hot form that doubles as aggravated assault, intent on expressing one emotion: anger.
But at what?
Honestly, dude? It's totally obvious: yer fucken mom and dad. Or so it seems. What else could incite the blinding rage about ... well, nothing that so informs the nü-est of nü metal?
And so, to prove my hypothesis -- that the whole world has gone c-r-a-z-y that this shit is actually in the mainstream now -- I did what no one in America over 13 years of age has the patience (or time) to do: I sat down for a good hard listen to the country's most popular nü metal albums, poring over the cover art, getting that nasty headphone sweat over my ears and, perhaps most important, perusing the lyric sheets.
Boy, is my sense of irony tired.
In the absence of Nirvana -- and just about every other good band that, for one reason or another, imploded and failed to produce decent singles during the latter half of the '90s -- nü metal has done well with the seemingly always-fledgling modern rock radio format. This, in a lot of cases, might cause some of the bands mentioned here to be identified as the new sound of what was called alternative music.
But make no mistake: There is nothing alternative about it. You can't swing a dead freshman these days without running into this sub-Bizkit band or that one. In fact, the influence of Limp Bizkit throughout just about all of modern rock these days is nothing short of epidemic; it's not even worth quibbling over what exactly lead singer Fred Durst and the boys are angry about. Take one listen to their last record, one look at MTV News, and it's obvious what's pissing off Durst: playa-hatas, charges of inciting riots, attorney bills and bitchy pop starlets. In so many ways, Durst is not a whit different from Puffy Combs.
What's far more interesting -- and telling about what makes these bands resonate with the kids -- is looking into what the lesser bands are on about, what's propelling these more or less anonymous working bands, each one more angsty than the other, onto the charts for their brief spell.
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What would my high school friend Keith make of the fact that the umlaut in nü was not in tribute to the glammy days of metal yore but, of all things, irony? (Irony had not played too well in metal prior to, say, 1998, unless it was the punk-metal Anthrax.) What would he make of the fact that Durst, definitively the biggest star in the nü metal world, tried to rap?
And what about all the anger? Could Keith's well-adjusted -- if admittedly somewhat closeted -- mind have handled that? Who or what can incite such anger? Beyond that, if kids today are supposed to be so smart and media-savvy, why can't they see through all this showbiz rage and know that they're being played by bad poets, overweight DJs and clueless hessians? As the Minutemen, an angular punk band that very well may have made the world ready for Primus, a zany, thrashing funk band that arguably could have paved the way for the Bizkit, would have asked, What makes a man start fires?
When it comes to cover art, the influence of the movie "Se7en" on nü metal cannot be underestimated; so much of the imagery -- be it CD packaging or videos or promotional material -- depicts a rustic world of science and higher learning gone horribly awry. Using calm colors and clinical typefaces, the imagery of nü metal tells us that there's a new face to the rock gore endemic to metal since its birth; where Gene Simmons of Kiss once spit blood and fire, nü metal swells and hemorrhages internally, trading the horror movie for the museum of medical oddities, where alien emotion matches up perfectly with alien body parts.
So much of nü metal all but quotes the greats of goth and industrial, and it doesn't even know it. That deep, dark, satanic yarl? We used to call that Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel. The dust-blown trench coat pose with the imposing guitar arpeggiation? The Mission UK.
Also, there are very few proper nouns in the lyrics. Nü metal avoids specifics like a politician who knows he's not saying anything anyway; why indict someone who might be listening? Time was, metal lyrics were divided into two distinct camps: Comic Book Blood 'n' Guts (images of hell, war, apocalypse and so on) or Comic Book Goodtime Poo-Say (Motley Crüe, Poison et al.).
In nü metal, it's all he said, she said, you, me and, ad infinitum, I. It's not a far cry from the singer/songwriter histrionics of the '70s, only all the other cultural signifiers try to point out what big balls this stuff has. If you're not convinced that this is the case, well, you're on to something.
"Why does it feel like night today?
Something in here's not right today
Why am I so uptight today? Paranoia's all I got left"
This is not the text of a rejected ad for Prozac or Ativan; instead, this is how the debut album by Southern California quartet Linkin Park begins. On paper, these words seem earnest, dejected and desperate; on record, the overall attempt is to make them sear with blame. On paper, it sounds like the first day at a community college poetry workshop; on record, there's bloody spit shooting out with the words, a lunging forward of the torso, a complete bodily manifestation of disgust and rage, catharsis and breakdown.
At the same time, something in the delivery is just a little too WWF, a little too hot rod. You get the sense that the whole thing is all for show.
And that would make Linkin Park emblematic of nü metal bands everywhere -- they're a bunch of kids looking for a pass because they're screwed up, trying to trade in dysfunction for cool points. They're the sound of the Ritalin generation, all Eminem cadences laid over soaring choruses and hackneyed scratching; it's all so derivative, so by numbers, so strangely -- underneath it all -- eager to please that, like so many other times during my days spent listening to nü metal records, I feel ill at ease. Not because I was being rocked out of my skull but because -- there's no nice way to say this -- I'm embarrassed for them.
I'm not sure what this music is, but it's pretty fair to say that it's not rock 'n' roll. I mean, insofar as rock 'n' roll is a pose, maybe it is that, but nothing else. The horrible truth about nü metal is that it's all a pose. It's like watching a 9-year-old smoking a cigarette: awful, but so stupid you can only hope he learns something from it.
Things don't get any better with the single off their album -- at No. 5 on the Billboard modern rock chart after 27 weeks. (The album is platinum.) "One Step Closer" would have you believe, with its refrain of "one step closer to the edge and I'm about to break," that it's some nod to Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," some paean to a modern world where people no longer count.
Wrong. Scratch the surface, and the song depicts the same kind of garden-variety high school psychodrama you usually get from a good episode of "Boston Public": "I find the answers aren't so clear/Wish I could find a way to disappear." To hear Linkin Park tell it, these boys don't need to rock -- they need some Paxil.
Papa Roach, a Northern California band that has been around in some incarnation since 1993 and whose 15 minutes seem to be up -- a consequence of their overtly pretty-boy looks, perhaps, and the instant MTV overexposure that such a thing can cause -- struck a pose even more vulnerable than Linkin Park's camp-counselor-friendly antics. In "Broken Home," we find our hero going through the darkest hours of his parent's divorce: "I'm stuck in between my parents/I wish I had someone to talk to." What follows is some major riffage, followed by a curdling scream of "Bro-Kan-Hohm!"
It's hard to tell if Papa Roach are masters at trivializing what's easily one of the hardest things a kid can ever face, or if they just happen to be great at pastiche, at playing for cheap sentiment. Either way, as the song plays out, you can almost see the e-mails scroll across the bottom of the "Total Request Live" screen: "Carson, what's up? This is Scott from Champaign, what up dawg?!!! Can you play Papa Roach's 'Broken Home'? My parents fight and stuff, and like, Papa Roach are off the heezy. Thanx!"
I said it before, I'll say it again: I'm not sure what this is, but it's not rock 'n' roll.
Record companies have found a way to make the nü metal bands -- save for a handful of industry-committed titans like Bizkit -- as faceless and replaceable as they have made the hip-hop artists; if you don't believe me, in six months check for most of the names mentioned in this piece in cutout bins everywhere: Disturbed, Papa Roach and so on. To say nothing of the likes of Crazy Town, Incubus or Staind.
But if nü metal takes so many cues from hip-hop, hasn't anyone in its camp noticed how much the mainstream has squashed the life out of hip-hop? Hasn't anyone noticed how replaceable St. Louis rapper Nelly is? What makes these nü bands think that the same won't be true for them? Certainly no prevailing sense of originality; nü metal bands revel in their uniform sound and look (one interchangeable white boy in dreads or white G, one classic pot-smoking hessian, one S/M -- or Manson -- freak and the fat "ethnic" DJ). To most kids, one group is as good as the other.
The bands don't seem to get it, because a grandstanding pose that passes for something extreme or rebellious is still lingua franca for these bands. Check out this gem, from Fear Factory's "Shock":
"I will be the power urge
Shock to the system
Shock to the system."
Dude, I got a shocker for you: You are the system. And you're as expected as rain. At this point, in a mass landscape of boy bands and pop stars, a hibernating underground that seems to at long last know better than to play the Man's game and significant exceptions like the post-grunge Creed, the milky Matchbox 20 and stalwarts like U2, nü metal bands are the only thing passing for mainstream rock music today.
But the record business is playing these kids instead of demo tapes. As Fear Factory would say, "Deeper into this abyss/Weighted down and sinking fast." They probably didn't have the music industry in mind, but it works. They're screwed.
Where my man Keith relished the fantasy that metal once provided, Fear Factory and their kin make a huuuuge deal out of shouting over and over again, "This Is Reality!" -- in much the same way that my other man, Beavis, revealed to the world a few years back that he was Cornholio. Both claims have equal reservoirs of believability.
Here's another shocker: Women fare as well in nü metal as they do in its metal antecedents and gangsta rap. Which is to say, not very well at all. For all its props to hip-hop, the boyz of the nü don't give love to the ladies at all. Even where a guy like Tupac Shakur would try to make restitution for all his years of "bitch" this and "ho" that by making a nice song about his mama every once in a while, women are portrayed in nü metal as alternately "insane," "fucked up" or some other such nonsense. Everybody's doing it for the nookie, which, in the music of the Bizkit and their acolytes, appears to be little more than a strangely disembodied box to be displayed and humiliated at every opportunity.
That's why Kittie -- a quartet of ladies just out of their teens who pummel and scrape with the best of them -- makes my heart soar with glee. On their debut "Spit," the band brings a feminine touch to the mook revolution, and far from pansying it up with melody and harmony, the gals instead take their flair for drama and make something distinctly darker. (If only because the ninth-grade Satan death scream coming from a pretty girl -- shades of Linda Blair abound in the music of Kittie -- is that much scarier.)
Kittie, when it all comes down, are incredibly close to being a proper goth band. The dyed hair, the lipstick, the paleness -- each member looks like a different side of the actress Fairuza Balk -- will take you right back to that band you saw open for goth band Sisters of Mercy back in '88, right before you went preppy.
Still, even the ladies can't help using the nü as an airing ground for their most pedestrian residual adolescent angst, something that's seemingly beneath their abilities. Songs like "Do You Think I'm a Whore" and their single from a few months back, "Brackish," revel in a confounding game of low self-esteem, blame throwing and empty profanity that seems to be part and parcel of nü metal. The only thing separating Kittie from those girls that television host Maury Povich is always sending to boot camp is a record contract.
Disturbed, a Chicago quartet, is one of the newer entries on the mook mosh pile, and we can tell the band is serious because the singer is bald. These guys mean business. On "Voices" -- a single that just dropped off the modern rock Top 20 chart -- the boys squeeze sub-Metallica riffage into a funky little package that'd make the Red Hot Chili Peppers seem puny. "So, what's up ... I'm gonna make you do some freaky shit now/Insane, you're gonna die when you listen to me" is how my favorite part goes, and it'd be -- hey! -- disturbing if it, like, made any sense at all. By and large, the syntax of nü metal is a mess.
With song after song about uncertainty and confusion, after a while it becomes pretty clear that this isn't rock music, this is pantywaist bullshit about some dude's feelings. Was this really what Woodstock 99 was about? The confusion over how to be a man, over how to act in a schizoid society?
In so much of nü metal, there's a nasal whine that on first listen seems to hark back to our most wonderful exemplars of insurgency down through the rock age: Bob Dylan, Johnny Rotten, Hank Williams Sr. But where these guys had something of a real bite back there where the nasal drip does ever flow, when Fred Durst does it, it's a minstrelsy of sorts: He's dying to create the old rock drama, the kind that really did make you wanna break stuff, instead of just a mutually agreed-upon soundtrack to break stuff to.
But here's the rub: It's not their fault. Can you really blame nü metal bands for cluelessly pumping up a rage that has no center? Can you truly fault them for living entirely without reference points? I don't know.
The guys in Papa Roach or Linkin Park grew up in a time when -- we must admit this now, as hard as it might be -- rock was groping around for a new relevance, and only finding it intermittently. Instead, it usually found gimmicks, and that's why Durst is famously as schooled in the work of Madonna and "Licensed to Ill"-era Beastie Boys as he is in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Poison. The poor sonuvabitch, like the rest of his generation, had to take it where he could get it.
But I do know this: We should not blame Marilyn Manson for nü metal, nor should we poke the finger at the Beasties, Rage, the Peppers, NIN or even the Wu. Instead, maybe we should blame Glenn Frey, as well as every other piece-of-shit rock star who disappointed these kids in the '80s when they were so desperately needed. Because of such an oversight, all these kids make the music such a broken house of blues might dictate: confused, enraged and laden with a self-pity that, if you're not careful, you just might mistake for sincerity.
These kids aren't just faking the funk; they're faking the rock. And it's hard to tell which is worse.