The Emotional Range of Nu-Metal in Five Songs

As sure as day follows night, the twenty year trend cycle continues unabated and so we find ourselves at a time where “indie sleaze” and “Y2K aesthetic” are in. Notably absent from the discourse and nostalgia-fest is the much maligned nu-metal genre, which peaked precisely two decades ago. It wasn’t cool at the time, so why would it be cool now? Does it not deserve some attention nonetheless? 

Perhaps not, but as a veteran of the era who religiously attended the indie/rock clubs of Stoke-on-Trent (and as a special treat, Manchester), I can attest that in the provinces nu-metal tunes were always in the mix alongside The Strokes, The Libertines and all the other bands slavishly attached to the definite article. The nu-metal bangers roused the crowds more, and inspired a deeper emotional reaction than their posturing indie counterparts. Heretofore I would like to make the case that nu-metal had a surprising emotional range, which I will set out in five songs. 

I’m being strict with the criteria. Stricter than Wikipedia anyway who include Incubus (sacrilege!) and Slipknot (fancy dress metal!). We’re looking at the big hits of the night, no trawling of the album tracks – hell’s bells no – and they must include the signature shouty rap and heavy guitar combo. These are songs I absolutely recall losing my shit to after too many JD and cokes at 2am at The Sugarmill. It wasn’t cool, but it was emotional. 

Despair: Last Resort by Papa Roach

Revisiting this in 2022 is wild: a song so jaunty and yet so unsubtly about suicidal ideation that it truly beggars belief. And yet there we were, teenage and angsty, screaming ‘don’t give a fuck if I carry on breathing’ in a collective catharsis that ran deep. The video shows sad, lonely emo teens alone in their bedrooms then cuts to them moshing to the band in a white studio. This, however sledgehammer on the nose it may be, actually speaks to the power of the song. It’s not poetic; it is crude, blunt and direct. It is an expression of despair that galvanised the dancefloor and provided a conduit through which to scream through the blackness.    

Anger: Break Stuff by Limp Bizkit

Again, deeply unsubtle. Limp Bizkit were largely a joke (see Silliness) but this earlier offering very obviously expresses the basic human emotion of anger. Have not we all felt a pulsating desire to ‘break stuff’? I’m not an angry person but by jove when this one blasted out I got to tap into my rage and throw myself around banshee-style. GIVE ME SOMETHING TO BREAK. Sidenote: the video for this features different people lip syncing the song, including Eminem, which is a music video trope I’m particularly partial to.   

Confusion: Toxicity by System of a Down

The thinking person’s nu-metal band, System of a Down were a cut above, artistically superior, and on the total opposite end of the spectrum in terms of lyrical clarity. What. Is. Going. On. No one knows. There’s a fascinating thread of people chiming in with various interpretations on SongMeanings (ADHD, Armenian culture, modern psychiatry, the ills of capitalism…). This stone cold classic can be distilled into the one word – DISORDER. Sometimes it’s OK to be confused. Sometimes things are chaotic. System of a Down gave us three and half minutes of jaggedy beautiful chaos and we loved it.   

Joy: Alive by P.O.D

Full disclosure I can’t remember dancing to this and am scraping the barrel to make a point. Joy was not overtly part of the nu metal emotional oeuvre – I’ve had to include a Christian band to demonstrate it was even there. This ticks the boxes – shouty rap, heavy guitar, big hit – and it expresses a distinctly ‘I’ve found Jesus’ energy. Personally it doesn’t resonate and would argue that joy is expressed more widely through the next feeling on the list.    

Silliness: Diamonds and Guns by Transplants

Nu-metal was so silly! Utterly daft. Frequently ridiculous. Limp Bizkit’s most successful album was entitled Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water. Alien Ant Farm covered Michael Jackson. ‘Rollin’’ went to number one and had actual choreography (I have a memory of being at a house party aged 16 doing the dance with others in a circle. For shame). My song of choice for this emotion is ‘Diamonds and Guns’ by Transplants because it was so joyously danceable with it’s piano loop and woo-woo’s. I also enjoy the tautology of ‘No one lives forever/In fact we all die’. 

Nu-metallers weren’t afraid to embrace the absurd, much unlike the pretentiousness of their indie counterparts. They weren’t afraid to be sad, angry, confused, silly or messily human. Sure we all bopped along to Last Nite/Up The Bracket/Get Free etc. but something purer happened when the likes of Linkin Park came on. It wasn’t trendy, but it was righteous. Keep on rollin’ baby.  

Words by Fliss Clarke

One comment

  1. The sad self-immolation of SOAD (with two of them essentially being proto-Trumpers) is one of the great tragedies in recent-ish rock history, I think. Their first two albums are utter classics. Here in the States, “Chop Suey!” hit right after around the time of the September 11 attacks, so it’s indelibly branded on my brain as the soundtrack of that time, along with the rest of the “Toxicity” album. Of all the nu-metal bands (using the Wiki list), the one who have given me the greatest amount of satisfaction over the years (and who have a new album out next month, actually) are easily Korn. They hit the silly, confusing, angry, and despair buttons over and over again, and I suppose their are moments of joy in the catalog, or at least they give me that feeling, so that has count for something. (Note: I do recognize that this is a deeply unpopular opinion among the more “sophisticated” of our music criticizing brethren and sistren. But I don’t care, and I make that point fairly regularly on my own website via various “best of” lists).

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