Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Nothing's Scary

My wife didn't quite know what to say as I set off for the "Family Values" Tour. Have a good time? Get real. Good luck? No kidding. Then I had an idea: "Wish that nobody hits me."

And so it was to be. As I gazed down upon the separately ticketed mosh pit, the only sold-out sector of the "parents-free zone" the Meadowlands arena was supposed to turn into, I didn't even get jostled. Bummer. Here I was, primed for Armageddon, and the scariest thing I saw all night was the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour--a war zone regularly braved by the adults underwriting most of these children of the Korn.

Really, I had expected more from a band that claims, not absurdly, to be spearheading a new "underground--what alternative used to be." Think of Korn headman Jonathan Davis as a populist Perry Farrell, more candid and original in his arena-rock amalgam, more cloddish and heartfelt in his sensationalism--and then there's the Lollapalooza connection. If Korn guitarist Munky hadn't come down with viral meningitis, forcing the band off the 1997 edition, Farrell's alternafest might still be solvent. Instead Family Values means to pick up Lolla's pieces. The inaugural version includes Korn's "death-pop" boutique-label signing Orgy, their rap-metal buddies Limp Bizkit, their rap-cred standard bearer Ice Cube, and the German pyro-for-pornos parodists Rammstein, signed up after death-metal-for-newbies parodist Rob Zombie stalked off in a fit of avarice. "This is gonna be an annual thing, too, whether Korn is on it or not," averred bassist Fieldy. "We'll arrange it every year and set up the bands who'll be on it."

A big dream--but not a crazy one. In a hard-rock pattern that impresses every time it happens again, Bakersfield-via-L.A.'s Korn flogged its eponymous 1994 debut album platinum with no appreciable airplay or, need I mention, print coverage. On the road so incessantly their record company opened up a line of credit with Motel 6, on line incessantly with their fans after that, they won the hormone-stoked hearts of a new audience no one else had thought to service: the natural-born metal boys who slaked their masculine cravings with the gat-flashing speech rhythms of Ice-T, Sir Mix-a-Lot, and Dr. Dre. Alternafunk sexists from Trent Reznor to the Red Hot Chili Peppers gesture toward these guys. The Beasties do too. But Korn addresses them directly, as a social formation, an alienated suburban proletariat-in-the-making.

Jealous of their turf, Korn deny they're metal; that's Judas Priest, all four-four pomp and guitar solos. But they nevertheless demonstrate that the essence of metal--an expressive mode it sometimes seems will be with us for as long as ordinary whiteboys fear girls, pity themselves, and are permitted to rage against a world they'll never beat--is self-obliterating volume and self-aggrandizing display. The genre isn't stagnant, just slow-moving. Korn appeal via the new mix they stir up freshest on their third album, the briefly No. 1 Follow the Leader. The "underground" part is death-metal, the horrorshow sludge that owes its existence to the vocal innovations of Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist. But Korn roil the muck with a hyperactive rhythm section and landscape it with eerie licks and odd bridges. Davis now calls up death-metal's signature groan mostly to prove he's still authentic. He prefers a normal midrange--and sometimes he raps, recites, or scats in it, which added to the beats is enough to get hip-hopping wayfarers in line. His theatrical devices, meanwhile, play off the metal-derived histrionics of Farrell, Reznor, Marilyn Manson, and even Kurt Cobain.

The social formation thus targeted is very white and very male--at the Meadowlands, about 99 and 75 percent--with misogyny rampant. (Davis on "K@#%!," a/k/a "Kunt," from 1996's Life Is Peachy: "People think it's sexist but it isn't. It's more subconscious bitching at all the women who've been with me in my life." Feel better now?) But Kornheads are nonracist enough to experience a firsthand attraction to black music and nonhomophobic enough to sing along with the show-topping "Faget," in which Davis identifies so explicitly with the high school pariah of the title that only a hopeless knucklehead could take it the wrong way. You don't have to like this stuff to grant its cultural legitimacy. But it looked all too subcultural at the Meadowlands, with empty patches over a 15,000-capacity hall. Pit action was augmented by determined moshing in the aisles and upper balcony once the inept gloom-glam of Orgy yielded to Limp Bizkit. But this wasn't enough for lead spokesperson Wes Borland, who kept warning, "You motherfuckers better wake up." Oh yeah? Or what?

Borland knew whereof he blustered. Bizkit, who put rap before metal and prove it by adding House of Pain's DJ Lethal to their guitar-bass-drums, is a big band in this little world. The only times their energy fed the crowd's, or quickened the dynamism detectable on their CD, were a guest break dancer's very long headspin and a cover of George Michael's "Faith." The token rapper wasn't much better--having instigated a droll chant of "Fuck you Ice Cube" and brought the eternal "Fuck Tha Police" back to life, he collected his check in 30 minutes. Then we found out why we'd been waiting for Rammstein. Unlike most opera-rockers, frontman Till Landemann's a bass, not a tenor, which makes all the difference Ubermensch-wise. And his flaming armor and portable rocket launcher had nothing on the dildo-nozzled hose in his pants, which he let gob all over the crowd after mock-cornholing the half-bared ass of the quaking keyb man in the off-the-shoulder top--the only Rammer besides Landemann to do anything but stand there mock-robotically powering out an amped renovation of Hawkwind in overdrive. What a rush. This was "transgressive art" that no one could take literally--outrageous shock-spectacle for a parents-free zone. With Korn, I worry kids might try it at home.

Jonathan Davis's great bond with his fans is an adolescent agony he's never gotten over. After trademarking the debut with a cover depicting a little girl about to be raped or murdered in a playground, an image far more open to misinterpretion than "Faget" ("Cool!" "Heavy!" "Wow!"), he took to blowing off against child abuse, but unlike such rock assholes as Axl Rose he doesn't claim he was physically abused himself, and he wouldn't justify his own ill behavior if he did. Instead he obsesses on a coroner's assistant job he "jumped at" when he was 17: "I thought, `Oh, it'll be cool to see a dead body,' but I didn't realize I'd fall in love with it. And I did." On the new "Dead Bodies Everywhere," he links this not unsexy nightmare to his fear of father: "You really want me to be a good son/Why? You make me feel like no one." Fans knew those words, and why not? They're the story of many kids' lives for a while. But though how much the same fans identify with "My Gift to You" ("I kiss your lifeless skin"), "Cameltosis" ("You trick-ass slut"), or the tragic "Seed" ("Do I need this fame?") remains unclear, I'm parent enough to hope they can find a more fully formed designated someone than a guy whose idea of transgressive art is netcasting soft-core s&m to any teenager with a logon.

Often bands I admire attract fans I don't. The Beasties crowds I've mingled with, for instance, have seemed too hip to be so fucking belligerent. I preferred the youthful enthusiasm at Family Values, where interest in s&m remained distinctly spectatorial. I'm sure that for them Korn represents a passage out of innocence, a state of being Davis is so set on dissing he actually wrote a song attacking Mr. Rogers. But they haven't lost all of it, and here's hoping they never will. What holds back bands like Korn, Marilyn Manson, and White Zombie isn't how much they've been made to suffer. Louis Armstrong grew up in the streets; George Jones's dad used to whip him until he sang. It's their inability to put it behind them, and their determination to convince themselves and everyone else that their truths have made them free.

Village Voice, Oct. 13, 1998