It’s Weird ’90s Week on Stereogum. All week long we’re looking at the strangest musical moments and trends of the decade. Check out more here.
There are a lot of reasons I’m glad I scored a gig at MTV. I got to quit my advertising job. I was able to do what I loved for a living. I found myself surrounded by brilliant and like-minded young people who wanted to make good, or at least memorable, or at least interesting television. And most tantalizingly, I had a front-row seat for TRL, and sometimes they even gave me a speaking part. I got to see what the kids were buying and crying over and bobbing their heads to. I got to watch the last great monocultural mish-mosh right up close, before it all broke off into niches and subgenres and everyone having their own radio station right in their pocket. As a man who came of age in the time of Top 40, when Michael Jackson and Van Halen and Duran Duran and Laura Branigan rubbed shoulders on the radio, I appreciated the democracy of it all.
As we are seeing now, though, democracy can get ugly. Factions will form, and fight. In my youth, it was the Wham! kids vs. the Def Leppard fans. In the TRL era, the rivalries were numerous, and usually over artists who were fundamentally similar: *NSYNC vs. Backstreet Boys. Christina vs. Britney. LFO vs. 98 Degrees. (There could only be one RC Cola in the Boy-Band Cola Wars, after all.)
But one big fight kicked up on the daily top 10 once the show got up and moving, and it pit two very different genres against one another: pop vs. nü-metal.
You know what pop is; it’s remained more or less the same for decades, and Swedes have been in the driver’s seat the whole time. A generation after ABBA’s breakout at the Eurovision Song Contest, Max Martin was the source of our Stockholm Syndrome; he broke out with frustratingly catchy pre-RL pop gems for Backstreet Boys and version 1.0 of Robyn (“Do You Know What It Takes” still ranks up there with her best work) before straight-up killing it with Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” and Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”
As clean, factory-fresh pop music began to fill up the new generation’s American Bandstand, the young girls swooned. And as usually happens when young girls get into something — pierced ears, My Little Pony, bisexuality — young boys muscle their way in and try to find a way to ruin it. For those boys, there was nü-metal.
Nü-metal has origins that are a little harder to explain. As The Real World begat Survivor after nearly a decade, the seeds of the nü-metal movement were sown by the 1993 Judgment Night soundtrack, which paired rock bands and rappers in a way that, at least back then, seemed revolutionary. (Of course, Anthrax did it better and a year before, but Helmet and House Of Pain get the credit.) And then, five years later, an unholy mix of sloppy white-boy rapping (a thing for which Vanilla Ice prepared us back in 1990) and a sludgy form of hard rock (exemplified by Days Of The New and Godsmack) crept up on us like a hit of ditch-weed. Nü-metal involved the baggiest of jeans, the nanny-goatiest of facial hair, and usually a DJ off to the side of the stage for no discernible reason.
Its first shots across the bow were Korn’s “Got The Life” and Limp Bizkit’s cover of “Faith.”
There wasn’t much for the girls in nü-metal, aside from Korn’s drummer, undeniable stone fox David Silveria. I mean, there certainly weren’t songs. Nü-metal succeeded more in having had a feel. A brand. A time-stamp.
I have two theories on how nü-metal succeeded on the countdown. First, I think the boys repped for it because they were young men, and as such had an innate need to upset their little sisters. They had to throw a song into the mix that would annoy or disturb the little Kaitlins and Ashleys in their lives, and truly, who could get the job done better than Fred Durst? Fred Durst was a grown version of the shady kid on the dirt bike in our viewers’ subdivisions. Fred Durst was a Hot Guy On Judge Judy before we had Tumblrs for such a thing. Fred Durst was someone who could tell kids to take that cookie and stick it up their yeah, and they’d agree to it.
I continue to harbor a grudging respect for and attraction to Fred Durst.
My other explanation is that the boys simply wanted to watch TRL, and were afraid of being called gay for it. There was a barrier to entry, but as long as there was something aggro and filthy onscreen for a few minutes an hour, they felt safe to watch the countdown and pretend not to enjoy Christina Aguilera’s “Come On Over Baby.”
Come on, babies; you loved it and you know it.
For me, the most bewildering part of nü-metal’s popularity is how grim it all was. The harder pop-rock music of the 1980s was pitched right at the winners, the partiers, the cool kids. Bon Jovi were the sound of triumph, music to which you could drink an illegally procured Budweiser. Mötley Crüe were made in a lab for the specific purpose of bumping out of bullies’ Jeeps.
Korn, on the other hand, largely made music about having been molested. How odd it must have been, in turn-of-the-millennium high schools, to have had the loner music so fully co-opted by the jocks? How strange it must have been to be a jock and have “Freak On A Leash” playing in your Jeep for all to hear?
Most of all, how bizarre that we allowed that bathtub-meth Bobby McFerrin bridge to stand?
Inside the studio during TRL, everything managed to stay copacetic between the two warring sides. The girls in the audience were more gracious; they’d sing along to every song, regardless of whether they liked it, while the boys would only pump a fist at the rock songs. Enthusiasm and decency were gendered back then.
But out in Times Square, the young mooks of America felt more free to speak their minds. “Play some more real shit,” they’d tell me, forgetting both that the vote was really more theirs, and that even the most generous definition of “real shit” cannot include “Rollin’.”
In person, the pop stars were media-coached to within an inch of their lives. Every word out of their mouths was written, crafted, focus-grouped so as to avoid alienating even a single record buyer. By contrast, the rock boys had permission to be realer. You could see a JC Chasez wondering how it would feel to be so free.
Nü-metal fizzled out as quickly as it fizzled in. Fred Durst started directing movies, Korn got too weird for a pop countdown show, and once Tommy Lee joins the party, you know it’s over.
Max Martin went on to write “Since U Been Gone.”
I come down firmly on the pop side here. So do you.