Significant Other Turns 20
“You wanted the worst, you got the worst.” – Fred Durst
We didn’t have smartphones in 1999, and I can assure you no one was lugging a laptop around Westerville North High School back then. Plus by the time Limp Bizkit released “Nookie” in mid-June we would have been on summer break. So it definitely didn’t happen the way I half-remember it happening, the way it probably happens now when a teen-beloved musical act releases their new video: everyone huddling around the lunch table to watch, posting it on their various social platforms, enthusiastically rapping along. I could have sworn we spent that spring cackling at our lockers about sticking a cookie up your yeah! and eagerly anticipating Significant Other, the album “Nookie” preceded. The internet assures me it didn’t go down that way. The song dropped on June 15, and the album followed a week later — 20 years ago this Saturday.
It’s for the best that the details remain foggy. Significant Other is the kind of album best left behind in adolescence. You know that cycle where you age out of liking a childhood favorite, they become lame to you, and then years later you approach the music again through a nostalgic lens with a fresh understanding of its appeal? I am familiar with that kind of critical rehabilitation. Not long ago I extended it to Korn, Limp Bizkit’s brothers in nu-metal. At the end of that piece I lumped Bizkit into the reconsideration, praising their explosive dynamics and the way they so naturally jumbled genres together. Upon revisiting Significant Other, I must elaborate on that thesis. Bizkit certainly did present an explosive genre jumble, but so do my bowels after ingesting certain fusion cuisines. No rosy reevaluation is forthcoming.
It’s easy to see why Bizkit appealed to kids like me upon emerging out of Jacksonville in the late ’90s. They took the sludgy loud-quiet-loud formula made famous by Nirvana, undergirded it with rolling hip-hop beats, and topped it off with base, churlish outbursts about disloyal friends and lovers seasoned with sexual and scatalogical humor. Wes Borland’s heaving metal and hardcore riffs often sound dope backed by the groove-heavy rhythm section of drummer John Otto, bassist Sam Rivers, and House Of Pain alumnus DJ Lethal. Fred Durst, the band’s burly skate-rat tattoo-artist frontman, usually tainted those instrumentals with manifold verbal excretions, but credit him with this at least: He knew how to barrel into the loud parts with the kind of chorus that can get an entire middle school student body shouting along. A song like “Counterfeit,” from their 1997 debut Three Dollar Bill Y’all, is catnip for frustrated pubescents who just want to rage.
Though it earned but a fraction of the attention Limp Bizkit would later receive, Three Dollar Bill Y’all presents probably the best possible version of the band. Durst is obnoxious, but not as obnoxious as he’d later become, and his presence is offset by his bandmates at their rawest. They earned their reputation as Korn soundalikes, but there are also shades of Deftones and Tool and Faith No More in the band’s early material. There was a fair amount to like if you could stomach Durst’s guttural throat-shredding, pitchy crooning, and sub-elementary bars — a high bar to clear, but not insurmountable for eighth-graders ready to gobble up any heavy music they can get their Cheeto-stained fingers on, who instinctively recognized this grown man in a red Yankees cap as their intellectual peer.
The outlier on Three Dollar Bill Y’all was a cover of George Michael’s “Faith,” which played it straight during the first verse and dropped a bomb on the chorus, blowing up Michael’s stylish minimalism into crude mosh-pit fodder. It was a dumb joke, but it got Limp Bizkit on MTV and ensured Significant Other would be a big deal. It also probably liberated Durst, who had intentionally selected the most repulsive band name he could think of, to hinge the next album’s lead single on these lyrics: “I did it all for the nookie/ So you can take that cookie/ And stick it up your yeah!“
“Nookie” is another one of those songs where Durst mars what could’ve been a powerhouse rap-rock hybrid. On a beat that certifiably slaps, the best this guy could do was: “You would think that I’d be movin’ on/ But I’m a sucker like I said/ Fucked up in the head/ Not!” Borland, whose elaborate costumes and outré tastes added fascinating wrinkles to what was mostly a knuckle-dragging operation — and who has always seemed a little uncomfortable about being in Limp Bizkit at all — once expressed shock and disappointment that Durst ran with “Nookie,” which had originally just been a working title jacked from a porno mag that was laying around in the studio. But that’s the level Durst was operating on. I’d like to tell you to consider the deeper truths buried within the nookie/cookie Zen koan, but to meditate deeply on Durst’s wordplay is to swan dive into the kiddie pool; it’ll just hurt your head.
On the other hand, for much of the band’s fan base his lyrical juvenilia was the primary draw. Never mind that his rapping was no better than what I could spit off the dome in front of the bedroom mirror, or that he seemed constitutionally incapable of singing in key, or that when the time came to tear it up he sounded like the guy at the gym who drops hundreds of pounds on his chest after neglecting to get a spotter. Especially never mind that his lyrics were mostly facile shit talk and the sort of one-sided critiques of ex-lovers now native to the darker corners of 4chan. He was consistently the worst part of the band, yet the confidence and self-reflection deficit that inspired him to become a fountain of unfiltered garbage water was also what made Limp Bizkit so popular. Bizkit’s rivals the Insane Clown Posse once famously wondered how magnets work, and let me tell you: They polarize. The same force that repelled Durst’s critics is what attracted his fan base. The man was a puerile pied piper.
He was leading those children nowhere good. Sadly, “Nookie” was the best Bizkit had to offer. Much of Significant Other comprises lesser versions of the same trick, songs like “I’m Broke” and “Just Like This” and “Trust?” and “9 Teen 90 Nine.” On the latter, Durst posits, “”Hate: A feeling that I don’t really get!” as if hate is not the primary factor driving most of his lyrics. Even worse are the passive-aggressive ballads where he pouts about his ex. “Re-Arranged” at least has a cool bass riff. All “Don’t Go Off Wandering” has to show for itself is Durst grunt-wailing “You don’t feel nothing at all!” over the band’s best attempt at gravitas. The nadir is probably “No Sex” with its passionately intoned chorus, “Shoulda left my pants on this time/ But instead you had to dance right in!”
The moments when Limp Bizkit interact with the outside world are at least interesting. “Nobody Like You” brings together Korn’s Jonathan Davis and Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots, who would later headline one of Korn and Bizkit’s Family Values Tours. Hearing him in hearty grunge mode on the same track as Durst and Davis is truly bizarre. Method Man shows up for the straightforward rap song “N 2 Gether Now,” so thoroughly outshining Durst that it’s no wonder Bizkit’s song with fellow TRL provocateur Eminem never came out. Speaking of MTV, the album ends with 120 Minutes host Matt Pinfield railing against “all the chart-topping, teeny-bopping, disposable happy horseshit” — a sentiment that has not aged well, especially considering he’s presenting Limp Bizkit as the antidote.
That said, if Pinfield’s objection to pop circa Y2K was its stage-managed precision, he wasn’t wrong to identify Bizkit as the opposite. Just look at Woodstock ’99, the ill-fated music festival where fire, riots, and sexual assaults broke out during Bizkit’s set. The alleged culprit for this chaos was “Break Stuff,” the album’s other lasting legacy. If Significant Other is the sound of Durst venting anger for an hour, “Break Stuff” distills that sentiment into its purest form: just under three minutes of don’t-talk-to-me-I-haven’t-had-my-coffee fury. Durst seems to be having way too much fun telling you how pissed off he is, especially when his promise to skin your ass raw with his chainsaw explodes into cries of, “Give me something to break!” This made Bizkit easy scapegoats for the Woodstock fiasco, which in turn allowed future film director Durst to expand on his album’s scorned victim mentality via MTV. The “Re-Arranged” video features the members of Limp Bizkit tried and sentenced to death for their crimes, drowned in milk as the song reaches its grand finale.
Even at age 15 I found all this somewhat embarrassing — “Break Stuff,” the self-righteous martyrdom, the “Nookie” chorus especially — but not so embarrassing that I declined to walk across town to purchase Significant Other from my local High Fidelity type on release day. A couple years later I’d be picking up Pixies and Sigur Rós and Yo La Tengo CDs from the same guy; I’d like to believe he was proud. Truthfully, though, he probably just felt relief, or the absence of pity. On that fateful day in June of ’99, when I sauntered into Sour Records to buy the new Limp Bizkit album, I had nowhere to go but up. In that moment, I wanted the worst. I got the worst.