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Nu Metal: Where Did it Go Wrong?
Nu metal is dying.
In fact, the signs indicating that it was on its last leg started to linger around 2003, when record sales from the ubiquitous, big money acts began to dwindle. What happened? I suppose the answer lies buried somewhere in between the culmination of the style, and it having been a frequent target of acute criticism from heavy metal fans worldwide. Simply stated: a lot of people, especially long term fans of metal, had it in for nu metal from the beginning. So what exactly is it about nu metal that so many take issue with? Does the evidence of its (comparatively speaking) decline in mass-popularity vindicate those who have--- all along--- not only put nu metal down as wanting in technique, but adamantly declared much of it to be little more than the latest hatchling from the minds of market analysts? In this month's editorial, I intend to explore the possible answers to these questions, and I intend to do so as fairly as possible.
"Nu metal"--- we've all heard it before. The phrase itself is generally acknowledged to have been coined by Korn frontman Jonathan Davis, to describe an (at that time) emerging sound/style--- what he referred to as "new URBAN metal".
This novel coinage of Davis' begs a question. Why the inclusion of the word "urban"? In my mind, this leads to even more questions. Was metal, prior to the mid-1990's, somehow "un-urban"? This inference seems ridiculous on its face. Correct me if I'm mistaken, but didn't bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Exodus cut their teeth in the Bay Area of California? Didn't Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Motorhead plant their gardens in British cities like Birmingham, London, and Manchester? Can it get much more "urban" than San Francisco or Birmingham?
Of course, I'm being coy. "Urban", in this case, was Davis' euphemistic substitute for hip hop culture, something that nu metal has hitherto been rife with--- whether this is "good" or "bad" is a judgment that can only be left to the devices of the individual. The point is this--- from its inception, the name itself was intentionally obscure, however the impressions soon became palpable enough; oversized pants, the pimp-esque jogging suits, the gold chains, the sideways baseball hats, vocals offered up in rap format, the presence of the obligatory "kicker-box beat", the absence of noteable guitar presence in favor of beefed up basslines, the employment of a DJ, etc.
... and all the while, most metal fans were scratching their heads. I was one of them. Record executives weren't, though. During the mid-1990's, they were all-too aware of hip hop's growing market share and--- let us not forget--- hip hop's relatively low production costs. I believe the search went out for cross-over acts who could potentially tap into the hard rock and heavy metal markets. These markets were observably hung over from the enormity of the early 90's "grunge" swell which, by that time, had begun to recede. Even still--- the alternative rock explosion of the late 80's/early 90's offered up much more than whatever was coming out of Seattle at the time--- and in a few exceptionally rare instances, the labels took notice as MTV took notice.
Enter the band Faith No More, and their blockbuster video for the genre-bending song "Epic".
Considered by most to be the earliest crystallization of nu metal, "Epic" was (unfortunately for a truly avant-garde outfit like Faith No More) the model prototype of what more than a few AR label recruiters were looking to tap. And tap they did. That is not to put forward the idea that Faith No More was the sole catalyst behind what ultimately morphed into the nu metal of Jonathan Davis' description. Quite the contrary.
One can, with little effort of thought, hear the seeds of nu metal being formulated in the earlier works of bands like Godflesh, Helmet, Faith No More, Rage Against the Machine, Sepultura (Chaos AD and Roots in particular), the Melvins, and even the Swans--- at least from the heavier, musical side of things. What we somehow ended up with, by the late 1990's, was Korn, Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, Linkin' Park, Deftones, Crazy Town, et al. With that taken into account, I often find myself bewildered that nu metal evolved the way it did. My ears tell me that the resulting product did not proceed logically from its root sources of inspiration, almost like a tree that grows in the shape of a letter "Z". I have often--- to the shock and consternation of many a metalhead--- put forward the notion that nu metal might have evolved into something that was more than just a novelty act with generic (and hence) popular appeal and a "tuff" name, had it opted for the avant-garde mission statement of bands like Godflesh, Melvins, and Faith No More. Instead, it collectively aligned itself with the most transparent gimmicks associated with mainstream hip hop culture--- just look around. It isn't difficult to see the blatant level of saturation. Bad move. Metal fans don't tend to jump the trains of popular trend, all because a few marketing drones dangle a glossy video before them.
This did nothing but repel them.
How unsurprising, then, that the greater part of the fanbase which nu metal sought out and ultimately attracted are consummate trend hoppers, who--- even the TOP end of the spectrum--- typically have a four year attention span for something, until they race off to latch onto the next "like, uber hot" novelty. This calls to mind the similar, self-inflicted fate that dealt glam metal a death blow by the dawn of the 1990's. Once again, the artists took the easy bait. Now sales are winding down. People are losing interest. Too bad. Maybe there would have been fewer platinum albums along the way, but if nu metal acts had taken a more creative, substantive approach to structure and style, it might not have found itself--- in mere few years--- relegated to obscurity, only occasionally resurrected to serve as a punchline. So much for doing what is best to preserve in earnest.
It is interesting that, among its fans--- I've noticed that the phrase "nu metal" has lately become a dirty word of sorts--- another indication that portends its pending demise. All of a sudden, people go on the defensive when a band is referred to as a nu metal band. Have you noticed that in many instances--- to its fans--- "nu metal" is no longer a viable classification, but when administered, is now viewed as a negative stereotype? Clearly, a shift in perception has taken place since the late 1990's. Many now prefer to bury nu metal underneath the misleading term "alternative metal". Be on the lookout for that one, because it's coming into vogue. This falls under that age old magic trick: "If we call it something else, people will believe that it is something else." It isn't alternative metal. I also find it curious that, to my knowledge, nobody seemed to mind the classification so long as sales were booming, and advertising one's music as "nu metal" meant a better chance at getting noticed by a big label. So what's different between THEN and NOW?
This is fairly black and white--- nu metal is running out of steam, and those who oil the gears are looking for ways to wring a few more years out of it. Renaming it is one such way.
Therein lies the problem--- if nu metal is going to stay alive, cosmetic changes aren't going to be the solution. Changes need to take place within the music.
The sound needs to break its mould.