Remembering That Strange Moment When Korn Were Pop Superstars
Written by JARVIS LEROUGE on August 17, 2018
At first, Korn were a myth to me. When they released their self-titled debut album in 1994, I was 11. I may have glimpsed their spooky dreadlocked scowls in magazines or TV ads, or wherever I found out about new music in that nascent internet era. But for a suburban Christian kid who spent his late elementary years dabbling in pop and country radio, they remained elusive boogeymen lingering over the horizon of adolescence.
Two years later, when they released Life Is Peachy in 1996, I was 13, in the thick of seventh grade. My access to darker, scarier music was broadening, as was my appetite for heavy guitar music of all stripes. The album was a tantalizingly bizarre racket — “Twist” with its demonic scat, “A.D.I.D.A.S.” with its sophomoric sex talk, et al — but my exposure was still limited to listens snuck at my best friend’s house across the street, where I’d later spend hours trying to emulate shredders ranging from Pantera to Joe Satriani.
Korn were decidedly different from those acts. Their sound was unique — chunky, primitivist, infused with hip-hop, narrated by a sniveling substance abuser prone to ghoulish outbursts — but what stood out most to me back then was their look. They seemed to have crawled out of the same dark corners inhabited by the kids who wore JNCOs and oversized Marilyn Manson T-shirts to my middle school, kids I was usually too afraid to approach. That plus the disturbing vitriol that fueled their pioneering barbarism ensured I kept them at arm’s length. Where more jaded listeners heard a clown show and PTA members heard a burgeoning parental crisis, I heard the audio equivalent of the horror movies I was still too freaked-out to watch.
And then, all of the sudden, they were pop stars. With the #1 smash Follow The Leader, released 20 years ago this weekend, Korn became the kind of group that battled for TRL supremacy with Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys. As frontman Jonathan Davis told The Ringer in an entertaining feature this week, “We were the only rock band on TRL that was doing that shit. I had people showing up to my house trying to jump the fences to get in, all kinds of crazy shit.”
Technically, there was also Kid Rock, whose breakthrough Devil Without A Cause was released on the same day as Follow The Leader in 1998, and Limp Bizkit, whose Fred Durst joined Davis on Follow The Leader’s regrettable dick-measuring contest “All In The Family.” (The song literally begins with the line, “My dick is bigger than yours,” before descending into a nuclear meltdown of homophobic slurs and other locker-room shit talk. I do have to give Durst credit for this string of insults: “You call yourself a singer?/ You’re more like Jerry Springer/ Your favorite band is Winger/ And all you eat is Zingers.”)
Besides all those angry white guys rapping — a TRL motif that extended beyond nu-metal to Eminem — pop-punk class clowns Blink-182, who Davis may or may not consider a rock band, were also mainstays of the show circa Y2K. So Korn weren’t the only rock band on TRL. But what Davis lacks in precision, he makes up for in sentiment: Korn really were operating on the same superhuman scale as the biggest pop artists in the world. They were part of the mainstream celebrity pantheon. Maybe they weren’t getting airplay on top-40 radio, but they had fully infiltrated TRL, the only pop measuring stick that mattered to teenagers back then.
By this point I was in high school, and I can attest that students from across the social strata were bumping Follow The Leader. That included me, a shy nerd who wanted desperately to be accepted by the cool kids. (I achieved partial acceptance by teaching an actual cool kid how to play Incubus songs on guitar; he in turn invited me to a Sugar Ray and Goo Goo Dolls concert with — gulp — girls.) Most days freshman year I tuned in after school to find out whether a rock or pop act would reign supreme on TRL. It was a low-stakes culture war on which both sides were generating deeply juvenile base-impulse hormone fuel: filthy dreads versus frosted tips. (Revisit former MTV host Dave Holmes’ Stereogum essay on TRL’s pop vs. nu-metal battle for much more on the adolescent politics of it all.) Although it didn’t truly require taking a side, in debates on the school bus I felt obliged to stump for the rock bands while conceding that “I Want It That Way” was a jam.
“Freak On A Leash” was also a jam. So was Follow The Leader’s other big hit “Got The Life,” a tune that played like a race car plowing through sludge, which never topped TRL but was such a mainstay on the countdown that they had to retire it. Listening back to these songs now, I am taken aback by how polished and catchy they are, despite the quagmire they seem to emerged from. The brutal qualities that marked Korn’s first two albums remained — each song a building collapsing, each vocal track a flurry of twisted whimpers and roars — but on Follow The Leader those aural horrors were countered by unshakeable hooks and captured in sparkling clarity by the best recording equipment money can buy.
Korn also leaned harder into the hip-hop undercurrents that had always been a part of their aesthetic. I was too ignorant to recognize the influence of Cypress Hill on the band’s deep, squealing grooves or the way Davis was channeling Doug E. Fresh every time he launched into one of his beatboxing hyperventilations — connections Davis himself drew in The Fader’s new oral history of “Freak On A Leash.” But given that my exposure to rap before nu-metal basically amounted to DC Talk and Puff Daddy, Follow The Leader was a gateway drug. The album was almost certainly the first time I heard Ice Cube’s voice on a record (on the Odd Future-predicting “Children Of The Korn,” replete with calls for a youth uprising and Davis screaming, “I feel the parents hating me!”). It was definitely the first time I encountered the Pharcyde, whose Tre Hardson contributed bars to the wince-inducing screed “Cameltosis” (chorus: “You see this time/ I cannot ever love another cunt/ You trick ass slut/ Love twice and you’ll get fucked”).
Davis now says embarrassments like “All In The Family” and “Cameltosis” were the product of a debased drug-fueled party in the studio, where he estimates their three-month liquor bill topped $60,000 and his fellow musicians allegedly were having sex with porn stars all around him while he recorded his vocals. As he told The Ringer, “It’s like that scene out of Boogie Nights, when they were all fuckin’ on crank and they’re like, ‘No no, this is the best shit ever!’” But of course such brazen foul-mouthed outbursts are catnip for teenagers. And even if I wasn’t among those who related to Davis sneering “You really want me to be a good son/ Why? You make me feel like no one” on the somewhat chilling pre-Columbine fantasy “Dead Bodies Everywhere,” what frustrated kid can’t identify with Davis turning “WHAT THE FUCK!?!?” into a rallying cry?
Korn and their buddies in Bizkit were good at funneling their trauma into explosive blasts of anger — sometimes frighteningly good, as in the case of Woodstock ’99, the piss-and-shit-covered hellhole that literally went down in flames after Durst exhorted the audience to “Break Stuff.” These bands’ crude, tasteless onslaughts were also ridiculously dynamic, and they sneakily united disparate scenes and styles under one banner just as Napster came along and opened up new frontiers of music exploration. Thus, they dominated to an extent we haven’t seen rock bands dominate since. History has shepherded their moment from a phenomenon to a laughingstock to a prescient forebear of now. Not bad for a group idiosyncratic enough to put DJ scratches and bagpipes on the same record.
Could a rock band enjoy this sort of superstardom today, much less a rock band as defiantly ugly as Korn? Maybe not a rock band, strictly speaking. The Spotify singles chart, today’s closest equivalent to TRL, is mostly averse to rock and entirely allergic to metal, though one notable exception to that rule is Twenty One Pilots, a cuter, cleaner, more optimistic offshoot from the Family Values Tour family tree. But spend any time examining the SoundCloud rappers who’ve approached the top of the Hot 100 singles chart and planted albums in the Billboard 200 top 10 for months on end — Lil Uzi Vert and the late XXXTentacion among them — and you’ll notice them following the leader to this day. These guys dress like they’re headed to Ozzfest ’99, and their lyrics are informed by the same alienation, mental illness, drug abuse, and outsized self regard that typified the nu-metal scene. For what it’s worth, Davis hates this music, and his kids supposedly love it. Which is funny: Both his physical offspring and the mumble-rappers they love are children of the Korn.
After five weeks of Scorpion domination, someone has dethroned Drake from the top of the Billboard 200. Your new king is Travis Scott, whose Astroworld launches with a wildly impressive 537,000 equivalent album units and 270,000 in pure sales. Per Billboard, those are the second-best totals in their respective categories this year, trailing only Scorpion’s first-week numbers. When you outsold Post Malone in 2018, you know you’re truly popular.
Additionally, Astroworld’s 261,000 streaming equivalent albums — culled from 349.43 million on-demand audio streams — represents the fifth largest streaming week ever. It’s Scott’s second #1 album following 2016’s Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight.
Scorpion falls to #2, followed by the #3 debut of Mac Miller’s Swimming via 66,000 units and 30,000 in sales. After Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys at #4 comes yet another rap debut, YG’s Stay Dangerous, at #5 with 56,000 units/11,000 sales. Juice WRLD, Cardi B, and XXXTentacion are at #6, #7, and #8 respectively; according to Billboard, it’s the first time the top eight entries on the Billboard 200 have all been hip-hop albums. Rounding out the top 10 are the soundtracks from Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and The Greatest Showman.
Drake does, however, hold onto #1 on the Hot 100 for a fifth straight week with “In My Feelings.” Right behind it at a new #2 peak is Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You.” It swaps places with Cardi’s now-#3 “I Like It” featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin. The first of two Travis Scott tracks to debut in the top 10, “Sicko Mode” is in at #4. Drake is not credited as a featured artist — there are no feature credits on Astroworld — but technicalities aside, the song features Drake.
After 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s “Fefe” at #5, Post Malone’s “Better Now” at #6, and Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” at #7 comes the other Travis Scott track, “Stargazing,” at #8. Per Billboard he’s only the fourth artist to debut two songs in the top 10 simultaneously, following Ed Sheeran, J. Cole (who debuted three at a time earlier this year), and Drake (who’s done it three times, including a record-setting four tracks at once when Scorpion dropped). Closing out the top 10 are Tyga and Offset’s “Taste” at #9 and Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” at #10.
Miguel – “Vote”
Miguel is out here getting that movie-studio money! After singing on Pixar’s Coco tearjerker “Remember Me” last year, he’s now back with a fun, neon-streaked party track from the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack, produced by none other than Mark Ronson. It’s a real day-brightener, this one.
Camila Cabello – “Real Friends” (Feat. Swae Lee)
“Real Friends,” a spare guitar ballad that sounds like something off Selena Gomez’s Revival, was already one of my favorite songs on Cabello’s album. Now she’s added Swae Lee to the track in a bid for another hit single — this after adding Kane Brown to “Never Be The Same” — and I am not sure how I feel about it. There was a pleasing intimacy to the original track that was a good match for lyrics that seemed aimed directly at Cabello’s former Fifth Harmony comrades. Maybe if Swae was in top form I’d be more amenable to him dropping in here, but his Auto-Tune-abusing singsong takes me out of the song.
Elle King – “Shame”
This is close enough to “Ex’s & Oh’s” without outright repeating it that I suspect King might finally have her second genuine hit. There is a high ceiling for catchy songs that manage to ensconce rock sounds in a pop context.
Elley Duhé – “Lost My Mind”
Duhé, the singer on Zedd’s latest single, released her debut EP Dragon Mentality last week. It’s decent enough, but she was wise to put this one up front. It’s not as adventurous as some of the other EP tracks, but it’s a pristine example of electronic R&B done right.
Cher – “GIMME! GIMME! GIMME! (A Man After Midnight)” (ABBA Cover)
I mean, it’s Cher covering ABBA — what else do you want?
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Cardi B will open the VMAs on Monday night. [Twitter]
- Cardi will not, however, be opening for Bruno Mars on tour, so he announced Ciara, Charlie Wilson, Boyz II Men, and Ella Mai as her replacements. [Instagram]
- Selena Gomez says her new album is finally done. [Idolator]
- Justin Timberlake is releasing a photo book called Hindsight: & All The Things I Can’t See In Front Of Me. [People]
- Calvin Harris & Sam Smith’s “Promises” is coming tomorrow, and I hope it’s as good as “Latch.” [Twitter]
- In other Sam Smith news, Adam Lambert accidentally shared video of him admitting he doesn’t like Michael Jackson’s music on his Instagram story. [Twitter]
- Dawn Richard, Aubrey O’Day, and Shannon Bex announced a Danity Kane reunion tour as DK3. [E!]
- Justin Bieber and Jimmy Fallon filmed something in disguise in NYC yesterday. [Twitter]
- Teyana Taylor is on the cover of Playboy. [Billboard]
- Lil Pump announced the Harverd Dropout Tour. [HNHH]
- Quavo released a video for “Lamb Talk.” [YouTube]
- Mac Miller performed “Ladders” with Jon Batiste & Stay Human on Colbert. [YouTube]
- Here’s Charlie Puth’s mini-set outside at Kimmel. [YouTube]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— Petr V. Knava (@actwithoutdoing) August 15, 2018