“Everything’s been done. Nothing is new.”
That’s what a well-known MTV veejay said about rock and roll back in 1992. And who could blame her? Hair metal was over, the indie scene was stale, and punk was 15 years old–nearly as nostalgia-oriented as the goofy rockabilly and surf bands cropping up everywhere. Nothing was new all right. And as the music industry turned its hungry gaze toward hip hop, more than a few music magazines predicted the death of rock.
But somewhere out in the central California desert, rock was getting grisly new life. Its reanimators were five kids from Bakersfield who’d come of age “standing around in dirt fields, drinking beer and watching people fight,” and their sound was as big and foreboding as nearby Death Valley: the heaviest guitar sludge ever recorded coupled with a singer who used the stage as a personal shock-treatment lab to explore the darkest regions of his psyche. It was powerful enough to be the new voice for millions of fed-up and pissed-off youth the world over–a possibility that struck fear in the hearts of high school administrators and “concerned citizens” everywhere.
Now, ten years, six albums, and more than twenty million records deep into a career that spawned an epidemic of imitators, Korn remains untouchably atop the brutal genre they almost single-handedly spawned. Only a handful of bands ever change the face the rock; fewer still find ways to keep it fresh without selling out their original vision. And that’s the secret to Korn’s long-running success in a music world where 15 minutes of fame is 10 minutes more than most artists ever get–or deserve.
But it hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk….
In the beginning, Korn scared the living hell out of radio, MTV, and the music business in general. Anything too original makes record executives nervous, and they’d heard nothing like Korn : James “Munky” Shaffer and Brian “Head” Welch’s 7-string guitars were tuned lower than a standard bass for an alarmingly sinister growl that made so-called “heavy metal” bands sound downright quaint in comparison. Instead of the usual rock guitar clichés like soloing and power chords, Munky and Head filled instrumental passages with creepy playground sounds, sirens, squeaks – anything to create the bleak, bombed-out urban environment necessary for Fieldy’s booming, hip-hop-schooled bass riffs. Drummer David Silveria anchored everything with a heady blend of power and precision.
This was the perfectly eerie musical backdrop for Jonathan Davis, a former coroner’s assistant who was unlike any singer in rock. Whatever he did–sing, scream, whisper, or wail–was done without a trace of macho metal posing or “I’m-so-detached” alt-rock elitism. Davis raged about the bleak world he knew (schoolyard dicks, local meth freaks, his own abusive home life), and he was too deep in to care about looking cool.
Horrified record execs looked the other way, and Korn languished for years without a deal, earning their famously loyal fanbase with nothing but nerve and an overpowering live show. Eventually someone at Epic/Immortal had the guts to give them a shot, and the result was Korn, a 66-minute blast of grooving hostility that torched hard rock’s rulebook and took the “metal” right out of heavy. When Davis screamed “Are you ready?” in the opening moments of “Blind,” he probably knew that radio and music television weren’t. But the kids sure were, and by the time Korn released its follow-up, 1996’s Life is Peachy, enough fans had amassed to debut it at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top 200. This album was even more caustic than the debut, and rants like “@#%!” cemented Davis’ rep as one of rock’s foulest mouths, to the point where a Michigan high school kid was suspended for wearing a shirt that merely said “Korn.” Korn hammered the school with a legal order and got the kid reinstated, an early example of their very personal relationship with fans, but by no means the last.
Meanwhile, Korn-sounding bands were popping up like zits. Suddenly 7-string guitars, which had been almost extinct in the pre-Kornmusic world, had become standard in heavy rock. Flattering, sure, but dangerous: Korn didn’t want to be part of some flash-in-the-pan trend, even if it was a trend they invented. So they headed back to the studio with a plan. And while things got just a tad decadent in the studio–captured as it happened for fans via live weekly Internet broadcasts called “Korn’s After School Specials”–Korn stayed focused on the goal at hand: to put as much distance between themselves and the wannabes as possible.
The result was 1998’s well-titled, massively successful Follow the Leader. Debuting at No. 1 on Billboard, the record forced radio to pay attention with the breakaway singles “Got the Life” and “Freak on a Leash,” the latter of which earned a Grammy for Best Short Form Video. Rolling Stone would christen it one of the “essential alternative albums of the ‘90s,” and fans seemed to agree–Follow the Leader went quintuple platinum.
Suddenly, Korn had the clout to start transforming the music in other ways: they put together a hugely successful traveling rock festival with the snidely titled Family Values Tour, which produced a gold-certified comp CD of its own. Then they launched a label (Elementree), going platinum with their first signee’s debut (Orgy’s Candyass). Bigtime or not, Korn knew exactly who to thank for the newfound glory, and decided it was time to give the fans a little payback.
First they chartered a jet, political-campaign style, and held fan conferences all over the country (the Korn Campaign). Then they made time to hang out with a with a terminally ill fan through the Make-A-Wish Foundation–and ended up so down with the kid that they named a song for him (the haunting “Justin”). After that was arguably their biggest fan-appreciation act yet: they put word out that they wanted Korn fans to create the cover for their next record. But more than 25,000 submissions later, Korn was left with the daunting task of choosing one. So they didn’t; when Issues was released in 1999, it came out in four different, equally excellent fan-created covers. (The rest of the submissions went up on the studio wall, and can be seen in the album’s liner notes.)
Musically, Issues set Korn in a new direction, incorporating lush vocal melodies and an “astonishingly broad range of energy levels and textures,” as writer J.D. Considine put it. It debuted at No 1, with a high-charting single in the soaring “Falling Away from Me,” and the band landed an unprecedented, gloriously tasteless guest appearance on Comedy Central’s South Park. When Korn premiered the album at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater–the first rock band to ever play there – even Newsweek’s eyebrows raised. “For one blistering, bizarre hour at the Apollo,” they wrote, “rock and roll ruled the roost.” Korn’s fan-base embraced the musical change (a trait that would become characteristic of them), sending Issues to triple platinum status. When it was time for the tour, Korn made a move every rock fan dreams of: they let the fans pick the entire set list via Internet vote.
Always ambitious, Korn took the new sound even further with their next opus, 2002’s platinum Untouchables. Adding strings, synths, and assorted electronics to the typically fierce Korn caterwaul made for a “purgatorial symphony,” according to USA Today. Mainstream press like People Magazine and the Wall Street Journal were now on board, and the New York Times wrote, “Now that it has accepted melody as central, Korn reveals new skills and ideas in every song.” Korn got filmmakers the Hughes Brothers to direct the video for “Here to Stay,” which upheld the band’s tradition of illuminating how kids in America have inherited a punishing array of societal ills. The song garnered Korn yet another Grammy (Best Metal Performance); the album debuted at No. 2; and true to form, Korn discounted tickets $10 for all fans under 20 throughout the tour.
Afterward, Fieldy found time to write and produce a solo album, while Davis co-scored the film Queen of the Damned. By the time Korn hit the studio in 2003, it was with a renewed passion for their early sound. The platinum Take A Look In the Mirror was lean, crushingly heavy, and uncompromisingly vitriolic. The album was rush released to stores–four days ahead of its planned release–when it was discovered that an inferior copy of the music had been leaked to the Internet by an unknown source. (An unmixed version Korn’s Untouchables album also mysteriously made its way onto the Internet, months before it arrived in stores).
But the brunt of Korn’s anger this time out had nothing to do with illegal downloading–quite the opposite. While “Did My Time” and “Right Now” charted as singles, it was a brilliantly conceived “anti-hit” called “Ya’ll Want A Single?” that made the record’s biggest impact. Slamming the music industry for its cookie-cutter pop mentality, the song’s video flashed disturbing music industry statistics while Korn completely obliterated a record store in response. The anti-corporate message hit a chord with music fans everywhere–including the FCC-plagued Howard Stern.
“It’s probably the most inspirational, the most spectacular understanding of what’s going on in this country right now,” he said. “I believe that young people… are freaking out right now because of what is going on with the religious right. They are angry. They are angry about the corporations running the music business. They are angry with the radio business… What Jonathan Davis is able to do is tap into the mood of young people.”
Who else but Korn could score a hit by purposefully raising their middle finger to the entire corporate hit-making machine? That kind of uncompromising attitude is fundamental to good rock, and it’s as rare in today’s prefab music world as it was back when Korn began. It’s one of the reasons that–after ten remarkable years and the kind of success that would smother the fire of most like-minded bands–Korn matters just as much today.
Who knows what uncharted territories Korn will traverse in their second decade as a band. But one thing’s certain: this group does not rest on its laurels. Expect big things.