#41: Korn - "Follow the Leader" (1998)

Before we get stuck in: this blog is usually safe for your most pearl-clutching-est of maiden aunts. Today, however, there is Language. Gird your loins or otherwise as you feel appropriate.

This week, skirting around the edges of things I know very little about, I was thinking about things that people I knew liked circa about 2005, and it occurred to me there was something I’d forgotten. I announced to my partner, “I think I’m going to bite the bullet, you know. I think I’m going to have to listen to some Evanescence.”

He pulled a face. “If you’re going to do nu metal, at least do something good.”

And that is when I realised that I’d forgotten that metal music exists.

There is a reason for this, which is that I have never really listened to any vaguely metallic music for more than a few minutes, and of course this is where we remind ourselves to not knock things until you’ve tried them. If nothing else, I’m a gunner for sampling as many weird and wonderful varieties of art as you can get your hands on, from roleplaying games to opera to penmanship. Sometimes you find a thing that really works for you, where you never expected it.

“Give me something seminal,” said I.

The first thing I can tell you about listening to Follow the Leader is that it is written, and performed, by angry men. Angry boys. No, angry men. It is music for being angry to, in the flavour of screaming and letting your emotions out through your voice – there’s some bits that in my notes I’ve referred to as “goblin scatting”, somewhere halfway between deep, bass yelling and beatboxing, don’t ask me how it works – but also in the flavour of there being several songs explicitly about being mad at your parents for not understanding you. The kids who listened to The Smiths probably showed up in class the kids who listened to Korn, and the Korn kids probably sat on the bus and fantasised about beating the Smiths kids up. That’s the vibe I got from this – or some of it, anyway.

The thing about The Smiths, and about this, though, is that it’s music to grow beyond. Follow the Leader is full of men yelling “Shut the fuck up!” over and over, as if it’s the only way they can articulate it, and there’s probably a time in most people’s lives where that’s true, albeit briefly. But I am older than that now, and you probably are as well. This quantity of fucks and cunts and motherfuckings is hardly transgressive. One of the songs about how your parents couldn’t possibly understand you is called “Dead Bodies Everywhere”. What are we, sixteen? (And you’ll never guess what “B.B.K.” is supposed to stand for. Apparently it’s a name they came up with for Jack Daniels and coke, which of course is their drink of choice, because metal. At least spell it right, edgelords.) This album captures that age where you pepper your conversations with swears, where you first start to realise you can drink things and stay out and even have sex if you really want to. I remember being in a bar in Leuven when I was seventeen, drinking that obligatory JD and coke, with a mish-mash of feelings but also anxious and trying to show off. That was the age the people I knew would have been listening to Korn. That makes sense to me.

What did surprise me was the broadness of the musical influences – one thing I’m learning this year is how incredibly influential hip-hop is, because it gets everywhere, presumably on account of if you want to say something wordy in a high-energy way, hip-hop is what you want. Ice Cube makes an appearance, on a song containing the lyrics, “Fuck the law, with my dick in my hand” – look, I like the sound of rapping, a lot of the time, but this is why so many people, including me, object to the content. Other parts are rockier; moments sound almost indie, but with the heavy turned up. Lead singer Jonathan Davis plays the bagpipes at some points, which can I just say, is a delightful concept. On the other hand, “All in the Family” is basically a rap battle between Davis and Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit, poking fun at each other in a way that presumably they mean as friendly but which is gratuitously offensive and homophobic. I’d say it’s aged badly, but was it okay to say things like that in 1998? Either way: not good.

The first minute consists of twelve, five-second, entirely silent tracks, presumably to mess with the shuffle function on your MP3 player. Apparently there is a reason for it, to do with the last wish of a dying fan. I wonder if I’d be more forgiving towards it if the rest of the album felt more mature, more considered. It did not. I would like to emphasise that here. This does not feel to me like a mature album.

The misogyny is unfortunate. The homophobia is unfortunate. “All in the Family”, in its entirety, is unfortunate. I didn’t actually like this album. But I appreciate it. I see what there is to like in the genre. If metal has grown since 1998, and maybe cut out the word “faggot”, then there’s a spark of something here.