Loved and reviled, nu metal is a genre that inspires strong feelings from fans and critics. The genre came to prominence in the late 90s and early 2000s in particular, but was more a supernova than a shining star for its years in the limelight were short lived. Despite its fleeting existence, nu metal had a profound impact on a generation of teenagers, especially in the United States and the UK, with many of the bands retaining an iconic place in the 21st century’s rock chronicles. But from where did nu metal spawn and what made it so successful?
Origins of Nu Metal
Nu metal is one of numerous sub-genres spawned by the emergence of heavy metal in the 1970s and can be seen as part of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal (NWOAHM) that began in the 90s. The NWOAHM, along with nu metal, began when the band Korn released their debut album in 1994. The self-titled album made it to number 1 on the Heatseekers albums chart and ushered in a whole new era for metal music.
Nu metal stood out from the crowd during the NWOAHM movement; not least because the genre turned into a huge commercial success, but more on that later. Inspired by trash metal band, Anthrax, who created the rap metal genre in 1987, nu metal bands often featured the incorporation of hip-hop, and the use of DJs, into their music.
Based heavily on down-tuned guitar riffs and syncopated beats, nu metal emulates the heavy, distorted sound familiar to metal music, while often having extremely clean production and an overall pop sheen. Nu metal vocals also followed this combination of opposites, with growling, roaring, screaming vocals contrasted with clean, melodic interludes, often sung by someone other than the bands frontman.
Nu metal musicians were equally inspired by hip hop artists as they were by metal bands, listening to N.W.A., Cypress Hill, The Wu-Tan Clan, and The Fugees, among others. Korn claim Cypress Hill and Pantera to be the two biggest influences on their music. While Linkin Park, who were fans of KRS-One, Run-D.M.C., and Public Enemy, perhaps best exemplify the incorporation of rap and hip hop with metal music.
Nu metal emerged during a period when metal had been cast out of the mainstream. Replaced by grunge, metal began developing new styles away from the limelight and nu metal was one of the most commercially viable to appear during that time. Unlike their peers in the grunge music scene, nu metal bands had no problem embracing the mainstream, in fact many nu metal bands appeared to have formed precisely with the goal of gaining fame and glory.
Nu Metal in the Mainstream
Having created the genre a couple of years earlier with their self-titled debut, Korn brought nu metal hammering into the mainstream with their second album, Life is Peachy. Released in 1996, the album went straight to number 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart in the USA. The albums success propelled Korn into the spotlight and turned nu metal into a phenomena. The attention turned into controversy when an American high-school suspended a student for wearing a Korn t-shirt, on the grounds that the music was “indecent”. The band threatened to sue the school and gave out Korn t-shirts for free to students there.
Korn went from strength to strength in the 90s; the bands next album, Follow the Leader, was released in 1998 and went straight to number 1 on Billboard 200, as did their next album, Issues, released in 1999. And Korn weren’t the only nu metal band to achieve mainstream success during this time; with Korn came a host of other nu metal bands, including Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Gobsmack, Slipknot, Papa Roach, and Coal Chamber, who achieved varying degrees of commercial success.
Particularly successful among the teenage demographic, anyone who was at school when Limp Bizket released their album, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, in 2000, which featured the tracks My Generation and Rollin, will remember the stir it caused among teeny boppers. And angst filled teens moping around school with Korn, Slipknot, or Pap Roach blaring on their headphones became a common phenomenon.
Yet by the end of the 90s, critics were already announcing the end of nu metal, however, the genre continued into the 2000s, achieving still greater commercial success, none more so than Linkin Park. While Limp Bizket’s aforementioned album sold over 6 million units in the United States, Linkin Park’s debut album, released in 2001, sold over 11 million copies. Titled Hybrid Theory, the album was the result of nearly a decade of work by the band. It took the world by storm and turned Linkin Park into an instant success.
Although Korn created the genre, no band epitomises nu metal more than Linkin Park. And unlike Korn, they wholeheartedly accept the label of nu metal as a fitting description of their early music. Although nu metal was already a commercially viable genre, Linkin Park took the genre to a new level with their ultra-clean, pop sound.
In 2003, Linkin Park released their third album, Meteora. The album debuted at number 1 in the US and the UK and produced the hit single Numb, which reached number 11 on the US singles chart. The band were an international sensation.
Other nu metals bands that enjoyed commercial success in the 2000s were System of a Down, who’s album Toxicity reached number 1 in the USA in 2001, and Stained (though Stained always rejected the nu metal categorisation), who also had a number 1 album in 2001. By the mid-2000s however, nu metal album sales began to slump and the genre truly began to decline. While the major players continued to shift records, few new nu metal bands emerged.
Criticism of Nu Metal
Few genres have earned the intense criticism that has been directed at nu metal while still achieving commercial success. NME writer, Lucy Jones, has described nu metal as “the worst genre of all time”, citing the unholy mix of rap and metal music and the whiney, self-absorbed lyrics. And the vocal style of the singers was no better claims Jones, who describes them as: “whining, desperate, pained, angsty, emo mopes that sounded like a dog caught in a trap.”
On top of that, many nu metal bands featured sexist lyrics, to the extent that Courtney Love refused to perform alongside Limp Bizkit and System of a Down. Allegations of sexism and misogyny were not helped by allegations of rape during Limp Bizkit performances, or by the fact that the genre included almost no women, with the one notable exception being Evanescence, which had Amy Lee as front-woman and Jen Majura on guitar.
Indeed, it is not uncommon for young adults of today to look back at their nu metal music choices as teens with a certain degree of embarrassment. But then again, perhaps that was the brilliance of Linkin Park and their peers, their ability to connect with teenagers and give them an outlet for the angst. Though one wonders why men in their late 20s and early 30s were still wining about their trauma using the vocabulary of a 15-year-old. But then again, it was probably for the money.
The Future of Nu Metal
Though the nu metal hay-day is undeniably over, many of the bands continues to release new material and tour the globe. Although attendance at shows has dropped, bands like Korn are still able to pull large crowds. But with metal having moved on to other musical pastures, it seems unlikely that nu metal will return to mainstream again.
Key Moments in the History of Nu Metal
1994 – Korn release their debut album, Korn. The album ushers in the New Wave of American Heavy Metal movement and the nu metal genre.
1994 – P.O.D. release Snuff the Punk. The album is now thought to be an early example of nu metal.
1996 – Korn releases Life is Peachy. The album debuts at number 3 in the USA, establishing nu metal as a mainstream music genre.
2001 – Linkin Park release Hybrid Theory, the most successful nu metal album ever made.
2001 – SlipKnot release Iowa. The album reaches number 3 in the US and number 1 in the UK.
2003 – Linkin Park release Meteora. The album reaches number 1 in the UK and the US.
2004 – Papa Roach release Getting Away with Murder. The album demonstrates the bands decision to move away from nu metal and towards hard rock, one of many signals that the nu metal era was ending.
2017 – Chester Bennington, lead singer of Linkin Park, commits suicide after a life-long battle with depression.