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Thinking about masculinity and desire through Korn
In her conversation with Billie Eilish for Interview Magazine last week, Lana del Rey stated that she “never liked to do anything in response to something that’s fear-based or based on what people think about me.”
“Is this an artistic inspiration that came to me or is this a reaction to something I feel is critical about me?” she asks herself.
I’ve been sitting with this over the last few days in light of the praise and pushback I received from my New York Times opinion essay. What is it that I want to say next? Is my desire to make any particular statement the result of my own beliefs and interests, or does it come from a place of wanting to defend or correct what I think is a misplaced critique?
But all I really have to say about all of it is wow, thank you so much for such a big response. It’s affirmed that I am doing something right here in wanting to pursue the conversation surrounding culture and sex.
Today, however, I have been hit with a very particular sense of where I’d temporarily like to take this conversation: I’d like to talk about nu-metal.
Yesterday afternoon, Dr. Jordan Peterson tweeted out a link to a YouTube lyrics video for Korn’s 1994 song “Daddy.” He shared it with the comment “Minor attracted person the aftermath warning this won't make your day.” Peterson is woefully clunky in expressing whatever his intended message was here. I believe he is saying that the song is the result of the boogeyman discourse that alleges that some people are trying to normalize pedophiles by branding them as “minor attracted people.” The song is upsetting, and therefore won’t “make your day” if you listen to it.
He’s right at least that the song probably won’t make your day. It is a disturbing, emotional track about Jonathan Davis’ experience being sexually abused as a child. Despite naming the song “Daddy,” Davis has stated that he was not abused by his father but by another adult and that his parents initially did not believe him. At times in the song, he speaks from the perspective of his abuser: “Little child/Looking so pretty/Come out and play/I'll be your daddy.” Davis is not expressing his own inclinations but is instead revisiting his trauma.
The song is nearly 30 years old, so why exactly Peterson decided today to tweet about it is a mystery. It isn’t some reflection of the current cultural conversation. However, I am constantly trying to bring Korn and nu-metal writ large into the discourse. By my perspective, nu-metal is critically misunderstood. Plenty of people want to call it the worst genre ever while denying the technical and creative innovations it brought to music (expansions on drop tuning, for example) that have been the spine of metal since. But more importantly, I think Korn especially reflects something powerful about masculinity.
Korn’s early albums, in particular, demonstrate many of the nuances of masculinity. Davis weeps openly in “Daddy,” yet embraces testosterone-fueled bravado in songs like “Got the Life” or “All In The Family.” He is full-on horny in “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” and expresses his pent up frustrations with himself, responsibility and sexuality in “Freak on a Leash.” Korn’s work is riddled with shame, yes, but never apology.
It’s how Davis discusses desire in particular that often feels prescient to me, but more likely reflects something timeless. In “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” Davis begins by saying “Honestly, somehow it always seems/That I'm dreamin' of somethin' I can never be,” a line demonstrating his sense that he can’t meet the cultural expectations of himself as a man, or his desire to envision himself as embodying a different masculine stereotype. He resolves this disconnect in the fantasy world of masturbation — “It doesn't matter to me/'Cause I will always be that pimp that I see in all of my fantasies… the only way/That I can truly be free from my fucked up reality/So I dream and stroke it harder.”
Perhaps it is a somewhat incel-ish perspective where Davis has formed a glorified image of himself wrapped in sex. But even if that is the case, we should be asking whether expressing these feelings and lamenting these conditions is a harmful encouragement of them, or instead a cathartic reconciliation. I’m far more frightened by the idea of such emotions being repressed.
Yet we’ve witnessed numerous attempts to demonize Korn and nu-metal’s form of expression. Every mainstream Hollywood documentary about Woodstock ‘99, for example, identifies some problem of masculinity and white male rage as the source of its failings, rather than greed, structural and organizational failures and weather. Is Limp Bizkit having songs about anger the reason some people quasi-rioted, or is it maybe due to the fact that it was 100 degrees outside and bottled water cost $7.20 each in today’s prices? Nu-metal continues to be labelled by liberals as a product of some ideological enemy. Meanwhile, as we can see from Jordan Peterson, the other end of the political spectrum is just as likely to do the same.
In other words, nobody has found a cohesive way of understanding the lens through which nu-metal approached masculinity, a lens I believe should be embraced. Early Korn, in particular, allowed for complex vulnerability and an often juvenile, macho attitude. It was a way for Davis to say: I am frustrated, I am pathetic, I am wounded, I am horny, I am confident, I am having fun, and I don’t know what to do about it except use these songs as an outlet. It was a discussion of the consequences of masculinity, but also an embrace.
And what else, really, are we supposed to do with masculinity? Femininity? Desire? These aren’t things to shy away from. They are not inherently bad. Frankly, someone like Peterson who is ostensibly working to fix a crisis in masculinity and assert it as necessary ought to take on a more welcoming approach to the type of masculinity that Korn put forth. I imagine, of course, that he isn’t really thinking too much about it. He is using them as a tool toward a project that is far more about furthering a divide, as many others have done with nu-metal, too.
On a completely different, far more minor level, it was interesting to see how my own NYT essay was interpreted toward similar ends. Across the political spectrum, there were those who loved the piece or hated it. Some accused me of encouraging meaningless sex and decrying marriage, others said I ultimately want to take choices away from women. Both of these assertions are projections and false assumptions based on what was absent from my piece, rather than what I actually said. But today, with Lana in mind, I didn’t want to dig too deep into that. Instead, I wanted to talk about nu-metal.