it’s time to re-evaulate Korn (?) — ‘Follow the Leader’ turns 20
It's been pretty clear for a while that the much-maligned genre of nu metal has been due for re-evaluation, and one of the bands at the forefront of this re-evaluation is the one who started it all, and the one who brought it to pop stardom: Korn. Even if you can't stand their music, there's no denying how original, innovative, and influential they were. Nobody sounded like Korn's 1994 debut album before Korn's debut album came out. Afterwards, tons of bands did. And when Korn released Follow the Leader in 1998, home to massive singles like "Got the Life" and "Freak On A Leash," they became stars. The videos for those songs competed with boy bands and bubblegum pop stars on TRL, and it's still kind of crazy to think that a band as weird and as heavy as Korn could do that. (They had videos before that, though, like the one for "Blind" off their debut, which there's a great Beavis and Butt-Head skit about, in which Beavis goes full music critic on Korn and namedrops Laurie Anderson, but wrongly accuses them of being derivative of Pearl Jam.)
Speaking of music critics... Follow the Leader turns 20 this Saturday (8/18), and it shouldn't surprise you that there are tons of 20th anniversary pieces being written about it. It also, at this point, shouldn't surprise you that those pieces are on music websites and/or by music critics who may have historically considered "nu-metal" a bad word. Popularity + time = respect, and Korn and nu metal's influence has also lived on with a lot of today's critically acclaimed acts. Nu metal is to a certain wave of current hardcore bands (like Code Orange, Vein, Harms Way, Twitching Tongues, and probably even Turnstile) what emo and pop punk were/are to a lot of today's indie rock bands. Not to mention the endless wave of SoundCloud rappers were clearly influenced by nu metal too. Nu metal was bound for a comeback, and what better way to celebrate than with the 20th anniversary of the genre's definitive crossover album?
If you haven't read those anniversary pieces, they're worth diving into. The FADER interviewed the band for an oral history of "Freak on the Leash" (which interestingly points out that Korn were influenced by Portishead). Steven Hyden (host of the Celebration Rock podcast and author of Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me and Twilight of the Gods) also interviewed them for a feature on The Ringer titled "'Cocaine, Speed, and Gallons of Jack Daniel’s': The Last Rock ’n’ Roll Superstars Were … Korn?" And Follow the Leader's 20th anniversary is the lead story this week in Chris DeVille's The Week In Pop column over at Stereogum ("Remembering That Strange Moment When Korn Were Pop Superstars," it's titled). The FADER and Ringer interviews are full of choice quotes, ridiculous stories, and more. Korn's members do not hold back.
In that FADER interview, they talk about how they knew they had a hit on their hands with "Freak on a Leash." Bassist Fieldy said:
When we did that song, [we] definitely [knew] this [was] going to be one of the hits. I wish I had a better word for that — I know people hate that word, because it’s not like we [were] trying to make some pop hit or something. One of the classics. It stands out. What really took it over the top was when the middle part broke down, and then Jonathan came in and started doing that weird, almost-reggae beatboxing crazy scat voice. That almost made the whole song, what everybody waits for. Right when that hit, we just knew that song was special.
"Freak on a Leash" holds up super well. Even if you think you hate Korn, revisiting this song might make you question your stance on the band. In the context of 2018, where bubblegum pop is still popular but adventurous rock music is not, it's so weird to think this song competed with the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears on TRL. Not even just because it's a heavy song (for Korn's standards, it's not that heavy), but because it's such a strange song. It's got a psychedelic atmosphere to it, and while the chorus is very catchy, it eschews your average body-slamming nu-metal chorus in favor of a rhythmic groove that you wouldn't normally associate with the genre.
Not everything on Follow the Leader holds up so well though. The controversial Fred Durst collaboration "All in the Family," which is riddled with offensive slurs, is the kind of song that certainly does not deserve an anniversary celebration. Fortunately, when Korn play Follow the Leader across three sold-out shows in San Francisco, LA, and Vegas this September, they'll be leaving that song off the setlist. Frontman Jonathan Davis confirmed they won't be playing it in the interview with The Ringer and said: "We were fucking out of our minds, insanely drunk and high when we did that. 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!" He's also critical of "Cameltosis." "What the fuck was I fucking thinking? I was 27. I was still really immature."
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