There are two types of people in this world: those who don’t like Limp Bizkit, and those who like fun.
The “bad boys” of nu-metal – itself probably the most unfairly maligned genre in history – Fred Durst, his backwards red cap and his strangely musically-talented band members exploded onto TRL and into the mainstream in 1997 with a shouty, trashy cover of George Michael’s hit “Faith” that somehow made the central assertion something to punch someone in the face about rather than an optimistic feel-good jingle about romantic devotion. George Michael hated it, Fred Durst said it was meant to be a laugh, and millions of American teenagers went absolutely wild for it. It sums up the phenomenon of Limp Bizkit in a nutshell.
In serious music circles, nu-metal’s legacy is mostly one of derision and ridicule: a cultural low-point devoid of any taste or meaning, beloved by angry suburban white boys dressed in comically oversized jeans that was uniquely offensive to women. NME named it “the worst genre of music ever” in 2013, with critics such as world’s-most-annoying-vegan Moby claiming it eschewed the art and politics of both rock and hip hop and instead “embraced the troglodyte elements”.
Mostly forgotten about or used as a punchline for the last 10+ years, the degenerate poster-boys of nu-metal are back in the zeitgeist due to the double whammy of a new HBO documentary about the corporate greed-fuelled shitshow that was Woodstock ’99, and a performance at last weekend’s Lollapalooza festival. This has culminated in a reappraisal of the band’s legacy, with people watching the footage from both festivals and asking themselves… ‘wait, are Limp Bizkit actually good?’ The short answer to this question is quite simply: yes, obviously. The longer answer is defined by what metrics you use to define “good”.
Are the songs clever? No. Are they well-structured? Not especially. Is Fred Durst particularly good at singing, “rapping”, or writing lyrics? No, no, and fuck no. Do they have a back catalogue of incredibly fun and dumb songs that go the fuck off when performed live? Yes. God yes. No-one is claiming a band who released an album called Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water are High Art, but there is no denying that watching Limp Bizkit perform live is the stuff mosher dreams are made of. The footage from Woodstock ’99 tries its hardest to make the crowd at their set look scary, but for a nu-metal fan who came of age in the early 00s, my main takeaway was that I would have given anything to be there losing my shit to “Break Stuff”.
It’s not hard to unfavourably compare Woodstock ’99 to its hippy predecessor: a cultural wasteland of apathetic pissed-up testosterone fuelled young men concerned only with tits and beer vs. a flower-crown wearing crowd committed to peace, love and harmony. “This is 1999 motherfucker!” Durst shouts midway through their set when asked by the organisers to calm the crowd down as they began ripping up infrastructure. “Take your Birkenstocks and stick ‘em up your fucking ass”.
That said, it seems strange to argue that there was nothing political about a bunch of overheated, dehydrated kids with no access to water, shade or hygiene for days on end setting fire to ATMs and scrawling “FUCK GREED” on upturned burning luxury cars.
It’s also easy to blame the multiple sexual assaults and riots that took place at Woodstock ‘99 on a band seemingly concerned with nothing more than getting laid and breaking shit; to label it “jock rock”, even though it seems unlikely that fans of other big nu-metal bands such as Korn and System of a Down – whose major musical themes are child abuse and the Armenian genocide, respectively – would have had much in common with frat boys. It’s annoying to have to even point out that there were and still are a sizeable number of female Limp Bizkit fans, and that the music could even be considered female-friendly in relation to the heavier, more “serious” rock it split off from.
Against the backdrop of a culture where the literal President managed to spin a then-22-year-old Monica Lewinsky’s reputation into that of a home-wrecking harlot, it’s almost laughable to suggest that some painfully-average white dude from Jacksonville, Florida singing about “doing it all for the nookie” was the reason that misogyny and sexual assault were so prevalent at the festival, or in the wider culture as a whole.
Fukuyama argued that the late 90s were the “End of History” – the Soviet Union had been defeated, liberal democracy had won, and the only thing on the horizon was pure abundance and growth. Unsurprisingly, this was not the case, and people were still angry. Nu-metal embodied that directionless rage and angst. It was the soundtrack of a generation who were being propagandized into the idea that everything was great, could sense that it wasn’t, but didn’t quite know who or what to blame.
Fred Durst took Rage Against The Machine’s explicitly political ‘Killing in the Name Of’ – a 1993 song about police brutality – and turned its anti-establishment chorus of “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” into something bored angry suburban teenagers shouted at their parents when asked to take the bins out. This was suburban rebellion for a lost generation without a meaningful enemy or direction; there’s a reason why AJ from the Sopranos has the best nu-metal t-shirt collection. Without an explicit target for their ire, the nu-metal generation appropriated the anger of Reagan-era punk and hip-hop, blended it with the sullen melancholy of grunge and vomited it out indiscriminately in the direction of anything and anyone that they disliked.
Despite all the middle fingers and anti-mainstream posturing, it’s important to remember that Limp Bizkit were absolutely fucking huge. Significant Other knocked the Backstreet Boys off the top of the charts. Chocolate Starfish (2000) set a record for highest first-week sales of a rock album, selling over one million US copies in the first week, with 400,000 sold on the day of release. Fred Durst performed with Christina Aguilera at the 2000 MTV Awards, and the Chocolate Starfish launch party took place at the Playboy Mansion. As far as counter-culture goes, it was pretty popular.
In the words of rock band Eve6, “limp bizkit isn’t great in an ironic sense they’re great because they embody the true spirit of rock n roll which is abject stupidity”. This is a band that is dumb as shit and has never pretended to be anything else. Fred Durst shuffling out on stage at Lollapalooza in a silver wig, beige anorak and checkered vans, looking like he’d arrived straight off a fishing trip, was a welcome laugh after 18 months of being inside shouting at each other online.
It’s also pointless trying to mock Fred Durst, because that’s Fred Durst’s job. His advanced age relative to his audience was already a popular commentary point for the band’s detractors during their original run. Possibly foreseeing that any attempt to bring back Limp Bizkit at 50 would invite ridicule, he made the self-effacing decision to return dressed as the dads he was pissing off 20 years ago. Ending their set with the band’s new single “Dad Vibes” being played over the sound-system as Wes Borland barely hides his contempt for the whole thing is exactly what Limp Bizkit is about.
The fact Limp Bizkit were so popular at the time of Woodstock ‘99 obviously signifies something, but that might not be anything more than the dislocated angst of adolescence that culminated in a bunch of pissed off young people destroying a disused military base that promoters had barely adapted into a festival site. The fact that people still cling to their popularity now suggests that maybe nu-metal wasn’t an embarrassing and awkward teenage phase that culture grew out of, but shorthand for a good time.