Korn aren’t quite a punchline, but they’re close to it. Their name conjures up images of adolescent pube-stachioed fans with homemade tongue piercings and Tripp pants stuffed with dimebags of schwag weed. At the peak of their popularity they made music for teenage dirtbags, and now, even worse, they make music for 20 or 30-something dirtbags who wish they were teenagers. And they collaborate with Skrillex. Patient zero for the mainstream explosion of one of the most reviled musical genres in history, the nicest thing most would say about them today is that they weren’t quite as stupid as Slipknot or as boring as Staind, and that Fred Durst is only on one of their songs.
Korn’s recent announcement of a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their self-titled debut album, then, was met with the expected amount of derision. MetalSucks’ Axl Rosenberg used some pointed scare quotes to say that they would be “celebrating” the anniversary, and remarked that he might be excited were he “ten years younger or a hundred IQ points stupider.” For Korn’s detractors, the tour might be a non-entity or yet another object of derision, but it also provides an opportunity to revisit the band at their outset, absent of their eventual influence and legacy, and consider how things might have gone differently.
Listening to the debut outside of the context of Korn’s eventual career path reveals a unique album, vaguely grunge-sounding but deeply influenced by funk (Davis even told Noisey that he “always thought of [Korn] as a funk band”), injecting the deep, groove-heavy basslines with a dirty and distorted sound. Vocalist Jonathan Davis uses that funk sound as a platform for vocals that sound like he’s risen from the soil desperate to say something but only able to communicate in yips and barks. Everything about their music sounds caked in dirt, and when Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu snaps and pops his bass, it’s as if he’s trying to shake off some of the filth.
Almost as interesting as the sound, though, is the lyrical content, especially on closing track “Daddy.” One of the most intensely uncomfortable songs ever recorded, it has Davis detailing the true-to-life incident of his being molested as a child and, afterward, not believed by his parents. The song alternates between Davis’ own perspective—a scared, confused child—and that of his rapist. It lasts nine minutes and ends with Davis openly weeping in the booth while the rest of the band plays a soft instrumental behind him and a sampled lullaby weaves its way into the mix. It’s an exceptionally brave song and one of the finest examples of aggressive music as a vehicle for catharsis.
“Daddy” is the purest example of the influence that childhood has on Korn’s work and aesthetic; it’s the central idea of the band, and one that they devoted much of their work to exploring and deconstructing. From the childish scrawl of the logo (achieved by Jonathan Davis writing the band’s name with his left hand), backwards “R” included, to their album covers, often depicting children’s games or toys (their most popular album even being named Follow the Leader), or even the name of their Family Values tour, everything about the band seemed engineered to explore some vision of childhood and family dynamics gone wrong.
Their reputation as a juvenile act, then, is not entirely inaccurate, but it still misses the point. This is music about arrested development, about what happens when the people you most rely on for love and support violate your trust in the most intimate and inappropriate ways. Korn—and Davis in particular—presented themselves as damaged, and their music explored the depths of that damage.
So why are they almost universally loathed, or at least universally disrespected? Never a critical favorite, even their positive reviews have always come with a little condescension. The New York Times, in a favorable review of sophomore effort Life Is Peachy, scolded the band for their “simple shock value” before conceding that their angst at least “sounds genuine.” In any case, there’s never an attempt on the part of the critic to engage with the music emotionally; instead, they work from the base assumption that the emotional content will be silly and unworthy of serious consideration, and evaluate the music on how well it succeeds despite that. Almost every adolescent starts to feel angry and rebellious toward their parents, or whatever other authority figures are in their lives, so it makes sense that Korn, with their distorted and cynical take on childhood and the family unit, would resonate with that demographic as a whole. That, in turn, makes it easier to dismiss the emotion in Korn’s music outright, conflating the generic adolescent angst of their fanbase with the very real, emotionally intimate distrust detailed in their lyrics.
Korn themselves aren’t entirely blameless for their current reputation as the first choice of dirtbags caught up in perpetual teenage angst, though. Korn’s self-titled debut album came out without making much of an impact at first, but they slowly gained an audience through touring with artists like Ozzy Osbourne. Their second album, Life Is Peachy, was their first to see release to an existing fanbase. They supported it with a headlining tour and it ended up debuting at number three on the Billboard 200. By the end of that album cycle they were bona fide world stars, and whatever they did next would be their first move as such. After their exploration of distrust in authority found them an international fanbase, they couldn’t help but play into the hands of that fanbase and generalize their ideas: “You raped/I feel dirty” gave way to “You really want me to be a good son/Why do you make me feel like no one” and simply “I feel the parents hating me.” Those lines are both found on Follow The Leader, their third album and the one released at the height of their mainstream popularity, debuting at number one and earning a Grammy for “Freak on a Leash.” It’s an album that’s unmistakably Korn, but a version of Korn that makes sense as one of the biggest bands in the world, with high-profile guest spots and a newfound clarity to their sound. Ultimately, unique as they were, they made sense as an international-level act.
Revisiting the debut, though, it’s easy to imagine an alternate career path for Korn—getting discovered by a Corey Rusk or a Steve Albini and being inducted into a thriving, weirdo-friendly scene, rather than a scene so generic that it slowly robbed them of what made them interesting in the first place, forcing them to emphasize general “weirdness” and otherness at the expense of individuality. Without being shoved into an international limelight, they could have developed their unique sound among a community of supportive, similarly singular artists. And without the legion of overly-aggressive angsty teenage fans, their legacy could have been that of a genuinely interesting and ambitious curiosity, a band like Shudder To Think who made some of the strangest rock music to ever see release on a major label, ignored at the time but critically respected now.
But on the other hand, would that have really been a more positive outcome? Korn is set for life financially, and, maybe more importantly, secure with the knowledge that their music reached and affected an entire generation, serving as the soundtrack for millions of kids’ first experiences with realizing that their parents’ desires and aims might conflict with their own. They helped a huge number of adolescents contextualize and understand their first instances of bristling against authority, even if they did so unintentionally and melodramatically. Maybe that’s worth critical scorn. Or at least a Skrillex collaboration.
Jacob Moore is on Twitter.