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What I Learned from Growing Up Nu Metal in British Suburbia

Say what you will about nu metal—to kids trapped in nondescript suburbia, futuristic angsty metal with both screaming and rapping makes total sense.

The author in her nu-metal days. All photos courtesy of the author

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

How exactly I got into nu metal is hazy, but I seem to recall it starting—like most things did—with a boy. I met one at a summer camp, we kept in touch on MSN Messenger, and he made me a mixtape with Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory on one side and Deftones' White Pony on the other. This all coincided with me learning how to smoke cigarettes and wanting to express my individuality while also desperately needing to completely fit in with everyone around me.


From there, I spiraled into Slipknot and System of a Down, Korn and Kittie, Incubus and Papa Roach. I found a gang: We'd sneak out to the Oast House in Rainham and sit outside drinking gas station vodka in our Coal Chamber hoodies; Or later, sneak into the Manor Club in Chatham, where snakebite would slosh over our heads as people screamed: "The toxiceeeeteeey of our ci-yer-ty."

I also made out with guys who braided their beards.

To many, nu metal was the worst thing since Tommy Lee's tiny chin strip, providing a wholly undesirable stopgap between grunge and garage rock, not to mention fodder for Fast and Furious soundtracks until whenever Vin Diesel packs in the explosions for a career on the stage.

And yes, sometimes I want to kick the teenage me in the tits for listening to bands like Adema and buying the first and only album by the Union Underground. But when you were a kid growing up in nondescript suburbia, going through the stuff that kids go through, and you hear a futuristic metal track with proper angst and screaming and rapping and emoting, it all makes total sense. Remember, this was just before 9/11 and the Iraq War—the sound of a generation that had nothing to be pissed off at other than itself.

Here's what I took away from it.

Nu metal's foghorn motto was that everyone should fuck off and die and leave you alone, which, of course, was perfect for the defiance against our parents we all have when mom and dad are still paying for literally everything we do.


In the year 2000 I was 12 going on 13, hurtling towards periods and adolescence, and trying to make sense of what all these new feelings were. Mostly, it was white-hot hate. I hated my father for choosing booze over his daughter, and I hated my mother for moving me to a different town so that she could get a better job and raise me as a single parent.

We relocated at the peak of my nu metal phase, and the music both encapsulated and harnessed my pre-teen rage. I vented to Fred Durst's rap-whines about wanting to "break stuff." I played Papa Roach's "Last Resort" at volume so that no one, no matter how "concerned," would try to come into my room for "a little chat." And I'd sing along to all the shriek-y bits from White Pony like I was a 25-year-old man from Sacramento fretting about going "back to school." Kids are such dicks.

Trent Reznor once compared nu metal vocalists to people auditioning for Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, and it's true that pretty much every nu metal band has, at some point, probably sat around in the studio and gone, "Hmm, what bat-shit gargle can we get the kids to sing along to this year?"

The "woo" in Deftones' "Street Carp." The orc mating sound at the beginning of Disturbed's "Down with the Sickness." The demonic scatting during Korn's "Freak on a Leash." It's all a big joke, isn't it?

Now, I'm not very technical when it comes to the provenance of genres, but I appreciated that nu metal was basically metal's weird younger sibling—the little brother who gets suspended from school for trying to solder a classmate's hand to the desk. It was also indefinable: Some nu metal bands didn't have rapping; others didn't have superfluous DJs drafted in to do three seconds of scratching at the beginning of every song.


Nu metal was just unashamedly odd, which suited me perfectly as a 13-year-old, because I liked to think I was a little odd, too.

Ozzfest, Milton Keynes Bowl, 2001. It was my very first festival, and the lineup couldn't have been more nu metal if you'd given every performer black goatees and frosted tips. Slipknot, Papa Roach, Soulfly, Disturbed, Amen, and Mudvayne were all there, supported by the kind of bands that made every teenage stoner blowing off PSATs believe they too could one day play a half-hour set to a room full of disinterested teenagers.

I charged to the front as if I was a minotaur and not a young girl with developing boobs and easily breakable bones. I shoved a lot of cute boys and got whacked in the eye by a girl (cool!). The mosh pit fired me up: The shared enjoyment of music never felt so forceful than when Slipknot made us crouch down, only to "jump the fuck up" in unison and dodge the flying wallet chains (overdone now, thrilling back then).

These days at gigs I stand at the back, arms folded. Though really what I want is to let go enough to partake in nu metal's demented tribal dance.

Just as nu metal's sound was confused and diverse, so was its dress code. Korn sported Adidas tracksuits and decomposing dreadlocks; Limp Bizkit had backwards caps and a guitarist who looked like he knew what human flesh tastes like; and the less said about Mudvayne the better.


None of these looks quite worked in British suburbia, so nu metal fashion here took on its own freakish form. Most people went into the local head shop with $10 and emerged as a low-rent cyber-punk—knock-off band T-shirts, dog collars, shag bands, hoodies, fairy wings, facial piercings, blue hair gel, army shirts, fishnet tights worn as crop-tops, and Criminal Damage pants so baggy at the bottom that my mom called them "pavement sweepers." Honestly, it's a wonder any of us ever got laid.

Still, there was solidarity in looking like total fucking idiots, huddled around at the Rochester Castle Gardens, as we were, fooling around with townies, smoking menthol Super Kings, and having our first lesbian experiences. Older relatives were constantly telling me that nu metal was "a phase I would grow out of," which only made me more determined to prove them wrong. Even though it smells of days-old placenta, I still have a small stretching in my ear. My ongoing tiny act of rebellion.

All music journalists ever associate Reading and Leeds with these days is doing coke with pompous indie bands in the Holiday Inn bathrooms. It'll always have a special place in my heart, however, for teaching me some essential life lessons during my nu metal era.

One: owning being on your own. I don't think I'd be the woman I am today had I not lost all my friends during the main stage segue from Incubus into Slipknot into the Offspring in 2002, decided I was actually fine on my own and crowd surfed my way to the front.


Two: extreme scheduling. Running between tents like you were trying to escape your own ass was the only way to see bands. If you weren't watching something then you were simply wasting your time.

Three: gladiator-strength endurance. The Reading campsite was a hellscape of jumping naked over fires as they were sprayed with Axe, getting fingered by guys with chipped black nail polish, and 100,000 crazies screaming "I am Spartacus!" outside your tent. As someone who completed five consecutive years of Reading Festival, I'm pretty sure I'm equipped to survive Armageddon.

Nu metal was an interesting time for experiments in body adornment. Facial hair, for example, was worthy of its own specialist containment team. This was a time before conditioning oil, when most guys had wiry chin straps or, in the extreme case of Shavo Odadjian from System of a Down, actually attempted to see how many elastic bands they could fit onto their beards. Worse was the guy from Disturbed, who tried to style out the saber-toothed soul patch he'd actively inflicted on himself.

It's not hard to imagine how they'd go down in the job office, let alone what it would be like, um, down there. I'm ever grateful to my mother for only letting me get so far as some offensive temporary braids, like the ones Rayna Foss from Coal Chamber had.

Had I had free reign over what I stuck on or in my face, I would've had platinum dreads, piercings anywhere you could fit a needle, and probably some horrendous tribal tattoo on my neck. Not so great if your dream occupation is anything other than working in your local Hot Topic.


I had no idea what misogyny was when I got into nu metal, but it's funny how songs that detail a "titty suckin' two balled bitch with a fat green clit" (Korn's delightful track "Kunt") set off the raging feminism alarm you didn't know you had. Nu metal was my gateway into alternative rock and, as I discovered grunge and then Riot Grrrl, I began to question why these fat-fingered white guys were slut-shaming women in their songs.

For years I had relished in nu metal's gnarled riffs, swirling misery, and simpleton heaviness, when the music I was empowered by this whole time was, in actual fact, demeaning. Even Deftones, a masterpiece of a metal band, veer wildly between sexy and sexist at times. I'll never be able to divorce the music from my sense of nostalgia, but nu metal's problem with women is the genre's great shame. I haven't got into music at the recommendation of a boy since.

Slipknot were wrong about a lot of things. Like, say, boiler suits and clown masks being practical stage costumes. They were right, though, when they condensed the problem with the human race into one, screamable slogan. At their recent Wembley show with Korn, two people behind us in their Slipknot T-shirts bleated at my friend and I to sit down so they could see. They were about to play "Wait and Bleed," FFS.

This fleeting moment of fury made me remember that it doesn't matter what band's name blares across your chest, or what multicolored hair extensions you have, or what boys with six-inch spiked hair you are into: being alternative is a state of mind. If you're the sort of person who asks people to sit down at a Slipknot gig then you should probably just fuck off, have a lemon ginseng tea, and beige away your Friday nights sewing War on Drugs patches onto your army surplus satchel.

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