In this chapter, the bare-bones aesthetics of nu-metal will be examined, ranging from what nu-metal sounds like to what nu-metal looks like, and how those particular things manifest. Nu-metal was, in many ways, an aesthetic genre that was borne out of several simultaneous moments in the chronological progression of America as well as that of metal and hip-hop as larger genres.



Before there was nu-metal there was rap-rock, a hybridization that took the lyrical style and delivery of hip-hop and sonically surrounded it with traditional rock instrumentation. The Beastie Boys had been making sonic inroads into a combination between rock and rap since the mid-1980’s, and was distinctly hip-hop, but made by three white kids with guitars used for sampling purposes. Their sound was rap-rock, which is different from that of nu-metal, as rock is different from metal. Along with the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were early champions of a rap-rock sound, with Anthony Kiedis’ distinctive song/rap vocal performance being surrounded by funk and rock instrumentation. This was especially apparent on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, where songs like “Suck My Kiss”, and “Give It Away”, showcased Kiedis’ pseudo-rapping over loud, active instrumentation. Nu-metal capitalized on all of this – the heavy bass chords of funk, the tight snares of hip-hop and funk-rock, and the lyricism that combined rapping and singing. This hybridization became increasingly appealing to white audiences. In the words of SPIN writer Charles Aaron: “Ever since Run-D.M.C. matched screeching guitars with minimal drum-machine beats and turntable scratching (circa “Rock Box,” 1984), hip-hop has sounded like the rebellious truth for increasing numbers of white youth.”[46]

Seminal acts in nu-metal (outside of Korn) include: Limp Bizkit, Drowning Pool, Deftones, System of a Down, Incubus, 311, Kid Rock, Slipknot, Linkin Park, Mudvayne, Puddle of Mudd, Saliva, Crazy Town, Sugar Ray, Godsmack, SEVENDUST, Rage Against the Machine, Orgy, and Disturbed. Other bands warranted the nu-metal genre tag at various points, but the aforementioned acts were the most successful, and hence commercially influential, by traditional sales numbers. To put their successes in perspective, it helps to look at their sales numbers and Billboard 200 chart rankings, both traditional metrics for understanding mainstream popularity. Korn, Limp Bizkit, Deftones, and Rage Against the Machine will be the primary focus of this thesis from here on our, as they were the most well known and most influential.

Korn’s third album Follow The Leader hit number 1 on the Billboard 200[47] the week of September 5th, 1998, beating out albums from Shania Twain, NSYNC, Snoop Dogg, and the Beastie Boys. Follow The Leader went platinum[48] 5 weeks after its initial release, and went 5x platinum within 3 years. The following year, Limp Bizkit’s second album Significant Other bested Backstreet Boys’ Millennium for number 1 on the billboard 200, after selling 643,874 copies in its first week. Significant Other went platinum in under 2 months, and in just over two years was 7x platinum. Limp Bizkit’s next record, the peculiarly named Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water sold over 1 million copies in its first week.

The highest echelons of nu-metal bands were capable of moving immense amounts of records, and beat out more critically accepted, mainstream acts like NSYNC and Backstreet Boys for sales and popularity in short windows. However, Korn and Limp Bizkit’s notoriety did not translate into the larger swaths of the American buying public. Millennium, the Backstreet Boys album that Limp Bizkit beat out for the Billboard number one spot, eventually went 13x platinum in the same two year span that Significant Other sold just half that number of copies. Linkin Park was one of the few nu-metal bands able to reach comparably vast populations, with their first significant true nu-metal album Hybrid Theory selling 10 million copies. Bands like Godsmack (8x), Slipknot (5x), Drowning Pool (1x), Deftones (3x), and Orgy (1x) all went platinum in the heyday[49] of nu-metal, and it was common to see these bands charting on the Billboard 200.



In 1991, Anthrax asked Public Enemy if the two could remake Public Enemy’s hit from 3 years prior, “Bring The Noise.” Public Enemy agreed to the remix and the track became the first widely popular crossover hit. The sound was a collision between two genres at distinct points in their existence. Metal was in the process of evolving into a style of music, as it had been around for just over 20 years at this point; in the same time hip-hop was just being born, with the first generation of rappers beginning to reach mainstream popularity and success after spending the 1980’s in relative obscurity.[50] Hip-hop was becoming hi-fi and more produced, Wu-Tang Clan’s influential album 36 Chambers came out in 1993 and introduced a slicker sheen to popular hip-hop. At the same time, metal was exiting the glam era and bands like Anthrax and Poison were looking to stay commercially relevant. Rage Against the Machine, a group of Harvard-educated kids from Southern California who made hip-hop influenced metal that was deeply political and increasingly popular, neatly highlighted this competing trajectory.

Jonathan Pieslak describes nu-metal as “characterized by aggressive, rap-influenced, angst-ridden, and pitched yelling vocals, hip-hop style beats or drum samples, and heavily distorted, detuned guitars playing largely syncopated, riff-based music with a distinct absence of solos and overt displays of instrumental virtuosity.”[51] However, as nu-metal was a true hybrid between hip-hop and metal, and as such technical innovation and unique music making techniques were important to its development.

Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello was a technical pioneer, his use of effects pedals and signal splitting creating new tones that were previously unheard, and referenced those being digitally created for hip-hop. A good example of this comes on the song “Know Your Enemy”, where Morello writes a iconic riff taken straight out of Black Sabbath’s playbook, and then throws laser-y reverb and echo over it beginning around the 3:20 mark. Similarly, Rage bassist Tim Commerford used innovative effects constructions to add an element of more beat-like bass performance than had ever been heard in metal. It was a truly an evolution past Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea’s impressive funk/rock hybrid style of playing, and it elevated Rage Against the Machine into a new genre (nu-metal). Elements like the “bass drop”, a term later popularized in electronic music like EDM can initially be heard in Commerford’s compositions.[52] At the 0:39 second mark in the RATM track “Killing In The Name”, the bass drops out behind a wall of Morello’s guitar and two seconds later (0:41) reappears with unbelievable volume and depth, shooting the band into a heavy first verse. This is a prime example of a bass drop, and it appears several other places throughout the Rage discography. A year later, on Korn’s first and self-titled album, the song “Blind” features a similar oomph to the bass’s delivery.

Another significant technical development in nu-metal came from Limp Bizkit’s taking on a DJ as a full time touring member. DJ Lethal joined the band in 1997 after his prior group House of Pain opened for Limp Bizkit on a large tour.[53] The incorporation of turntablism to Wes Borland’s phenomenally metal guitar playing was yet another element of hybridization that first appeared in nu-metal. Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” highlights the combination of chuggy guitar with a DJ, with DJ Lethal both effecting the guitar and certain words of Durst’s delivery. The video features DJ Lethal prominently. This was widely incorporated, most notably with Linkin Park’s DJ Mike Shinoda, who went on to additionally perform under the name Fort Minor, perhaps the first true post-nu-metal act. Looking at Limp Bizkit specifically, the use of turntablism and the “scratching effect”, which has roots in the dub movement that came out of Jamaica in the late 1970’s.[54]



The trajectory established by nu-metal aligned with larger cultural discourses that spanned across much of popular culture in the United States. It is possible to see nu-metal as an agent in the increase in accessibility of popular culture that was driven by the rise of Internet access. No longer was an audience limited to who was “supposed” to be engaging with art and culture – but instead, whoever had a dial-up modem could participate. Ryan Moore elaborates on this, saying that the rise of the digital age of cultural cooperation was something predicted by Benjamin saying that: “digital technologies will continue to make it easier to produce, reproduce, and circulate music along with other forms of media in the making of subcultures that allow people to participate, create, and communicate.”[55] What was subculture became part of hegemonic culture, and started to look like the saturated mediation we see today. Mark Slobin refers to this onset of hegemony as superculture”. By using Slobin’s superculture, we can evaluate the presence of a larger cultural narrative that was coming about from the Internet’s move into homes by simplifying the diverse set of scenarios that led to such. Commenting on superculture, Slobin helpfully refers to it as “an umbrellalike, overarching structure that could be present anywhere in the system – ideology or practice, concept or performance . . . the usual, the accepted, the statistically lopsided, the commercially successful, the statutory, the regulated, the most visible: these all belong to the superculture.”[56] Accepted as such, superculture is the most useful term to categorize the increasing ‘hegemony of culture’ that the Internet inspired in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, of which nu-metal was both a promoting agent and a product.

As a function of superculture, the popular rise of hip-hop is tied with that of nu-metal. In the mid-1990’s hip-hop was becoming a popular music of the masses, both for black and white audiences, and hybridization reflected a desire on the part of white audiences to claim a corner of hip-hop for themselves. Eminem, and the Beastie Boys before him, made hip-hop widely accessible to white audiences, and traditionally white metal had been commercially successful for decades prior. Fusing the two into nu-metal was a commercially practical move for big labels interested in maintaining and furthering their profits. 1999 saw the highest physical record sales in history, with over 1.08 billion copies shipped that year.[57] Of several noteworthy factors, the sales of nu-metal and genre bending albums were a significant addition to this number. Korn’s 1999 album Issues sold 3 million copies, and Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other selling 5 million copies the same year.



Another important and noteworthy tenet of nu-metal is the lyrical content of the predominant acts. Although often delivered in a manner influenced by hip-hop, much of the actual lyrical content is distinctly representative of who was making the music, and their background. Similar to metal, nu-metal presents itself lyrically as a hyper-masculine zone, with songs like Deftones’ “Teenager”, and Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie”, both approaching sexuality from a distinctly patriarchal and heteronormative stance. However, nu-metal moved away from the party and glamour of 1980’s metal to dark, violent, and often introspective lyrical content. Working in tandem with the historical fan base metal held (young white males) the combination of the masculine ontology of metal created a monetary reward system for artists who stuck to traditionally masculine content matter.

It is impossible to distill all of nu-metal lyrics into a simple description, but Rafalovich’s 2006 survey of the lyrics of a number of 1990’s-early 2000’s metal bands does an excellent job coalescing a large amount of lyrical data into a hypothesis. Nu-metal found its niche appealing to self-centered masculinity alongside an often-violent and self-destructive outlook. In this tradition it plays off traditional tropes of horror in metal, but internalizes them. For example, Korn’s 1994 song “Shoots and Ladders” turns a classic nursery into a tale of personal horror:

Ring around the rosies
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down
Ring around the rosies
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down
Nursery rhymes are said, verses in my head
Into my childhood they’re spoon fed
Hidden violence revealed/ darkness that seems real
Look at the pages that cause all this evil.[58]

Jonathan Davis uses a nursery rhyme to position himself as a childlike entity, revealing the vulnerability of his masculinity, before adding an element of horror “hidden violence revealed/ darkness that seems real”.

Masculinity does present in more concrete forms throughout nu-metal, often aided by visual imagery. Saliva’s “Click Click Boom”, in which the lyrics are about a similar quest to understand emasculation (“why have I clouded up my mind/why’s my mother always right/ and will I make it to the end?/ or will I crawl away and die?[59]) is paired with a video in which moshing is equated with sexual virility and prowess. The video shows a man at an outdoor Saliva show feeling physically insignificant, perhaps due to his lack of tattoos or beefy physique. To remedy this, he heads “into the pit”, emerging after having taken a beating and immediately proceeds to kiss what is clearly supposed to be a previously unattainable woman: blonde, full chested, and barely clothed. An obvious iteration of male fantasy, Saliva play into a culture of making music that represents the male id. Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down are exceptions, both bands focusing on politics in lieu of specific gender dynamics. Later in their discography System of a Down does foray into male insignificance on “Lonely Day”, but even so it’s a rare occurrence.

Adam Rafalovich, in his piece “Broken and Becoming God-Sized: Contemporary Metal Music and Masculine Individualism” contends that nu-metal lyrics were a break from the overtly womanizing metal of the 1980’s, where bands like Ratt, Poison, and Twisted Sister would sing almost exclusively about “the pursuit of women, the acquisition of sex, partying into all hours of the night, and so on.”[60] His assertion is that nu-metal reflected a larger move in masculinity towards looking inwards, and as such “the formula that mandated the objectification of women and self-indulgence yielded to introspection, the expression of emotional pain, and a limitless exploration of violent fantasy.”[61] A key tenet of this argument, and one that is fundamentally important to this study is the shift from the pronoun “she” being the target of violence, to the more nebulous and widely applicable “you”. Rafalovich’s argument pivots on this assertion that “you” allowed for young males to identify with the desire to inflict domination upon a large range of targets, no longer just women.

To understand the appeal of this kind of lyrical content, and why it is profoundly important in situating nu-metal, it is helpful to use the critical framework set up by Simon Frith. In his essay “Music and Identity” Frith argues that specific music’s aesthetic is the signifier for creators and the consuming audience. Instead of looking at who appreciates musics, his framework looks at “how it [music] creates and constructs an experience . . . by taking on both a subjective and collective identity.”[62] As such, nu-metal was a reflection of its fan base, and what that group of people wanted to hear. The reflections of self that nu-metal lyrics often present were then manifestations of the self that Frith (via Marx) presents as “an imagined self . . . imagined as a particular organization of social, physical, and material forces.”[63]

This discourse illuminates a key tenet of understanding nu-metal’s popularity: by engaging with hyper masculine and mostly depoliticized lyrics, nu-metal artists were able to be commercially successful, especially in suburban America where emasculation and self-focus is the social architecture. The embodied values that Rafalovich points out — “masculine psychodrama” — acquaint perfectly with this directive of Frith’s; Rafalovich points out the “implied social relationship between the metal artist who vocalizes this narrative and the audience who expects certain emotional and circumstantial admissions”, perfectly encapsulating the relationship between nu-metal and its fan base. It is important to understand why this is the relationship that was fostered, and how it functioned in relation to the vast suburban populace that was the primary audience.



[46] Charles Aaron, “What the White Boy Means When He Says Yo”, SPIN Magazine, November, 1998.

[47] Chart numbers courtesy of

[48] Sales and award statistics courtesy of

[49] Corresponding to 1994-2004, roughly.

[50] Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, (New York: Picador, 2005).

[51] Pieslak, “Korn’s ‘Hey Daddy’”, 37.

[52] EDM (Electronic Dance Music) and nu-metal share a large amount of characteristics, and EDM pioneer Sonny Moore (Skrillex) was in a semi-popular nu-metal band before he starting making festival dance music.

[53] Colin Devenish, Limp Bizkit. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

[54] Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.

[55] Moore, Sells Like Teen Spirit, 217.

[56] Mark Slobin, Subcultural Sounds. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), 29.

[57] Data courtesy of the RIAA.

[58] Jonathan Davis “Shoots and Ladders”, Immortal/Epic Records, B004PWXIKI

[59] Josey Scott “Click Click Boom”, Island Records, B000VWQVBY

[60] Adam Rafalovich, “Broken and Becoming God-Sized: Contemporary Metal Music and Masculine Individualism”, Symbolic Interaction 29 (2006), 22.

[61] ibid.

[62] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity” in Questions of Cultural Identity ed. Stuart Hall et al. (New York: SAGE Publications, 1996), 109.

[63] ibid. p. 110.


Next: Chapter Four:
Freak on a Leash

Chapter Five:
Change (in the House of Flies)
Acknowledgements, Bibliography, Listening Appendix


Previous: Chapter One
Click Click Boom

Chapter Two
Heavy Metal