Late-'90s Rock Was More Important Than It Gets Credit For

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Everyone has a fad in his past, something he once supported but of which he's no longer proud. This holds true for anything from pogs to Dane Cook to Pokémon Go (give it time; it’ll get there). For many, this is the case with late-'90s rock. It’s an era that, unlike those that preceded it, many now regard with outright contempt. Others are simply happy to pretend it never existed in the first place.

These folks need a new perspective. Late-'90s rock may not have been a standard-bearer of maturity and deep thought, but it was perfectly fine for what it was. And sometimes, perfectly fine is more than good enough. I mention this because late-'90s rock is experiencing a mini-renaissance of sorts these days. Korn and Rob Zombie are co-headlining the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on August 3, followed by Disturbed on August 13 and Slipknot and Marilyn Manson on August 26.

These acts are synonymous with the late-'90s “nu-metal” boom, one that was a rousing success commercially – less so critically – between approximately 1996 and 2001. They sold millions upon millions of records during this time. Hell, these acts still receive ample mainstream radio play to this day. And yet, their collective era itself feels somewhat scrubbed from the record books.

There is a singular reason for this, and his name is Fred Durst. Yes, the front man for rap-rock staple Limp Bizkit, he of the trademark red Yankees cap, the tattoos, the beef with Trent Reznor, and lyrics that can politely be described as amateur. Durst, the man who once dropped “fuck” 48 times in one song (2000’s “Hot Dog”), is the poster child for the cloud of disdain that to this day hangs over the nu-metal and rap-rock era. The bro who did it all for the nookie is the face of an era that many would just assume forget.

Here’s the issue, however – for a three-year span in the late ’90s, Durst and Limp Bizkit’s musical output was better than most remember. Sure, the band’s debut – 1997’s Three Dollar Bill, Y’all$, wasn’t exactly an exercise in proper anger management. And yeah, no one was ever going to confuse Durst with peak-era Nas on the mike. But songs like “Sour” and “Counterfeit,” plus a rocking cover of George Michael’s “Faith,” signaled a band that was on the cusp of finding its niche.

Limp Bizkit did just that two years later with its sophomore album, Significant Other. Whereas Three Dollar Bill was a rough and one-dimensional effort that held hints of potential, Significant Other signified a band that had found its way. While the lyrics certainly weren’t clean or subtle, tracks like “Re-Arranged” and “Don’t Go Off Wandering” struck a balance between radio-friendly pop and aggressive rap-rock. Yeah, “Break Stuff” is over the top in its calls for violence, but it’s not like Durst — a bully who tried to play the role of bullied — believed half of what he was spewing anyway. And “Nookie” flat-out ranks among the catchiest pop-rock singles of the past 20 years.

Sure, Durst is a cultural punching bag all these years later, and deservedly so in many regards. But, at the time, his signature effort wasn’t nearly as critically reviled as some may recall. Rolling Stone begrudgingly gave Significant Other 3.5 stars. All Music called it “ambitious and multi-dimensional.” The damn thing sold more than 7 million copies in the U.S.

Limp Bizkit kinda fell apart after that, and subsequent releases yielded diminishing returns. And all these years later, yeah, it is somewhat silly that a band with song titles like “Stink Finger” and “9 Teen 90 Nine” was the voice of its generation. But even if you don’t care for Limp Bizkit’s catalog — whether now or 20 years ago — don’t hold it against their contemporaries.

Korn, essentially the band that mentored and broke Limp Bizkit into the mainstream, has quietly put together one of the better careers of the modern-rock era. Rob Zombie – in addition to directing a few kickass films – debuted as a solo act with 1998’s Hellbilly Deluxe, an absolute master class in demon rock. Marilyn Manson? Once the shock wore off and people realized he wasn’t the dude from The Wonder Years, the guy proved a more-than-capable musician (last year’s The Pale Emperor was arguably his most satisfying release to date). Even Slipknot and Disturbed have managed to remain relevant over the past 15 years; the latter is currently tearing up the rock-radio charts with its cover of “The Sound of Silence.”

These artists, and others who have spanned the test of time, are emblematic of an era that lives on to this day, one that exploded onto the scene 20 years ago and never really left.

If only we remembered it.  

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