the death of modern rock: 9. angry white boys

The date was March 24, 1999.

Carson Daly threw it to the video, and there she was, sauntering in a little schoolgirl’s outfit. Britney Spears, all of 19 years, had taken the world by storm with her debut video “… Baby One More Time.” The song was an instant icon. And she was an instant star. That afternoon, “TRL” retired “… Baby One More Time,” and fans in Times Square screamed and hollered. Maybe Britney would hear them. Maybe the world would see them.

We were just learning how to use the internet. We barely owned cell phones. We were still calling up “The Box.” This was not even fifteen years ago.

Break Stuff

After the summer of Semisonic, Eve 6 and Fastball, modern rock was celebrating the resurgent Lenny Kravitz and Everlast. The former forged a rock-soul career in the 1980s before transforming into a chiseled and self-proclaimed rock god. In an era without rock gods, it worked. Meanwhile Everlast was smirking through his very unusual comeback. Erik Schrody first broke into radio in the early 1990s, frontman of a group called House of Pain, whose Boston-Irish anthem “Jump Around” soon became a Prom night staple. Now he was Everlast, and his “What It’s Like” had suddenly become the biggest song in rock music. Whatever the hell rock was. In early 1999 it was barely alive. Sugar Ray returned with a follow-up album cheekily called “14:59.” They even knew they didn’t deserve the success.

“14:59” sold more than 3 million copies.

Five years after albums like “In Utero” and “Vs.,” modern rock was divided into a few very distinct camps: the sunny pop makers like Sugar Ray and Barenaked Ladies; the dark goths like Marilyn Manson and Korn; and the fist-swinging white boys like Everlast and, now in this corner, Fred f**king Durst.

If there’s one name that sparks the rage of a thousand suns, it’s the name of Fred f**king Durst.

Durst was born in 1970 in Jacksonville, Florida. He loved hip-hop and rock, tattoos and skating, and formed a few bands before arranging a group called Limp Bizkit. They first struck with a cover of George Michael’s “Faith.” Durst’s savvy led the band to an opening spot for Korn during the band’s mid 1990s growth. That put Limp Bizkit on people’s minds. Direct lyrical assaults like Durst’s “Counterfeit” resonated. It was Korn’s angst dialed up to eleven. And yet it was backed by a beat, and it was familiar because it was provided by DJ Lethal, the turntable mover for – yup – House of Pain. This was middle-class, blue-collar white-boy bravado. Angry and young and mean and ready to rumble, Durst nailed his target demographic. Sporting a constant white t-shirt, khakis and Yankee hat, Durst symbolized white rebellion, and quickly he’d package it into stickers, slogans, posters and a cleaner, meaner sound that perfectly epitomized the certain death of a once vigorous and raw genre.

On June 22, 1999, Limp Bizkit released its second album “Significant Other,” in some ways a landmark for modern rock. That sounds odd, because today, people may laugh you out of the building for demarcating “Significant Other.” And yet, back in the summer of 1999, that album ruled modern rock.

There are a few reasons this happened. House of Pain and blue-collar white-boy angst started the drive. Along the way, Korn provided a beneficial boost, but not just in welcoming Limp Bizkit on its tour. One year earlier, Korn released “Follow the Leader,” the band’s most accessible album yet, fueled by singles “Got the Life” and “Freak on a Leash,” whose ambitious video (of a bullet splitting everything in sight) was a mainstay on early “TRL.” Crafty and charming frontman Jonathan Davis helped. Marilyn Manson’s mainstream breakthrough, thanks in part to America’s push for political correctness, and the country’s backlash toward Manson, helped. The rise of hip-hop, which enraged middle-American white kids who wanted to “save” rock music, helped. And ironically, hip-hop’s embrace of rock to greater grow its brand, helped quite a bit, too. Limp Bizkit – but really Fred Durst – was the perfect culmination of this movement. Even bands like 311 and Sublime – who supported blue-collar ethos (albeit through relaxing and scrounging) – helped pave the way for Durst. By 1999 the world waited for a guy like Durst; it’s really to the man’s credit that he got there before another white guy in a white t-shirt.

Actually …

Hi, My Name Is …

I distinctly remember the morning. It was freshman year of high school, so, early 1999. Maybe February. This kid Joe, an Italian kid in homeroom, asked me if I heard this new white rapper. “Eminem,” he said. “He’s also called Slim Shady.” I didn’t hear of him. I was too busy listening to DMX, who recently released his second album, “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood.” Still, new rap was new rap, so one day later Joe came back to homeroom with a blank CD: “The Slim Shady LP,” scribbled by marker. I popped it into the discman on the ride home from school. It was the same feeling I got after I listened to 311 for the first time, after I listened to the Chili Peppers for the first time, way back in the early 1990s. This was the start of something huge.

“Hi kids, do you like violence? Wanna see me reach Nine Inch Nails through each one of my eyelids?”

Every song was a new discovery. “Guilty Conscience” was hilarious. “Brain Damage” was even funnier. The Ken Kaniff skit … are you kidding? Imagine, you’re a 14-year-old kid, a freshman in high school. You’re white, awkward, you’ve been bullied in middle school, you grew up in a city and you have a dry sense of humor. Someone hands you Eminem’s first album before anyone outside of the hip-hop underground loved it, before “TRL” blew it up, before people screamed for and against Marshall Mathers, before “8 Mile” and “Recovery” and all those peaks and valleys. Imagine you’ve been handed this white guy from Detroit who epitomized eccentricity, brutality and violence and comedy, and bleached his hair blonde and just didn’t give a fuck. All this was right here in my ears in the winter of 1999, and suddenly everything shifted. Alternative music was not even an alternative. Grunge was gone. Melodies didn’t matter. This was about statements. Eminem was the voice of my teenage years. This was the guy I needed.

Eminem’s “The Slim Shady LP” shot up the charts. MTV loved him. He said cruel things, joked daily, made enemies regularly, from Everlast to Durst to Britney Spears to N’Sync. He was speaking to all the music I was speaking to. He was speaking for me, to me and about me. At least to my stupid 14-year-old self, he was.

Later in 1999, Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other” raised the angry white-boy quotient even higher. He shot back with direct anthems like “Break Stuff” and “Show Me What You Got.” That summer, my friend Mike and I spent a week down the shore replaying “Significant Other,” memorizing the lyrics, somehow thinking a song like “No Sex” would apply to us. “Break Stuff” didn’t even apply. We weren’t angry white boys. We weren’t suicidal. We weren’t depressed. We just thought we could have been. Eminem and Fred Durst represented tiny pieces of us that barely registered. We merely trolled the boardwalk for high school girls. We were your basic losers.

But compared to one summer earlier, when Foo Fighters and Third Eye Blind ruled the world with their soaring melodies and driving guitars, everything had changed. Now it was beats and brutality, anger and amplifiers. A different world, indeed.

(By the way, listen to the dirty lyrics of Eminem’s “Guilty Conscience.” No 14-year-old boy should have been listening to it.)

Larger Than Life

Heading into the new millennium, the Backstreet Boys capitalized the most by releasing … “Millennium.” The album was led by “I Want it That Way,” a pop monster, the kind of once-in-a-decade song that even the shrewdest rock critics have to acknowledge by tipping their caps. Written by Swedish maestro Max Martin, “I Want it That Way” is the definitive single of the “TRL” era, the climax of a movement, released less than a year after the show premiered.

That’s how life was moving. By summer 1999 rock had mutated quicker than in any era previous. A year earlier sunny bands like Sugar Ray and Third Eye Blind were comfortably atop the charts. A year before that it was Sublime and No Doubt. Before that it was the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. It seemed a clean decade or two since Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but it was merely six years. Now angry white boys like Jonathan Davis and Fred Durst were standing tall atop a rubble. They sparked fires that swallowed crowds whole. In August 1999 in Rome, New York, they’d do exactly that.

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