So you come home from school tired--you're always exhausted and jittery anyway, and the television sure doesn't fucking help. That's your life on the screen, right? An endless summer of eager lap dances from busty mouseketeers so sexy with budding possibility that sponsors elbow each other for product-placement rights. That's your life? Two channels over and the same adults who've spun this fantasy are wondering again what is wrong with you.
So what are you gonna do? They're about as willing to hear you out as they are to sit down and have a long heart-to-heart with the AIDS virus--your existence is the problem. At best maybe you can be neutralized or contained by curfews or quotas. (Actual sign at Rainbow Foods in Uptown: "No more than four students at any time without a guardian.") But if you try to outshout them, they'll always shout louder, more righteously--you've seen the talk shows. And there will always be more of them.
So you keep quiet. You slump, you shrug, you act sullen. And you free yourself between headphones that confine the screams inside your head. Eventually, you can't tell them from your own thoughts. You shut your bedroom door--hey, there's 20 more minutes of Global Groove on MTV--and you lie back and unzip your jeans, though, God, you don't want to. The same chemicals overriding your best intentions are pumping so much sweat and oil into your pores that it all makes you feel dirty dirty dirty...as you listen to "Dirty," the self-loathing finale of Korn's Issues, the newest and best digital distillation of your ongoing mental self-mutilation. "I feel like a whore," frontman Jonathan Davis intones. "A dirty whore..."
Korn are the nuevo metal avatars of our age, yet they are no more responsible for establishing the poisoned dialectic of teendom than they are for pioneering rap-rock fusion. Funkish heaviness was a commercial given before hip hop; angsty despair was a reliable commodity before Korn's parents were born. But, for the last decade, no one has raked the seedier side of the kinderlumpen subconscious better than Bakersfield, Cali's favorite sons. And only an idiot would call the eerie, well-tooled assault of Issues unlistenable. Produced by Brendan O'Brien, the album's roughed-up riffs and raffs expand with resonant grandeur without ending up swollen pomp.
Which isn't to say Korn has achieved that magical balance between pumping up the jams and kicking 'em out. The Korn laying down grooves on Issues sound less slovenly than Pearl Jam (not to mention Soundgarden), but they remain defiantly less loose-hipped than, say, Guns N' Roses (not to mention Aerosmith). It's neither probable nor impossible that Korn will reach the musical level of any of the aforementioned, but a leap forward would likely be dependent on the band enlisting song doctors who'll just whittle away their significance without selling a single unit more for them. Korn already have everything they need: a Sound. They also have Jonathan Davis.
A loose-limbed figure enveloped in nasty dreads and horn-rimmed goggles, Korn's frontman is a grown-up Waldo--the bespectacled nerd mocked in Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" video--returned to save and empower his dorkling kin. With a voice that swoops from death-metal drill sergeant to Ozzy keen, Davis tempers his manic, midrange dither with opiated Alice in Chains moans. He's the sound of an unintegrated ego in crisis. And his "Who gives a fuck/If my life sucks" says more about the schizoid hilarity of adolescence than a poet like Eminem--not just because Davis communicates less fluently (eloquence is the enemy of expressing subconscious confusion) but because he doesn't get the joke.
Despite his versatility, Davis is an icon, not an artist, and as such he's no less flawed than the paragons of various subcultures before him. Like Tupac Shakur or Axl Rose (or, for that matter, like Jim O'Rourke or Ian MacKaye) Davis is loved and hated as much for what we think he might represent as for his music. Among those old enough to rent a car, only an idiot, as I said, would call Issues unlistenable. Yet only a slumming cultural dilettante would choose to listen, much less identify with what Davis is barking.
Yes, my fellow forever-young-sters, rock 'n' roll adults have been appropriating and diddling notions of teendom since Chuck Berry ogled some "Sweet Little Sixteen" half his age. Our signing up for whatever rebellion you've got this season keeps the mature id spry and frisky: Girl Power! Viva Zapata! Stick It Up Your Yeah! I Want It That Way! But one of the perks of our dotage is that we get to pick and choose the parts of our pre-adulthood we recall. And Korn's sludgy caterwaul isn't a trend to be hopped--it's more like Piaget's lost developmental stage. As always, adult tastes in fictive adolescence say more about ourselves than they do about the young'uns.
Take, for instance, Korn's cross-cultural nemesis: teenybop. Setting aside the cynical but hardly negligible cavils about the vampiric need of adults to feed on televised young flesh, teenybop does in fact serve a sexily wholesome purpose for old folks. It allows the echo of a goopy ideal of l-u-v that no adult with two functioning cranial lobes can endorse, but only the heartless can discard entirely. Burped from a putative grown-up like Celine Dion, such overbearing emotions seem like simpering. But from someone young enough not to know better, they seem as fresh as they are naive. Me, I want it both ways--to cherish the ideal even as I chuckle about it from my adult reality.
Korn--who are also adults, by the way--present us with both a useless ideal and a false, cynical reality. They endlessly bewail the loss of an innocence they found worthless to begin with. No surprise, then, that Issues doubles as a road map of a pornographic imagination that's just the flip side of puritanism. Davis implicates sexuality as predatory even as he is compelled to indulge in it, stooping to conquer in the vituperative "Trash"--"These little girls, they make me feel so goddamn exhilarated" coupled with "Your feelings/I can't help but rape them." Poor guy makes an anti-body nookiephobe like John Lydon sound almost healthy.
Sure, it takes me back to the terror of after-school specialness--the need for infinite possibility straining against a terrifying lack of control, the real or imagined constant surveillance, the desires that seem both liberating and wrong. Dirty. The feeling of being a "Freak on a Leash." Korn resubmerge me in that terror. And I resent it.
Because you know what? I wouldn't go back to high school even if you promised me clear skin, a fake ID, and unchaperoned sleepovers with Christina Aguilera on alternate Fridays. And you know what else? I don't have to--another perk of ageist modern life. Maybe I've gotten wiser. More likely I've just accrued a wider range of useful psychological defenses. In any case, I know now that adolescence isn't hell. It just feels that way when adults blither about how lucky you are.
To the kids, I say, When that sickness hits your gut, you shouldn't believe famous, talented buddies old enough to know better (no matter how closely they identify with you, no matter how uncannily they mirror your confusion) when they tell you "It's Not Gonna Go Away." I know it feels that way sometimes. But it gets better. Honest. Hang in there.
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