When Limp Bizkit didn’t show up for a rumored show at a Dayton, Ohio, gas station in late April, the results were anticlimactic. No wrecked Sunoco, no riots in the streets. Media outlets reported that a few hundred Bizkit fans showed up and quietly went home, disappointed at what turned out to be a hoax. Shit was not torn up. Fifteen years ago, had Limp Bizkit welshed on a surprise concert, by sunup thousands of meatheads would have made sure Dayton was nothing but a fond memory.
The incident illustrates a sad truth (well, sad if you’re a member of Limp Bizkit): The band currently occupies the same cultural space as Pauly Shore, a once successful piece of pop culture whose impact now seems insane and unthinkable. We look at The Weasel and the red Yankees cap and wonder what we were thinking. Even Fred Durst acknowledged the fleeting nature of the band’s success: “Say in 2000, there were 35 million people who connected to this band,” he told Kerrang! in 2012. “Twelve years later, lots of those people have moved on. We were a moment in time, and it’s over.”
It is hard to overstate just how huge Limp Bizkit was during its heyday. In 1999, coming at the tail end of when the record industry was structured around actually selling records, the band’s second album, Significant Other, sold more than 7 million copies in the U.S. off the strength of hits like “Re-Arranged” and the at-the-time inescapable “Nookie.” Two years later, the insanely titled follow-up, Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water, sold another 6 million.
Then the bottom fell out. Guitarist Wes Borland, arguably the creative force behind Limp Bizkit’s sound, if not overall aesthetic, quit the band. Its first Borland-less album, 2003’s Results May Vary, sold 1.5 million copies in the U.S. Subsequent albums sold even less, with no songs getting major radio play, even after Borland returned after discovering that making near-unlistenable music in projects like Big Dumb Face paid substantially less than his old job. Limp Bizkit had its time in the sun and like many bands before it, had faded into a distant memory.
The only consolation for Limp Bizkit was that, because of its ubiquitousness, it, along with its mentors in Korn, had become the face of the entire nü-metal genre. The bad news is that the entire genre is remembered, when it’s remembered at all, as the last gasp of the angry white male as a demographic to be catered to. Durst’s popularity would mean he would take the jabs that should have been directed to the genre as a whole. Nobody is making jokes at Drowning Pool’s expense.
It’s so hard to take nü-metal seriously—it’s just so easy to mock—especially given how much the discourse has changed since the turn of the century. In a day where terms like “safe spaces,” “cultural appropriation,” and “rape culture” have gained significance, it’s hard to see nü-metal in a sympathetic light. The genre was almost entirely white and male (there were important exceptions, like Sevendust singer Lajon Witherspoon or the all-female group Kittie, but they were exceedingly rare). And everything was just so angry. The grunge stars who preceded these musicians by a decade may have sounded pissed off, but at least there always seemed to be a good reason for it. The members of Trapt just seemed to still hate their parents well into their 20s.
In his book Accidental Revolution: The Story Of Grunge, Kyle Anderson pinpointed Limp Bizkit’s set at Woodstock 1999 as the moment that grunge died. The anarchic violence, the sexual assaults, the anger with no specific target—it went against everything the politically correct, anti-sexist, progressive Seattleites had built (Billy Corgan’s recent conversion to neoconservatism not withstanding).
In reality, grunge had by that point already passed its best-before date. Groundbreaking bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden were no more. Pearl Jam had moved beyond the scene to become The Grateful Dead of its generation. The grunge flag was being flown by the Johnny-come-latelies in bands like Bush, and here comes this new sound that frat boys could blast in their cars without having to contemplate the complicated politics that came with liking Rage Against The Machine. It’s hard to remember now, but Significant Other seemed like a breath of fresh air, with even iconic critic Robert Christgau saying mildly nice things about it.
Eventually, time catches up to us all. Like grunge before it and hair metal before that, nü-metal would almost entirely disappear from the charts. But it hasn’t completely faded away. Despite seeming like the most gimmicky band of the era, Slipknot has stuck around, enduring the death of bassist Paul Gray and refusing to move past the masks and jumpsuits that have been the band’s trademark from day one. Linkin Park has continued to headline tours and festivals, though its sound has evolved from the angsty rap-metal of debut Hybrid Theory to more of a U2 rip-off. Disturbed is still among the most popular hard-rock acts in the world; even a recent cover of “The Sound Of Silence” was well received.
While popular, those bands lacked the intense saturation that Limp Bizkit enjoyed. At his peak, Durst was every bit as huge as the day’s pop stars—he was a regular on Total Request Live, a rumored paramour of Britney Spears, and a force so powerful, he single-handedly brought Staind to prominence simply by humming along to the chorus of “Outside.”
The problem with that is, once you’re seen as a pop star, you get treated like one. And, with a few exceptions, there is nothing more disposable than a pop star. Even genuine talents like Christina Aguilera get relegated to judging television talent shows eventually. Worse yet if you’re seen as a pop star in the metal world, where authenticity is prized above everything. If you’re going to hang out with Jessica Simpson and her ilk, eventually you’re going to be seen in the same way as them. Limp Bizkit’s figurehead status was a blessing in the short term and a curse in the present.
Ironically though, Durst may have been one of the few stars from that time with more tricks up his sleeve. The man now almost universally considered a punchline was not just one of the top-selling rock acts of the era, but one of the top-selling acts, period. He was made a vice president of artists and repertoire at Interscope and was seen, at least in the music industry, as a tastemaker. He was given the keys to the kingdom—the chance to make creative decisions, even if they were as ludicrous as trying to rap along with Method Man or launching a career as a filmmaker. The surprisingly decent reviews of his directorial debut, The Education Of Charlie Banks, showed that, on some level, Durst was capable of making passable art. His ability to market himself and his band was beyond reproach. Until it wasn’t.
When Durst tried to follow up Charlie Banks with The Longshots, a biopic of the first girl to ever play Pop Warner football and that primarily starred black actors, the film flopped. The culture had shifted, and where once it was fine to be just another white guy appropriating black culture and making angry rap-rock, it would now seem at best misguided. Strip away the misogyny, and you’re still left with the career controversies of Iggy Azalea, at best.
Which is too bad, because (and this is the part where I get into trouble) Fred Durst wasn’t really that bad of a rapper. I’m not saying he’s good—he might have finagled Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Eminem into appearing in the “Break Stuff” music video, but he lacked their effortless flow, distinct character, wit, and rhythmic subtlety. But if he had been good, it wouldn’t have been Limp Bizkit. It would have been worse. Aspiring to be a Durst-quality rapper was completely attainable. The musical story of Fred Durst is of an unremarkable white guy completely out-kicking his coverage. Like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Kurt Cobain before him, Durst took a subpar vocal ability and made hay. If he’d been as talented as the guys he managed to coax into doing guest verses on his albums, he would have been out of reach.
More importantly, Fred Durst was simply fun. Jonathan Davis and Korn might have laid the groundwork for the angst that nü-metal was built on, but a song like ”Daddy” was downright emotionally exhausting. Catharsis is good, but when you’re rolling in a car with your friends, blasting chunky guitars, it’s more fun to scream about breaking stuff and Ben Stiller being your favorite motherfucker than nodding grimly along to lyrics about being bullied in high school. Durst might have been the guy pushed into lockers, but unlike his compatriots, he projected aspirations to more, even if it was nothing more ambitious than being the guy doing the pushing.
With enough time, every musical movement gets it nostalgia period. In 1991, it was likely doubtful anyone thought Poison or Mötley Crüe would headline arenas again; yet 2015 saw the Crüe playing to packed houses on a nightly basis on its farewell tour. It seems Limp Bizkit is on the verge of that part of its career. This summer, the band has a few tour dates, as do compatriots Korn and Disturbed. While the band hasn’t played a major American tour in years, it’s been popping up in festival lineups. There evidently is some desire to see an older, balder, gray-bearded Durst sing “Rollin’” one last time.
Whatever its artistic merits, “My Generation” was still part of the soundtrack to millions of adolescent lives. If anything, time has been kind to the Bizkit oeuvre, whose bombast, like that in hair metal, begs for ironic appreciation. It’s easier to shout out “We won’t give a fuck until you give a fuck about me and my generation” without the fear of seeming uncool for listening to the jocks’ music. With savvy marketing, undeniable hooks, and pure, dumb luck, he made himself the last heavy-metal star to burst through to the mainstream. The red baseball cap is metaphorically battered, but it still sits atop his head. It might be tempting to forget but, for a while, it truly was his generation.