Excerpted from a photo exhibit documenting the lingering agonies of hundreds who suffered similar fates at a Canadian boys’ school some 40 years ago, these confessions might as well be primal screaming from the wounded child at the heart of nearly every Korn cut. It’s a voice manly men ordinarily silence, although the Bakersfield band’s ability to alienate more adults than the 3 million teens they captivate makes leader Jonathan Davis’s disclosures—both real and imagined—butch rock ‘n’ roll.
Davis is the latest in a long line that includes Kurt Cobain, Freddie Mercury, Rob Halford, Robert Smith, Martin Gore, Iggy and Axl, maybe Elvis and John Lennon—tortured outsiders with negative/positive charisma. Davis is not as poetic as those people, but he’s blunt, and his lyrics come off as an abused kid’s journal entries for good reason: Davis was molested as a child, his parents didn’t believe it was happening, and now he’s angry at Mr. Rogers for teaching him to be neighbor-friendly. He even wrote some of his best lyrics about it.
Korn’s fourth album, Issues, lacks the hip-hop cameos and comic relief that expanded the quintet’s following beyond the core attracted to its grim debut. At the height of last year’s Follow the Leader breakthrough, Korn were already resorting to the typical metal line about how their next album would recapture the heaviness of their ’94 coming-out—a blast that crests with “Faget,” Davis’s furious remembrance of teen homophobia, and ends with “Daddy,” where he lashes back at his childhood rapist, sobbing long after the song’s final thrashing climax. But unlike its predecessors, Issues doesn’t dwell on past horrors. Instead it suggests how Davis’s adolescent victimization bleeds into his adult present.
Researchers and therapists say male adult survivors of childhood sexual mistreatment can suffer from anxiety, shame, depression, dissociation, hostility, low self-esteem, suicidal behavior, intimacy problems, compulsions, drug dependence, and fear their sexual abuse has turned or will turn them gay. These are Davis’s own issues, and they define Korn as much as his buddies’ Goth atmospherics, death-metal guitar grind, jazz-funk bass popping, hip-hop syncopation, and kooky hairdos.
Davis’s role in Korn is the same as Mercury’s in Queen, Halford’s in Priest, and Michael Stipe’s in R.E.M., and it extends throughout the now-mega-mainstream Family Values spectacle: He’s the tortured artist who articulates what the others suppress, avoid, and perpetrate. On Follow‘s “All in the Family,” Davis and Limp Cracker Fred Durst call each other “fag” 100 different ways, a name-calling that’s taken on more meaning since Durst has revealed himself to be a rough-trade thug who’d suck off anyone to get ahead.
Davis calls himself a fag, too—a fag “except for the dick part,” which is such a quintessential rock ‘n’ roll thing to be. But morphing from the frontman of a cult act the media wouldn’t touch into an MTV darling isn’t easy: A nervous breakdown forces him to face the hopelessness worsened by booze; he separates from his recent bride; his new sober state widens the divide between this mortuary school graduate and the band who chose him to be their singer and subsequent thematic center. His band members taunt him, just as the school bullies who picked on him for being a sensitive New Romantic once did.
“I feel ashamed. . . . Who gives a fuck if my life sucks?” Davis cries on “Beg for Me,” one of several Issues songs bemoaning new pressures and seeking solace in performance, fans, brotherhood, flesh. Davis often stumbles into hackneyed rhymes, but what he lacks in grace he compensates for with a rash metaphysical force matched only by his band. Boasting a brontosaurus-butt riff that sums up why metal can still be good for you, “Beg for Me” is its own redemption.
Click on the “Phashion” page of www.korn.com, point to the gear you reckon most fly, and ads pop onto the screen exclaiming, “Pensive and poised, Jonathan is looking divine in his pair of Dita glasses.” But in his mind he’s still back in Bakersfield, begging his family to get along, hiding from kids who kick his ass and that still-unnamed violator continually messing with his inner child. In “Wake Up,” he pleads with warring band members to cease fire. “I thought it would be fun and games/Instead it’s all the same. . . . I need to feel the sickness in you,” Davis admits in “Make Me Bad,” connecting the dots between childhood trauma, rockstar disillusionment, and soulless sex. It’s no wonder his trademark stage move is a full-body convulsion that suggests he needs to shake off his own skin, or that Issues sports another demons-fuck-me number, the Nine Inch Nails-ish “Hey Daddy.” You can never put those cataclysms behind you, especially when you’ve arranged your life to reenact nightmares you think you’re escaping.
Issues alternates between short moody bits and well-crafted songs: Nearly every track packs a catchy melody, memorable riff, head-bobbing beat, or lyrical hook, and Davis goes easy on the Tasmanian Devil impersonations. Yet while upping Follow the Leader‘s pop ante, Issues rocks like the Grand Canyon. As with Radiohead and NIN, Korn’s ingredients reference rock, but its sonics echo techno, and the album’s seismic bass frequencies push beyond metal into depths plummeted only by underground dance music.
Yeah, Korn’s still a male thing, but the video for “Falling Away From Me” puts a female protagonist in the Davis position. Memories of Dad’s recent whippings flash by as Korn supernaturally materialize in her bedroom to blast the hurt away. Dad returns for another attack, but fellow teen neighbors rally round the suburban house, punching fists in the air, and lead her to safety. This is classic metal iconography turned sympathetic and subversive by destroying the distance between boy rocker and female fan: They’re both beaten, and both go to a place where paternal abuse can’t reach. It’s a fantasy, but a good one, and it speaks well of Korn and even director Durst.
Judging by the Woodstock ’99 rapes that reportedly began with Korn’s set, Davis’s embattled conscience is lost on the same lugheads who flocked to Nirvana’s noise without reaching its tender center. (Remember that story about the sickos who recited “Polly” while molesting their victim?) Neither cartoon firebrands like Rage Against the Machine nor inept frat boys like Pimp Bizkit, Korn are far more complicated than the scene they’ve engendered, and Davis seems destined to enter rock’s freak pantheon, with or without the leash. For the moment, though, Korn face their greatest challenge—schooling kids who would’ve fucked them up in junior high.