October 1998
Korn - Follow the Leader (Immortal/Epic)

For millions of kids, Korn's house of pain feels like a home away from home. Korn must surely be the only band ever to distribute a press kit that announces "several members...have experienced the catastrophic effects of child abuse." That announcement is also easily the biggest "duh!" in Korn's whole press kit. Listen to Follow the Leader and you know this band is damaged goods. Korn try to scream their way out of a black-and-blue bedroom, with words that level blame and thudding queasy riffs that try to even the score. And they still can't break free. At a time when "protecting children" has become the motor powering a nationwide moral panic, when teenage cafeteria killers get massive coverage, and when every politico's pet peeve-tobacco, crime, Internet porn, you name it-is sold to the public as a way of safeguarding the young, Korn must be the most political band in the country. Their music has scared the shit out of high-school administrators, and you can hear the Christian righteous warning America from the pulpit: Don't let your kids become children of the Korn. The band's first two albums went platinum without support from radio or MTV, and Follow the Leader, sleeker and more focused, seems sure to follow. All of which indicates that far from being locked in his room alone with his wretched feelings, Korn singer Jonathan Davis has plenty of company. Calling Korn the most political band around is precisely the kind of thing that would have the band themselves reaching for more ice coldies, then belching en masse. They don't really believe in anything themselves, other than that when your head hits the 7-Eleven parking lot, it really hurts, man. On Follow the Leader Korn even cover Cheech & Chong's invincible "Earache My Eye," cameo by Cheech Marin, yet they aren't really part of the fart-lighting South Park nation. Even when they try to be funny, Korn are pathetic, and I mean that in sort of a good way-they can't help but show you what torn-up sock puppets they are. For all their ugly lashing out at targets that have regularly included women and "faggots," they radiate more pain than hate, the kind of pain they never got over. "Dead Bodies Everywhere" opens with music-box tinkling, then plows into dumbed-down Rage Against the Machine slab guitar and bass-popping. "You really want me to be a good son? / Why do you make me feel like no one?" Davis growls. Korn use haunted-house minor chords and guitar strings that squeal like theremins to give their child abuse lyrics the feel of slasher flicks. And if they identify with the stalker, they always cast themselves as the ultimate victims. "I see your pretty face, smashed against the bathroom floor / What a disgrace, who do I feel sorry for?" Davis says on "Pretty." The answer to that one is easy: He feels sorry for himself. When Rage Against the Machine, the band Korn most resembles, borrow from hip-hop, it's a multicultural gesture that rocks like Everest. But Korn are, ahem, post-p.c.: They see foul-mouthed, brawling rappers as expressing Ultimate Taboos, and they feel right at home. For Korn (and their buds Limp Bizkit) hip-hop's noise won't save the world, but it keeps the victims from going bonkers. On '96's Life Is Peachy they covered Ice Cube's "Wicked," and Cube returns the favor by guesting on "Children of the Korn." Elsewhere Pharcyde's Tre works out on "Cameltosis," and Davis and Bizkit's Fred Durst attempt a hip-hop "battle." But for all the breakbeats that cool the molten guitar, Korn are, in the end, a million miles from Compton. They are, in fact, from Bakersfield, West Coast hillbilly music mecca. Davis's dad was even a member of Buck Owens's Buckaroos, and Radio KORN, as it happens, was the hillbilly station on a regular Hee Haw sketch. Korn are unmistakably referencing personal torture, but they haven't figured out what to do with abuse except visit it on others. And so the incest, the boozing, the rage against God and the beatin' of their women all end up seeming like nothing but one more dumbass hillbilly parody. They've raised a bumper crop of Korn nuts in the way Metallica and underground rappers did, by mattering at a strictly word-of-mouth level. Korn scare all the right people-critics and faculty-but resonance is only supposed to be a beginning, not an end in itself. They don't have to grow up, they don't have to achieve "closure," but if they're not going to make good records, what's the point of going through all of that therapy?