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The Boston Phoenix Dirty Dozens

The blackface metal of Korn and family

By Carly Carioli

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  In the middle of Korn's latest, Follow the Leader (Immortal/Epic), there's a throwaway track called "All in the Family" that sums up just about everything there is to dislike about the band. It's an immature, outrageously homophobic snippet of half-assed rap metal, with a chorus that turns the genre's most cliché'd boys-club sentiments into a mantra: "Well I hate you/And you hate me/So what, so what, it's all in the family." With singer Jonathan Davis (who comes off like a cross between Marilyn Manson and Suicidal Tendencies' Mike Muir) being joined by Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, the track also allows both vocalists -- whose bands are often mentioned disapprovingly in the same breath -- to mock their own version of an East Coast/West Coast feud. Davis: "You look like one of those dancers from the Hanson video, you little faggot ho." Durst: "You little fairy, smellin' all your flowers/Nappy-hairy chest, look, it's Austin Powers!"

It goes on from there, the two of them roasting each other about everything from bad breath to the originality of their respective bands, till at the end hate turns to love and they offer to suck each other's cocks. It's just what makes Korn casually dismissable: a couple of white guys who think they're hip-hop enough to try on the old ghetto premise of the dozens and then get it almost completely, embarrassingly, wrong. That the song is patently self-parody -- Davis often talks about how he got beat up for wearing make-up in high school, and his own mates tease him about how he looked like "a homo" when he auditioned for the band -- is unlikely to appease the gay community, which wouldn't be faulted for feeling left out of whatever family these two have constructed for themselves. And in any case, the self-parody is beside the point. The song is meant to be inflammatory simply for the sake of being inflammatory, because this is heavy metal's mandate: to remain objectionable at all costs, to construct scenarios of plausible deniability and bait the outside world into misunderstanding it.

The outside world has faithfully complied in Korn's case -- apparently no one's yet made it far enough into the album to object to "All in the Family," or else no one considers it worth mentioning. And here is what initially drew me to Korn: kids love 'em, everybody else either hates 'em or ignores 'em. Which is enough to suggest that Korn are doing something inexplicably right-on.

I am a fervent believer that despite all its flaws and fallacies, heavy metal remains one of the most reliable windows into America's dark psyche -- an infallible barometer of cultural anxiety -- and that behind all their façades, the kids are usually ahead of the curve. The promise of good heavy metal is that it will address complex and troubling issues -- identity, sexuality, authenticity -- in a simple language that both assuages anxiety and can get you grounded. "All in the Family" does this quite remarkably. The way Davis deals with getting ragged on for looking like a fag, the way Durst deals with Limp Bizkit's getting lampooned as Korn klones, is by doing what kids invariably do when confronted with problems for which they have no solution: they turn the whole thing into a dick joke.

"Korn is indecent, vulgar, obscene, and intends to be insulting," said a high-school principal who suspended a student for wearing the band's name on his chest. "It [wearing a Korn T-shirt] is no different than a person wearing a middle finger on their shirt." Besides predictably stating the obvious, his reaction is simply heavy metal's version of winning an Oscar. So at face value Korn's story looks like your typical flavor-of-the-month heavy-metal soap opera: the usual outrage from parental units and educational soothsayers.

But what's more interesting about Korn has been the nature of their dismissal by critics and hipsters -- by what passes for pop culture's intellectual elite. A sly vocabulary of code words has crept into the lingo of the critic and the hipster, a vocabulary that purports to describe articles of clothing, manners of speech, and places of origin and in the process condescends, ridicules, and assails the bearer's authenticity. What is really being critiqued, I think, is an allegiance. Which leads me to believe that Korn's true story is much bigger than they are given credit for, and indeed bigger than they perhaps deserve credit for. That they are part of a larger, much older rock-and-roll story -- in fact, a story that predates rock and roll: the musical story of the social tension between black and white, the story of what happens when white kids fall in love with black style. We were supposed to have closed the book on this story years ago, but in the butchered narrative of passing remarks, a conversation is still going on. As always, it's the kids who are doing all the talking -- and in a language that their parents would rather pretend their offspring didn't speak.

Some 45 years ago, when the world was just beginning to live with the idea of white kids listening to black music, Norman Mailer wrote "The White Negro," his treatise on what he saw as the then-emerging existential philosophy of Hip. A flawed argument -- and downright condescending in retrospect -- it nonetheless accurately described the conceit of the white hipster, which was that he equated his flight from middle-class conformity with the African-American struggle for freedom. And though the way we think about identity and ethnicity has changed drastically over the last 45 years, the way we talk about white kids identifying with black music hasn't kept up -- at least, not formally.

As the goal of ethnic assimilation has gradually given way to an era that celebrates diversity -- an era in which we're increasingly territorial about ethnic identity -- Hip's connection to black culture has become more abstract. As a black friend of mine wrote in 1986 in my eighth-grade yearbook, "Remember, you can never be black, but always be proud of what you are, a hip white boy." I've always liked to think of this as a compliment rather than a threat, though it implied both. Which underscores a crucial shift in identity politics: to Mailer, to be hip was to be black, or close enough. But the white kid who listens to hip-hop, aware of the limits imposed by our strict definitions of identity and ethnicity, is now confronted with the gap between being hip and being black. Whereas the liberal consensus at one time might have found it liberating to identify with black culture, now it's considered at best poor taste and at worst condescending. We like to think that white kids playing black music was made respectable 40 years ago, but there's still a shock-value cachet available to white kids who dress and speak "too black." Again, more anxiety -- and, worse, anxiety about a subject that as of yet has no reliable, or at least socially acceptable, language to express its finer subtleties. You've got the epithet "whigger," and then you've probably got a fight on your hands.

This confusion of identity and ethnicity at the heart of rock and roll -- of just how intimately white kids are allowed to identify with black music before the name calling begins -- is still so difficult and fraught with sublimated taboo that attempts to meet it head on are inevitably drawn to tragicomic absurdity. One would like to imagine a deep embarrassment at the heart of Lou Reed's "I Wanna Be Black" or in Jon Spencer's frequent shouts of "Blues Explosion!", as both try in the only way available to express the trauma of the impossible desire to embody the blackness of their heroes. One has only to look at an extreme case -- the current example of Insane Clown Posse -- to see the creeping specter of minstrelsy re-emerging to haunt popular music. Taking the most fatuous stereotypes of hip-hop and dressing them up in a cartoonish caricature of blackface, ICP are like a child's fart-joke-level response to the puzzle of where white kids fit into hip-hop. But try this exercise: listen to an ICP album, substitute "nigger" for "clown," and see whether you're still laughing.

The point is, we seem to be reaching a crisis that we're completely unprepared to discuss unless it's cracked as a tasteless joke -- and whether or not we want to talk about it, the kids are way ahead of us. The only significant pop-culture acknowledgment of this has been on South Park: Cartman going bro' when he thinks Isaac Hayes's woefully stereotyped Chef is his dad; or what happens when Chef returns to the town in the wake of an ash storm to find everyone appearing in accidental blackface ("That's it -- everybody line up, so I can kick y'all's ass," he retorts).

And then there's Korn, whose version of blackface is at least mostly implied. Having fully integrated the musical and gestural trappings of hip-hop into the aesthetic of heavy metal, with their sweatsuits and Adidases, and with Ice Cube (who, in a prescient photo accompanying press materials for Korn's upcoming "Family Values" tour, appears in a minstrel-show top hat and black-on-blackface) and the Pharcyde in their corner, they make certain people uncomfortable (and others elated) at least in part because they represent a fantasy of racial transgression -- for which there is no other language, and for which they are, right now, despite all their knuckleheadedness, the reigning spokesmen by default.

Would that it were not so, but that's the way it goes, folks. Adults have been fretting and feuding over race and identity for more than a century; they've been thinking and arguing and writing and founding chairpersonships at universities. And eventually most of 'em throw up their hands and hide their anxieties behind a steel curtain of irony, cynicism, and detachment. So it isn't all that surprising that the kids end up settling for that special liberation, the divine defiant foolishness, from the one who takes a look at all that mess and gives it a Bronx cheer. Until something better comes along, it's the best answer we've got.

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