We revisit Korn’s 1996 sophomore album, Life Is Peachy, which turns 20 this weekend. by Gary Suarez.
Every generation has its freaks. Anyone who went through the tiny tortures of American high schooling would recognize the bullied outsider and the confused loner, these naturally formed archetypes of social unpopularity. As has been the case for decades, they tend to self-identify via music, as punks, goths, metalheads, juggalos, what have you. Chances are good that many of you reading this can personally relate.
The 1990s brought a certain tumult to this dynamic, a byproduct of big business capitalizing on catering to the so-called alternative set. Major labels signed bands that would’ve seemed unlikely to succeed even a few years prior, taking risks in an effort to find the next act that would connect with this sizeable market segment of confused teens unimpressed or otherwise disgusted by pop.
Of course, the results weren’t always that clean. Himself a misfit, Kurt Cobain took little solace in his fame, knowing that the massive audiences at Nirvana shows included the same sort of tormentors and belittlers that music once offered him escape from. Prior to their eponymous 1991 album, Metallica had been greasy thrash goons, as uncompromising as denim. Yet the subsequent ubiquity of singles like “Enter Sandman” and “Unforgiven” turned them into a full-on stadium act, which almost by definition brought along a crowd not particularly desired by the picked on fans from their Master Of Puppets days.
The freaks were put on the defensive. The word sellout was used a lot, as was the typically misspelt poseur. Many delved as deeply as possible as these proto-Internet days allowed to discover new bands, old bands, anything that hopefully wouldn’t put them in the same spaces as the jocks and jerks and social climbers. Sure, you could listen to Green Day and Rancid, but had you heard of Fugazi and Operation Ivy? They shared these finds with one another via mixtapes--yes, actual cassettes. They wore band t-shirts, affixed logo patches to their Jansport backpacks, all in the youthful service of demonstrating their existential disconnection.
Few bands wore their outsider status the way Korn did on their 1994 self-titled album. Hardcore punk bands had embraced their fundamental difference by emphasizing insularity and community, fostering a scene that to this day prides itself on self-regulation and constructive violence. Grunge bands took a more introspectively personal tack, subtly encouraging individuality and sarcasm in a manner that many listeners across the country could identify with.
But Korn’s tapped into something else, something more profound and nearly universal among misfit teens: victimhood. Beyond the hypnotically clicky rhythm section and harsh pit riffs, lyrically their debut gave voice to the child abuse, domestic violence, and genuine hardship that innumerable kids in America faced. Jonathan Davis screamed about being bullied by high school homophobes on “Faget” and tried to come to grips with having been molested on the daunting closer “Daddy.” His anger and fear fueled this strange and fresh take on metal, and swiftly humanized Korn despite operating in a genre known for satanic gimmicks and fantasy.
Much superficial fuss was made over their image, apparent white dudes with dreadlocks and cornrows who dressed like they’d just stepped off the set of an Ice Cube video. Even before appropriation was a household term, people quickly found fault with Korn’s aesthetic based solely off the low budget music video for “Blind.” At least some of that first impression criticism stemmed from racial stereotyping, of course. Still, like many young people at the time, hip-hop mattered to the band, but it wasn’t until two years later that Korn fully embraced that influence to shape what became the prototype for nu metal, 1996’s Life Is Peachy.
While the Korn of today has, like their contemporaries in Marilyn Manson, inadvertently descended fully into unintended self-parody, the band set the tone for the next wave in the mainstreaming of metal. Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to imagine the rise of bands like Disturbed, Staind, and eventual American rock royals Slipknot without the Life Is Peachy blueprint. Though chronologically the first record gets more credit from those willing to talk seriously about this frequently discounted music genre, their RIAA-certified double-platinum sophomore outing fleshed out Korn’s groundbreaking sound in a way that made it more structured and approachable, not to mention easier to copy.
The band freed its rhythm section of drummer David Silveria and bassist Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu to play with the sonic potential of their instruments, as a result developing a signature sound that simultaneously distracted and appealed. You can hear it echoed and emulated by Dope, Mudvayne, Papa Roach and countless others that came up in the wake of that record. Davis had experimented with certain vocalizations on the first record, but pushed them forward for Life Is Peachy. His demented patois on opener "Twist" is surely no worse than the guttural utterances and affected put-ons of countless death metal and black metal frontmen past and present. And then there’s the dual guitar attack of Brian "Head" Welch and James "Munky" Shaffer, tethering this motley crew of players to the realm of heavy music but often willing to step back and let the drummer get some.
On Life Is Peachy, the constant is pain, emotional and physical, received and inflicted, rarely if ever metaphorical. Throughout the album, Davis relies heavily on that charged word, making it integral in both the chorus for "Chi" and repeatedly at the track's close. Continuing the confessional themes of earlier Korn songs like "Daddy," he directs his ire at his stepmother on "Kill You." No love lost, he depicts his grievances with details and a taste for revenge, the catharsis literally ending in his own tears. To a lesser extent, he breaks down while heaping scorn on a manipulative former friend on "Good God."
It's not all gut wrenching and soul searching. After all, there's only so much bum-out one can take. He issues a regrettable stream of over-the-top invective on the unpronounceable "K@#*%!" and invokes twisted Cali-funk vibes a la Suicidal Tendencies or Infectious Grooves on the interlude “Porno Creep.” The band runs through surprising covers of War's "Lowrider" and Ice Cube's "Wicked." That latter choice doubled down on their commitment to hip-hop despite critics, a move that proved prescient when later acts like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park sold millions of records full of overt rap-metal. Though Korn was hardly the only act at the time finding ways to merge these seemingly disparate genres, they achieved one of its finest and most successful fusions with “A.D.I.D.A.S.,” the single that turned the band towards stardom. The music video received substantial MTV rotation, and set precedent for the hits to come on the chart-topping and multi-platinum records Follow The Leader and Issues.
The impact of “A.D.I.D.A.S.” returns us to an aforementioned paradox. Korn made an album of leftfield music and unfiltered revelations designed to appeal to outcasts. Yet the unit’s talents and creative choices made them formidable hard rock titans who commanded huge touring audiences as Billboard album chart fixtures for years to come. What drew fans to Korn and kept them for Life Is Peachy hadn’t waned, and the band certainly hadn’t compromised. Unfortunately for the freaks, the secret was out, and the bullies had forced their way in.