'Attention All Parents': Shock-Rock's Last Stand at the End of the Millennium
Following our Billboard staff-picked list of the 99 greatest songs of 1999, we're writing this week about some of the stories and trends that defined the year for us. Here, we look back at the controversial last gasps of rock as the voice of youthful rebellion in '99, before rap picked up the mantle for the 21st century.
In 1999, the band Gas Giants released their debut album From the Back Burner. As you’d expect from a group of ex-Gin Blossoms, it has at least one gem: “I Hope My Kids Like Marilyn Manson,” a power-pop tincture of cynicism towards -- and resignation at -- the latest type of rock star. “Was fun and easy when you sold your soul,” sings Robin Wilson. “No one’s accusing you of falling short of your goal.”
He was right about that last part: 1998’s Mechanical Animals was Marilyn Manson’s first number-one album, with nearly a quarter-million copies sold in its first week. Critics hailed the band’s turn from industrial metal to glam rock, and a handful of impeccably art-directed videos went into rotation on cable. There wasn’t a top 40 crossover single, but there was the next best thing: an organized campaign of protests that hounded the group throughout their ‘98-’99 tour. A hit record, reams of press, constant controversy: at the beginning of 1999, Marilyn Manson (or their namesake lead singer, at least) had a credible claim to being the biggest thing in rock.
Other claimants couldn’t hope to match Manson’s canny visual sense, or his volubility with reporters. But their sounds drew from newer sources. Hailing from the land of Buck and Waylon, Bakersfield’s Korn were the OGs of nu-metal, lashing adolescent traumas to dyspeptic riffs and a hip-hop meat grinder of a rhythm section. During a 1995 tour stop in Jacksonville, bassist Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu accepted a demo from his tattoo artist, the frontman of a local act with an intentionally awful name. On the strength of the demo, Interscope signed Limp Bizkit. Compared to Korn, they were headslappingly direct, and incorporated rap less obliquely: recruiting DJ Premier to produce a Method Man collaboration, adding House of Pain’s DJ Lethal as a full member, rendering their name in wildstyle on the cover of 1999’s Significant Other. But even they weren’t as dedicated hip-hop heads as Robert “Kid Rock” Ritchie, who workshopped his redneck rapper persona over a handful of unheard albums until breaking huge with 1998’s Devil Without a Cause, which spun off hits well into '99.
All four acts had the good fortune to blow up at the dizzying height of the CD era, when there was a direct line from MTV rotation to your local record retailer. (“Used to call me funny when my nose was fuckin’ runny,” rapped Kid Rock on Devil’s title track, “Now my fuckin' bunnies gettin' fuckin' Matchbox 20 money.”) Here, at the cusp of the millennium, the national conversation centered on propriety: always a plus if you’re an act trafficking in what used to be called “shock rock”. For his provocative live staging and constant assessment of the national temperature - to say nothing of having a band named after himself - Manson was frequently declared the heir to Alice Cooper. When Korn mounted a rap/rock concert series in 1998, they named it, ingeniously, the Family Values Tour.
And, most crucially for the non-Manson acts, they belonged to a generation of white rap fans that had finally figured out how to approach the indisputably dominant strain in music. Rather than affect an authenticity that was essentially unattainable, they incorporated rap like a dive bar or house party would: as just one ingredient to blend with country or funk-metal or punk rock. In this regard, bands like Limp Bizkit were the heirs to the Beastie Boys, who hit the scene as a shock-rap sensation before dusting off their instruments.
So it was a delicious irony when the January 21, 1999 episode of MTV’s Total Request Live led off with a new video: Eminem’s “My Name Is”. Just like that, the notion that the biggest thing in rock could be, de facto, the biggest thing in popular music evaporated. Though he grew up a hardcore rap fanatic, Em was on good terms with his shock-rock peers: he popped up in the videos for Korn’s “Got the Life” and Limp’s “Break Stuff,” featured on Kid Rock’s Sabbath-flipping “Fuck Off” (“You know I'm losin' it when I'm rappin' to rock guitars”), and did an uncanny Manson impersonation in the “My Name Is” clip. He was the exception proving the rule: an obsessive lyricist with hip-hop credibility and a nu-metal-adjacent anger that was ideal for crossover. The rockers weren’t supplanted immediately: Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” was the first non-boyband song to top TRL’s countdown, and they topped all acts with nine nominations at the ‘99 VMAs. But the timer began to click.
Within a few months, the shock rockers moved from a parental to a national concern. Early reports from the mass shooting at Columbine High School in April indicated that the perpetrators were fans of Manson’s. This turned out to be untrue, but the association stuck, and a Senate committee soon took the opportunity to inveigh against a culture of violence, and Manson specifically. The singer published his defense in Rolling Stone: “I think that the National Rifle Association is far too powerful to take on, so most people choose Doom, The Basketball Diaries or yours truly,” he wrote. He, of course, was onto something. These days, the blame falls on Call of Duty, The Walking Dead, and black metal.
That summer, the Woodstock ‘99 debacle ensnared the rap-rockers. (Marilyn Manson did not perform at the festival - which was marred by arson, riots, and dozens of reports of sexual assault - because they weren’t guaranteed a nighttime slot.) The root cause was some combination of shortsighted management, inadequate security, and toxic masculinity, and much was made of the performers’ role in inciting the latter. Limp Bizkit’s performance was a commonly identified culprit, despite frontman Fred Durst’s delicate dance between invoking order and chaos: “Don't let anybody get hurt. But I don't think you should mellow out. That's what Alanis Morissette had you motherfuckers do.” Another was Red Hot Chili Peppers covering Jimi Hendrix's “Fire” on the flame-filled final night, but their shock-rock days were past; now on their way to L.A. elder statesmanship, their reputation didn’t take much of a hit. Limp Bizkit, on the other hand, released a music video depicting themselves on trial, with clips from their Woodstock set playing in the courtroom. (They’re found guilty and drowned in milk.)
The shock-rock class of 1999 stuck around for a few more years, but - as generally happens - their threat levels receded. Of the group, the biggest pop hit that year belonged to Kid Rock: the pitch-corrected ballad “Only God Knows Why," which presaged his eventual move from rap-rock to country. The next year, Limp Bizkit paired the worst album cover and title in major-label history and were rewarded with a million purchases in the first week. Marilyn Manson and Korn remain enjoyable, and both have album releases scheduled for 2019. The swaggering rap-metal and sacreligious glam that proved so popular in the industry’s boomtime gave way to post-grunge balladry (Creed, Staind, 3 Doors Down) and rock revivalism. Twenty years later, music festivals are legion, (mostly) uneventful, and frequently free of rockers as headliners - sometimes even as performers. And adults whose parents demanded they take “Nookie” off the boombox now find themselves googling “Soundcloud rap”. If rock ever really was about making the previous generation squeamish, then the aggro, pummeling shock-rock of ‘99 may have been its final innovation.