Nü-Metal and Twilight Are the True Outsider Art, the Only Rebel Poets
you only get to be an outsider artist if everybody hates you, now
Recently Bill Simmons, the snark & smarm-peddling LA-by-way-of-Boston bro-guy final boss of the “content” era, put out a documentary about Woodstock ’99 on HBOMax. Bill Simmons plus HBOMax is a nightmare come true, the avatar of the contemporary American middlebrow selling his wares through a service that sounds like a graphics card you’d buy at Circuit City in 2002.
I had a lot of problems with this documentary. For one, they go on at length about the terrible misogyny of Girls Gone Wild culture and its influence on Woodstock ‘99, then show you absolutely every bare titty that was exposed at the festival. This is a stock move, nowadays. People will give you the titillation upfront, then moralize about it after, so that you can get your rocks off and still congratulate yourself on your feminism. But however you dress it up you still made sure to get a lot of tits in your movie, guys. Also, I believe there were actually more funk and jam bands at the festival than nü-metal acts, but we see none of them beyond the Red Hot Chili Peppers; the documentarians wanted to make a movie about a nü-metal-dominant event, so they invented one.
Then there’s the fact that Rage Against the Machine, who I would argue were the biggest act in the whole festival, played a headlining set during which (we know) there were sexual assaults and rioting going on - and yet the movie spends barely three minutes on them, when it luxuriates in the violence and depravity during sets by other bands. The glaringly transparent reason why is because the people who made the movie like RATM and don’t like Korn or Limp Bizkit, so they just punted on the opportunity to talk about what happened during their set. And that’s a really ugly thing about the documentary in general: it constantly blurs the line between its artistic judgments of the quality of the acts and the moral judgments of the terrible things that happened at the festival, and those lines should not be blurred.
Similarly, there could have been a really interesting opportunity to explore the anger and, uh, questionably woke politics of DMX’s music in comparison to those of the white artists who receive so much criticism in the documentary. But in 2021 there’s essentially no chance that a film by largely-white filmmakers made for a white progressive audience was going to risk even appearing to judge a Black artist. As I keep saying, this kind of attitude is an artifact of condescension, not enlightenment, but I’ll spare you. Were DMX and the nü-metal artists actually put into critical relief, we might ask why the commentators in the documentary are all so sure that the anger of the latter acts is disqualifying. Anger, after all, is a basic and universal human emotion, one that we all struggle to control and something that’s been explored in art and music for as long as there’s been art and music. I don’t particularly care for the actual expression of anger as realized in this music, although the guitar work in nü-metal is often far more inventive than given credit for. But even if I don’t like the music itself, I recognize the perfect legitimacy of being angry and wanting to work through it by making or listening to music. But exploring these ideas might have resulted in the documentary expressing sympathy for that culture, and it’s clear from the opening minutes that the filmmakers will not be extending any such sympathy.
The dominant feeling the movie gave me was just exhaustion at the 2021ness of it all, by which I mean the wall-to-wall, shameless, uncomplicated and unqualified moralism, just talking head after talking head looking down their nose at everyone involved and asking “why can’t they be as enlightened as me?” It makes me want to ask someone like Dave Holmes, hey Dave, how is it that you are such an advanced, liberated being, when so many of your white male counterparts are such troglodytes? If the documentary’s more-or-less explicitly stated theme is true, that there is something intrinsic to white men that made them act so terribly at Woodstock ’99, how did you and Steve Hyden and all of the other white men involved in the movie emerge with purity enough to sit in judgment? It’s one of the great mysteries of our time: every white progressive person you know believes that whiteness causes white people to be bad, and yet every one of them believes themselves to be good. It’s a statistical conundrum!
Also Moby praising “progressive, enlightened hip hop” while sipping from his tea mug made me die inside. I watched it, said “all hope is lost,” and felt my soul dissolve.
Anyway, the documentary mostly functions in the culture as an excuse for aging millennials to make fun of nü-metal again, which is a thrill for them because they haven’t had an opinion about relevant music since back when they would constantly tweet that Bon Iver is boring. (And then quietly cry in front of their laptops while they watched the “Holocene” video.) It’s interesting to me to see such naked artistic classism at hand in artistic opinion again; the content industry derives an awful lot of clicks from pretending to oppose that sort of thing. I don’t mean classism to say that nü-metal was poor people music, but rather that it was and is perceived to appeal to base and populist tastes - in other words, the kind of tastes that the entire critical edifice has been championing for at least 15 years. This is the era of poptimism, as much as the poptimists like to pretend that isn’t the case, and we are now to understand that any preference for the experimental or challenging or niche is not just the hand of elitism but probably of racism and sexism as well. Yet Limb Bizkit et al were the epitome of a certain kind of shameless populism, and they are again coming up for mockery. I guess rules are meant to be broken.
It’s interesting, to me if to no one else, to consider the collective disdain for nü-metal in light of the stunning dominance of the lowbrow today. That pop culture is superior to whatever tiny avant garde still exists is a matter of holy writ on the internet, these days, and the properties that have spread to the masses from what was once nerd culture are the most protected of all. I’ve written many times about the bizarre place we’re in when it comes to “fandom” and pop culture. You are familiar with the genres and properties that fall under the fandom heading, like super heroes, fantasy, video games, and sci fi. The very weird condition we’re in is that these properties are commercially dominant, suck up the vast majority of critical attention and analysis, and increasingly succeed with awards shows and critics - and yet their fans never stop bitching and moaning about being disrespected. Our culture simply could not have rolled out a red carpet more welcomingly, even grovelingly, for the “fandom” fans than it has, and yet they still spend 80% of their time talking about how they are an oppressed minority struggling under the yoke of marginalization.
Since I’ve been writing about this subject, the reality of nerd domination has become so stark and obvious that the defensive fans have taken to changing their tune. Instead of continuing to claim, ludicrously, that their tastes are marginal, they now claim that there is no alternative, so no one should complain.
This is, in fact, just factually untrue - adult dramas were huge box office successes for decades after Jaws’s release. Philadelphia is a movie about watching a man slowly die from AIDs; it went to number one in the box office in 1994. City of Angels, a turgid romance about Meg Ryan falling in love with an angel played by Nicolas Cage, was the top grossing film for two weeks four years later. That same year, Patch Adams - Patch Fucking Adams - was also the top earner, despite/because it’s about a sad clown failing to save the lives of dying children. Why, this very millennium saw Erin Brockovich, a movie about investigating the health effects of environmental pollutants that mostly takes place in law offices, go to number one. Burn After Reading went to number one just thirteen years ago, and that’s a Coen brothers movie! Schindler’s List, a movie about watching many Jews painfully die, made the equivalent of $620 million in today’s dollars. The Passion of the Christ, a movie about watching one Jew painfully die, made the equivalent of $880 million in today’s dollars. I’m sorry, but the notion that it was ever thus and R-rated films made about adult themes and for adult sensibilities never made money is simply untrue. And dramas didn’t just do big box office on random February weekends when the big movies weren’t competing, either; these films were able to go up against blockbuster movies and hold their own. Now “hit drama” is almost unheard of. Go through the historical lists of number one films and you’ll see movie after movie that today would be put out by A24, get respectful reviews, and earn like $12 million.
You can read reams about this, of course; once studios realized that “children+adults” resulted in a bigger number than “just adults,” it was all over. But I do think that another aspect of this is simply that there was a sense of adult responsibility to consume adult art that used to exist and no longer does. Back then, you could still appeal to people’s sense that you couldn’t eat candy all the time, that everyone needs a little more substance sometimes and that it’s important to balance dumb fun with deeper concerns. But today’s tentpole movies have a shield that their predecessors don’t, which is a culture industry that’s become obsessively concerned with showering lowbrow fare with respect. Nerd culture is a grievance culture; nerds don’t know how to win and don’t enjoy it when they do. So when their beloved properties became economically dominant, they shifted their complaints away from being stuck in a small niche and towards vague but bitter feelings of status anxiety.
For a long while fandom justified their self-righteous grievance culture by insisting that their favorites were commercially successful but critically disdained. (The fear that someone somewhere is looking down their nose at you is one of the most powerful of all human feelings.) The trouble is that this claim simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The Return of the King, part of the granddaddy of all nerd franchises, won Best Picture and a mountain of other Oscars almost 20 years ago. The MCU movies are often discussed as critically derided, which is just objectively untrue - their average Rotten Tomatoes score is like 85%, and by that metric Black Panther and (lol) Avengers Endgame are two of the ten best-reviewed films of all time. If you don’t like Rotten Tomatoes, just read the reviews those movies get in the New York Times and other snooty places. The MCU shows got twenty-eight Emmy nominations this year! The Harry Potter films received very strong reviews, on the whole. So did Rogue One, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi. (The Rise of Skywalker, good lord.) The DC movies have been made fun of a lot, principally because most of them are terrible, but Wonder Woman and Aquaman received a lot of praise, in part because critics get off on writing about “a newfound respect” for what they have made fun of in the past. If you pick a nerd property at random you may not find the universal critical lionization these fans seem to want, but you will almost invariably find an aggressively open critical mind and an effort to find things to praise.
Critics these days, who by and large live economically precarious lives, can’t afford to be perceived as anti-fandom, and they have internalized the all-consuming populist cultural critique that has dominated our art and media consumption for so many years. Nobody wants to look like a snoot, and for reasons I can’t understand many people seem compelled to imagine an elite class of top hat-wearing snobs who are swirling drinks at a party and laughing at their tastes. (The notion that rich people today go to the opera and wear white tie at home is one of those myths that people enjoy too much to let die. Rich people today watch Wandavision and order Taco Bell delivery just like you.) The end result is that even people who don’t like Star Wars or similar properties extend them a showy, self-defensive respect. Seeming to disrespect these franchises just isn’t worth the hassle of endless tweets and emails from aggrieved fans, so they’re all treated with kid gloves even by skeptics.
Except for Twilight.
There’s a John Lennon song I’d like to reference, but I would prefer not be mega-canceled again, so let me just say that Twilight and its fans suffer under precisely the condition that fandom fans think they do. Twilight is shit on in exactly the same dismissive and condescending tones that nerds constantly rage on about, even as our culture bends its knee to them again and again. Indeed, it’s treated very badly by many self-identified and enthusiastic geeks themselves; their online spaces are littered with denigration of the franchise, including constant unfavorable comparisons with what they do like. It’s unclear why Twilight is not protected by the same rules that protect Pokemon or He-Man or whatever other children’s media we are now being directed to take very seriously - why is mockery of Twilight and its fans not “snobbery”? I suspect for the same reason poptimism’s rabid defense of all popular things does not include nü-metal, which was once massively popular and which always rejected the elitism and refinement that poptimists now have such showy disdain for. I think that there’s a child-in-Omelas situation going on here, a need to have a communally-agreed upon other, trash even in a trash culture, a whipping boy. Even those who champion the most popular tastes must have some things even they can look down on.
Some fandom types might well say that they like Spiderman and Dr. Who but not Twilight because Twilight is just bad. The problem is that this insight risks giving the whole game away. I don’t like Loki or The Mandalorian for the same reason people say they don’t like Twilight: those shows suck. I’m sure people will disagree, but then so will the Twilight fans, won’t they? Once you admit that you’re just parsing what you believe is artistically good or bad like the rest of us, instead of pretending that you’re fighting for some illusory respect of esteem you think the highbrow types have denied you, you might realize that the people who don’t like what you like aren’t actually upper-crust elitists trying to hold you down. They’re just people with different tastes. And if you’ve made the shows and movies you like the locus of your entire personality, the existence of other people’s sincere and conflicting tastes can be a very destabilizing thing indeed.
Poptimism is a critical movement, not an artistic one. There are plenty of exciting new trends in movies and TV and music, but the era of the mass artistic trend might be gone. I was just saying last week that the fragmentation of media and commentary enabled by the internet means that there is precious little mass culture left against which one can rebel. With 12,000 streaming platforms and a seemingly bottomless well of cash for those who want to develop shows and movies for them, it’s hard to imagine that a coherent style or tendency or movement could ever emerge. The closest we can muster are broad trends in abstractions like sincerity and sarcasm, and while talking about them we must admit to a thousand exceptions. And now of course the ideas of experimentalism and artistic challenge are themselves deeply unwelcome, so the ground is not fertile for something that radically shifts our artistic tastes anyway.
In this climate, the only art that deserves the title of outsider art, the only remaining rebel media, is art that everyone makes fun of. Like Twilight. Like nü-metal. In the ridicule they have engendered over decades, they enjoy a more authentically outcast status than the most underground punk band of the 1970s could ever achieve.
This, finally, is the great irony about the Woodstock ’99 doc and its reception in the culture. All of the people piously complaining about nü-metal have given those artists and their fans what they always wanted: the status of rebels. With a bunch of talking heads clutching their pearls at Limp Bizkit and Korn and their fans, looking down with distaste from their lofty moral perches, this type of music has achieved its final ascension to the condition of true outsider art. Unlike rap, jazz, punk, and other defiantly independent genres, nü-metal has never become cool, which is to say that it has never been assimilated. And the woke disdain for these bands adds precisely the same explicitly moralizing edge that Christian conservatives once piled on rap and metal. People don’t want to see things this way because they don’t like realizing that they’re now the church ladies clucking their tongues at youth culture, but they are; it just happens to be a different era’s youth culture. I’m sure Wesley Morris wouldn’t like to be told that he’s playing the Tipper Gore role in that documentary. But he is.
And so nü-metal has finally won. They are the outlaws they always wanted to be. And all it took was the preening moralism of our current age.