THIS HAPPENED! IS A NEW WEEKLY COLUMN WHEREIN WE SHED LIGHT ON FORGOTTEN MOMENTS IN POP CULTURE. BECAUSE IF WE FAIL TO LEARN FROM HISTORY, WE ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT.
The decade of one’s adolescence is always the easiest to both revere and criticize. Partly this is obvious: we are never more tapped into pop culture than we are as teenagers. That makes sense when you consider that since the invention of the Teenager as a marketable force in the 1950s, everything in pop culture has essentially been made with them in mind. Plus, teenagers (mostly) don’t have anything else important to think about. Thus, adults use the memories of when they were most interested in music, movies, sports, et cetera to provide context for their present, more curated fascinations. We see what was good about what we used to like, and we, finally, can see what was horseshit.
This makes us feel smart because, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” If we can hold the opposing ideas that one’s generation was the worst, and yet still feel nostalgic for it, then we have achieved a rare kind of wisdom. You know, like the Boomers in the eighties, when they sold out their hippie ideals to welcome a new morning in America along with Ronald Reagan. See, wisdom.
Or, maybe not. Because it’s possible that tastes change without getting any better. We’d like to think we would never convince ourselves that square-toed shoes, or wearing a graphic t-shirt over a striped button-down shirt are valid fashion choices, but then we see dudes wearing t-shirts that might as well be dresses and we realize we are powerless against the pull of The Now. Trends are mighty hard to fight while they are happening. And that’s true in every facet of culture, from fashion to films to music.
Case in point: Limp Bizkit was once a massive, chart-topping, award-winning rock band, that led a wave of similar shouty-rappy groups to take over mainstream music in the late-nineties. It was a trend that was so pervasive we convinced ourselves it was actually a new genre of music entirely: Nü Metal. (Pro tip: Any neologism that involves an umlaut should immediately be suspect.)
Now, like I said, it’s easy to deride the cultural crap from one’s own adolescence, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to look back critically. When we say up top that if we don’t remember our past, we’re doomed to repeat it that doesn’t mean if we aren’t careful Limp Bizkit, fuelled by the same nostalgia that’s allowing Guns N’ Roses to tour the world like the rock gods they once were, will return and bring a new (sorry, Nü) generation of rap-rock stars with them. It’s that if we can identify what Fred Durst et al tapped into that made them so popular, we can avoid those same factors from inspiring similar regrettable fiascos.
Only, it might be too late.
Because I’m willing to bet that the same people who listened to Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water on repeat are the now the voters who will elect Donald Trump president (or at least try to). I have no way of verifying this (other than the fact that Kid Rock has already endorsed Trump), but I’m confident in my hot take. And when it comes to hot takes, that’s all that matters.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Nü Metal became so popular. It was simultaneously angry and harmless in a way that spoke directly to white kids who, felt powerless. To be clear, it’s important to stress the word felt there. Truthfully, no teenager has any degree of real power, which is as it should be — just getting them to not waste their money on senseless trends like shirt/dresses is hard enough.
So they felt the powerlessness that comes from raging hormones and limited freedom. Angry at their parents for not understanding their plight. Of course they turned to music that was equally rage-fuelled. But whereas the component parts of rap-rock came from legitimate concerns, especially hip hop, the slick hybrid was empty. But it didn’t feel that way. It was a sonic McRib, neither a burger, or ribs, but oh so delicious.
And anyone who claims that Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, and all those other suburban rockers who realized they could co-opt black music for profit, didn’t inspire some mindless fun is fooling themselves. “Nookie” was an incredibly fun, if remarkably stupid song, indicative of the superficiality of the Nü Music genre. He’s literally shouting about getting laid.
But the thing is, Donald Trump is all too similar. As pundits talk about how he’s tapping into the new phenomenon of white anger (which isn’t all that new, since Bill Clinton talked about the same thing more than 20 years ago), the clear-minded among us (also known as Canadians), realize that what he’s really tapping into is twisted nostalgia and adolescent rage. Like Nü Metal, he’s coopting a movement with legitimate ideas and concerns (conservatism, which you may or may not agree with) and processing it until it’s completely empty. Limp Bizkit’s first hit was a screaming rendition of George Michael’s “Faith.” Alien Ant Farm’s one hit was a shouty version of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” These bands borrowed talent, added the intimidating aggression of hip-hop, and sold millions.
Trump is mixing a different cocktail, but it’s registering with the same people. Folks who feel powerless, but aren’t, people who are equal parts fascinated and frightened of black culture, and the people who are easily swayed by mass messaging. And it’s working just as well for Trump as it did for Durst.
If only the presidential candidate was doing it all for the nookie. Then we might be safe.