Pop Culture

Rebel on the Pop Charts: The Summer of Significant Other

On a stony winter morning, the last day of January 2002, hundreds of guitarists from all over the D.C. metro area lined up to shiver in the cold outside the new Guitar Center franchise in Rockville, Maryland. They ranged from pre-pubescent to nearly senescent, skinheads to dreads, pierced nips to preps, black, Hispanic, Asian, white, men and women, boys and girls, and everything in between, and they sported just about every kind of guitar there was—from cheap Yamaha acoustics to the exotic woods of Paul Reed Smiths, from standard Stratocasters and Les Pauls to double-neck Epiphones and vintage hollowbodies and jagged Jackson electrics with floating tremolos and the overdrive wired right into the pickups. They huffed into their hands and noodled ceaselessly to keep their fingers warm. Many had camped out overnight, and most had stars in their eyes. I was among them, nineteen years old; had driven two hours from my dorm at James Madison University to stand in line with my hands wrapped numbly around my guitar neck, a little nervous, but mostly cynical, arrogant, and very, very cold. The draw? We were all waiting for our shot at fame and fortune—an opportunity that for many of us would never again be so close, so accessible. Limp Bizkit was holding open auditions.

Two and a half years earlier, when I was a rising high school junior, I bought Limp Bizkit’s 1999 commercial breakthrough, Significant Other. In earnest. And I listened to it a lot, mostly in my bedroom and on the CD player in my Chevy AstroVan, which I’d recently paid Best Buy $150 to install. The music made me want to do this bend-at-the-waist, snap-back, one-hand-in-the-air, full-body-nod sort of dance. It made me want to jump and growl. It made me want to buy a heavier electric guitar and more special effects pedals, made me want to crank up the “pre” gain on my amplifier and churn out louder, thicker chords, the type of chords that would make a whole roomful of people move the way those songs made me move. It made me, for lack of a better term, want to rock. Plus, the album was number one on the pop charts, and Limp Bizkit was the band to finally take a giant surrogate dump for rock fans everywhere all over the squeaky-clean, jumpsuit-uniformed Backstreet Boys on Total Request Live—that record made everyone want to rock, to rebel, to “break stuff,” as their smash single implored. And so, though as a serious musician it pains me deeply to say this today, makes me feel I should light a million candles and flagellate myself with my old violin strings and beseech the spirits of my missionary grandparents for their forgiveness, I am here to tell you that for a few months when I was seventeen—for the entirety of the summer of 1999—Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other was my favorite record.

I’m not proud of this. At that age, I took myself seriously as a disciplined, trained, professional guitarist. And to this day I don’t even harbor an ironic sort of pride about owning that CD, the type of pride derived from self-deprecation, where you sort of set yourself up, you know—so uncool you’re actually really cool, the embrace-your-inner-loser brand of pseudo-self-deprecation that’s so hip and prevalent today. No—today, Limp Bizkit is just plain uncool, without any hope of cool, no matter how you spin it. This is a rare thing now, to be completely and utterly lame, so that even jokes about you aren’t funny, where even irony and parody are helpless against your insignificance. Crocs might fit into this category. Mitt Romney might achieve this level of insignificance in a couple of years. But then again, Mitt Romney wearing Crocs is funny. But Fred Durst, Limp Bizkit’s red-capped and tatted-out fulminator-in-chief—one-time VP of Interscope records and a music industry kingmaker—is now simply irrelevant. And I often find myself wondering why this is. But if I really want to understand, I’ve first got to admit that I’m not fully sure what “ironic pride” actually consists of, or what pseudo-self-deprecation really indicates about a person’s character, because the problem of irony is one of my main concerns in writing this piece, and is also one of the main concerns I have in looking back on this time in my life, in trying to make sense of the summer of Significant Other, the summer of ’99, the summer of TRL, when record sales were peaking, when Napster was hot and Amazon and Google and Wikipedia were just warming up, when our world was expanding and our enemies scattered and few and forgotten and the whole country was riding high on the fat hog of Clinton-era late capitalism, that summer when at a live Kennedy Center audition members of the reviewing panel called me “a guitar prodigy,” that summer when Limp Bizkit was number one, and I was seventeen, and all of us teetered at the very peak, I am convinced, of the American promise. Because in less than three years’ time, I would find myself huddled at the end of that miserable line snaking around Guitar Center, one guitarist among thousands nationwide who were all competing for a chance to become a member of their favorite has-been. In that short time, Limp Bizkit—the band whose stadium shows had once spawned feverish and sometimes deadly riots—had gone from superstar to supplicant, preacher to beggar. And during all of this I never once wondered what I wonder now, which is why they’d been so big in the first place.

In 1999 I was a high school junior. Smack in the middle of adolescence. The Nebraska of my adolescence. Barren, lonesome, directionless. Acne strewn about my face like so many haystacks ’pon the tawny plain. At that age, you’re pretty much just waiting—for college, for a job, for money, for girls, for independence to kick in in earnest. And this is scary, this waiting for purpose or meaning, for talent or opportunity to reveal itself to you. And it’s terribly lonely, too, to feel you have nothing to really say and yet somehow still be misunderstood anyway. So we’re also waiting for someone, for anyone, to come along and sympathize, to give us a reason—or, even better, a means—to express these otherwise ineffable fears.

I suspect I’m not the only one of my generation who felt this way. Actually, judging by Significant Other’srecord sales, I know I’m not. Released right at the music industry’s zenith, the album sold over six hundred thousand units in its first week, and in two weeks had already been certified platinum (one million sales). It’s since been certified platinum seven times over, tied for third (with Vanilla Ice and Puff Daddy) in the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) list of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. It spawned three top-twenty singles, “Nookie,” “Re-Arranged,” and “Break Stuff,” the song that sparked a violent riot during Limp Bizkit’s now infamous live performance at Woodstock ’99. (By way of contrast, Limp Bizkit’s 2011 release Gold Cobra sold just 63,000 units over an entire year; one-tenth the sales of Significant Other in its first week.) Pretty clearly, Limp Bizkit had tapped into something, had somehow known that we, that all those sympathizers and all those sales, were waiting for them to come along. Or maybe they’d been waiting for us.

In 1984, in response to a perceived upwelling of graphic lyrics in contemporary rock and hip-hop, the National Parent Teacher Association—yes, the PTA—sent a letter to the RIAA and to dozens of record labels across the country requesting that the music industry assume the responsibility of putting a warning label on all the records they released that contained “explicit lyrics or content.” A year later, following a highly publicized Senate hearing on “porn rock”—which featured Capitol Hill appearances by Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider, the lead singer of Twisted Sister—the industry acquiesced, and the now-ubiquitous Parental Advisory sticker was born. At first, only a few albums achieved the notoriety of being labeled, but by 1992 “explicit content” had become so prevalent in popular music that the label changed from a sticker applied to an album’s outer cellophane wrapping to being directly printed as part of the cover art. Over the course of the ’90s, the label underwent several further refinements in its design, achieving its current recognizable form in 2000.

Anyone who listened to ’90s FM radio knows that Limp Bizkit was profane, that they bore their Parental Advisory label with pride. After all, the band had named itself after a supposed “game” where some guys get in a circle and jerk off onto a piece of bread. And the title of its follow-up to Significant Other, the unfortunate Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, is not-so-subtle code for anal sex. In the opening lines of the riotous “Break Stuff,” Durst raps, “It’s just one of those days / When you don’t wanna wake up / Everything is fucked / Everybody sux [sic].” Etc, etc. So the band was big and bad, loud and dirty and hyper-masculine, and proud of every inch of profanity. They extended this pride by proxy to anyone who bought the record.

Of course, Significant Other is just one in a drumroll of records that boast the Parental Advisory label. But the timing here isn’t coincidental: The evolution and proliferation of the Parental Advisory label tracks perfectly with the late-century boom in music sales. (And it seems the digital revolution was a dead-end for both.) These phenomena—outrageous content and outrageous sales—coincide with the success of Significant Other, itself a musical collision of the marginalized and the commercial, a sound drawn from the deeply rebellious traditions of hip-hop and heavy metal, to create a record that rocketed to number one on the pop charts—in a year where total industry sales topped $14 billion—fueled by little more than their front man’s remarkably pure and brazen brand of misogynistic, juvenile, directionless rage.

But this was the nineties. What were we so mad about? What was a rebel doing at the top of the pop charts?

I grew up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. My family wasn’t wealthy, but we weren’t worried, either. When I was sixteen I had a car, but it wasn’t new. My parents were still (are still) together, and they argued only rarely, and quietly at that. I had several friends—many sharing my circumstances—and my little brother was the best of them. From season to season I played soccer, baseball, football, and basketball. And the goddamn electric guitar.

If I profiled my younger self today, I think I’d see myself as one of the least likely candidates, psychologically speaking, to select for their instrument such an icon of rebellion. Playing electric guitar is like strapping on a giant middle finger. It’s a way of screaming for those who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice. But me? I’d been voted into student government. I wore polo shirts and cargo shorts. I was eighteen before I found myself drunk, didn’t smoke a cigarette until twenty-four. For a budding rock star, “lame” doesn’t even get us halfway there. So at age seventeen, with that guitar, I was loud, sure, frustrated and angry, sure, but I was loud and frustrated and angry for no discernible reason. I didn’t get it back then, and I don’t really get it now.

One thing I lacked in high school, something that now seems so inescapable and such a socio-artistic pest, was a sense of irony. At seventeen, the time of the Limp Bizkit purchase, I had not come online yet, and had little-to-no sense of self, let alone self-awareness. But in just two years, by the time I’d gotten to college, by the time of the Limp Bizkit audition, I’d come online.Once an ardent fan of their sharp, lurching hybrid of hip-hop and heavy metal, when I was lined up at that audition, you wouldn’t catch me dead admitting it. In those two years, Limp Bizkit’s anger had worn thin, and in retrospect, in a larger context that at nineteen I finally saw and understood, the band seemed frankly ridiculous, and their success offensive, an affront to music. For the audition, I’d gone so far as to actually costume myself into a rap-metal caricature—I gelled my hair into a spiky black buckyball, donned a borrowed black hoodie with Hurley stamped in red across the chest, and stepped into a pair of Jinco-style khakis, big enough in the leg to accommodate my entire torso. And so if you’d asked me on that morning—and if you’d asked the others in line with me, as I did—we were mostly there ironically; I was there to test my musical mettle, yes, but mostly it was my chance to prove, in front of that band and every last sycophant they had with them, that I was better than they were. I was there to win the slot, and then turn it down, laughing, right in Fred Durst’s diaper-like face. And at the time, I would have told you that I was doing it all in the name of music.

As if to affirm and underscore the band’s general scumminess, rumors abounded that morning that this national series of Guitar Center auditions (called the “Put Your Guitar Where Your Mouth Is Tour”) was a flat-out scam. We heard that before going into the audition room, you’d be asked to sign release forms acknowledging that everything you were to play in there—one minute’s worth of music—was your own original material, and that upon your audition, you waived all rights to that material and Limp Bizkit could do with it as Limp Bizkit saw fit, and they owed you jack shit. Basically, it was crowdsourcing: a way for a foundering band—cashed, burnt-out, and bereft of new ideas—to accumulate thousands of riffs, musical ideas, and songs custom-tailored for their specific sound, for free. Kind of brilliant, really. But for us in that line, all the more embittering, all the more scummy, all the more reason for us to whip it out and wag it in their face.

But two years earlier, at seventeen, I would never have thought this way—not about that band, not about myself. Growing up, I was preciously sincere, an achiever and performer, and the things I enjoyed in life, I enjoyed in earnest. I was the farthest thing from a rebel: I was, honestly, all too happy to conform. After all, in my experience, growing up the oldest child, growing up suburban, good things came to conformists—the highest grades, the praise and blessing from those with power, an array of friends, pats on the back, the pride of your parents.

Yet for some reason, in spite of all of this, I still got there: onstage by age fifteen, my amp cranked, my speakers pushing air, playing “Freebird” in Jimmy’s Old Town Tavern with the guitar behind my head.

It’s common knowledge that rock n roll has been one of the biggest engines of rebellion in America. It was the soundtrack to the sexual revolution, the civil rights and anti-war movements, and the mindless indulgence and self-destruction that followed the disillusionment of our most idealistic generation. But as far as being an agent of change, rock n roll outlasted its utility. By the time of that 1985 Senate hearing, the system had already won, and the notion of any kind of rebellion in America was quaint. The overwhelming success of consumer capitalism had—by the mid-eighties at least—effectually emasculated the American rebel, and then named a camera after it to celebrate. Here’s what happened:

The undeniably substantive revolutions of the 1960s (sexual, social, political) were exclusively expressed by—and in a large part spearheaded by—rock n roll. And with its “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” credo, Johnny Cash’s quivering oversized middle finger, and a steady stream of premature deaths, rock music taught us that the only true rebels, the only true and effective agents of change and independence and revolution, the only ones with the right to be deeply and fundamentally pissed off, are the young. But a generation later, all those revolutions had been co-opted by capitalism, and rock stars were hocking cars and cola to that same youthful demographic. It was the old switcheroo, played by the markets: All rebels are young? Well, then all the young must be rebels. Buy this camera, Rebel, and honor your agency.

By the eighties, with the switcheroo in full swing, rock n roll (now just “rock”) had become a parody of its former self, embodied by the ridiculous hair bands and extravagant arena rock of the time. The excesses of our rock stars’ extravagant lifestyles became models for our own consumption. Rock was being sold back to itself; it had bought its own pitch. A victim of its own success, rock n roll had become self-aware, and once it did, that engine of rebellion was stripped down, retrofitted and reapplied to commerce, to churning out predictable power chords and chart-toppers in industrial quantities. Hip-hop held out a little while longer, but, sadly, would be all too soon to follow. By 1999—the year of Significant Other, and the year that the music industry topped out—record sales in the United States were a $14.6 billion-a-year business.

Nothing puts down a rebellion quite like success.

No amount of success, though, can stop adolescence. For evidence of this, the advent of the Parental Advisory label is Exhibit A. By 1985, rock n roll, now fully self-aware and in high-gear parodic mode, had only one fight left, and it was the fight against itself, the fight to maintain its edgy, youthful image. And the youth—all those stuck yearning and angry and lonesome and afraid, all those waiting in the spiritually desolate expanses of their own personal Nebraskas—the youth would always need a voice.

Cue the profanity.

Adolescence is frightening. It’s like that little window of time that opens somewhere in every good joke where for a brief moment you’re not quite certain it’s a joke anymore, where what you’re feeling is actually a fleeting low-grade buzz of fear, an inkling that perhaps you’ve been somehow uninformed, that you’ve been put out and left out, ostracized—that fear of being fundamentally and eternally alone. And so you’re just waiting for this prickle of fear to pass, waiting for the all-clear, the signal that everything’s okay, that it was indeed a joke after all and not to worry, that you’re still in, still a welcome part of the group and that you never weren’t in the first place. That’s kind of what adolescence is like: waiting for a punchline. And we get anxious. We get lonely, angry, afraid. So we lash out, we scream, we grab microphones and grind skateboard trucks and plug in electric guitars, urged on by the desire, the need, to see and feel the reverberations of our own soundwaves, to have the company and comfort of feeling the same ripples coming from the soundwaves of others like us. We crave authentication, and so, in understandable desperation, we buy right into the rebel pitch: Eager to believe that our youthful frustrations are in fact feelings of substance, that at our core we are all independent agents with the capacity to effect significant and lasting 1960s-type mythic change, and that these feelings are not by any means mere byproducts of the empty existential Nebraskas that all young people everywhere just have to wait through, we, too, mistake the personal torments of our youth—feelings not relegated to any single era or region or confined to any specific revolution; feelings common to every adolescent since the dawn of time—we, too, mistake our youth for rebellion. And so, with nothing left to rebel against but itself, rock n roll happily took up these voices, the voices of so many late-capitalist American youths like me, hoping to eliminate their spiritual emptiness via material fulfillment, and rock raged against itself, so that even with nothing meaningful left to say, over the course of the 1990s, that most pleasant of American decades, our pop music grew progressively bigger, louder, and dirtier than ever, until it all culminated in 1999 and Significant Other, and consumerism cashed in on the quiet desperation, to the sunny, C-major tune of millions and millions of dollars.

Beware a rebel on the pop charts: There’s either something wrong with that rebel, or something wrong with that chart.

But a funny thing happened to me as that audition line started to move. I began to quiver—not from the cold, or from nerves, exactly, but from something else, from some fundamental unsurety. And I noticed it in the hopefuls around me, too, many who had earlier that morning expressed the same self-aware cynicism and irony that I had. As we shuffled forward, our numbers grew progressively quiet. What I’d imagined would be ceaseless guitar noodling and riffing had remarkably ceased. Even the trash talk had subsided, the spiteful speculation about the scam at hand, the enmity and the envy—as we neared the audition room, all of that sort of stilled.

And then I got nervous.

The closer I got to the actual audition, the more real the thing became, the more authentic and meaningful this act seemed. I began to feel goofy in my ironic rap-metal costume, and then embarrassed and downright regretful. Why was I mocking music, why was I mocking myself? It became more and more clear to me that I was there in earnest, that I wanted badly to succeed, that again I craved to conform, craved in fact those same things I had craved in high school, those same things that we all crave as desperate and lonely youths: validation, comfort, sympathy, connection with other human beings like ourselves. And here, I saw, was a precious thing indeed: in this audition, I had the chance to earn those things.

Turned out the rumors were true—before entering the audition room, I signed away all rights to my audition music, which music, the contract informed me, would actually be recorded. But by then I didn’t mind. In fact, I was excited by the idea that my music—my music—might one day surface on a forthcoming Limp Bizkit album, that this album might actually sell, that it might even be a comeback, a revitalization for a struggling and destitute band, an album that might propel them once more to the top of the pop charts, and I’d be happy, proud, satisfied, to have had a hand in something like that, even anonymously.

And so I stepped into the audition room a convert, a born-again believer—once more earnest, a sincere performer. I gave them my name, tuned up, and plugged my guitar in, and only then did I dare raise my head, cast about the room for a familiar famous face, a tatted arm, maybe, a telltale red cap. I saw nothing like that. Just some guys sitting around in couches and bean bag chairs, all of them wearing black ball caps, all of them holding guitars, waiting on me to play so they can cop my riffs, remake them for millions. My guitar hummed in my hands. The amp began to howl.

“Go ahead, man,” one of the guys in the room said. “Now or never. Show us what you got.”

But I didn’t have anything. And they didn’t, either. We were, every last one of us, just some guys in a room, with a lot of guitars, and no more ideas.

I no longer practice the electric guitar, and I’m not in a band anymore. After failing the audition, I assailed the music industry in earnest, and after a few years of moderately successful touring and recording, the industry handily defeated me. I still write songs, but I no longer take myself so seriously as a musician. But Limp Bizkit is still together, still making records, and still touring. I know—this surprised me, too. But I came across this interview with Fred Durst himself, speaking just this past August to a magazine for heavy metal enthusiasts, responding to rumors that the band had recently broken up.

“We don’t play back home. We’ve boycotted America for many years now. I don’t know, I just don’t wanna go out like that. We did a few radio shows in 2010 for a friend and that was it. We haven’t properly toured America since 2006.

“The reason? We just don’t know what’s going on in America. It’s all about the new catchy thing and that’s always changing. America is driven by record sales. It’s the home of corporations. We’re just Limp Bizkit, so we don’t know how to do anything but Limp Bizkit.”

And like it or not, I guess you have to respect that.

Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.