I created the above Venn Diagram to illustrate a point: nobody talks about–or even thinks about–Limp Bizkit any more. We, the “music-loving community,” all act like Fred Durst was just some guy we made out with in the corner of a bar when we were blacked out, only to wake up with an extremely scratched copy of their album Significant Other in our hands.
But here’s something to consider: Limp Bizkit were not always reviled across the board. They were once on the cover of SPIN. Significant Other sold nearly nine hundred thousand copies in its first week of sale. The album was nominated for a Grammy. Clearly, somebody was listening to Significant Other, and they were enjoying it. What were they hearing? I listened to it again to find out.
For some Bizkit context, you should probably revisit two of the singles from the album. The first is “N 2 Gether Now,” which, despite its agrammatical butchering of the phrase “in together now,” is actually a pretty amazing song. For one, it’s a straight up rap track, produced by DJ Premier and featuring Method Man. Listen to it. It sounds like some long-lost Rawkus twelve-inch where vocalist Fred Durst plays an anonymous Eminem knockoff opposite an in-his-prime Method Man. Check the video if you are dubious as to whether or not these two human beings ever shared the same air.
Now that Limp Bizkit has built up some slight good will in your mind, watch the music for Significant Other’s fourth single, “Break Stuff,” and try to count the cameos. It’s sort of astounding to think about now, but it actually does feature Flea, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Jonathan Davis of Korn, along with the offspring of Tony Hawk and Eminem. Oh, it’s also got Pauly Shore wearing a diaper. But it reveals some truths about the band (as well as the fleeting nature of trends, not to mention Snoop Dogg’s neverending status as the ultimate cultural dilettante). One, they were a synthesis of Korn, Eminem, G-Funk, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with some bad jokes and overtures at skate culture thrown in, but packaged in a way that kids could enjoy it and not get freaked out. Two, by the time “Break Stuff” was released, they could command the requisite respect and power to get all of their influences to appear in a single music video. And if that’s nothing else, that’s pretty damn impressive.
Their ascendence into the upper eschelons of megastardom has a lot to do with “Nookie,” Significant Other’s unstoppable first single, which functions as an encapsulation of the entire album’s formula: bouncy verses puncuated by gutpunch riffs lifted from some forgotten Skid Row song, coupled with Fred Durst’s moronically aggressive lyrics that, when you sit down down them, reveal themselves to be little more than hollow tough talk, pissed-off stopgaps to hold the listener over until the next punishing Wes Borland guitar line.
That interplay between Borland and Durst is worth talking about for a moment. In many ways, it resembles another famous lead singer/guitarist relationship: David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen. See, Borland was of the Buckethead school of guitar playing, in which a good guitarist (a) is able to squeeze as many notes as humanly possible into a guitar line, and (b) hides his face through some sort of contrived costume. With Buckethead, it’s an upturned KFC bucket, and with Borland, it’s make-up that, depending on his mood, would give him the face of a demon, a monkey/human hybrid whose eyes had been blacked out, or often, this weird amalgamation of every single costume worn by a villain in a 90s-era Batman movie. He attacked Significant Other like he was Tom Morello and this was his shot at making The Battle of Los Angeles (while we’re on the subject of the Rage/Limp Bizkit connection, the two bands shared a common producer in Brendan O’Brien). But instead of Zach De La Rocha, Borland had some drunk goofball in a red Yankee cap, and that guy was Fred Durst.
An instigatory, antic-prone megastar, Fred Durst was in many ways his generation’s David Lee Roth—that is, if Roth had the underclass chip-on-shoulder syndrome of Axl Rose. When his lyrics weren’t busy sounding like him literally singing/rapping/sing-rapping the first shit that popped into his head that just so happened to rhyme with his previous thought, Fred Durst liked to explore the theme of, “I am a gigantic loser, but I have made it big, so everybody can kiss my ass. You, the listener, are also a loser, but there are so many of us losers that we are actually all winners.” It’s a seductive message, and it certainly wasn’t hurt by Durst’s ability to derive the same gleeful, adolescent satisfaction with yelling the word “fuck” that he shared with twelve year-olds the world over. Simply put: Durst liked to keep shit dumb, and that proclivity for stupidity helped reel Borland’s experimental tendencies in to satisfactory levels—to the point that Borland had to record a bunch of ambient albums in order to remind people that he had such tendencies at all.
Unlike his contemporaries in Jonathan Davis and Eminem, who delineated their personal turmoils in vivid, often uncomfortable detail, Fred Durst never actually went in on himself. Instead, his lyrics on Significant Other were little more than cursory allusions to being fucked in the head, followed by mild threats of violence to unnamed parties. If he deviated to the topic of sex, such as on “No Sex” (which is actually about having sex), it was never dealt with in any depth, merely Durst AutoTunededly mumble-singing, “Should have left my pants on this time.”
That’s an important distinction between Durst and his peers. The openness of Durst’s lyrics, coupled with Borland’s brutally effective guitar work, allowed for a high degree of accessibility to a younger listener: it’s easy to interpret your Language Arts homework as totally fucking you in the head, and then raging out on some Nintendo 64 as those monstrous riffs bashed you in the sternum, as millions of my generation did.
Those same angry, open-ended lyrics that helped propel Significant Other to go Platinum seven times over ultimately proved to be the Bizkit’s downfall. To many, Durst seemed to have studied the past ten years of transgressive art, picked out all of its signifiers, and then drained those signifiers of any possible pretense of meaning, repackaging it in a way that twelve year-olds would listen to it. At some point, everybody wised up and realized Fred Durst was nothing more than a pit of mindless stupidity, and summarily dismissed him and the band who had hitched their wagon to him.
But on a rhetorical level, there’s more common ground between the angry, adolescent worldview of Fred Durst and Tyler, The Creator’s than most of us might like to admit. Odd Future shows have been heralded for being the first rap shows in years to incite real-life mosh pits in the crowd. That’s something Limp Bizkit were real good at, too. Only time will tell if in thirteen years we all look back on Odd Future and wonder what the fuck we heard in them, because that’s sure as hell a question we’ll never get done asking ourselves about Limp Bizkit.