Testing the limits of '90s nostalgia and the adage that time forgives all sins, Limp Bizkit has announced that it will be reuniting this summer. The last time we heard from the Jacksonville, Fla., fivesome, it boasted the lowest approval rating in pop. The readers of Guitar World named it the worst band of 2003. Writer Joshua Clover, reviewing a 2005 hits collection in Blender, went further, calling Bizkit "the worst rock band of the '90s." A 2005 comeback attempt, The Unquestionable Truth (Part 1), sold a meager 93,000 copies as onetime fans jumped ship in droves. (In 2000, the band had moved more than 1 million CDs in a week.) Part 2 never came. Or maybe it did. Who'd have noticed?
So when word circulated that Limp Bizkit was getting out its red baseball caps and turntables from storage, a groan went up among the culturati. A self-important official statement from the band did little to deflect scorn: "We decided we were more disgusted and bored with the state of heavy popular music than we were with each other. … [T]his is why Limp Bizkit is back."
Was Limp Bizkit really that bad? The short answer is, as frontman Fred Durst might put it, "Fuck, yeah." Their squealing, thudding metal, when combined with Durst's clumsy B-boy rhymes, is probably the biggest reason rap-rock is a dirty word. Beyond sonics, liking Limp Bizkit can seem like an ethical failure: Durst's lyrics frequently affirm a noxious value system in which a seething hatred of The Man coexists with a seething hatred of women. Durst has named Kurt Cobain among his heroes, but his most notorious accomplishment with Limp Bizkit was to have taken from Cobain his misfit alienation and mapped it onto the fuming, fist-pumping, frat-bruiser psyche.
And yet, despite this, when I recently listened to the band's biggest-selling albums, 1999's Significant Other and 2000's Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, I experienced an unexpected sensation: pleasure. Ten years after the band's disastrous Woodstock '99 performance—the one that made them synonymous in the popular imagination with the brutes in the audience who brawled, torched, and (according to a chilling eyewitness report) gang-raped while the band played—it's harder to hear in Limp Bizkit's churning bars either the vital threat or the cause for despair they once seemed to contain. What's revealed is a band at once more stupid, more fun, and more interesting than history has given it credit for.
Heard today, Fred Durst is best appreciated as a complex comedic creation: An oblivious, incompetent, impotent, sad, tantrum-throwing, ultimately hilarious man-child, a guy who wears a backward cap to hide his bald spot and—get this—raps! Eternally aggrieved and eternally spiteful, Durst threatens to punch someone in the face, it seems, every other song—the knuckle sandwich is his emotional lingua franca. Sometimes his antagonists' transgressions are left vague: "Hot Dog" is a 360-degree bile spray ("Fucked-up moms and fucked-up dads,/ a fucked-up cop with a fucked-up badge …"). Other times, Durst details his grievances in all their laughable banality: "I'm Broke" is an agonized, virulent screed … about cheapskates who borrow money and don't repay it. "Don't make me have to call a sniper," Durst threatens one debtor. It's an absurd, adolescent taunt that makes me chuckle every time I hear it—and I can't imagine Durst doesn't chuckle a bit at it, too.
It's overly generous to argue that Durst is in on the joke, exactly; when he threatens to wield a chainsaw against trash-talkers on "Break Stuff," or names a song "Break Stuff" in the first place, he probably doesn't intend to exaggerate white-male angst till it becomes satire. But in his quest to attract as many young, surly suburban fans as he can, Durst clearly enjoys hamming up his role to the point of grotesquerie—and that might amount to the same thing.