Was Limp Bizkit Really That Bad?
Why the most hated band ever deserves another listen.
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.
Durst's infelicities on the mic are many. Credit due, he is very good at screaming. (See the arson-minded tantrum he throws toward the end of the fantastic "Full Nelson.") The more rigorous formal demands of rapping, though, force him time and again into contorted, ungainly positions ("Bums are the type of shit that's in a diaper," goes one gem) and onto absurd trains of thought ("Fill 'em with tension, the sick dimension"). He leans hard on cliché and hard on B-boy slang both outdated (he actually calls his "beats" "phat") and nonexistent (when he asks for a "marijuana cig" he sounds like the world's least convincing narc). But Durst's bad rapping turns out to be his strongest asset. An inherently comical handicap, it makes his more stifling emotional handicaps not just palatable but entertaining: Every clunker he drops lends him a disarmingly goofy quality and softens his assault. (If you think it's impossible that you might pray to hear Durst rap, try to suffer through one of the tracks where he sings instead.)
It's hard to chuckle at Durst's riled-up buffoonery when he starts aiming his shtick at the ladies who have (he says) wronged him. On Significant Other's "Don't Go Off Wandering," he berates a girl for "mentally molesting" him. More precisely: She "won't let me inside" and has left him "stuck with my dick in my hand." This is scary stuff—it takes a true creep to turn a case of blue balls into a self-righteous rant. But what do we make of the fact that, four songs later, on "No Sex," Durst bemoans his encounter with a girl who "let me dive right in," whimpering and fretting about their "dirty sex" like an abstinence coach after a one-night stand? If a girl doesn't give it up, Durst whines. If she does, he whines some more. These songs aren't good—they're too tedious and too gross for that—but it's interesting how they deflate each other. Regardless of Durst's own lack of self-awareness here, a kind of critique still bubbles up between the lines, making manifest exactly how insupportable and hypocritical his scorn is.
Something similar happens on the band's best and, not coincidentally, most ridiculous song, "Nookie." This 1999 single is bipolar. The verses are all wound-licking self-pity, as Durst admits that the girl really broke his heart; on the chorus, he gets macho, insisting that he was only ever in it for the booty calls. Neither perspective is particularly sympathetic, but each gives the lie to the other. Durst's attempts at sensitive-guy introspection hit a brick wall of ego, while his bullish facade cracks and crumbles to reveal the insecurity behind it. That's Limp Bizkit in a nutshell: music about goons alive enough to themselves to acknowledge their feelings, but paralytically dumb when it comes to figuring out what to do about them. It's mook tragicomedy.
It takes none of this ironic distancing to appreciate guitarist Wes Borland. The band's secret weapon, he's great at switching between slabby, crushing riffs and smaller, off-kilter piecework with roots in funk guitar and the hip-hop DJs who like to sample it. The contrast between Borland's two modes gives our ears something to play with and propels the group's best songs. (In large thanks to him, Durst's face-punching comes off like a galvanizing, revolutionary activity on "Full Nelson.") When Borland left the band in 2003 to pursue loonier, artier projects, Bizkit put out its worst record, Results May Vary. It's all whine and bludgeon, Durst's worst impulses left unchecked.
Durst says he broke up the group after realizing that toughs had made his music a soundtrack for bullying wimps. "I got beat up all the time in high school," he explained in a March interview. "I was like, 'You know, that's me they're beating up, and my music is fueling them.' " This is somewhat disingenuous: The last straw for Limp Bizkit, it would seem, didn't come when bullies started buying the group's CDs in hordes but when they stopped. Still, we can cede the point that Limp Bizkit's most visible and violent fans were probably the worst thing about the band. It makes you wonder who will show up to the reunion concerts. Twenty-six-year-olds communing with their high-school-age selves? Hard rockers flummoxed by the rise of emo? The band has become an anachronism, a onetime culture-mover turned undead millennial curiosity. That shift won't do much for its coffers, but it does wonders for its music.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Limp Bizkit by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.