So let’s say you’re fourteen, bullied in school, have a relatively easy home life, don’t have much need to work yet, and your biggest worries include how to get that one girl to notice you in class, how to get a passing grade in the gym class you keep skipping, and how you’re going to afford the next Call of Duty game when it comes out. You’re probably a nerd, and if the year is 2003, then you’re a nerd that might be listening to nu metal as a form of adolescent rebellion.
That’s fine, because you’re only fourteen. Fourteen-year-olds have no use for taste. But Korn’s lyrics appeal to you. They hit all the major themes of your short, confused, hormone-addled life: powerlessness, self-loathing, petulant disdain for authority, and castrated dreams of glamor. Blasting the bass-heavy sludge of indistinguishable noise through your earphones complements the headache-inducing grind of diesel engine and loose wheel bearings during your daily bus commute to and from school. The angst, the rage, and the just-missed-it attempts at rhyming couplets form an insulated barrier between you and the apathetic greyish scholastic world of school-yard drudgery ahead of you.
And their music videos, too. There was a soulless corporatism about it all that you could pick up even as a long-haired, sweaty teenager, but the band seemed at least to be having fun. Maybe it was just the cocaine in their systems, or the fact that they drove cars more expensive than the single-wide you grew up in, but their personas, their fashion, and the eclectic patterns in their songs and lyrics—what would have been exalted as experimental fifty years ago—resonated with the adolescent destrata that fascinated your youth. It was as if they were sympathetic to your notion that the world wasn’t supposed to be the way that it turned out to be. And that you could make it big as a rock star without actually needing much musical talent or even look like you know what you’re doing.
Fast forward ten years. Maybe you’ve gained some taste and listen to real music, but more likely you’ve just graduated from the nu metal of the ‘00s to the extreme metal of the early ‘10s. Korn sucks, as it always has, and you’ve done your best to forget all the stuff you did in high school and all that crappy music you used to listen to. The only tolerable sort of lyrics now, you figure, are the ones that you can’t hear and wouldn’t understand anyway.
But you’re about to graduate from college, and it’s about 2013, and what’s this thing that the cute girl in your Contemporary American Fiction class is handing out tickets for people to come see her perform talking about? A poetry reading. At a bar. Can’t be all bad.
So you check it out. The crowd looks like hipsters not all that dissimilar from yourself. The beer isn’t free, but it isn’t terrible, either. And that cute girl, a year still from graduation, has just taken the stage wearing a black wig, a very tight-fitting turtleneck, and some sort yoga pants.
Now I see the times they change
Leaving doesn’t seems so strange
I am hoping I can find
Where to leave my hurt behind
All this shit I seem to take
All alone I seem to break
I have lived the best I can
Does this make me not a man?
Just kidding. Those are Korn lyrics. You can tell because they rhyme.
I’m not your princess.
I’m not some vestigial object born into captivity
For you to flatter yourself with your manly odes
And tirades, to show me off to your friends
While you get off on my looks and spend
Evenings cooking your food all for your sake.
I’m not some pretty slave to lock up like a doll
While you philander and “work at the office”
(We all know what that means) so you can come home
To a house I’ve cleaned that I call a cage,
Go fuck yourself if you think that sounds okay.
I’m not your wife, or your servant-girl, and
Yes, I’m a slut, because I’m okay with my body
Even when I don’t want you looking at it,
Even when you tell me I’m fat, or pretty, or
“I look cute when I smile,” as if that means anything
Coming from you.
What the hell is this, you wonder. This isn’t fun. And it’s not really engaging. And it has nothing to do with you—after all, you’ve only complimented a girl on her looks once, and that was on prom night, several years ago, when your date mentioned that she didn’t feel comfortable in her dress, and you simply consoled her and mentioned that she looked great. You don’t remember if she actually looked great, but that’s beside the point. This is ridiculous, worse than you had expected, and it continues on for another five minutes.
As she leaves the stage, oblivious that you had even attended and listened to whatever she was talking about, you’re left wondering what about that performance categorized it as poetry. Granted, you aren’t an expert on poetry, but you had to study a bit of Eliot and Keats in your college English courses—some of it stuck. Nothing about this performance resonated with you because you haven’t yet learned how to legitimately hate yourself for being male. Very little of it rhymed, felt structured, or even implied that any thought or energy went into it at all. It reminds you, in fact, of the self-indulgently depraved lyrics of your youth, except lacking the sort of sincerity that you found in them as a teenager, and lacking also the double-edged irony of the success story that waited behind them. Instead, replacing all of that, is the radiation of an ego that has doubled-down on its own sense of self-importance, but without the expensive cars, attractive women, or mansions that went along with the rock stars. It was just a cute girl telling you how much she hated you, before she’d even met you. This, in turn, made you wonder why you came at all.
As you walk back to your dorm, you reflect on how crummy the lyrics of your youth actually were, and how somehow, the state of academically jeered pop-poetry has fallen beneath even those. And you wonder at the state of lyrics today. And then you wonder about the future of poetry, or if there is one at all. And you wonder too about the audience there who applauded and whistled in approval, and whether any of them really had any fun there, and whether anyone is allowed to have fun, and whether that sort of fun found in these sorts of circles is actually just a charade, and that no one is having fun, because they’re all too busy virtue signaling the disgust they’re told they’re supposed to exhibit. And then you get back to your dorm and listen to Korn for a little while, but it sucks, so you go to sleep instead.