‘Significant Other’ At 25: The Long Shadow Of Limp Bizkit’s Breakthrough

Time has been extremely kind to this nu metal ‘classic’ and its creators…

As the old adage goes: ‘tragedy plus time equals comedy’. This maxim once seemed relatively straightforward, however, in our fractured, ever-changing present it has taken on increasingly elaborate shapes. A strange and complex sense of humour permeates the internet-driven cultural landscape; where slabs of irony are stacked upon one another with such force that the causality of each layer twists back on itself in often convoluted fashion. 

One of the most fascinating by-products of this current state of meta-ironic weirdness has been a reassessment of the nu metal genre. If any gen z’s are reading; it’s hard to stress just how reviled the genre once was. For every frosted-tipped and jort-wearing young acolyte, there was a vociferously-vocal rock or metal fan, musician or journalist that detested its rapping, scratching, knuckleheaded riffs, nihilistic lyrics and hip-hop-inspired fashions. Trent Reznor called it “comical, a parody of itself”, while Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine said he’d “rather have his eyelids pulled out” than listen to it. 

The ever-iconoclastic Billy Corgan was one of nu metal’s few contemporary defenders, calling it “fantastic” and prophetically claiming that “it not only has musical implications but cultural ones as well”. By accident or genius; time has proved Corgan right. While many wrote the genre off as an annoying fad, the experimentation pioneered by Linkin Park and their electronic adornments and Deftones and their dense seven-string grooves helped create the template for modern mainstream metal. The biggest acts in the scene today such as Spiritbox, Poppy and Bring Me The Horizon all play a brand of downtuned, genre-fluid heaviness that nu metal helped create a space for within the popular musical consciousness.

Beyond the musical lineage, more than a hint of the enduring fascination with the genre can also be heavily ascribed to the internet’s warped sense of humour. Nu metal’s undeniable silliness and Y2K datedness (not to mention its more toxic traits) are, today, as ridiculed as they are celebrated, often simultaneously, through a fabulously complicated and often hilarious combination of appreciation and opprobrium. Nu metal and meme culture have made for great bedfellows, as a ton of killer meme accounts prove. 

Nowhere is this nascent love/hate relationship with the genre better captured than Limp Bizkit’s 1999 album ‘Significant Other’. There’s a general consensus that not only is it the band’s definitive album (all of their other full-lengths are basically complete disasters) but it’s one of the essential albums in the nu metal canon, along with ‘Around The Fur’ by Deftones (perhaps the only act to truly transcend the genre), Linkin Park’s ‘Hybrid Theory’ and any of Korn’s and Slipknot’s first three albums. 

‘Significant Other’ is the record that captures nu metal at its most thrillingly garish. It’s a brash and aggressive rap metal collection, as indebted to the murky low-end riffs of Korn (who themselves cribbed from alt metallers like Helmet and Prong) as it is the eerie, agitated rap of Cypress Hill and Method Man, who guests on ‘N 2 Gether Now’. At 16 tracks long, it’s structurally all over the place and full of odd musical detours that perforate the album’s fabric like histrionic outbursts. Thos relentlessly mercurial shape and coarse texture does little to dispel the cliche that nu metal was made for similarly angry, inarticulate teenagers.

However, mirroring the aforementioned affection for the album within contemporary rock and metal culture, this description is meant as both a criticism and a compliment. The album’s petulant energy is often giddily intoxicating as a visceral, blood-pumping experience. Listening to its repetitive riffs, sometimes unpleasant lyrics and undemanding beats, you know that you should know better, but these 16 tracks successfully beat you around the head with an energy that’s as illicit and thrilling as a forbidden cigarette to an ex-smoker.

On ‘Significant Other’, the young Limp Bizkit and their gobshite frontman and figurehead Fred Durst, initially seem to know their limitations. The first words spoken on the album are “you wanted the worst/you got the worst”. This promises a display of self-awareness, a perspective the album then immediately abandons. The rest of the album features Durst’s painfully un-ironic lyrics that tilt along a cursed axis of nihilistic anger, macho posturing and faux-profundity. The former is the least problematic (the ugly, misogynistic vibe of the lyrics and wider nu metal culture has been well documented elsewhere) and throws up terrible gems such as ‘Don’t Go Off Wandering’s “maybe there’s more to life than it seems/I’m constantly running from reality chasing dreams”.

To give Durst some props, he’s not a terrible rapper. His nasally, high-pitched intonation can be irritating, however his grasp of internal rhyme is frequently strong. Isolated bars such as “no use in dreading what they call Armageddon” (‘9 Teen 90 Nine’) and “feelin’ like a freight train/first one to complain leaves with a blood stain” (‘Break Stuff’) are fun, kinetic wordplay and echo the musical pop and bounce that the best tracks (‘Break Stuff’, ‘Just Like This’ and ‘I’m Broke’) possess.

In terms of its overall shape and flow, ‘Significant Other’ is a lumbering and unwieldy ride. The previously-mentioned tracks are sharp, to the point highlights that operate according to intuitive momentum. Others, however, eschew tight, kinetic structuring in favour of odd digressions, such as ‘Trust?’ which starts promising but gets bogged down by a sluggish middle and unnecessary sample-filled outro. Other variations make for interesting, if unpolished listening. There’s the Incubus-meets-Tool funk rock of ‘Re-Arranged’, a straight hip-hop track in ‘N 2 Gether Now’, the moody, dull trip-hop of ‘A Lesson Learned’ (a strangely sedate choice for the album’s climax) as well as several patchy variations on the loud intro/quiet verse/louder chorus structure (‘Nobody Like You’, ‘Show Me What You Got’). 

Regardless of the album’s clunky genre combinations and creakily structured tracks, history has been unexpectedly kind to Limp Bizkit and their definitive text. More so than the band deserves, some will argue. Durst’s behaviour at the band’s peak was often indefensible: using homophobic slurs, being seriously weird about his (possible) relationship with Britney Spears and, perhaps most infamously; his actions at Big Day Out in 2001, when a fan died during the band’s set and the coroners report accused Durst of making “alarming and inflammatory” comments during the rescue efforts.

It’s remarkable then that Durst, whose crude, rude personality courses through the testosterone-addled veins of ‘Significant Other’, has managed to gradually shift both his and his band’s aesthetic image towards one that’s markedly more endearing. The affection shown to Limp Bizkit today, who just this month, drew one of the largest crowds at Download Festival and still play festivals and arena shows across the world, appears to be increasingly of the metamodern variety. That’s to say; a tongue-in-cheek embrace of the band’s postmodern nihilism combined with a modernist-style sincere appreciation for the fun, riff-heavy heavy metal form.  

To clarify the term ‘metamodern’: whereas its predecessor postmodernism was an aesthetic and worldview defined by artistic deconstruction and questioning of grand societal narratives, metamodernism accepts this judgement that society and human identity are irreparably fractured, but optimistically also draws on the earlier modernist perspective that objective truth and meaning are still attainable human goals. It’s a cultural and intellectual outlook that’s arisen as a means of seeking connection in a broken world dominated by seemingly-infinite narratives. This video essay brilliantly explains the concept through the medium of metamodern films such as Everything Everywhere All At Once and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. 

As proven by his adoption of several self-aware and shockingly likeable personas, Durst has developed an artistic antenna that’s unexpectedly fine-tuned to the metamodern and post-ironic; two terms that are effectively interchangeable. As seen in this footage from that recent Download set, he’s literally shed the red cap and goatee image that he was so infamously associated with (it’s his avatar that graces the cover of ‘Significant Other’) in favour of a baseball jersey, grey santa beard and bucket hat that seem to transform him into someone else; a costume not unlike Limp Bizkit’s more theatrical, body paint-adorned guitarist Wes Borland.

The definitive evidence of Durst’s unexpected tilt towards the metamodern, however, is his ‘dad vibes’ character. ‘Dad Vibes’ was the first track released from the band’s underwhelming 2021 comeback album ‘Still Sucks’ (that title being another piece of the band’s nascent self-aware jigsaw) and, to accompany it, a noticeably chill and more cheeky rather than provocative Durst played a series of high-profile shows as his ‘dad’ persona. The above Lollapalooza set from 2021 finds him in fine form, uttering funny quips and attempting to make a break from his and the band’s toxic past. Atop the warning siren-like opening riff to ‘Break Stuff’, Durst explains to the crowd; “this isn’t Woodstock ‘99, fuck all that bullshit, we’re here to party like it is 1999”.

This quote is fundamental to understanding how both fans and band alike are now able to separate Limp Bizkit from their infamous history. Durst is acknowledging the mistakes of history that he and his band are so indelibly bound up in, (subtly) showing that he’s developed as a human and is attempting to wrap a new narrative around his artistic output. He and the band’s fans are shedding the toxicity associated with the music’s cultural memory and exposing the fun, energetic and mosh-friendly core that exists at the heart of the best Limp Bizkit songs. This is a metamodern attitude change: using layers of ironic removal to find sincere, affectionate meaning within something that once viewed the world as meaningless.

Enough time has passed and our culture has developed in such complex fashion that we are able to use a more nuanced and simply kinder lens when judging dated cultural forms such as Limp Bizkit. ‘Significant Other’ is their anti-masterpiece; a messy, violent work that tilts precariously between irresponsible fun and ugly shapelessness. However, both the band and their fans have found a way to shore down the problematic edges, finding a beating heart within a text that was once seen as the apotheosis of soulless postmodern culture. It’s a quietly encouraging thought; that our culture is developing the tools to focus more on that which provides us with purpose and meaning, rather than art that deconstructs and fractures our understanding of human existence.

Words: Tom Morgan

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