The New 'Selling Out'

Few artists can weather a career like Kiss has. Sure, artistically, they haven’t created much to speak of once the ’80s arrived. Yet the band created a legacy for themselves, accompanied with merchandise and memorabilia. Perhaps the only reason why it’s worked so long is because Gene Simmons can still scare the hell out of your parents when he puts effort into it. Perhaps it was the Kiss Koffins that put them over the top, so blatantly materialistic that the prejudice had to be set aside out of respect for the products at hand. Honestly, coffins… that’s metal. But it’s likely that no other band could get away with this much crass commercialism for this long.

Cradle of Filth has lost its fair share of fans after frontman Dani Filth adopted a ridiculously juvenile pretty-boy fright look rather than his initial scary warmonger of death who didn’t seem to be quite so flagrantly wooing the female audience. But by softening from hellcreature to Hot-Topic-Tastic, CoF gained enough fans to make up the difference. Perhaps the band doesn’t care that this new breed isn’t as “true” as the old crowd. It’s making money, right? They’re buying the albums, right?

Such lies that fine line between artistic integrity and making a living. How much has Cradle of Filth compromised itself musically with this change in Dani’s look? Unless you go back to the very first albums where the band couldn’t afford the production and instruments they have today, it’s not a cavernous gap. In essence, Dani changed his look for the sole purpose of promoting the music they have always created. Is this “selling out” or is it corrective marketing? After all, Dani has the looks to reign in the spooky chicks. Why not capitalize when the music remains mostly unaffected?

Back in the early to mid ’90s, there was a wave of changes in appearance: members of heavy bands everywhere, from Soundgarden to Metallica, were cutting their hair. Did everyone suddenly decide to do this because they “just got sick of it” or was it following a trend? After all, nobody wants to look antiquated or be left behind when the world moves forward, right? But as time has shown, the change in look was only the beginning for so many bands when “evolving” became “changing to keep the money rolling in.” One listen to Load says volumes. The difference between Badmotorfinger and Superunknown almost compels the listener to believe that this is an entirely different band. Hey, the dissonance and off-kilter time signatures just weren’t cutting it. The plaid and the dirty locks were an aesthetic tossed aside, yet it seems their entire sound went out along with it.

Fast-forward now to the songs playing on hard rock radio. Yes, there will always be the bands that nobody takes seriously because they have always clearly written and played strictly for cash: Nickelback, Hoobastank, Hinder, and any other band who can’t help but pepper their albums with horribly-written power ballads. There’s no mistaking them, and that’s a good thing. They’re very open about their intentions, and the folks who buy the albums understand it’s not art that they’re buying, but merely a catchy hook that makes them bounce and smile a bit. That’s a niche that will always need to be filled, and the world should be happy that these agents of blandness keep the casual music listener from needing more prodigious musicians to dumb themselves down so that they industry can keep breathing.

Yet it must be difficult as an artist with integrity to stand atop their hill of talent, looking up at the mountains of cash upon which lesser musicians sit. It has to be tempting. And even more so if these artists once managed that rare feat of holding on to their convictions as the masses voiced their appreciation. Nobody likes to fall from the top. They may still have their integrity, but integrity doesn’t pay the rent.

Of course, things are never quite that clear-cut in the real world, and this is where we join our current sell-out subjects to watch: Staind and Korn. The former may have not had a lot of respect since singing a duet with Fred Durst and the latter may have lost a lot of respect because of introducing the world to… well, Fred Durst. Still, their careers were built on a foundation of music written with conviction. Over the years, it’s most certainly fallen into dreck on both sides. There are only two options left for these bands: to dig deep within and reignite the spirit and talent inside, or to suck every last dollar out of the audience that remains as they continue to fade and age.

Staind initially caught fire with Dysfunction in 1999, placing their foothold as one of the bands who would help to elevate the “nu-metal” movement, for better or for worse. Along with Godsmack, Static-X, and a few others, Staind shaped a powerful new genre of hard rock after years of grunge being forced and recycled to the point that America had gleefully jumped to pop idols for a change of pace. The anger was back, and this time, it wasn’t staring at its shoes and burying itself in nondescript flannel.

Yet, something happened between the success of Dysfunction and the recording of Break the Cycle just two years later. Was it label pressure for a big hit? Was it a taste of fame with desire for more? Or was it true passion and pain that created “It’s Been Awhile” and “Outside”, two hopelessly angst-ridden, self-pitying songs that captured the airwaves so strongly that surely the band itself never wanted to hear those two songs again. Whatever the intent, any explanation became rather wishy-washy after Aaron Lewis sang “Outside” aside Limp Bizkit’s angry white whining rapper, Fred Durst. Surely, at that point in time on a stage open and wide, these two men were not duetting because they were both felt so very ugly on the inside.

And so the years continued with two more albums, 14 Shades of Grey and Chapter V, neither of which held much artistic merit and both struggling to recapture their previous success with the same types of wrist-slashing power ballads. Alas, it simply did not happen. Staind retained a fair amount of their fanbase, but the media distinctly fell out of love with the band.

So what is Staind to do? They tried recreating the magical formula that brought them to the top and it failed. Would they be able to reinvent themselves? Would an increased diligence working on their lyrics and compositions bring them back into critical favor? Alas, we will never know, because Staind opted for none of the above: they released a best-of disc, tacking a few acoustic versions and covers on to the end.

Now, one might say that there’s nothing wrong with a greatest hits package; one may even state that the inclusion of additional acoustic numbers raises its viability. While this is often quite true, this is in no way indicative of Staind’s effort. The devil is in the details, and this time, it’s speaking loud and clear about cash in the pocket. Simply put, Aaron Lewis doesn’t even know the lyrics to the songs they covered. They included songs that they apparently appreciated so much that they had to record their own versions, yet they couldn’t be bothered to learn the words.

It’s downright cringeworthy to those who are fans of the originals. Anyone who was a Pink Floyd fan for five minutes undoubtedly sang along faithfully with “Comfortably Numb”. “The child is gone, the dream is lost”? What in the hell is that? And then there’s Tool’s “Sober”. Yes, the lyrics to the original are barely discernible and quite cryptic, but that doesn’t mean one should simply make up what they think Maynard Keenan was saying. “Jesus, won’t you f*cking whistle?” has become, thank you Mr. Lewis, “Jesus was a f*cking whistler”. And let’s not get started on “mother mary”. Add to this the repeated instances of Lewis straying ridiculously off-key, and one wonders if Staind took even four minutes to think about the hole they had just dug for their integrity.

The band is now “taking a break”. For their sake, it had better be long enough for everyone to forget about these awful covers. Unfortunately, that might have to be long enough for everyone to forget about “Outside” and “It’s Been Awhile”, too.

Languishing in the meantime is Korn. Crashing onto the scene in 1994, nothing on the market was remotely like them. True innovators of what would evolve into a full blown rap-metal genre, their eponymous debut broke the barriers between the pure anger of metal and the heartwrenching pain of grunge. The barking scat style of Jonathan Davis combined with slap-bass and a fuzzy crunch was refreshing and invigorating. Add the element of humor from time to time, and what remained was an original piece of work.

Life is Peachy, the band’s second effort in 1996, wasn’t so much of a step forward. At times, it seemed like they tried to re-write the first album while exaggerating the components that they (or the record company) felt was giving them the success they were achieving. A retooling gave birth to 1998’s Follow the Leader, an album that propelled the band to the top of MTV with innovative videos and an increased emphasis on their tough side. And while its follow-up Issues in 1999 had a couple of successes as well, it was generally regarded as another step back for the band. Downtime before recording Untouchables in 2002, as well as the abysmal Take a Look in the Mirror in 2003, cemented that downward direction. The band’s songwriting rebounded a bit with 2005’s See You on the Other Side, but after years of sub-mediocrity, their audience had dwindled.

Welcome to 2007, the year where Korn reaches down inside and dusts off that which made them a sensation in the mid-90s. Right? Well, either that, or they’ll just release an Unplugged album. What? You say the release date is March 6th? Oh, hooray. Next you’ll tell me that they included a superficial media darling for increased exposure and an old-school respected artist to add legitimacy.

Enter “Freak on a Leash”, the acoustic/piano version, a duet with Jonathan Davis and Amy Lee. Two points of interest immediately capture the listener: this isn’t meant to be a pretty song, nor was it meant to be acoustic. While there are some interesting harmony counterpoints provided by Lee including an odd tribal break that sounds completely out of place, this doesn’t change the fact that the woman is singing the lyrics, “a cheap f*ck for me to lay.” Lyrically, the song is about feeling out of place and trapped; originally accompanied by frenetic composition that embodied escape, the acoustic version might as well be called “Freak on a Noose”.

Their version of “In Between Days” with The Cure’s Robert Smith has yet to be released to the airwaves. For the safety of the band, it’s probably better left that way.

So, why is Korn releasing this Unplugged album? It’s been just over a year since their last studio album, and that album was well-received. Concentrating on continuing with that revitalization should be their first priority. It’s possible Korn was thinking in terms of the Nirvana and Alice in Chains Unplugged recordings in that this might legitimize them in some way. And while Korn has in common the pain and suffering elements of those two bands, nobody in the band is an admitted junkie. Korn hasn’t released anything prior to this Unplugged outing that puts them in the top 500 albums ever made. Korn forgets that Poison also recorded an Unplugged show. And so did Slaughter. And so did Enuff Z’Nuff. The band is lucky that legions of Evanescence fans will help sell their record, but going for the quick dollar now only makes it that much harder to make an honest legacy later.

Or one could see this all from another perspective. Staind and Korn might simply be changing clothes or getting haircuts. Perhaps it’s just a Dani Filth cosmetic change, playing some songs slowly to acquire a new audience that will later enjoy the legitimate music they create with their next release. Yet, for some strange reason, all I can think is that only an idiot would buy Load like that.