As Korn's Jonathan Davis turns 51, the anger and despair of his youth still rings true today
Jonathan Davis, lead singer of the band Korn, turned 51 on January 18, 2022. I made a few social media posts recognizing his birthday and it got me thinking about the first time I heard this new band from Bakersfield, California.
It was the Spring of 1994 and I was an intern in the Music Promotions Department at Epic Records in New York City. I was 20 or 21-years-old (depending on the month, I can't fully remember) at the time and I was on the fast track, or so I thought, to a career in the music industry.
One day, while handwriting some silly text on hundreds of mailers (for G. Love & Special Sauce I think), I was given about a dozen or so CDs to take home with me. Not that anyone gave a shit about what I thought, these bands were already signed and these albums were yet to be released promo copies of new bands that Epic and their subsidiaries were about to push, but it was cool to be given them anyway. I lugged all the discs onto the bus back to Brooklyn wondering what amazing finds I was going to make once I got home.
I couldn't tell you exactly when I got to the Korn CD while rifling through my haul from earlier in the day, but whenever it was, everything I'd heard prior was erased from my memory and I didn't listen to anything afterward. From the menacing, almost horror film-esque album cover, to the thunderous, groove-laden riff machine songs blasting from my speakers, I was in the middle of a sonic baptism. Praise the darkness, I was reborn.
Korn's self-titled debut album cover
If you weren't around when Korn burst onto the scene, but are fans of their music and the genre called "Nu Metal" they're typically credited with starting, then you may be wondering why my reaction to hearing them for the very first time was so mind-blowing. To you, the music is probably very common in your world, filled with many different bands playing that style. What you need to take into account though is that this was 1994 and the world was swimming in a sea of Grunge, led by Nirvana from just a few years earlier. Korn came out of nowhere and punched you square in the throat.
I was a metal kid at heart, transformed into a punk and grunge-loving fan by 1991. So in 1994, throw in some Public Enemy and Beastie Boys for good measure, and that's all I was listening to. So with Korn's debut album and its metal sound, hardcore energy, hip-hop undertones, and lyrical themes about bullying, child molestation, drug abuse, and violence, I wasn't sure what I was listening to but I knew that I loved it. It was dark and haunting like what was coming out of Seattle, especially from a band like Alice In Chains. It also dared to discuss personal and emotional themes no one was willing to talk about like what we heard from Pearl Jam, but the angst, energy, and sheer desperation in Korn's music and Davis' vocals was something no one was hearing at the time.
We had bands like Tool, Ministry, Rage Against The Machine, and a handful of others at that time but to my ears, and possibly my inner demons, Korn offered up something a bit different. Discussions like this are more on the psychological side of why we like music, what it does to us, and the way we relate to certain sounds and genres. But in 1994, sitting in my bedroom in my mom's house in Brooklyn, all I knew was that this awoke something inside of me. It made me feel something, and isn't that what art and music are supposed to do?
From the moment Davis growls "Are you ready" at the start of "Blind", the first track on the album, straight through his emotional, crying breakdown of the album's closer "Daddy" (a song about Davis' experience being sexually abused as a child), this album took me on a powerful, scary, emotional journey.
The incoherent screaming, ramblings of "Ball Tongue" had to be influenced by Mike Patton's work in Mr. Bungle, and to a lesser degree, Faith No More. "Faget" is a jarring, beast of a track dealing with Davis' high school experience of being bullied because he wore makeup and didn't dress like anyone else at school. He was called all sorts of homophobic slurs.
"There's a big rumor about me being a homosexual. Does it really matter? I have lots of gay friends. It shouldn't matter. I was in the New Romantic scene [in high school] with Duran Duran [as his favorite band], wearing makeup. I got called a fag by the jocks. Couldn't walk through the halls without hearing that or being picked on." - Jonathan Davis in The Los Angeles Times, (Mike Boehm, August 25, 1998).
I followed Korn very closely through their third album, 1998's Follow The Leader, but not so much since. I'm sure that has a lot to do with evolving musical tastes, where and who I was at that point in my life, and the desire to hold onto what I had fallen in love with earlier in the decade. I know most artists do the same with their work and want the audience to grow and change with them. Music is strange though, it can become a moment in time that you get stuck in. You don't necessarily mind it though because we all like being comfortable and safe in what we know. Looking back, it's not the best way to explore art. It has its place I guess, but in my experience, it's not how most music fans behave.
Jonathan Davis continues to grow and challenge his audience as the frontman of Korn. Their next album, Requiem, (their 14th) is scheduled for a February 4th, 2022 release via Loma Vista Recordings. In addition to making music with Korn, Davis has a solo career, he's an EDM DJ (JDevil), and has acted in several film projects.