A Voice in the Wasteland: Korn’s “Requiem”

February 9, 2022

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The music of Korn first entered my life when I was in seventh grade. At the time, my friends and I were loyal fans of Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G, and other rappers. However, I was hooked when I heard Korn’s heavy and strange style mixed with bagpipes. Considered the fathers of “nu metal,” Korn went beyond the grunge sound of the early nineties and brought about a new era, inspiring several other significant bands and a new movement in the music scene. In the early stages of my fandom, their songs were mostly just an appeal to a young boy’s desire to be loud and wild. My friends and I would play the music on a thundering boombox while shooting each other with paintball guns or jumping ramps on our bikes. My love of the band grew even stronger in high school. My first car even sported a Korn bumper sticker on the back window, and at sixteen years old, they were the first band I ever saw play live—a Halloween concert in Dallas where Korn was co-headlining with Disturbed, another favorite band of ours. My friend and I went straight to the pit and held on to the front wall, where the only thing between the band and us were the security guards. I was about six feet away from Korn’s guitarist, James “Munky” Shaffer, as he performed his craft like a master. 

The last place we would look for meaning was in a place where no one understood our profound brokenness or even attempted to listen to our stories.

While my appreciation of the band started from a place of sheer noise, eventually, their music became my refuge. After several events within one year of high school—a sickness that nearly killed me, the sudden death of my best friend’s mother, a serious knee injury, and numerous other life-altering moments—I hit a wall and found myself in severe depression. Nothing seemed to make sense, and I wasn’t the kind of guy that wanted to share what he was going through. Korn, however, seemed to understand. They gave voice to my generation—young people lost in a wilderness akin to T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland,” where we sought to belong to a world of meaning and wholeness and were instead forced to make do with the seeming fragments of truth lying around here and there. I came of age in a generation surrounded by divorce, abuse, fatherlessness, and a complete loss of meaning. A generation who knew South Park before we ever encountered Mark Twain or The Hardy Boys. A generation exposed to hardcore pornography before we held hands with the opposite sex. A young people completely severed from the community and wisdom of the previous generations. A generation where most “churchy” things aimed to get kids like my friends and me to sit down and shut up or listen to the corny music made for Christians in the ’90s. Add to that the inability of most young people to even begin intimating how they actually feel about all the chaos around them. We didn’t know that these experiences weren’t normal in the grand scheme of human existence. The last place we would look for meaning was in a place where no one understood our profound brokenness or even attempted to listen to our stories; but in a Dante-like cry before the descent into hell, Korn’s albums were willing to express what it was like living in a world of pain, heartache, and confusion. As the song “Blind” states: “Deeper and deeper and deeper / As I journey to live a life that seems to be a lost reality.” 

Each song Korn produces is intertwined with a sense of longing. The lyrics, mixed with the dark chords, always convey a Job-like calling out to the world, begging for a sense of purpose. Their self-titled first album includes themes about bullying, child abuse, father wounds, and loneliness. It contains one of the most heartbreaking songs in the band’s history, “Daddy,” in which lead singer Jonathan Davis sings about being molested as a child and being written off when trying to tell his parents what was happening. The song ends with the haunting sound of Davis crying as the music fades. I think also of the lyrics to “Got the Life” from their 1998 album Follow the Leader, which criticizes those moments when people ignore others’ numbness and try to convince them that they’re fine: 

Each day I can feel it swallow,

Inside something they took from me

I don’t feel your deathly ways

Each day I feel so hollow,

Inside I was beating me

You will never see,

So come dance with me.

Even death does not inspire a reaction. This is the language of a generation that does not know what to do with itself. However, Korn’s songs are also mixed with a sense of fun, and a “We’re in this together” attitude that adds a sense of hope in the darkness. 

In light of how much Korn has meant to me over the years, I was beyond excited to hear about the release of their new album, intriguingly titled Requiem. They announced on January 31  that the first venue on their album-led world tour is the United Methodist Church in Hollywood, where they held what they referred to as a kind of Requiem “mass” to gather “in honor of the souls that have passed during these unprecedented times.” Though the rest of the tour is scheduled in secular venues, the fact that the opening event is in a church remembering the dead or “lost souls” with the tagline “It’s time to Start the Healing” and “Join us in the Grandeur” (based on two of their new songs) is absolutely mind-blowing. The album is flooded with some hard numbers, like “Forgotten,” “Lost in Grandeur,” and “Start the Healing,” and it carries forward the intense style that made them famous. But there is a new maturity to their lyrics. On February 3, the “mass” was live-streamed, and I couldn’t help but ponder the meaning of “mass,” which is the liturgical ritual and ceremony in which we offer thanksgiving and sacrifice to God. Korn’s “mass” was certainly not liturgy in the proper meaning of the word, but it was a ritual offered to beg for rest and healing; sounds like children crying to their father for help, and for that, I am all in. 

Korn’s band members have an interesting history with Christianity. One of the first to express a major conversion was Brian “Head” Welch. After many years of drug and alcohol  addiction, an experience with his daughter singing Korn’s lyrics, and a night of heavy drug use in which a friend lost his capacity to talk, Welch recognized the darkness of his life. “Although I didn’t yet think of the problem in Christian terms, I see now that I had gained the whole world, but I was losing my soul,” says Brian. “I’d gained fame, but lost the person that I was. I’d gained money, but I’d lost my satisfaction and contentment in life. I’d gained fans, but I was always away from the people that I loved the most. I could have lost my soul forever, but the Person who loved me the most rescued me before it was too late. Now I am His forever.” 

Welch had a miraculous experience of the love of God in 2005 and confessed Jesus Christ as his Savior—he was later baptized in the Jordan River. He then spent almost a decade making music of his own, which is a mix of hope, darkness, and something akin to Augustine’s Confessions. He also published several books including a devotional text about his conversion and subsequent return to the band. More recently, Welch stated in an interview, that he is still a believing Christian but admits he may have been overly zealous for a few years. He is at peace with his relationship with God and is also happy to be working with Korn since 2012. In 2019, Welch produced a documentary film, Loud, Krazy, Love, about Korn’s astronomical growth and the addictions it fomented in him, his conversion, his relationship with his daughter, and how she helped him want to be a better father. Alongside Welch, Korn’s bassist Reggie “Fieldy” Arvizu also had a public conversion after the death of a family member. He now identifies as a Christian too. The other members of the band, however, don’t claim a specific religion or belief. 

The story of Brian Welch is a prime example of what conversion and living in the world as Christians ought to look like.

In any case, Christian groups used to protest outside Korn concerts claiming they were the devil. The fact that their new tour’s first venue is a Christian church certainly conveys an interesting turn. Perhaps my own troubled generation, and others too, are feeling ready for church, provided it feels like a true sanctuary for the broken and hopeless—a message Korn embraced long before its members found faith. The story of Brian Welch is a prime example of what conversion and living in the world as Christians ought to look like. Rather than simply condemning and abandoning what was once a source of addiction and despair, Welch returns with a renewed sense of hope and a foundation built on God’s love for him and his own love for his family. He left for a while, but eventually returned to the culture he loves as a new man. As some Christians complain about the state of the Wasteland and think they can avoid it, bands like Korn embrace where they are, and they want to echo the pleas for meaning at a high pitch, empowering the hopeless, who feel voiceless, to express what ails them. Did the initial output of the band provide more darkness than light? Perhaps. It did offer a few lost souls a way to express their hurt and confusion, which is the beginning of the healing process. Requiem, which after all is the Latin word for rest, continues to express the hurt and the cries of the broken, but with a clarion call for healing. We all know that these past two years have offered a high degree of anxiety, brokenness, distrust, division, loneliness, and chaos. Korn is right to call for a time of rest and recovery from within the halls of the church as they understand it, which may not be very far from the kingdom of heaven. Requiem indeed.