The Inspiring Schlock Rock of Slipknot

I’ve spent hours watching concert footage of the nu metal monsters, and I don’t even like the band that much.

Slipknot rabbit hole.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Video still via NekoPizzacore/YouTube.

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I prefer Slipknot’s 2009 live concert video at Download Fest in Leicestershire, England, over the more recent 2015 taping at Live Rock on the Range in Columbus, Ohio, for a number of reasons.

For starters, the earlier era’s masks are better. The one worn by lead singer Corey Taylor in this phase fell somewhere in the uncanny valley between possessed porcelain doll and creepy storefront mannequin, as opposed to the latter time period that saw him adopt a kind of “Old Man Leatherface” look that’s meh at best. At Download Fest, the elevator risers atop which 5 and 6 (band members are referred to by their assigned number, not name) bashed beer kegs for additional percussion were more rickety and interesting. The flame cannons had better range. Overall, it’s simply a more quality spectacle.

Which may explain why I come back to it so much, along with Live at Rock Am Ring 2009, Knotfest 2016 in Japan, and all manner and quality of bootleg concert videos from the seminal nu metal band. It’s not that I’m really all that fond of Slipknot’s oeuvre. In fact, as a fan of supposed “true” metal music, I’m meant to shun all things from the Iowan shock rockers, despite the undeniable fact that some of their songs straight up shred. But even as a disaffected suburban teen, I found their garish theatrics and ludicrously aggro-angsty lyrics on par with the horror-film sewage they soundtracked. Still, I spent a hell of a lot of time watching tapes of the band performing to sold-out arenas and festivals, even back then.

It’s a habit that’s proven hard to break. Like any writer, I spend a large deal of my time glaring at my computer screen, trying to will words onto the monitor, during which I invariably find myself zoning out thanks to the blandness of a rough draft’s words against my laptop’s soulless glow. Often, I do this at my day job when my supervisors aren’t around, sitting at my desk in a soul-sucking office gig I endure purely for the health care coverage. It’s goddamn frustrating.

So, more often than I care to admit, the drive to create anything can grind to a halt. Since the electoral nightmare of November 2016, it occurs even more frequently. At this point, a deep (stage) dive into the vast catalog of Slipknot’s ridiculous performances is simultaneously comforting in its familiarity and, occasionally, oddly inspiring. I’ve come to admire this schlock rock ardor in a post-post-post–ad infinitum irony artistic landscape littered with disaffected twentysomethings and their tired memes, set against a backdrop of cultural Disney-fication. Say what you will about quality or artistic depth; watch any video of Slipknot and their pulsing stadium sea of maggots—the term lovingly bestowed upon their fans by the band itself—and try pointing out a disingenuous performer on stage. For two decades, they’ve consistently created and delivered a level of earnest, fun house spookiness for their audiences, and it’s that earnestness that I so often watch and rewatch.

And yet, despite the band’s manic stage antics and Corey Taylor’s liberal, guttural use of expletives between songs—“Are you fucking ready? Get ready to fucking jump! I want to see all of you go fucking crazy on this next one!” etc. etc.—it’s all a veneer covering a pretty obvious fact: Slipknot isn’t that ridiculous or crazy. In fact, the group is overall pretty logical. They’re a Lizard Brain Band, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense possible. Beating kegs with bats, a drum rig that looks more like industrial machinery than a percussion section, guitars detuned to registers more felt than heard—it all combines into a primal, visceral cacophony that’s downright surgical in its nastiness. It appeals to those cooped up in white-collar offices like me, to the men and women worn down by the predictable drudgery of the American working class. Slipknot simply acts out the very classic, therapeutic need to occasionally “go fucking crazy.” And after 20 years, they’ve gotten pretty good at it.

Bodies wear down over two decades of thrashing your way across the world. They wear down in cubicles and construction sites. Minds gets pummeled by every news cycle. Somehow, Slipknot’s zeal remains, and that’s what most makes me return to scouring YouTube for their performances. They remind me that my own art doesn’t need to be complex—it doesn’t even need to be tasteful or particularly good. It just needs to resonate with all the other maggots out there.