When Ben Folds Five Started a Ridiculous Beef With Korn

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Everybody loves a good old-fashioned rock and roll feud. Who among us doesn’t find themselves at least a little titillated by a verbal skirmish here and there? Over the years we’ve delighted in public bickerings and breakdowns like the ones between Dave Mustaine and Metallica, David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, Axl Rose and just about every single human being he worked with between 1988 and 2010, Varg and Euronymous (well, that one got a little messy so maybe “delighted” isn’t the right word to describe our collective feelings about it), and Jonathan Davis and Ben Folds.

I know what you are asking yourself: Did this asshole really just say Korn’s Jonathan Davis and Ben Folds, the ‘90s alternative rock answer to Billy Joel? Oh yes, indeed I did! 

It all started in a 1998 interview with Spin, in which Davis is quoted as saying in relation to Korn’s place in popular music, “We just want to be heavy. All we want to do is bring heavy back into rock’n’roll. Because goddamned Ben Folds Five sucks. It’s fucking Cheers music.”

It’s not entirely surprising that a band as sonically aggressive and aesthetically transgressive as Korn might not be drawn to the saccharine sounds of Gen-X Elton John (if Elton John was a boring liberal arts major, that is). What was surprising, however, was Ben Folds’ reaction. Sweet Mr. Ben Folds, the man responsible for such mature and emotionally grounded lyrics as the whimsical “Give me my money back, you bitch” refrain in his “Song for the Dumped,” used this as an opportunity to compose a full-on diss track. 

“Rockin’ the Suburbs,” the title track of the Ben Folds solo album of the same name, is an ode to nü-metal stereotypes. Just take a quick glimpse at the lyrics and you’ll get an idea of his feelings toward the dominant strain of heavy rock music of the time:

  • “Let me tell y’all what it’s like,
  • Being male, middle-class and white.
  • It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe, listen up to my new CD.
  • I got shit running through my brain,
  • It’s so intense that I can’t explain.
  • All alone in my white-boy pain,
  • Shake your booty while the band complains.
  • I’m rockin’ the suburbs, just like Michael Jackson did,
  • I’m rockin’ the suburbs, except that he was talented.
  • I’m rockin’ the suburbs, I take the checks and face the facts,
  • That some producer with computers fixes all my shitty tracks.”

The video for “Rockin’ the Suburbs” reinforces these sentiments. Directed by legendary comic musician “Weird Al” Yankovic, it satirically features Ben Folds wearing a Fred Durst-style baseball cap while engaging in typical suburban activities such as jumping in pools and flipping burgers. It ends with a direct lampooning of Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” video, where a band composed of multiple Ben Folds play under a backdrop riddled with fake bullet holes. 

In case the origins of Ben Folds’ ire aren’t clear, a nearly imperceptible subliminal message that reads KORN SUCKS flashes once during the video. 

According to Ben Folds, the song isn’t specifically about Korn, with him on record saying: 

“I used to do this big rant at the end of some gigs with Ben Folds Five. The band broke into this big heavy metal thing and I started as a joke to scream in a heavy metal falsetto. I found myself saying things like: Feel my pain, I am white, feel my pain. I was going to write this song about Korn. I don’t know, it wasn’t as funny when I directed it at somebody. So I thought I would write it not directed to anybody. I mean, I would be happy to tell the guys from Korn that I wrote a song about them, but I think, when people listen to it, it is a better song when it is not directed to anybody.”

While it’s plausible that “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is intended as a tongue-in-cheek takedown of the entire nü-metal movement, the well-documented subliminal message reads as a direct response to Jonathan Davis’ initial comments. That being said, if you know anything about Davis’ upbringing in Bakersfield, California then you know his history as an abuse survivor would render Folds’ lyrics as reductive at best.

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