"Nookie" at 20: The Strange Life of Limp Bizkit's Unkillable Nu-Metal Smash | Revolver

"Nookie" at 20: The Strange Life of Limp Bizkit's Unkillable Nu-Metal Smash

A look back at Fred Durst's magnificent, snotty temper tantrum with the soul of a scared little heartsick kid
limp bizkit GETTY 1999, KMazur/WireImage
Limp Bizkit, 1999
photograph by KMazur/WireImage

Whether you're Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder or Taylor Swift, sometimes bad romances can inspire classic songs. Before 1999, audiences mostly knew Limp Bizkit for their snarky, headbanging cover of George Michael's "Faith." But soon, listeners would come to love (or possibly hate) one of the biggest new bands on the planet. And it wouldn't have happened if frontman Fred Durst hadn't been pissed off at a girlfriend who did him wrong.

It's been 20 years since "Nookie" flattened rock radio and MTV, providing nu-metal with one of its greatest anthems. The sound and fury of that rap-rock hit had been a long time coming — it was a culmination of a decade's worth of musical trends that channeled different varieties of male angst — and remains a defining track from its era. Time has passed, those faddish genres have waned in popularity, but the unbridled anger and candor of "Nookie" are undiminished. Two decades later, it's still communicating something primal — maybe even a little frightening — about coping with heartache.

In June 1999, Limp Bizkit released their second album, Significant Other, hoping to capitalize on the word-of-mouth success of 1997's Three Dollar Bill, Y'all. Their debut showed promise — its MVPs were Wes Borland's adrenalized guitar and Durst's sweet-and-sour mix of high-pitched and bellowing vocals — but it also sounded deeply indebted to Korn, whose Jonathan Davis had befriended Durst, passing along the tattoo artist's demo to his label years earlier. Limp Bizkit didn't really come into their own — didn't really become Limp Bizkit — until Significant Other's lead single.

"It's about my ex-girlfriend, how she treated me like shit, and I couldn't leave her, wouldn't get over it," Durst told MTV at the time. "She screwed my friends and used me for my money. I tried to figure out why I did it, and I figured I did it all for the nookie."

Borland's memory was that "Nookie" came together when the band — which included keyboardist-turntablist DJ Lethal, drummer John Otto and bassist Sam Rivers — were jamming on another album track. Suddenly, they realized they had something while messing around with a beat from an Italian porn, which inspired the musicians to give the tune the cheeky working title of "Nookie."

"I've felt like every album I've ever made, there's always been a song that has been the biggest pain in the ass in the world to get it done," Borland said in a 2013 interview. "Like, 'How are we going to pull this song together?' There's all these obstacles to get through. And then there's always a song [like 'Nookie'] that writes itself, where it just goes bam! and it's done."

According to Borland, Durst took the working title as inspiration for his verses, which recounted the singer's frustration over being treated like shit by his girl. If you just look at the lyric sheet, you'd think you stumbled onto a despondent Hank Williams ballad:

I came into this world as a reject
Look into these eyes
Then you'll see the size of these flames

Dwellin' on the past
It's burnin' up my brain
Everyone that burns has to learn from the pain

But any hint of vulnerability was instantly crushed by the song's thundering, captivating music: a menacing beat giving way to punishing hard-rock riffs, which segue into twitchy keyboards, then exploding all over again with erupting guitars and drums. It was a killer blueprint — soft verse, volcanic chorus — that had become rock's holy grail in the 1990s, starting with Kurt Cobain's fiendish use of the template for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (which, of course, he lifted from the Pixies). Nirvana's primal fury expressed not just Cobain's disillusionment but also that of a whole generation of young people, who found catharsis in their shared howl. For years afterward, anguished men ascended the charts with similarly cranked-up guitars and diaries full of sad/angry lyrics.

Quickly, "alternative rock" became a catch-all term that described seemingly any new group wielding Marshall stacks, making room for industrial rock (Nine Inch Nails), grunge (Soundgarden) and rap-rock (Rage Against the Machine), all of which led to nu-metal's flowering in the late Nineties. But where Nirvana expressed a feminist, anti-macho worldview, newer acts like Bizkit leaned toward a bratty, boys-club mindset.

That mindset reached an apex on "Nookie": Resentment, shame and fear coursed through the screamed vocals and pulverizing guitars. This was a magnificent, snotty temper tantrum with the soul of a scared little heartsick kid. It could only have been conceived by someone who loved the Cure, Beastie Boys and Pantera in equal measure.

Even at the time, "Nookie" felt corrosive. Forget live-and-let-live: The singer's fuming declaration, "You can take that cookie/And stick it up your (yeah!)," was about as juvenile a kiss-off as you could find on the radio. No one could question the sincerity of Durst's pain, especially with how well he articulated the mixed emotions many people feel when they both want to cut ties and beg for a second chance. His inner monologue is a rollercoaster of indecision and self-loathing: "Maybe she just made a mistake/And I should give her a break/My heart'll ache either way/Hey, what the hell?/What you want me to say?"

But Durst's attempts at taking emotional inventory ultimately go nowhere as he keeps returning to that "nookie/cookie" chorus, rejecting introspection for easy taunting and macho swagger. As opposed to a song from roughly the same era, the Offspring's self-effacing mid-Nineties smash "Self Esteem," which dissected the insecurities that keep people in awful relationships, Durst was too invested in demonizing his girlfriend to take a hard look in the mirror.

"I definitely respect women," Durst once said. "I have a better attitude than almost anyone I know towards women." But his unconvincing insistence wasn't supported by the rest of Significant Other, which was littered with sonically arresting tracks full of spiteful, aggrieved lyrics aimed at different enemies, including a few females. In "Nobody Like You," he's waiting on the woman who broke his heart to die. Meanwhile, "No Sex" chronicles a fucked-up sexual relationship with a melodramatic self-pity that peaks with Durst groaning, "Should've left my pants on this time."

Nonetheless, "Nookie," which peaked at No. 80 on the Billboard charts and was a staple on rock stations, struck a chord. Significant Other went triple-platinum in a few months — it currently sits at septuple-platinum — and Durst became an overnight superstar. Soon, he was named senior vice president of his band's label, Interscope, and Limp Bizkit were one of the main attractions of Woodstock '99 — where their performance was heavily criticized for the violence that ensued, largely thanks to Durst's onstage goading.

Fairly or not, Limp Bizkit became that summer's poster children for a rambunctious, hostile new generation of young men who wanted — to quote another Bizkit hit — to "Break Stuff." Durst could insist as much as he wanted that his audience was heavily female — yet the band's aggro attitude felt hopelessly bro-y and puerile. (Twenty years later, it's impossible to erase the memory of Durst emerging from that giant toilet at Ozzfest.) With "Nookie," Durst positioned himself as the victim, but the more successful his band got — their follow-up, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, went six-times platinum — the less believable Durst was in the role of the underdog. "Nookie" felt like the anthem of a bully.

It was ironic, then, that Durst soon grew wary of his band's mosh-pitting fan base. "I was a big misfit where I grew up — I was abused and bullied a lot," he admitted in 2015. "If you're someone that's tortured and bullied, wearing that target on your back, you need an outlet. [Music] was a revenge against the bullies." The problem came when his rage attracted the very same people he hated as a kid. "The sound was so ferocious that bullies themselves would embrace Limp Bizkit," Durst said. "It was uneasy for us to see the people we really hated being fans of the music, alongside the people we were fighting for."

If that's the case, "Nookie" can't be an easy song for him to play now as he nears his 49th birthday. And yet, this year — at a moment when Limp Bizkit are experiencing a bit of a resurgence — he and his band have been touring, and "Nookie" is still part of the set. (Notably, at a March show at L.A.'s Troubadour, Limp Bizkit also did a cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit.") And the song still resonates — even for listeners who weren't alive when it first came out.

In 2013, Durst was asked who the band's fans are these days. "Almost half the audience is younger people," he replied. "I'm so surprised at how many teenagers are here. It's really interesting. How they're discovering it, I don't know. It could be because people tell them they're not supposed to like it, or their parents grew up liking it."

In that same interview, he reflected back on what had inspired "Nookie" in the first place. "I was with a girl who was very manipulative and really promiscuous," he recalled, "and I tried to man up and deal with it and then when I started touring she wasn't interested — she was back home and having affairs with a lot of people I knew. I would come home and be her boyfriend or whatever, not knowing I've just been made a fool of and all these people have been screwing my girl."

All these years later, though, he revealed an insight into his feelings that he seemed less willing to share back in '99. "[I thought] 'Why do I keep going back to this person?' and then you finally hit a wall and go, 'Oh, I'm doing it because I don't want to think of myself being with anyone else or her being with anyone else.' I just thought of a fun way to say that. Instead of, 'I did it all for our sexual relationship,' it was 'I did it all for the nookie.'"

Limp Bizkit may not be as massive as they once were, but "Nookie"'s sentiment is evergreen. Dismiss the song as mookish, but it speaks honestly to some of the darkest emotions any young person can experience — the toxic anger and wounded pride over being treated badly by someone you thought loved you. And in the process, Durst gave voice to something eternal about bad relationships and the guys who can't get over them: We've all been that sucker with a lump in our throat.