MANSFIELD, MASS. — Louder, angrier - but shorn of '80s big hair - heavy metal is back.
Teens have been attracted to the genre since Black Sabbath first picked up guitars 30 years ago. But its latest incarnation - highlighted by antics even Ozzy Osbourne never thought of - is even darker, making a generation of parents who grew up on KISS reach for the "off" switch. And this isn't just college students fascinated by the virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix. Increasingly, 13-year-olds are downloading Korn and Tool off the Internet.
The antics - and a few of the parents - are on display at Ozzfest, a tour showcasing this so-called "nu-metal." On stage, a band called Slipknot is lacerating the air with buzzsaw guitars and screeching vocals. It's unintelligible. But you might not want a libretto sheet: Slipknot's albums wear the "Parental Advisory" sticker as a badge of honor.
Thousands of teens cheer whenever Slipknot's nine members, wearing "serial killer" masks that would make Hannibal Lecter recoil in horror, thrash their heads in sync. But 'N Sync, they're not, and this is never more apparent than when they casually toss a stuffed goat's head around the stage.
"It's pure adrenaline," yells teen Jason Corkum, "and their masks are awesome."
Rebellion partly explains why teens have rediscovered heavy metal. But some observers say the current popularity of the music reflects boys' confusion about their gender's role in an era of "girl power."
"Kids derive a great deal of their sense of themselves from their peer group. And the peer group uses culture, especially music, as a badge of identity," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology at New York University.
"One way of differentiating yourself from the other crowd is by being more raw, more angry, more assertive, more offensive."
Still, who could have predicted that a new generation of teens, eager to find a voice to differentiate themselves from their elder siblings, would choose to resurrect the seemingly moribund genre of heavy metal? Only 10 years ago, "grunge" bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam overthrew the then-reigning czars of heavy metal, consigning guitar licks and hair spray to the dustbin of history - or so it seemed.
But metal is percolating into Casey Kasem's weekly rundown once again. Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at Billboard magazine, says that, alongside the usual rap and pop, nu-metal acts like Linkin Park, Drowning Pool, and Staind are among the top 20 best-selling acts this week. In fact, the latter's album, "Break the Cycle," has sold 12.5 million copies in just 11 weeks.
One reason heavy metal is shifting more units: savvy marketing. This year, some nu-metal bands have released pop singles (like Alien Ant Farm's version of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal"), ballads (Crazy Town's "Butterfly"), and acoustic songs (Staind's "In a Little While") to radio. Result: a wider audience, particularly among girls.
"It's a mellow song by a band whose body of work is much heavier, but girls only find that out after they've dropped 17 bucks to hear the song they like," says Sandy Chouchani of Youth Intelligence, a New York-based trend-research company.
To understand the multimillion sales by bands like Tool, Korn, and Mudvayne, one has to understand nu-metal's grass-roots appeal. So, how does this stuff play in Peoria?
Actually, Mudvayne are from Peoria. The Illinois town is just one of many Midwest cities where this new wave of American heavy metal seems to have started. In part, nu-metal's heartland origins are a reaction to the rap scene of the East and West Coasts. It was gangsta rap and hip-hop's rebellious sensibilities that attracted white teens looking for an alternative to grunge in the mid-'90s.
Influenced by rap's music and attitude, bands like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock found a home on alternative music stations, paving the way for some of the harder sounds that have followed.
"Heavy metal needed to update itself with rap," says Jim Farber, music critic for the New York Post. "It had been outclassed in terms of ... what was the new definition of masculinity. You had rappers who seemed to be the edgiest, the most flamboyant, the angriest, and the most outlaw."
Teen boys have embraced heavy metal's alpha-male makeover. "It gives them permission to be testosterone-driven 'guy's guys,' " says Ms. Chouchani.
Chouchani says that her organization has also noticed increasing discontent among Generation Y males at a time when so much attention has been focused on raising strong, confident girls. It has left boys without a strong sense of their role.
Compounding this confusion are media portrayals of impossibly saccharin teen movie and pop stars.
Murk, vocalist and lyricist of the band No One, offers similar sentiments: "Britney Spears and 'N Sync and all those bands are about being happy. Our style of music is about being real, dealing with real-life problems and just being angry with the world sometimes."
Pointing the finger at others is typical in heavy-metal lyrics and is one of the reasons adolescents are drawn to it, says New York Daily News's Mr. Farber.
Some parents are puzzled that their teens, raised in an era of almost unheard-of luxury, have anything to be furious about. And, despite the decibel level, the music sort of sneaked up on them. After all, kids listening to Cradle of Filth are the same kids who, a couple of years ago, used to wear Pringle sweaters and bop along to The Spice Girls.
The aggression of the music is a defiant statement of independence. "The point is to be incomprehensible, especially to one's parents," says New York University's Mr. Gitlin.
"At the beginning, we weren't very enthusiastic about Michael listening to that kind of music," says Don Appleby, a marketing manager in Cincinnati who recently accompanied his son to Ozzfest - an act that his wife, Linda, says qualifies him for a "parent of the year" award.
Mr. Appleby is ultimately supportive because he remembers listening to bands his parents didn't like much when he was that age.
The difference, he says, is that "everything is so much more vulgar than what used to be acceptable."
Chad Hanks, bassist of American Head Charge, is sanguine about tapping into rebellious feelings by firing a shotgun on stage ("a good attention getter that wakes people up") and burning flags ("it's just such an easy big button to push").
Nor is he concerned about how long metal's air-time is likely to last this go-round. "It'll probably hit a peak ... and something else will take over for a while," says Mr. Hanks. "It always seems to come back. It just comes back in a little bit of a different form.
In the meantime, many see the nu-metal scene as a way to cut loose for a while. "I'm trying to teach my daughter that we can come to a metal show and have a great time without doing drugs," says Tom Dickey of Farmington, N.Y.
Clad in Slipknot clothes, Kyla explains why she and her father drove 400 miles to catch her favorite band.
"Their attitude and music is awesome. I've seen them twice," says the fresh-faced teen. Not that the other girls at her school are trashing their 'N Sync posters, she says, a little disgustedly. "They're all into pop, and I think pop [reeks]."