Korn‘s songs are forged in the eerie, brazen with nu-metal glory, and, at times, full of pain. It’s the kind of music that touched the hearts of outcast alt-kids around the country through the ’90s and ’00s. Their sound is unique and recognizable: a little bit hip-hop and a whole lot of heavy metal. The band’s tone and lyrics don’t just reflect what was hiding in the souls of all the JNCO-wearing rebellious metalheads during their heyday; it reflects a lot of the man who is frontman Jonathan Davis.
Through alcoholism and despite a tragic upbringing, Davis has managed to propel the band through 14 studio albums and tens of thousands of album sales since Korn’s self-titled album dropped more than 25 years ago. It’s been quite a feat for the frontman. Davis’s life wasn’t an easy one. His childhood was dark and twisted, something that sometimes makes good art but carries with it an endless possibilities for darkening the soul. Davis has survived stresses and abuse from his younger years that many people would have a hard time handling, and he’s funneled his pain into carving a name for himself in the world of nu-metal.
His past might fuel his music, but his accomplishments don’t erase the darkness of his childhood. The musician’s early life was anything but peachy.
Asthma almost killed him as a child
It’s a little odd to think of Jonathan Davis having a crippling case of asthma while he’s blasting his powerful vocals onstage at a Korn concert, but it’s true. Davis discusses his affliction on Steve-O’s Wild Ride podcast (found via Metalhead Zone), where he tells the host that the disease first started when he was three years old. (It wasn’t a good year for Davis, as we’ll explain later.)
Davis remembers being hospitalized at around “four-five-six years old.” He was given drugs like epinephrine (not a popular asthma treatment these days) to open up his airway so he didn’t suffocate. To check his blood-oxygen level, the nurses had to draw blood from his femoral artery, and from the way he speaks about the incident, it was powerful enough to stick with him into adulthood. Nowadays, blood-oxygen can be tested simply and painlessly, but Davis’s experience went down in the ’70s was neither painless nor simple: “That’s a bad time, I was sick a lot.”
Fast forward to the present. The singer’s asthma is virtually non-existent, but he’s still on daily meds and he keeps an oxygen tank on stage at all times — partly as a “just in case,” and partly because he likes the pure oxygen head rush.
His familial relationships were traumatizing
Davis’s family life was rocky pretty much from the start. According to Korn: Life in the Pit, Davis’s parents divorced when he was only three years old. That was only the start of Davis’s troubles.
The singer’s mother ended up marrying a man she’d met while working on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and the man was a jerk to Davis, but at least he spent time with the kid. Rick Davis, Jonathan’s father, spent most of his time trying to chase the dreams that his son would later achieve, and he gave the future rockstar little, if any, attention.
Jonathan would later live with his father after his stepdad busted up the drum kit he’d gotten for himself when he was 13, but the situation at his father’s house turned abusive at the hands of his stepmother. ” I broke up her happy home. She made it her mission to make life so miserable for me that I wanted to move out,” Davis tells The Guardian. He claims the woman would do things like pour hot pepper sauce down his throat when he was sick and laugh at him when he cried. Davis calls her “twisted” and “sadistic.”
Picked on, beat up, and considered an embarrassment
By the time Davis was growing into his puberty-ridden teenage self, he’d transformed into a bit of an “odd” and colorful character. During his “Romantic phase,” as he tells The Guardian, he played bagpipes, wore frilled shirts and makeup, and “was this big dork, basically.” To 15-year-old Davis, this was personal expression, but to his peers, it was something that deserved ridicule and punishment.
“I was shoved and kicked and the teachers would laugh and call me a” slur for “homosexual,” Davis says. The kids would beat him up for being different and make fun of him for being “gay,” and Davis is very adamant that he wasn’t. Instead of finding solace in compassionate authority figures, the teen was sent to “gay counselors.” Even his own father treated him like an embarrassment by acting like Davis wasn’t his son. Eventually, enough people labeled Davis’s sexuality for him that he had to check to see if they were right, so he experimented with an older man, who turned out to be abusive. The man threatened to hurt Davis’s parents if Davis didn’t stay with him.
Davis is quite clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being gay, but there is quite a lot wrong with judging others based on their sexuality. (So don’t.)
The singer suffered terrible sexual abuse as a young child
Davis doesn’t shy away from using his tragic personal experiences to fuel Korn’s music. Even as a young metalhead teen, the song “Daddy,” off Korn’s debut album, had clear tones, and all of them pointed to sexual abuse. Davis himself is a sexual abuse survivor, and the pain of his past abuse bled into the song’s lyrics.
Before everyone starts thinking even worse of Davis’s father, it’s important to note that the abuse did not happen at the hands of Davis’s dad. According to Korn: Life in the Pit by Leah Furman, Davis as a child was abused by one of his neighbors, and when the Korn frontman told his parents about the situation — a thing any child should feel safe to do — his parents thought he was joking. They refused to say or do anything about the abuse that young Jonathan was facing because, as far as they were concerned, their child was lying.
Davis doesn’t ever go into depth about the abuse, and he told Revolver that he’s basically blocked it all out of his mind because it’s such a difficult thing for him to face. Even the song “Daddy” has proven to have serious emotional effects on the musician. He’s only performed it live a couple of times, and he needed prodding to get the lyrics out during recording.
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