At its height, the genre was popular, but got next to no critical support. However, wrestling companies (particularly WWE) picked up on it and never really let go.
Look at the album cover below.
That is pretty much the classic nu metal imagery (at least for nu metal bands that lack the hip hop element). Tough-ish looking dudes in some sort of industrial/prison setting.
It also has a pro wrestling image. Ever since the dawn of the NWO and (especially) the Attitude Era, pro wrestling companies have loved this type of image. Darker, grittier and tougher. One of the earliest Attitude Era promo videos (the one where the wresters, including true superstar Ahmed Johnson, talk about being real athletes) plays this image to a fault, despite the presence of sunshine.
To this day, both WWE and TNA like to use this kind of imagery (think of all those promo videos that seem to be in dimly lit warehouses or the name “TNAsylum”).
I think there is a logical reason that wrestling still holds affection for this type of music.
When pro wrestlers began using entrance music in the early 1980s, guitar music was found to be the most effective at the time. When the WWF started going for the Hollywood crowd in the mid-80s, it created the “Rock and Wrestling Connection” with MTV. Hulk Hogan first came out to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” before switching to his famous “Real American” theme. Fan favorite the Junkyard Dog entered to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
So, to start, it was rock-based. However, wrestling became more aggressive in the 90s, with the advent of ECW, the NWO and the Attitude Era. Shiny guitars and synthesizers (and the happy-dappy old WrestleMania theme tune) did not apply as much.
Even tougher rock music came from thrash metal and early extreme metal bands. However, the speed of the music would make it more difficult to fully grasp in a noisy arena (at least I think). And, it did not have as much popular marketing appeal.
Enter Metallica’s black album, which featured well produced, slower hard rock/heavy metal songs (a far cry from the faster songs from the group’s not-so-well produced first four albums). Then, Pantera took their new sound (the groups changed from glam metal to some sort of thrash hybrid in the “Cowboys from Hell” album) to the logical extreme on 1992’s “Vulgar Display of Power.” Now, all you had to do was play a few notes and yell (well, that is if you want to base the entire theory on “Walk”).
Following the popularity of these bands, upstart groups started using this as part of their sound. Then Korn created their sound (chunky drop-D guitars, vocals that alternated between screaming, crying and something similar to rapping), and more groups latched on.
In a few years, several rock bands used a combination of these influences to create generic nu metal. Most of the major groups that still have some cache today had a sound that could be distinguished if played on the radio (Korn, Slipknot, Linkin Park, Deftones, Disturbed, System of a Down). Then, you had bands like Coal Chamber and Drowning Pool, which roughly sounded alike.
This was great for wrestling music. The riffs were slower, so they could easily be grasped, and the militant drum beats hammered the riffs home. The vocals provided a lot of perceived aggression.
WrestleMania 18 featured multiple performances from both Saliva and Drowning Pool. WrestleMania 19 featured two performances from “the WWE’s favorite band in the whole world,” Limp Bizkit (who also performed one of the Undertaker’s biker theme songs and did the main song for WrestleMania 17).
Degeneration X’s theme music, performed by the “DX Band,” totally counts. Triple H’s theme immediately after he turned heel and broke it off with DX in 1999 (“My Time”) is even more nu metal. Triple H today uses two songs by Motorhead, which decidedly is NOT a nu metal band, but I’d say “The Game” could be considered one.
The WWE has a continual relationship with Kid Rock. Mr. Rock is not strictly nu metal (today, he’s basically a Bob Seger ripoff artist), but his first really popular song “Bawitdaba” definitely counts as nu metal. He also did one of the Undertaker’s other biker theme songs (which I’d also say is nu metal, even though it samples Metallica). In a funny turn of events, Kid Rock performed this very song at WrestleMania 25. The audience could care less and could not be brought to sing along during the trademarked audience participation line. The performance didn’t even make the DVD release.
And, those generic guitar theme songs for C-level performers still stray in the nu metal direction (such as Daniel Bryan’s first theme song).
Why has this trend stuck around for so long?
Well, it’s no secret that Vince McMahon’s popular culture knowledge is diminishing by the year. He’s always been a bit behind, but it is getting worse with age.
Based on this, my theory is that he (or someone else in the company) picked up on the genre around the time it became popular and latched onto it because of its similarities to the guitar-based rock that was popular during the 80s (the last time wrestling was as popular as it became in the late 90s).
Even though hip hop (some of which could be just as aggressive as nu metal and have imagery just as relevant to wrestling) was becoming more and more mainstream, it was not used much by WWE. This is despite the fact that hip hop influence is a big part of a lot of nu metal. Of course, WCW attempted to push Master P’s No Limit Soldiers as a face group at the same time, and it was a massive failure. Straight forward hip hop songs only were used in the case of specifically theme wrestlers (like Scott Steiner or Cryme Tyme).
The use of nu metal has dipped quite a bit, but the traces still exist. Lately, most of the pay per view theme songs has strayed towards poppy hip hop (which is arguably just as awful as nu metal).
Given how well this much maligned genre goes with the product (and how slow wrestling moves with the times), it entirely possible that its influence will stick around for a while. For idiots like me who still keep up with wrestling due to some sort of misplaced nostalgia, there’s likely nothing wrong with continuing to BREAK IT DOWN (and ruminating on the inner torment of being a tough guy in JNCO jean shorts).