Musical Poetics: The Lyrical Style of Corey Taylor

For the last twenty years, Corey Taylor has been a profound force in the contemporary rock music world, particularly within the metal genre. He is most well-known for his vocal/lyrical work with Slipknot, a band that is rooted in low-tuned guitars, heavy percussion, intense live performances, and masked personas. Taylor’s talents as a vocalist and as a lyricist are multifaceted and poetic, but what makes him noteworthy is the development and sustainability of his skills over time—and his continued ability to synthesize and articulate the aesthetic energy of the eight other musicians that make up the essence of Slipknot. Taylor is an elite vocalist within the contemporary rock music form because of his unique ability to fuse different genre styles (metal, rock, punk, hip hop, and spoken word) and incorporate them into a vocal range of sounds that go from melodic tones to heavy growls. Taylor is a masterful lyricist, making exceptional use of a variety of creative elements that contribute to the transcendent nature of Slipknot’s music. This essay will look at five signature songs written over the course of the group’s career in terms of how Taylor’s vocal and lyrical skills operate as a magnetizing force for the music.

One of Taylor’s biggest strengths as a vocalist is the naturally low tone of his voice which allows him to connect with more primal modes of feeling in his singing style. In the song “Surfacing,” from the band’s debut album Slipknot (1999), Taylor excels at combining the lower vibrational tones of his voice with the explicit nature of his lyrics, which are raw and intense. More specifically, he makes skillful use of lyrical elements such as repetition, short phrases, and poetic rhythms to heighten the listening experience. In the musical introduction that features cymbal noises, a contrast of high and low guitar sounds as well as heavy percussive drumming, he simply begins by screaming “Fuck you all,” which functions as a release for the build-up of energy produced from the music. Taylor’s lyrical personality continues to unfold in the first verse, chorus, and second verse:

Running out of ways to run
I can’t see, I can’t be
Over and over and under my skin
All this attention is doing me in

Fuck it all, fuck this world
Fuck everything that you stand for
Don’t belong, don’t exist
Don’t give a shit, don’t ever judge me

Picking through the parts exposed
Taking shape, taking shag
Over and over and under my skin
All this momentum is doing me in

What works in this verse/chorus/verse scheme is the repetition of a variety of words and phrases. There are three different repetitions in the first verse alone: “Running / run,” “I can’t / I can’t,” and “Over / over.” In the chorus, “Fuck” and “Don’t” are repeated multiple times inside a series of short, powerful phrases. In the second verse, “Taking / taking” replaces “I can’t / I can’t,” “Over and over and under my skin” is repeated, and “All this attention is doing me in” becomes “All this momentum is doing me in.” The song returns to the chorus and moves into the bridge where Taylor sings in a more free-flowing poetic style, reflecting an aggressive musical arrangement of guitar sounds and percussive beats:

You got all my love, living in your own hate
Dripping hole man, hard step, no fate
Show you nothing, but I ain’t holding back
Every damn word I say is a sneak attack
When I get my hands on you
Ain’t a fucking thing you can do
Get this ‘cause you’re never gonna get me
I am the very disease you pretend to be

These lines feature a unique blend of creative rhythmic language that intensifies in the last half of the bridge, starting with “Every damn word I say is a sneak attack”—this is the spot where the lyric sheds its playfulness and becomes clear and direct. However, the strongest point of the song occurs after the bridge where Taylor sings one simple line repeated four times: “I am the push that makes you move,” placing vocal emphasis on the fourth repetition. This lyrical phrase is a key moment for the song because it combines poetic weight with direct language, asserting personal strength. “Surfacing” is a noteworthy song because it fuses heavy music with lyrical playfulness in ways that are rare within the metal genre. Taylor’s expression of primal feeling and enactment of lyrical creativity contribute to the song’s personality, helping it maintain its flexibility and adaptability.

Another feature of Taylor’s vocal talents is how he balances different lyrical moves in a manner that suits the heavy nature of the metal form. “People = Shit,” from Slipknot’s second album Iowa (2001), is a death metal song at its core due to the employment of hectic drumming and low-tuned guitars played in an extra-aggressive style. The strength of the song relies on Taylor’s multi-tasking skills—to vocalize the dark nature of the musical elements, incorporate a contrast of simple phrases and complex thought, and create moments of unique lyrical character. Before the first verse, he screams, “Come on” in a tone drenched in deep, aggressive emotion, followed by the phrase, “Here we go again, motherfucker” which does two things: it encourages further excitement and implies history, establishing a background of past conflict that is understood without explanation. After the first verse, the phrase is repeated slightly differently: “One more time, motherfucker,” suggesting a continuous pattern of conflict. These phrases work well because they add layers of psychological depth. The verses in “People = Shit” successfully utilize aggressive playfulness; however, the second verse is where the song takes on a life of its own:

Everybody hates me now, so fuck it
Blood’s on my face and my hands
And I don’t know why
I’m not afraid to cry
But that’s none of your business
Whose life is it? Get it, see it, feel it, eat it
Spin it around so I can spit in its face
I wanna leave without a trace
‘Cause I don’t wanna die in this place

Taylor sings the lyrics like spoken word poetry, and here, his voice is emotionally rushed. More specifically, the verse spins around two lines in particular: “I’m not afraid to cry / But that’s none of your business” for the way in which the word “business” is pronounced. Taylor sings “I’m not afraid to cry / But that’s none of your bus-a-ness.” When he emphasizes “bus-a-ness” he uses a distinct growl that elevates the song to extremely intense, primal levels. This is a small lyrical innovation within the verse that enlivens the character of the song and transforms it into a stimulating listening experience that hooks the listener. It is worth noting that the chorus is delayed—in fact, it happens right after the second verse so that in a way, the first two verses prepare the listener to encounter the explicit expression of the chorus which consists of the repeated phrase: “People equal shit.” During a musical break featuring low-tuned, extra-potent guitar sounds, Taylor heightens the moment by screaming “Come on” in a gut-wrenching tone, reenergizing the song. More lyrical innovations occur in the third verse:

It never stops, you can’t be everything to everyone
Contagion, I’m sitting on the side of Satan
What do you want from me?
They never told me the failure I was meant to be, yeah
Overdo it, don’t tell me you blew it
Stop your bitching and fight your way through it
I’m not like you, I just fuck up
Come on, motherfucker, everybody has to die
Come on, motherfucker, everybody has to die

Again, the verse is sung in a quick spoken word style, but the strongest moment occurs at “Stop your bitching and fight your way through it” and culminates with the last three lines which are sung in a very specific manner. When Taylor sings “I’m not like you, I just fuck up” he takes a breath between each word and then sings the last two lines without pauses so that the last three lines look something like this:

I’m / not / like / you / I / just / fuck / up
Come-on-motherfucker-everybody-has-to-die
Come-on-motherfucker-everybody-has-to-die

When the song builds back up to the chorus phrase, Taylor sings “People equal shit” in a tone that churns with raw emotion. Then, the phrase is repeated numerous times to powerful effect. The closing phrase, “Got that, right,” is expressed by Taylor in a loud growl, and serves as an assertive punctuation to the gritty personality of the song. These lyrical moments are what set “People = Shit” apart from other metal songs that venture into a lower/darker range. Taylor’s vocal/lyrical moves uplift and harmonize the song to a level of verbal and emotional complexity in ways that are compelling and engaging.

A primary aspect of Taylor’s prolific vocal abilities is the way in which way he uses different singing modes to convey complex feeling. In “Duality,” from the band’s third album Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses) (2004), Taylor makes impressive use of syllabic enhancement and spoken word singing. He is especially skilled at applying tone in clever ways that enrich the heavy/dark musical characteristics of Slipknot, creating layers of emotional depth. Simple in structure, the song holds its power within these lyrical variations. It consists of two verses—and the chorus takes up the bulk of the musical space along with a bridge that consists of a single repeating phrase. The use of piano sounds at the beginning paired with buzzing guitar tones adds another element of melodic dimension. Here is the chorus in its entirety:

I push my fingers into my eyes
It’s the only thing that slowly stops the ache
But it’s made of all the things I have to take
Jesus, it never ends, it works its way inside
If the pain goes on…

To start, listeners should take note of the vocal moves within the chorus. The song begins with the chorus, and in the first line, Taylor whispers all the words but sings “eyes” and draws the sounds out. The words “ache,” “take,” and “inside” are also drawn-out in the same fashion. Here, vocal pressure is applied to the last part of each line—and, this is also where the piano and guitar sounds are featured, contributing to the emotional mood of the lyrical content. Additionally, the first verse has much to offer in terms of vocal/lyrical strength:

I have screamed until my veins collapsed
I’ve waited as my time’s elapsed
Now all I do is live with so much fate
I’ve wished for this, I’ve bitched at that
I’ve left behind this little fact:
You cannot kill what you did not create

I’ve gotta say what I’ve gotta say
And then I swear I’ll go away
But I can’t promise you’ll enjoy the noise
I guess I’ll save the best for last
My future seems like one big past
You’re left with me ‘cause you left me no choice

The lyrics, distilled and refined, are sung in a controlled spoken word style, accompanied by low percussions and deep, hypnotic guitar sounds. Taylor utilizes the naturally low range of his voice to achieve a vocal tone that is remarkably deadpan, polished, gritty, self-aware, intelligent, and threatening. He solidifies the personality of this tone in the middle of the first stanza when he emphasizes “fate,” amplifies it when he sings “I’ve wished for this, I’ve bitched at that / I’ve left behind this little fact: / You cannot kill what you did not create,” and brings it to fruition in the second stanza: “I’ve gotta say what I’ve gotta say / And then I swear I’ll go away / But I can’t promise you’ll enjoy the noise.” Lyrically, the work here is incredibly clear and articulate—and masterful. The lines “You cannot kill what you did not create” and “I can’t promise you’ll enjoy the noise” are particularly brilliant for the way in which Taylor sings them. The former is sung in a low, flat tone with vocal emphasis falling on “create;” the latter is sung with a slight inflection that lands on “the noise” in very chilling ways. The second verse does much of the same work already established in the first verse; the rest of the song focuses on the chorus and the bridge with the repeating line: “All I’ve got, all I’ve got is insane,” where the more expressive side of Taylor’s voice shines through, accompanied by guitar sounds that range from dirty tones to high-pitched wails and percussions that include touches of metallic pounding noises. When the song returns to the chorus, and Taylor sings “I push my fingers into my eyes,” he sings the first part in a quick rhythm and draws-out “my eyes,” adding another layer of lyrical intensity. “Duality” is transcendent because it makes use of two things: self-awareness and vocal depth. Taylor’s knowledge of his vocal/lyrical abilities allows him to refine and reestablish the concepts and themes that characterize Slipknot as an elite metal band and process them into his mature singing style.

A significant element of Taylor’s vocal style is the way in which he incorporates nuanced lyrical moves in order to express powerful poetic thought. In “Before I Forget,” from Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses), listeners will take note of the fact that the music—still aggressive and low-toned in nature—has undergone refinement. The guitars are stabilized; the drums (although still a major feature of the musical experience) are subdued. The song is riff-heavy, especially at the beginning, with guitar sounds that are polished and crunchy, creating a wonderful blend of harmonic tension that works in conversation with Taylor’s vocal/lyrical sensibilities. These adjustments allow Taylor to take up more vocal space within the song and to express a broader range of lyrical skills. During the musical introduction, Taylor inserts vocal energy by singing the simple action word “Go,” and then the song moves into the first verse:

Stapled shut, inside an outside world and I’m
Sealed in tight, bizarre but right at home
Claustrophobic, closing in and I’m
Catastrophic, not again
I’m smeared across the page, and doused in gasoline
I wear you like a stain, yet I’m the one who’s obscene
Catch me up on all your sordid little insurrections
I’ve got no time to lose, I’m just caught up in all the cattle

There are two things worth pointing out about this verse: the variety and complexity of the language used, and how Taylor articulates certain words to enact movement within the song. Phrases like “bizarre but right at home,” “smeared across the page,” “wear you like a stain,” “sordid little insurrections,” and “caught up in all the cattle” represent a mature reincarnation for Taylor in terms of lyrical poetic expression. Here, he flexes his vocal muscles and takes it even further by making wonderful use of syllabic enhancement. For example, in the first line, “Stapled shut” is slowed-down while the rest of the line is sped-up. The same occurs with “Sealed in tight,” “Claustrophobic,” and “Catastrophic”—the syllables are drawn-out and the rest of the line is verbalized quickly. He continues to make good use of vocal space with a small pre-chorus lyric by singing in a lucid tone: “Fray the strings / Throw the shapes / Hold your breath / Listen”—emphasizing both syllables in the last word. The chorus is especially impressive for its clarity, maturity, and poetic power:

I am a world before I am a man
I was a creature before I could stand
I will remember before I forget
Before I forget that

What makes this chorus so skillful is that it operates on a loop. The first time Taylor sings it he repeats it—and it introduces an alluring effect to the song that is enacted again later on. This chorus is also special because it explores new poetic territory, particularly with the opening line that proclaims: “I am a world before I am a man.” Taylor places strong vocal emphasis on “I” which introduces an interesting blend of anarchistic selfhood; it is both humbling and assertive. After the second verse, there is a second pre-chorus lyric, a repeated chorus, and the bridge which enacts a brilliant shift:

My end
It justifies my means
All I ever do is delay
My every attempt to evade
The end of the road and my end
It justifies my means
All I ever do is delay
My every attempt to evade
The end of the road

Similar to the chorus, the bridge operates on a repetitive loop that creates poetic depth and tension. However, the bridge is impressive because it brings in the melodic aspect of Taylor’s singing—slowed-down slightly and mirrored by the guitars, which are equally as powerful and emotive in their unique melodic ranges. When Taylor shouts the last line: “The end of the road,” the music shifts back up into the chorus, reenergizing the song. “Before I Forget” is an intricate and complex metal song; it makes excellent use of a variety of lyrical shifts in conjunction with Taylor’s vocal range—here, he brings Slipknot into new aesthetic space with great care and verbal astuteness.

Taylor distinguishes himself as an elite vocalist through his courage to enact creative expression, continually demonstrating new possibilities for what a metal song can be and accomplish. The song “Custer” is a perfect example of how far Taylor pushes the boundaries vocally and lyrically in terms of his artistic sensibilities. This song, from Slipknot’s fifth album .5: The Gray Chapter (2014), reincorporates the group’s early aggressive musical styles and fuses it with the clarity of Taylor’s developed manner of singing. Here, the listener is presented with a fresh, wholly new, creative listening experience. “Custer” features a chorus that contains heavy guitar sounds and aggressive percussion—but the main body of the song centers around Taylor’s highly-frustrated, rough vocalizing. He sings the first verse in a loose yet edgy rhythm:

It’s strange, whenever I see a gun
I think about just how petty you are
And it blows my fucking mind
Yeah, it blows my fucking mind
These days I never seem to get enough
I’m tired of this shit, I want to go home
Don’t waste my fucking time
Don’t waste my fucking time

Because anything exceptional
Gets crushed by common people
With jealousy and ignorance
And all their common evils
This planet isn’t special
Collections made of clay
I’m waiting for the punishment
I know it’s on my way

Taylor brings in repetition with the lines “it blows my fucking mind,” “Don’t waste my fucking time,” and the word “common.” More importantly, his perspective has shifted to a position of recognition and experience, particularly within the second stanza where he sings “Because anything exceptional / Gets crushed by common people” and “I’m waiting for the punishment / I know it’s on my way.” Additionally, the line “This planet isn’t special / Collections made of clay” ventures into metaphorical meaning, adding another layer of creative complexity to the playfully dark nature of the song. Here, Taylor shows his seasoned understanding about the harsh nature of the world and continues to elaborate on it in the second verse:

Somewhere on a toilet wall I read the words
“You form a line to formalize the former lies”
And I finally saw the truth
Something so profound and now it’s sitting there
Surrounded by the garbage and the stains
Another victim of the refuse

Now I’ve been saying this for years
But you don’t comprehend it
I fight hell and I fight fear
Because I understand it
Androgyny and insults
You try so hard to be difficult
You wanna win the war?
Know what you’re fighting for

This verse demonstrates Taylor’s strong poetic urge to communicate from a place of anger and wisdom that is both unique and brave. The first stanza articulates an epiphanic moment while the second stanza addresses an antagonistic other in a way that is much more direct compared to past lyrical moments. A big shift occurs at the beginning of the second stanza when Taylor sings “Now I’ve been saying this for years / But you don’t comprehend it” and intensifies when he sings “I fight hell and I fight fear / Because I understand it,” expressing poignant honesty and assertiveness, and climaxes at “Know what you’re fighting for.” Taylor articulates more poetic truths in the second repetition of the bridge:

Irreverence is my disease
It’s second-hand, but you know me
The son of a bitch is on his knees
The last man standing gets no pity
With angel eyes and demon seeds
You’re missing what you really need
When all is said and done, you see
The last man standing gets no pity

In this second version, the last four lines are added and contain poetic elements with contrasting descriptions like “angel eyes and demon seeds,” and the suggestive line: “You’re missing what you really need.” The bridge also makes good use of repetition with the proclamation: “The last man standing gets no pity.” The second time Taylor sings it he emphasizes “pity,” which does a lot of work for the song musically and poetically with its power and depth. The most aggressive moment of the song, the chorus, is accompanied by heavy percussion and clever guitar riffs that reflect the gritty character of the lyrics. The chorus is incredibly simple—it consists of two phrases that Taylor sings in a menacing, anarchistic tone: “Cut, cut, cut me up / And fuck, fuck, fuck me up.” With the chorus, listeners experience an intense auditory peak that is explicitly stimulating. “Custer” is exceptional because of its aesthetic self-awareness and its use of space to highlight creative expression. Taylor’s vocal/lyrical sensibilities align perfectly in this song due to the way in which he incorporates his older aggressive singing style into his more experienced mode of singing, helping the song achieve poetic transcendence.

After examining these songs, what becomes evident is the intertwined nature of Taylor’s vocal and lyrical skills. This is an essential aspect of elite singing within any genre of music—the vocalist’s ability to use the natural talents of his/her/their vocal range to perform lyrics in fresh and innovative ways. Taylor utilizes a variety of vocal elements to create lyrical moments within songs that are poetic and expressive. His use of repetition and syllabic enhancement, his eclectic singing style, and his use of vocal space inside the body of a song all contribute to uplifting the lyric. As a result, mutual enrichment occurs between lyric and music that harmonizes and unifies each song—and the band. Slipknot has endured for over two decades because of its willingness to venture into creative territory within the metal genre—to take risks with song structure and musical sounds that reflect the aesthetic strengths of the band. Taylor, as a vocalist within this particular musical dynamic, excels because of the group’s overarching desire to grow in its artistic expression; his authentic vocal/lyrical essence flourishes because playfulness and inventiveness are encouraged and cultivated, cementing Slipknot as a permanent force in both the contemporary rock music world and within the metal community.

April 8, 2019