“RIP Chester Bennington.”
It came unexpectedly across a GChat window Thursday afternoon. It was close enough to the end of the day that I couldn’t bring myself to keep working. Not close enough that I could justify just going home. Mostly, I sat there, in a daze, thinking about the unreality of something so unexpected. But then, it often is, right? Chris Cornell, Robin Williams . . . even when, as in Bennington’s case, their work lives so close to the edge.
So I sat there, thinking, and listening to Hybrid Theory.
I’ve taken shit for being a fan of Linkin Park, not least by the bozos who run this blog. I missed grunge by a couple of years. At ten years old, I couldn’t connect to Kurt Cobain’s death in any meaningful way. It was in bands like Linkin Park that I found what those a few years older had found in Nirvana. I got from Chester what he got from Kurt. Which might sound like heresy to those for whom Kurt’s death profoundly impacted them. Linkin Park has, from the start, been subject of as much ridicule as praise. Their earnest lyrics, emotive melodies, and unapologetic mixing of hip hop, electronica, pop, and hard rock made them immediately and easily dismissable by a lot of music fans: a sign of 90s alternative giving way to 2000s pop.
It’s also a dismissal of their contributions to music, that they were ahead of the curve by anticipating the electronic resurgence that would take over the airwaves a decade later, that their insistence on playing in two disparate genres would set the stage for pretty much the entire concept of the modern mashup—most notable in their collaborative album Collision Course with Jay-Z. But that’s another conversation.
When Hybrid Theory came out in 2000, I was 16. I was high on living through Y2K and the new freedom that comes with just having gotten my drivers’ license. It’s not like I hadn’t heard heavy bands before; at that time I was big into the previous year’s breakout record from rap-rockers P.O.D.. But Linkin Park was different. Nothing they did felt put on. Nothing about their angsty aesthetic felt half-hearted or cynical. Maybe that’s why some people hated them so much. These guys weren’t just going all-in on their sound: they meant it.
Linkin Park was critic-proof in the way Nickelback is, in that they couldn’t care less about what people thought about them. They knew that what they were putting out was genuine, and genuine output connects. That’s a frustrating truth when we want to hold art to an objective standard of quality. I think back to my insensitive reaction years later when someone told me Three Days Grace had helped them through a tough time and that they “literally wouldn’t be alive without their music.” In hindsight, that incredulous, laughing asshole who responded could have done with some of the empathy I would develop over the next decade.
There’s a scene in Ratatouille, where notoriously unkind food critic Anton Ego tastes the title dish and is transported back to his childhood. His edge is dulled, not because the dish is objectively great, but because the memory it evokes is pure. It is perhaps the best criticism of criticism I’ve heard, because it reminds us that art has value beyond the subjective value we assign it. Maybe sometimes, it’s okay to let people enjoy the things that speak to them, even if those things seem facile and silly to us.
When I heard the opening drum machine of “Papercut” yesterday, it was a similar moment, one that put me back in the car where I would drive around town blasting Hybrid Theory. It put me back in my parents’ living room where I sat for hours playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask; to this day I don’t remember the music from that game because 100% of the time I was playing it I was listening to Linkin Park through headphones. It took me back to driving from my small town to the “big city” so I could buy the remix record Reanimation, which, in some ways, was my introduction to hip hop.
I had heard heavy music before. I was already into punk by that time, but wouldn’t really get into metal or hip hop until college. Linkin Park was a bridge. I didn’t have to hide them from my conservative religious parents like I did with Blink-182 and The Offspring. They didn’t use profanity. They didn’t sing about sex. I could jam out around the house without calling down the ire of my mother. But at the same time they didn’t feel innocent. Linkin Park expressed anger of the kind I hadn’t heard before. Anger that I could relate to.
Why, though? Why did this dumb band with its goofy record scratches and chugging nu-metal guitars appeal to so many kids? I can tell you what Chester Bennington meant to me. He made it okay to feel all the contradictory and confusing elements of youth and victimhood. I saw a skinny nerd, like me, someone with a dweeby name who wore glasses and oversized clothes and sang (kind of poorly) in a high-pitched wail. And for a kid who got picked on and never fit in, I could tell when he opened his mouth that Chester got it. His vocals felt anguished, full of pain, vulnerability, and rage. They were raw in a way that was in contrast to the polished rap vocals of Mike Shinoda, part of the band’s appeal.
I haven’t experienced the kind of abuse he did, but he brought together kids of all kinds who were victimized, ostracized, or otherwise unpopular. Chester Bennington did what we were all trying to do. He turned his trauma into art. He did it in a way that seemed like it was meant for us, like he was one of us losers. Because it was real to him.
Chester apparently died by suicide. But his music never felt hopeless. If anything, it just acknowledged the realities of life. It acknowledged the effects of trauma, that “when the paper’s crumpled up it can’t be perfect again” (“Forgotten”). For all the darkness there was always a crack of light coming in (It’s probably not a coincidence that Bennington sang a Leonard Cohen song at the recent funeral of his friend Chris Cornell).
Most of all, though, he made it okay to take up space to talk about our pain, and to demand that people listen. “Shut up when I’m talking to you!” (“One Step Closer”) could be a mantra for the entire generation who grew up on Linkin Park’s music and into a world that can’t write enough about how millennials are ruining everything. Linkin Park embodied the collective anxieties of a generation who was defined by 9/11, who felt betrayed by the generations that came before. “We’re running out of time” and are “about to break” they constantly reminded us, as if to anticipate a future of violent populism, climate change, and crumbling economic prospects.
Their sound changed, and I largely outgrew Linkin Park. By the time their third album Minutes to Midnight rolled around in 2007, I was on to completely different styles of music. To this day I still haven’t heard their next three records, A Thousand Suns (2010), Living Things (2012), or The Hunting Party (2014). When I heard this year’s One More Light I thought it was the worst thing I had heard all year, from a completely unrecognizable band. But they’re not, really. I get how people could come to them in 2007 and get the same thing I got years earlier. They were still getting Chester. They were still getting validation for their feelings.
Rest in peace, Chester. You definitely left behind reasons to be missed.