Chester Bennington Brought Introspection to Rap Rock's Angry Boys Club
News of Arizona native and Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington’s death from an apparent suicide brought me back to my teenage bedroom. One day after school in the early 2000s, I was set to rehearse with a few eighth grade classmates in our newly assembled nu-metal band. We had spent a massive amount of time selecting and logoing our awful band name, Sweat Rash, and precisely no time discussing the project’s musical particulars. We were uncoordinated in all things, unprepared for growing junior high anxieties, and unilaterally pissed at all looming authority. Evidenced by most of what we were listening to at the time, this was all that music-making required.
We never voiced this, but had someone asked us about Linkin Park, an act that was omnipresent on the music video networks and alternative rock radio, we probably would have defensively derided the band for not being heavy enough.
It feels obvious now that Linkin Park will be enshrined as one of the defining rock acts of the 2000s for how neatly they synthesized the era’s rap and metal tendencies toward mainstream pop success. But it was Chester Bennington’s unique perspective in a sea of teen angst that earned them a wider and more enduring audience than their rap rock peers.
Linkin Park’s early work sat equidistant to late '90s nu-metal, rap rock, and post-grunge. All of these were built on drop-tuned guitar distortion, chunky bass, and pissed-off lyrics, give or take some scribbled turntablism or Nine Inch Nails synth pad sheen. Linkin Park staked out a sound reliant on buoyant hip-hop rhythms and electronic atmospherics, only occasionally ripping into the cathartic heaving we were most drawn toward.
But in particular, Bennington’s high-pitched, disciplined voice stood out among a trove of guttural Eddie Vedder growls and yelpy hysterics. If he’d scrapped his earnest, careening delivery for a nasally sneer, he would have sounded right at home within the era’s other emerging radio rock staple: pop punk. Thankfully, he didn’t succumb to a sarcastic whine or a tough-guy veneer, instead wielding his vocal chords to achieve both the fury and vulnerability of hits like “Numb” and “Crawling.”
It’s Bennington’s lyrics, not astounding in craft but still masterfully potent, that feel most enduring now.
Re-evaluating the early singles from Hybrid Theory and Meteora, I’m struck by the easily missed nuance of Bennington’s screeds. The thing to notice is that his antagonists were rarely gendered or identified, even implicitly — a rare feat in the ecosystem of pubescent rage. The parents, step-parents, significant others, and unrequited muses of the largely male millennial teen angst machine were usually framed in obvious crosshairs: Pop-punk pined over its missed connections and girlfriends, nu-metal brooded over the failures of the nuclear family, and many post-grunge singers directly called out their shitty dads.
As a teen in rural Arizona, the survey of angry rock music was a smorgasbord of distorted possibilities, entire worlds of teenage malady on offer. This included everything from the generally harmless potty humor of Blink-182 to the vengeful date-rape ethos of Limp Bizkit. Unequipped with the language or self-awareness to address so many new and unwelcome feelings, we ate up whatever prescribed sounds were suited to this or that domestic or emotional trauma. Most of this stuff was merely crude or lug-headed, but a lot of it was plainly fucking toxic. Among rap-rock peers that literally goaded their audiences toward violence and destruction, Linkin Park approached fear and victimhood with measured complexity, even at their most brutal. After repeatedly screaming “Shut up” in the bridge of “One Step Closer,” the chorus found Chester Bennington quite reasonably asking for “a little room to breathe.”
Of course, just like his peers, some of Bennington’s lyrics leaned on treacly emo platitudes. His angst, like any other product aimed at the hormonal, can strike a now-adult listener like me as petulant. But unlike their hyper-masculine peers, Linkin Park imparted self-awareness and consolation to a wide swath of the disaffected Hot Topic set, never aiming solely at the testosterone-addled, and this universality was a much-needed bridge in the face of punk pop’s navel-gazing and nu-metal’s chest-beating. Within even the most hopeless seeming Linkin Park songs, a hand was always reaching out.
Back in my bedroom, in a house rid of parents, we got to work. Bass, guitar, and drumsticks were hoisted. We felt assured that one of our classmates, who had never touched a microphone, could easily ape a plosive Zach de la Rocha cadence if he rapped through a staticky practice amp. On a cassette boombox, we recorded an extended jam of the same descending guitar riff and lopsided rhythm, occasionally dropping out for a beat so our singer could chuck up a one-syllable grunt. We listened back to the tape: It sounded like dogshit.
Defeated, we turned on MTV2, the network that fed our credulous tastes. Instead of something sufficiently heavy like System of a Down or Mudvayne, we all ended up watching the somber video for Linkin Park’s “In the End.” The song embodies Bennington’s most memorable talents and modes: aggressive but tender, defeated but sincere.
“In the end, it doesn’t even matter,” he laments, but not for lack of trying.
Nobody in my bedroom had moved for the remote or said a thing. His honesty was completely disarming. Listen, it wasn’t that we had actually tried so hard to make music and, in the end, we absolutely sucked. It was that we’d assumed our anger alone could guide us somewhere coherent. All around us were voices steeping in it, whereas Bennington had come out the other side. No matter how much we strangled at our rage, we could never come close to that kind of frankness and resignation. There would be plenty of other moments where we had to recognize the emotional dead-end of impotent, unexamined rage, but Chester Bennington handed us one of the first.
In the scheme of rock history, Bennington and his band will be lauded for selling a mountain of records in the last gasp of physical music sales, just before rock would be unmistakably dethroned as the outlet of choice for adolescent misery. I think he should be honored for making angry music for angry young people that was introspective, consoling, forgiving of himself and others, and above all, hopeful.
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