Chester Bennington Turned Nu-Metal Universal
What was so startling about Chester Bennington’s left-field rant this past May toward fans who weren’t down with Linkin Park’s EDM-influenced 2017 single “Heavy” (a duet with newcomer Kiiara, of scrambled-sample “Gold” fame) was that he cared about the idea of “selling out” at all. The tenor was disturbing (“I will punch you in your f---ing mouth”), and we now know with today’s tragic news that the singer died by suicide at age 41 that he likely wasn’t of sound mind. But inflammatory language aside, he was right -- they’ve always taken “musical risks” in an extremely high-fidelity pop echelon that few other rock bands ever reach. I mean, when your first album sells 30 million copies worldwide, besting any other album’s numbers in 2001, how exactly do you “sell out”? If nothing else, Linkin Park became rich enough so quickly that we have to believe they only did whatever they wanted after.
But money doesn’t buy happiness, and today’s horrific news of Bennington’s death, leaving behind his wife and six children, follows the grim trajectory that befell his good friend Chris Cornell, whose funeral he famously sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at, and Scott Weiland, whom Bennington briefly replaced in Stone Temple Pilots during one of that band’s many tumultuous eras. Somehow we’ve become vastly desensitized to the real pain behind the angst-ridden lyrics and brickwalled guitars of angry hard rock to the point that these deaths were all fairly shocking. It’s possible that we miscalculated the true decibel of the pain Bennington was suffering just because we couldn’t believe yet another nü-metal frontman had emerged to scream “Shut up when I’m talking to you.” It doesn’t make it any less real. “His music spoke to my soul,” went a typical Facebook comment today, though it wouldn’t be off-base to say that our souls were amplified through Bennington’s music.
Of course, part of the shock is because that Kiiara collaboration is actually more consistent with the Linkin Park we know than that beatdown threat was. They were ultimately not a raw band; that landmark 2000 debut Hybrid Theory was and probably remains the most expensive-sounding nü-metal album of all time, which is probably what got the always-enterprising JAY-Z’s attention to share co-billing on 2004’s endearingly wacky Collision Course mash-up experiment. Not only did it sweep the compressed-riff-chunk world, but it rivaled the biggest Nine Inch Nails productions for gadgets and gewgaws whirring around subtle piano figures, boasted frenetic drum programming to match Stankonia’s, combined all sorts of glitch digital trickery with Mike Shinoda’s love of dusty indie-rap beats and Bennington’s unmistakably Depeche Mode-like melodies on, say, the verses of “Crawling.” Hybrid Theory was the correct name for this thing; they hit the sweet spots of several different genres they loved and they did them all pretty well, in part because they had a genuine interest in the styles they combined.
But also, Linkin Park’s sound-factory makeup and broad lyrics may have reached the masses in part because they understood that their individual egos as players in the ensemble weren’t as great as the sum they could be combined. Bennington wasn’t a frontman, really -- he was a foil for Shinoda and the squeals and booms of Pro Tooled tech-metal bricolage as part of this big sound-tsunami that young, frustrated audiences could hear their own thoughts in, as well as their spin cycle of musical tastes forming. The singer was very nearly a megaphone for his fans, emoting for them in broad strokes like “I had to fall/ To lose it all/ In the end/ It doesn’t even matter” from their signature hit “In The End,” easily the most pensive rap-rock song the genre had spawned to date. That song was purely hip-hop, with Bennington augmenting Shinoda’s rhymes by accenting each line like a hypeman and storming in to carry the load of the hook. It wasn’t a fun song, but it was also heavy in a light way, something a festival crowd could sing along to together without discomfort. It beat Drake to calcifying arena-emo-rap by almost a decade.
That’s a big sticking point for these guys: They had good taste in rap, and rap liked them, too. Pusha T and Stormzy are on “Good Goodbye” from this year’s One More Light, and in crisp form. Busta Rhymes featured the band on his own underrated and surprisingly melodic “We Made It” in 2008. And besides the proto-Watch The Throne splendor of hearing the glitchy, No Age-worthy squall of “Faint” (arguably the LP’s best moment) with JAY-Z’s “Jigga What, Jigga Who” skittering across it on Collision Course, PharoaheMonch and Black Thoughtwere among the rappers they handpicked for their unusually sincere remix album Reanimation in 2002. In 2015, Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman, arguably the best last two backpack-rappers standing, cut up Linkin Park’s sparks-flying “One Step Closer” riff for their excellent, pseudo-treacherous “Get A Dog.” Bennington’s band worked exceedingly well with others, and for multi-millionaire rockers appropriating hip-hop, they gave back whenever they could.
For nü-metal, you could say Linkin Park were ideal as far as PG-rated stuff goes: productions that seemed to have legitimate fun with their skyward budget, lyrics that focused on introspection rather than demonizing women, and pop gifts they took seriously. The dancehall-inflected “Waiting For The End,” from 2010’s open-source experimental A Thousand Suns, is as indelible a pretty melody as anything in the Coldplay oeuvre (another influence Bennington would incorporate pretty well on 2007’s “Shadow Of The Day“).
They made a point of not cursing on Hybrid Theory (again, what could this band possibly be selling out from?), a bold move in an aggro band that paid off. Linkin Park were ultimately kind of a class act relative to many of their contemporaries, which contributes to the analogy that they may have been nü-metal’s Def Leppard: unabashed hook-chasers and polished studio rats who are nonetheless beloved for their tidiness and mass appeal rather than chastised for it, and ultimately too professional for us to really buy the authenticity of their misspelled name.
Chester Bennington made a load of pop-metal hits that all sound big and heartfelt and completely realized in their vision. He was clearly an important conduit for his far-ranging audience, and it’s hard to imagine many other hard-rock vocalists reaching so many souls. But here’s hoping that mental health care is drastically more accessible by the time the next one does.
This article was originally published by Stereogum.