A few years ago Rolling Stone reviewed the debut album of a relativity unknown southern California band. The review was unflattering, dismissing the band as just another “rap-metal” group that had nothing new to add to this genre. He labeled their lyrics “corny” and gave them a lowly two and a half stars out of a five star rating system.
That album was Hybrid Theory, the first full-length album by Linkin Park. This same album went on to become the best selling album of 2001, going quintuple platinum and selling over 14 million copies. Hybrid Theory was released in 2000 and, after spending quite awhile at the top of the charts, is currently #3 on Billboards top 20 Pop albums. Rolling Stone changed their tune about Linkin Park and a later reviewer described Hybrid Theory as “Twelve songs of compact fire.”
Linkin Park didn’t stop there. They won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance for their song “Crawling” and released a remix album, Reanimation, which has sold over a million copies. The band also won the award for Favorite Alternative Music Artist at the 2003 American Music Awards and their second full-length album Meteora sold over 3.5 million copies in 2003.
While many other bands in their genre are struggling, failing, and disappearing, Linkin Park is excelling. Many have lumped them into the “rap-metal” or “nu-metal” genre which is largely considered to be dying. A feature article on the band at MTV.com sees “Linkin Park’s tremendous success [as] somewhat baffling since they cling so tightly to the increasingly taboo rap-metal formula, shun rock-star antics and lack any sort of celebrity charisma.”
Linkin Park’s success is even more baffling considering they defy the stereotypical mold of nu-metal due to the fact that their music is devoid of sex, violence, and vulgarity. MTV asks the big question: “Just what is it that allows Linkin Park to thrive where other rap-rock bands are struggling?”
One possible answer is simply that Linkin Park does not fit neatly into the category of nu-metal. Their instrumentation has a much broader range than most groups. The trademark sound in nu-metal is a DJ and a turntable with the typical rock instruments. While Linkin Park does indeed have a DJ and uses a turntable, their sound is much more diverse than your average nu-metal band, using such instruments as piano, cello, violin, and a Japanese flute. One of the songs on Meteora even uses a ten piece orchestra. Linkin Park uses this strange mix of instruments to bring a richer sound to their music. Their music is deceptively artistic; if you caught a snippet of one of their songs on the radio, you might pass it off as the same old rock industry driven dribble with a heavy beat and plenty of catchy hooks. But a closer listen reveals that there is more to this band.
If their music is superior to anything else in their genre (which I believe it is), then their lyrics are even more so. From conversations I’ve had with other people, in addition to my own experience, it seems the words which Linkin Park sing, rap, and scream are what gets people hooked. As Linkin Park wrestles with relationships and life in general, they have a simple sincerity which sets them apart and resonates deep within their listeners.
Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda, the two main lyricists for Linkin Park, say that as they develop lyrics for their songs they start with a particular experience one of them has had or is having. Then their goal is to then turn those particular experiences into universal stories that a broad group of people can relate to. About their lyrics Bennington said, “We wanted to be as honest and open as we could… we wanted something people could connect with, not just vulgarity and violence.” He also said, “We don’t talk about situations, we talk about the emotions behind the situations.”
One way they achieve this is through what one reviewer has labeled the “unnamed you.” Linkin Park rarely ever identifies who they’re talking to and about in their songs, be it a parent, girlfriend, friend, etc. They leave the identity of the “you” to the interpretation of the listener. It’s these universal stories that make Linkin Park’s music so popular and the sheer number of records that they have sold shows that this approach to songwriting appeals to many not just in this country but around the world. What are the universal stories that drive the music of Linkin Park and what recurring themes within their songs strike a chord with people?
Brokenness is a strong theme, especially in the area of relationships. In “Easier to Run,” the chorus laments personal brokenness:
It’s easier to run
Replacing this pain with something numb
It’s so much easier to go
Than face this pain here all alone
Bennington is showing us his way of coping with pain so intense that it’s made him numb to life. This pain is described as “wounds so deep they never show [and] they never go away.” He tells us that this pain has evinced a sense of “helplessness inside” and the pervading feeling that he is misplaced in life. He speaks of the “darkness” of his past and memories that replay in his head “for years and years.”
In several interviews, lead singer Chester Bennington has been very open about the fact that much of the pain and struggle that come through in his lyrics is from his parents’ divorce and from the experience of several years of sexual abuse when he was a child. Referring to their lyrics, Bennington says, “It’s a good way to confront a lot of things that we’ve dealt with in the past… On [Meteora], I reacted to how I dealt with a lot of pain in my life and how I was sexually abused when I was young, and what I went through after that [with drugs and rebellion].”
It may seem these experiences cannot be universalized but more reflection shows they can. We live in a society that has a divorce rate of 50%. No matter how we interpret that statistic what we come up with is an incredibly high number of divorces. Statistics also say that by the age of eighteen, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be victims of sexual abuse. These numbers are telling. Like divorce, even if someone hasn’t personally experienced this type of brokenness, odds are they either have a close friend or family member who has (even if they’re not aware of it). The brokenness that surrounds us is huge!
Aside from divorce or sexual abuse, I think it’s pretty safe to say that we are still a victim of brokenness. There’s domestic violence, neglect, emotional abandonment. Most of us know what it feels like to be used by another person or betrayed by a friend. We know the pain of failed relationships, either romantically or in friendships. We all experience the brokenness of miscommunication and being misunderstood. Brokenness is all around us and, more importantly, within all of us. Linkin Park refuses to let us ignore the fact that we are a bunch of screwed up people living in a screwed up world. Their lyrics are painfully clear.
Linkin Park’s music is seething with the latent fury of broken relationships, yet amazingly, their rage does not end in violence. Their songs don’t point towards retribution and vengeance but rather escape from the brokenness and sometimes even to a sort of poetic justice for the perpetrators of the brokenness. This is even more interesting when you consider that their music has been placed in the “rap-metal” genre which is a blending of the two most violent musical genres in existence. Linkin Park blends the two of these without incorporating any of the violence.
How is this possible? Their lyrics offer some insight. Consider “Breaking the Habit:”
I don’t want to be the one
The battles always choose
‘Cause inside I realize
That I’m the one confused
I don’t know what’s worth fighting for
Or why I have to scream
I don’t know why I instigate
And say what I don’t mean
I don’t know how I got this way
I know it’s not alright
So I’m breaking the habit
There is a dark beauty and power in these words. The writer seems to realize that he’s the one “battles always choose” because he is the one choosing to battle. He sees himself instigating strife and saying things he doesn’t mean. This is a tendency that needs to be broken and the song indicates a willingness to go to the darkest ends to escape recurring culpability. While the song doesn’t point to a hopeful resolution, we can celebrate the fact Linkin Park realizes, at least in part, that people are radically corrupt.
There is an overarching sense of guilt and responsibility in their music. Although they sing of painful experiences and how they are the products of broken environments, they still see themselves as responsible for their actions. Bennington doesn’t ignore the damage others caused but he also doesn’t ignore the fact that he is personally responsible for much of the strife in his life. Linkin Park doesn’t resort to violent conclusions because of an awareness of their own responsibility for the brokenness that is in and around them.
This is an incredibly realistic view of life. If any of us look at ourselves, we quickly realize that we bear guilt and responsibility. Even though we may try, none of us can fully and finally play the victim and pretend that all the pain in our lives comes from completely external sources. Honesty reveals the truth that too often we are the ones who neglect, abandon and betray others. We carry the guilt and shame which Linkin Park sings about.
This is refreshing when we consider the climate of irresponsibility so prevalent in our culture and particularly within popular music. We could come up with a long list of bands who not only write songs which revel in irresponsibility and shamelessness but go a step further and don’t even claim responsibility for the words which they write and sing. In the midst of all this comes Linkin Park’s voice of reason which begs to be taken seriously. They realize that part of being human is accepting the consequences to our actions. In a world where the main problem is not that people are becoming increasingly immoral but are instead becoming amoral, Linkin Park steps in and screams “No!” There is right and wrong. It’s not okay that we hurt each other in our relationships. They also remind us that no one is exempt from this behavior, themselves included.
It’s encouraging to know that so many people are latching onto this message. The seriousness and sincerity with which Linkin Park wrestles with their guilt and responsibility gives their words a weightiness that many are receiving wholeheartedly. Hopefully this is a sign that as a society we are realizing that if we’re going to find any significance in our existence, the first thing we need to do is take responsibility for our actions. Linkin Park does this to such an extent that their sense of guilt, shame, and responsibility seems to almost become their identity.
Identity is a major theme in much of Linkin Park’s music. “Somewhere I Belong” is the postmodernist creed for the ever elusive search for an identity lost:
When this began
I had nothing to say
And I’d get lost in the nothingness
Inside of me
I was confused
And I let it all out to find
That I’m not the only person
With these things in mind
Inside of me
But all the vacancy the words revealed
Is the only real thing
That I’ve got left to feel
Nothing to lose
Just stuck / Hollow and alone
And the fault is my own
And the fault is my own
I want to heal / I want to feel
What I thought was never real
I want to let go of the pain I’ve held so long
[Erase all the pain ‘till it’s gone] I want to heal / I want to feel
Like I’m close to something real
I want to find something I’ve wanted all along
Somewhere I belong
Within these lyrics there is a pervading sense of emptiness and an inner vacuity. The speaker wants to heal and feel and find a place to belong. Many of Linkin Park’s lyrics point to a self-fragmentation and disintegration where they no longer know who they are and seem to wonder if they ever did. There is no peace with life or self because of this lack of knowledge of self and identity. Deep down, these are the questions that every single one of us has to ask and that Western society in particular seems to be plagued with. Who am I? What is my significance? What is my worth and value as a person? It’s easy to see in these lyrics how Linkin Park’s view of brokenness and personal responsibility flow into their search for lost identity.
Personally I love this group. Their lyrics and their music resonate deep within me. When I listen to their music something in it stirs me up and makes me want to scream, “Yes, somebody gets it!” This is not just another mainstream band: Linkin Park unabashedly pokes us where we hurt. They are not afraid to be sincere, honest, and emotional. They don’t tote the male bravado of the other groups they are associated with. They effectively communicate the effects of sin in the world and the need for the gospel. Although this is not their intention they still do it better than the majority of Christians I know. They are willing to be broken in front of the world and, for the most part, the world has loved them for it. While many Christians see sin and brokenness merely as something to be dealt with, Linkin Park reminds us that it is right to be angry at the brokenness which surrounds us.
It is also interesting to realize that, while their music deals with some dark and bleak things, they don’t consider their music to be dark or bleak. Bennington says, “I look at where I am today, and take those negative [past] experiences and turn them into positives.” Linkin Park transforms painful situations and unpleasant emotions into art that lifts and lightens the soul. Though this may seem like a strange contradiction to many people, it makes complete sense to me and my fellow post-moderns. For us, the words of our favored musicians reverberate in our souls much like the words of the poets and philosophers did for the ancient Greeks. We drive in our cars or sit in our rooms, crank the volume, and scream along with bands like Linkin Park. The result of all this is not a wallowing in bitterness but a powerful cathartic release of the frustration pent up within us. It is a moment of true connection where the artist becomes our vicarious channel to express that which we aren’t allowed to bring up in our daily “civilized” conversations. In our world of rampant individualism these instances become an almost sacred experience wherein we realize that we are not alone. We are reminded that there is nothing which has beset us except that which is common to man.
All this is not to say there isn’t potential danger here. If taken to an extreme these experiences can be used almost like a drug. However, there is danger in all extremes and the misuse of this type of vicarious listening does not negate its value for helping normalize shared human experience.
Even if I didn’t like the music of Linkin Park I think I would still have to support them. In a musical culture that is becoming increasingly fake and full of fluff, the guys in Linkin Park attack us with a sober reflection of reality. They honestly and powerfully bring up the issues we need to deal with. While they may not provide us with many answers to the problems (and I don’t think it’s their job to do so), they nail the diagnosis of the human predicament on the head. As Christians we can learn from them since they communicate this predicament in a much more effective manner than we usually do.