Alienation and Anger: Remembering Chester Bennington
Singer Chester Bennington, who died on Thursday at age 41, was crucial to Linkin Park's success. His enraged pleas articulated the band's pain and passion.July 20, 2017
Pop revels in contrasts, but the yin and yang dominating the charts in the early 2000s represented a particularly large split. On one side, you had teenpop acts like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, who rode Max Martin’s pop mathematics and flirtatious lyrics into the mainstream. On the other, there were the anger-driven, ready-to-rumble acts who collected under the vague rubric of “nu-metal,” where rap and rock tangled amidst pummeling guitars and exhortations that the world was terrible.
Spurred on by the pained vocals and passionate howl of Chester Bennington, Linkin Park’s heavy riffs and hip-hop influence often led them to being lumped in the latter category. But the SoCal outfit stayed apart from, and often hovered over, the rest of the pack – a feat largely due to their ability to synthesize nu-metal’s electrified dread and pop’s hooky choruses into songs that both spoke to their core audience and seduced listeners who often held rock at an arm’s length. If you had any affection for someone vividly expressing his grievances, it’s likely you sang along during their anthems’ most cathartic moments.
Bennington, who committed suicide on Thursday at age 41, was a big reason for that pop success. He imbued Linkin Park’s depictions of alienation and regret with an I’m-just-telling-you relatability that made their songs’ ascent into enraged pleas sound not only inevitable, but necessary.
The curdled bellow that turned their 2001 single “Crawling” into a scream-along release; the angel-on-JAY-Z’s-shoulder “What the hell are you waiting for?” that appeared in the 2004 mash-up between Linkin Park’s “Numb” and the rap mogul’s “Encore”; the disaffected vocal on the icy ballad “My December”; the cavernous chorus of the bleak “In the End” — each of those performances and countless others summed up a particular kind of turn-of-the-millennium angst, one inspired by the world being painted as thriving on a macro scale, even though the reality was sorely lacking. And more often than not, they did so with a willingness and discipline that their peers lacked. (Bennington in 2011 said that some songs on their debut Hybrid Theory had been rewritten as many as 30 times — the pop equivalent of speed drills. “On our breaks, we work,” he told the British music magazine Q in 2003.)
Bennington’s honesty about where his songwriting was coming from was similarly disarming. He was frank about being abused by a family friend during his childhood; he struggled with addiction throughout his career but was clear-eyed about how those periods affected his art and his personhood. “It’s easy to fall into that thing — ‘poor, poor me,'” Bennington told Rolling Stone. “That’s where songs like ‘Crawling’ come from: I can’t take myself. But that song is about taking responsibility for your actions. I don’t say ‘you’ at any point. It’s about how I’m the reason that I feel this way. There’s something inside me that pulls me down.”
Linkin Park stuck around while other bands that wore the nu-metal tag didn’t, releasing albums that sold well even when the music business was flailing, and hanging in on top-40 radio with singles like the despairing “What I’ve Done” and the slow-burning “New Divide” until rock fully fell out of that format’s favor in the late 2000s. In 2013 Bennington signed on to lead Stone Temple Pilots, the ‘90s hitmakers who, like Linkin Park, were at their best when they used the ideas dominating the rock style of the moment (in their case, the distortion-heavy strand dubbed “grunge”) as a springboard into other musical ideas — the finger-wagging sauciness of glam, the sun-dappled riffing of open-road anthems.
Bennington’s higher register set his voice apart sonically from the lower growl of Scott Weiland, the troubled STP frontman who passed away in late 2015, but he was game for fronting one of the bands that inspired him as a teen. “Stone Temple Pilots has this sexier, more classic rock feel to it,” he told the Los Angeles radio hosts Kevin and Bean after the group’s 2013 debut performance at that year’s KROQ Weenie Roast. “Linkin Park is a very modern, very tech-heavy type of band. It was kind of nice. I got to use my voice tonight. I got to sing and show my range a little bit.”
Bennington and STP amicably parted ways in 2015 so he could focus full-time on Linkin Park, and his quest to show his range continued there. In May the band released their seventh album, One More Light, and its less harsh sound and cameos — EDM thrush Kiiara and Clipse MC Pusha T were featured, and the songwriting credits included pop craftspeople Julia Michaels and JR Rotem — sparked a bit of backlash, both from critics and in the hothouse of social media. Bennington was steadfast in his defense of the album and his band’s boundary-pushing, and he fired back on Twitter and in the press: “It doesn’t matter if [people] like it or not,” he told the British music magazine Kerrang!, “what matters is that you took the chance to do something that you felt was important to you. That’s what being an artist is all about.”
Linkin Park’s discography is dotted with musical forays into the unexpected — the syrupy strings that turn 2003’s “Faint” into a whirlwind, the wispy synths that leaven the 2012 single “Burn It Down.” But make no mistake: Bennington’s vocal gravitas and lack of illusion about his place in the world were a big part of why the band’s music resonated so deeply with listeners, from their earliest days and probably forever.
Photo: Rich Fury, Getty Images Entertainment