Chester Bennington of Linkin Park in 2001
There’s a video I think about often, of the rapper Lil Peep in 2017, joining the crowd at one of his shows in losing their shit to Linkin Park’s “In the End.” It was a few weeks after the band’s beloved vocalist Chester Bennington died, and Peep led off with “This one’s for Chester,” before launching into the song. Not long after it was filmed, Peep died of an overdose.
He would have been 4 years old when Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory came out. Many in the crowd might’ve been younger or not alive at all. But they all seemed so familiar with the song’s contours, like it was a security blanket they had known their whole lives.
It was a small, remarkable testament to the reach of Linkin Park’s music, a lovely moment to add to a collage of reflections on what the band has given the world: music to weep and scream and fall apart to, without reservation. Music that sits with your darkness, and names it.
Twenty years ago this month, Linkin Park released Hybrid Theory, and it took over the world. The album’s 12 tracks (14 if you could spring for the deluxe version!) became the soundtrack of nascent angst, the defining topography of turbulent feelings at the turn of the millennium. Assertive guitars pounded out of speakers as Bennington traded lines with Mike Shinoda, Bennington’s distinctive scream giving way to Shinoda’s bouncy rapping, a hypnotizing push and pull. Lyrically, the music sounded heartbroken, betrayed, scared, furious. The band made a religion out of vulnerable lyrics.
The album’s footprint is colossal. Since its release, Hybrid Theory has sold 32 million copies, including 12 million just in the US. It’s the bestselling rock album since the turn of the century. It’s the highest-selling debut album since Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction from 1987. If you play the opening piano notes of “In the End” in any room, millennials could probably take it from there.
But here’s the thing: You’re not likely to find Hybrid Theory in too many best-of lists. Among critics, it was met with some suspicion. Despite impressive record sales, the nu metal genre in general,and Linkin Park specifically, were largely dismissed. Critics wrote off nu metal, which featured bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn, as merely the anger of suburban white kids who didn’t have anything to be angry about. In 2001, Ben Folds famously lampooned the sound with his song “Rockin’ the Suburbs” (“I got shit running through my brain / It’s so intense that I can’t explain / All alone in my white-boy pain”).
Linkin Park may have burst on the scene during the nu metal bubble, but they opted for a broader spectrum of difficult emotions.
All things considered, nu metal, a rebellion to the megapop sounds of the ’90s, was a blip on the radar. As a cultural event, it lasted roughly between 1999 and 2003. The germ of the genre can be found somewhere in Korn’s first albums, Korn and Life Is Peachy, or Sepultura’s Roots, or the Deftones’ Adrenaline. Alongside Korn, the other pioneers were artists like Kid Rock, Godsmack, Staind, Sevendust, Papa Roach, Seether, Saliva, Alien Ant Farm, and Crazy Town.
The music was loud, chaotic, and unvarnished. The guitars were almost universally in drop-D tuning. The voices were hoarse and strained and occasionally unintelligible — nu metal was marked with growling and grunting and quick-paced syncopated scream-singing. The lyrics were obsessed with nihilism and angst and anti-authority, because of course they were.
Linkin Park may have burst on the scene during the nu metal bubble, but they opted for a broader spectrum of difficult emotions as opposed to the indistinguishable fury that marked the genre.
Because the album landed during the peak of nu metal, critics were unkind to Linkin Park, lumping the album with the worst of the genre. “Life’s too short to listen to mediocre rock,” posited one review. Another charged them of being “derivative pretenders” jumping on a trend.
Mike Shinoda, Linkin Park’s rapper, talked with me about his discomfort with being lumped in with the rest of the genre in a phone interview earlier this month. “We showcased with every major label. And they all passed. And I think the reason they passed is because we weren’t macho the way all the other rap/rock stuff was. We actually didn’t like that, and we called it frat rock. It felt like a frat party happening on a record.”
What critics couldn’t see then is that they were writing off an album that would become a release valve for pent-up suburban disillusionment.
Linkin Park in 2000
The history of rock looks unkindly upon the era of nu metal, in part because behind the abrasive noise, there was little but combustible rage. Unlike previous products of rage like the births of punk or grunge or metal, nu metal’s raison d'être was anger for anger’s sake. Its content was the warmed leftovers of Gen X’s directionlessness that birthed the grunge scene (“The captain is drunk / your world is Titanic,” Limp Bizkit complained).
It felt like a pipeline of raw, unrefined anger delivered to the suburban kids who needed it. At the time, there were no significant pop culture articulations of the small wounds of suburbia: boredom, pointlessness, and an overwhelming loss of agency. The children of baby boomers were becoming teenagers, having lived through “helicopter parenting.” It’s no wonder that nu metal is often described as the music for teenagers whose parents wouldn’t let them have the car on a Friday night. In Spin, Charles Aaron described it as “slam-dancing-in-a-high-chair” music.
But even as critics derided the nascent genre, audiences couldn’t get enough of it. Korn’s 1998 album, Follow the Leader, gave us the gruff scaffolding and vocal textures that became the signature of nu-metal — and went five-times platinum doing it.
Limp Bizkit released a much-maligned cover of George Michael’s “Faith.” Slipknot signed a colossal seven-album deal. None of this went over well with the Metal Proper community at large — a community that was witnessing the art it developed be turned into boring commercial angst.
Rock Hard magazine, one of metal’s leading publications at the time, published a cover with a tombstone, declaring the death of heavy metal.
Of course none of this mattered, because the audience was eating up the music. By 2000, the scene was exploding and nu metal was a verifiable force on the radio, filling the heads of teenagers. MTV was playing Limp Bizkit as often as they did Britney Spears, while Hot Topic advertised Slipknot T-shirts in every mall. And a band from a small suburb outside of Los Angeles managed to distill the raw energy of the angst in the air, refine it, and pour it all into 12 songs. Hybrid Theory had a softer touch than Limp Bizkit or Korn, and this changed everything. Or, if you prefer, just made it more commercial.
It wasn’t always a given that Linkin Park would work out. The bones of the band came together when Shinoda started playing with his high school friends Brad Delson and Rob Bourdon in Agoura Hills, California, in the mid ’90s. With a few more additions, they called themselves Xero.
Xero contained the basic idea of what Linkin Park would become, but couldn’t get a record deal. That’s when the group’s first singer, Mark Wakefield, left. In search of a new vocalist, a record executive suggested pairing with an unknown vocalist who had a good demo, a kid from Arizona. That was Chester Bennington.
It wasn’t an immediately happy marriage. Don Gilmore, who produced Hybrid Theory, recalls how Bennington’s explosive vocals didn’t mesh with the band’s vision right away. “They wanted something a little more like Incubus, a little more tamer,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017. But Bennington could not be restrained, and Gilmore says he eventually convinced the band to just let him fly.
If he was out of place in a new band — a bunch of guys who’ve known each other for years — he was also out of place in Los Angeles. Bennington was balancing this promising opportunity in LA with an entire life and a wife back in Arizona. He was sleeping on couches while making Hybrid Theory.
But then again, out of place was Bennington’s trademark. In lyrics, he was open about addiction issues, violent bullying, and childhood sexual assault at a time when it was rare for men to talk about these things. He led with his trauma, which made it more comprehensible.
This contrasts starkly with the big acts of the nu metal world at the time, who made themselves impenetrable, using their anger as a shield and a weapon. Linkin Park let their pain become them, and Bennington became its voice.
As Hanif Abdurraqib wrote in the wake of Bennington’s death in 2017, the singer made himself a mirror for others’ pain. “[My] pals maybe made it through a year or two that they might not have otherwise because Linkin Park, and specifically Bennington, kicked in the door to our respective darknesses not to spark a light, but to sit with us for a while.”
Part of the commercial appeal of Hybrid Theory was that the writing left so much room for interpretation. When Bennington bellows “A constant wave of tension / on top of broken trust,” he could be singing about an ex, but you can quickly transpose it to an overbearing parent (of course I would never do such a thing, not publicly on the internet!).
The muscly introspection found on the album makes “One Step Closer” an odd first single. Sure, the in-your-face nature of the “shut up when I’m talking to you” refrain connects the band to the omnipresent nu metal sound, but when you opened up Hybrid Theory, what you found was a lot of men feeling. The album contained a wide variety of vulnerabilities. There they are on “Crawling,” talking about how “fear is how I fall / confusing what is real.” On “Points of Authority,” they were coming undone: “my life, my pride is broken.”
Shinoda told me, “What we realized over time was the more we were angsty, those are the things that would get fans in the door to the concert. But once they got there, it opened up.”
Shinoda gave an example: “Somebody could be a big Limp Bizkit ‘Break Stuff’ fan, and hear ‘One Step Closer,’ and say ‘Yeah, shut up when I’m talking to you!’ and then show up at the show and there was this other introspective, emotional half of the band that gave you permission to let other stuff out and have a cathartic moment.”
He’s not exaggerating how it went down. The fandom of Linkin Park is intense, in part because fans often say their music helped them process these big, ungovernable emotions. Abdurraqib describes it as music that could be a companion to hard times, because “to hear someone else fighting against that reality makes the reality a little less harsh.”
“What we realized over time was the more we were angsty, those are the things that would get fans in the door to the concert. But once they got there, it opened up.”
It helped too that Linkin Park looked like a bunch of suburban kids trying to figure it out. They were rock stars who dressed like they shopped at the mall. As a group, they looked like valedictorians of disaffected normal youths. Hell, Mike Shinoda’s mom thought “shut up” was a bad word, and some of us can relate.
Linkin Park ended up opening a big space for a lot of other bands to be upset in public. A couple thousand copycats sprang in the wake of Hybrid Theory, though they copied the wrong thing. The copiers simulated the outbursts. They missed that what made Linkin Park stand out was the space they allowed for other difficult emotions, like regret, sorrow, confusion, vulnerability, and insecurity.
Shinoda is aware of how the imitators affected how Linkin Park were seen. “En masse, anything could feel like a marketing ploy,” he said. “If you have one band doing it, you could focus on whether it’s genuine or authentic. But once Hybrid Theory blows up and you have a thousand bands copying that … then it starts to feel like ‘why are all of you guys so mad?’”
Linkin Park birthed a pop culture moment, however brief, where it was OK to be sad and vulnerable in view of others, without it being strange.
Though Linkin Park’s first two albums weren’t particularly political, this was likely an accident of timing. Hybrid Theory came out weeks before George W. Bush was elected, while its follow-up, Meteora, was released the same week the Iraq War started.
That meant Meteora, with its own buffet of feelings (“All I want to do / is be more like me / and be less like you”) arrived in a moment in pop culture where that suburban angst about internal war was dissipating, replaced by the far more sturdy worry about actual war. Meteora was seen by many as the beginning of the end of nu metal.
Contrasted with the horrors of war, indulging all these feelings became passé. By the time Linkin Park’s Minutes to Midnight was released in 2007, nu metal had become a period no one wanted to acknowledge anymore. Even Linkin Park had grown up; their anger put on a suit and wore proper footwear. They even wrote a sophisticated anti-Bush anthem.
Linkin Park created a space and left it hollow, vacating the post of poet laureates of aimless suburban anger.
Meanwhile, in the intervening years since Hybrid Theory, other artists took on themes of suburban anxiety. Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot comes to mind, as does Lorde’s 2013 Heroine — records that fundamentally revolve around grappling with limitations of place. But none of these albums evolved into a sustained moment the way Hybrid Theory did. Meanwhile, hip-hop completed its ascendancy to the music pyramid, to the retreat of everything else.
For much of the last decade, debates raged about whether rock was dead. And because those debates were fundamentally about whether rock had something new to offer audiences, the debates rallied around an answer: yes, sort of.
Rock’s dominance of the charts as a counterweight to all-out pop came to a close, swiftly replaced by hip-hop. The demise of rock and the closing of the chart space for dark, unwieldy feelings of alienation coincided with the stories about young men, particularly young white men, changing.
Their rage grew online and turned corrosive, transforming into dark cultural moments like Gamergate. We’ve become accustomed now to living with the rage of young men. It was there in Charleston when Dylann Roof killed nine people at a Black church; it was credited with getting Donald Trump elected; it spilled on the streets of Charlottesville; I am certain it was there too when Kyle Rittenhouse crossed state lines to join a counter-BLM protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this summer. He’s charged with shooting and killing two people, and attempting to kill a third, during the protests.
It would be foolish to say everything would be different if these men had somewhere safe to untangle their emotions. Nothing is that simple. But neither can we discount the enormous power of seeing your rage reflected, validated, and expressed. Hell, seeing your rage top the charts. It might untie the internal knot that makes you feel like you’re alone.
Twenty years ago, these men might’ve had their rage belittled, just like Linkin Park and company. But they could turn toward each other with music as a mediator.
I put this suggestion to Shinoda. “Have you watched The Social Dilemma?” he asked me. I have. The Netflix documentary focuses on how social media has influenced behavior, and in one of its key storylines, it depicts the slow political radicalization of a young suburban white man. “I think it has more to do with that,” Shinoda says. “I know we’re talking about music right now... but that element is what we didn’t have hanging over us back then.”
It would be foolish to say everything would be different if these men had somewhere safe to untangle their emotions. Nothing is that simple.
He is, of course, not wrong about this: Social media has exacerbated radicalization. But couldn’t music act as both therapy and a connective bridge? Something to ward off the alienation? “These days it’s almost like ‘mental health’ itself is a buzzword. Unfortunately, what people forget is that when you’re a young person and grown-ups use a buzzword too many times, you start to rebel,” Shinoda said. “Kids who really need that kind of help are like, ‘Shut up, I don’t want to hear about it, you go do yoga, I’m dealing with real problems here as a 17-year-old.’ That’s how they feel.”
For Shinoda, these emotional landscapes are familiar because that’s what Linkin Park has spent 20 years describing. “Not just on Hybrid Theory, but all throughout our career, the point of a song is to find the core of an emotion, the core of an experience, and communicate it as closely to that core as you can. To be as accurate and truthful and honest and authentic about whatever that idea is as possible. My favorite songs are the ones where I go, ‘Wow, that person got to the absolute nucleus of that idea.’”
So on the 20th anniversary of Hybrid Theory, I return again and again to that Lil Peep video. Peep also had a unique ability to draw listeners into his fragility. He might have dismissed the idea that he was carrying on the Linkin Park legacy of making room for uncomfortable emotions to a crowd that needed it. But he was a cornerstone of the sad rap movement, a genre in which rappers talk openly about depression and anxiety, a genre that’s managed to invite a lot of young people in.
Lil Uzi Vert made an art of singing “push me to the edge / all my friends are dead.” Logic hit the top 40 with his song “1-800-273-8255,” the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The rage and vulnerability in Denzel Curry’s work echo the blueprint found in Hybrid Theory too.
Hybrid Theory sold 12 million copies in the US, but one thing to note about that is that a quarter of those sales came in the last three years. It’s been 20 years since its release, and it doesn’t surprise me one bit that so many are still turning to Hybrid Theory, looking to it for permission to feel. ●