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Reasons To Be Missed: A Fan Remembers Chester Bennington

When I got news that Chester Bennington was dead, the last thing I had tweeted was a semi-serious theory that Linkin Park’s song “Papercut” was about the Panopticon. His death would have been deeply tragic no matter the timing, but for it to take place at the apex of a summer I spent revisiting his band’s discography after a long time away felt like a cruel coincidence.

Linkin Park’s iconic debut Hybrid Theory came out in the fall of 2000. I was freshly submerged in middle school, which is one of the most emotionally unforgiving times in a person’s life. You get all of the feelings, with none of the coping mechanisms. The copy of Theory in my Discman seemed to patch directly into my physical being. I walked down hallways and Bensonhurst streets in a gait synced to “Papercut”’s rhythm section. The blood sloshing around my young brain pooled in response to the choral swell on “With You.” Long before I had ever heard of mindful breathing, my breath slowed for a moment of peace on “My December.”

Depressives of a certain age for whom Linkin Park was formative recall Theory as a blessing. It echoed back the alienation we felt but couldn’t yet voice, of pain that was never validated by the adults in our lives because we were meant to “grow out of it.”

The lyrics spoke of internalized self-policing, paranoia, claustrophobia, feelings of inadequacy, physical and emotional abuse, dissociation, fear of failure. Bennington’s writing was inspired by familial trauma, struggles with drugs and alcohol, and a history of childhood sexual abuse, but the lyrics hardly addressed those things directly. Linkin Park’s songs were nightmares that rarely named their monsters; instead they mapped cartographies of emotional response to trauma in vivid, honest detail.

By the time Meteora came around three years later (slicker, guitars ceding some space to electronic production), we were passing freshly burned CD-R’s of it around homeroom with pride. Nü-metal was having a moment. Every alt kid on the schoolbus had Korn or Limp Bizkit or Slipknot on heavy rotation, but the pals I shared Meteora with weren’t the kids I cut class or browsed deviantART with. Those kids, frankly, thought Linkin Park was for nerds, and they weren’t wrong. Our Linkin Park fandom was mostly made up of first-generation immigrant kids under too much pressure from parents to achieve at all costs. We liked Gorillaz and Dance Dance Revolution. We regarded Reanimation like the Animatrix (we never got around to considering it canon but liked that it existed). In this context, it felt safe to admit I welcomed Mike Shinoda and Joe Hahn’s beat and synth work as a respite from the genre’s usual onslaught of distortion guitar, sought after Bennington’s vocals for their gentle melodic moments as much as for their unrestrained rage. His voice felt softer, more complex; an antidote to the jock theater of nü-metal-masculinity.

The day before Bennington killed himself, my therapist told me that people prone to excessive self-regulation often can’t recognize an emotion until it becomes too overwhelming to ignore. Hours after the session, I walked through the hot sun taking notes on how the haunting synth line opening “Crawling” is decimated by the chorus, on how long Bennington can hold a note when he sings “wasted it all just to watch you go” on “One Step Closer.” I thought about Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion and wondered if working-class populations resonate with art that depicts over-the-top performances of emotion because we’re taught to not make space for our feelings unless they’re at a fever pitch. I thought about what happens when that kind of art is regarded as shameful.

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After Meteora, I forgot about Linkin Park. When Minutes To Midnight came out in 2007 I was starting college and moving on from emo to “indie” and the alt underground. My friends were listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Fugazi, and whatever was currently in Pitchfork’s favor. Maudlin was no longer in style.

I didn’t give Linkin Park another thought until I heard “Heavy” at a friend’s DJ night this past May. At first I couldn’t believe it was the same band — there were no ragged screams, no glitchy turntablism. The desperation underlying it, though, was instantly recognizable.

Although I was hyped that Linkin Park were still making music, and evolving, my heart sank a little. When Bennington pleaded about wanting to heal way back in 2003, I had wanted the same, badly, for both of us. Even as a child I suspected that there was a difference between “an angsty phase” and a lifelong struggle with depression, but was open to being proven wrong. Now I feel like it’s both. Mental health struggles remain extremely present in my life, but thankfully, I think I’ve come a long way since those early spirals. Hearing him voice the same type of pain nearly two decades down the line, albeit with glossier production, was reassuring in its familiarity but crushed my hopes that it would’ve been totally different for him by now. That there was a surefire way out.

In any case, “Heavy” was a bop, and the summer inadvertently became my Linkin Park revival summer. I made plans to cover Linkin Park and Blink-182’s co-headlining show (for this very website, in fact) that was supposed to be headed for New York next week. I designated a recurring outfit my “Chester Outfit” (beige shirt half-buttoned over a black T-shirt) that mimicked his “In the End” video look. I spent much of summer combing over the records Linkin Park made while I wasn’t paying attention. Some of that music is definitely hard to listen to, stylistically. Some is extremely fun. (If poptimism asks me to forgive Katy Perry, let it forgive “Burn It Down.”) Some is hard to listen to thematically as well. “Leave Out All The Rest” is the most downright charming song on Minutes To Midnight. It’s also hard not to read it as a suicide note.

Walking around Brooklyn to “What I’ve Done” and “Burning in the Skies,” my body relearned old ways of moving. It was both delightful and retraumatizing, rekindling emotional states I had long since stopped making space for.

Linkin Park are one of the top bands cited on borderline personality disorder message boards, especially in answer to questions like “what if BPD had a soundtrack?” Looking through these threads, I thought about the paradox of creating music to process pain and then tethering your livelihood to that pain. Last night when I got home, I read a piece about how writing about pain doesn’t necessarily help to heal it. Anyone who’s struggled with mental illness knows it’s a battle you have to keep fighting. That “survivor” is less an adjective and more a tall order you have to keep filling.

And so today, I’m thinking of Bennington on KIIS.FM, laughing and talking about how his daughter’s first word was an expletive. I’m thinking of Bennington in a weird Zorro hat on Elvis Duran, hyped at the prospect of “Heavy” getting played alongside a Janet Jackson song. While scanning memorial posts I pass a tabloid calling “Heavy” a chilling premonition, and I think that’s a garbage reading. Bennington’s self-reflection in the song is an attempt to gain some perspective, some healing. In doing so, he once more gave a lot of people the language to do the same. To lift up life at its heaviest and, for a moment, find some light.